by Jorge Gomez • 7 min read
For those who think that America could never descend into dictatorship, let this be a warning sign that tyranny could already have arrived on our shores.
The latest indication comes from examining China’s newest rules for religious personnel that went into effect earlier this month. Set by China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA)—a Big Brother-style religious oversight body—these regulations outline the rights and characteristics of religious work in China, and the obligations of those with religious roles.
So, what do China’s religious policies have to do with religious freedom in America?
These draconian rules seem too far away to affect us. However, it’s alarming how similar China’s religious rules are compared to many of the policies and government restrictions on the free exercise of religion surfacing throughout the United States.
Let’s take a deeper look at some shocking parallels.
Big Brother Watching: Government Databases to Track the Faithful
China’s new rules provide for the creation of a national database containing information on religious personnel, including rewards and/or punishments they’ve received, and details on whether their ministry has been revoked.
As dystopian as that may sound, California has already established an eerily similar registry, mandating that charitable organizations (including religious ones) periodically report to its Attorney General the names and addresses of all their major donors.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave California its blessing when it issued a decision upholding the state’s blanket disclosure requirement. The case (Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta) has now made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral argument last week to determine if the First Amendment protects the freedom of association. (First Liberty’s Senior Counsel, Jordan Pratt, explains the case in more detail in a recent Federalist Society article).
Donor disclosure laws such as the one in California could have a devastating impact on religious freedom and the liberty of people who choose to associate with religious causes. Think of the millions of Americans who generously donate to faith-based ministries, their local house of worship and other religious organizations. By forcing charities to hand over and make their donor information public, government would have at its fingertips a compiled list of religious people and/or those who support faith-based groups.
Combined with the pervasive “cancel culture” that often targets Americans with traditional religious convictions, donor disclosures wouldn’t just be a recipe for disaster…they would essentially bake dictatorship right into the cake.
America may not have a national database to track religious activity like China does, at least not right now. But as history has shown, when government is given an inch of our freedoms, it ends up taking a mile. California’s registry could be the first step (a soft version) of totalitarianism in America.
Promote the State-Approved Message…or Else
China’s new rules state that anyone exercising a religious function must pledge complete allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), support and practice the fundamental values of socialism.
It boils down to this: You’re free to live out your faith, but only if you’re a vessel of the state’s political ideology. And those who dare dissent will face punishment.
Although not to the same tyrannical extent, traces of this can be seen in America. More frequently than ever before, religious groups and people of faith are penalized, excluded, or prevented from freely exercising their beliefs if they don’t fall in line with the government-approved orthodoxy or the popular political message of the day.
Look at how government agencies forced First Liberty client Melissa Klein in Oregon to choose between speaking a government-approved message or losing her family business. Look at Dr. Eric Walsh in Georgia who was fired from a public health official position because of sermons he gave as a lay minister. Or consider the students at Cambridge Christian School, who were denied the use of the public loudspeaker at a stadium to pray before kicking off their state championship game.
In essence, if these religious people and groups had simply advanced what the government had sanctioned as the “appropriate” message or views, they’d still be “free” to live out their faith.
But the truth is: No real freedom exists if religious expression and beliefs are limited to the ideology approved by the government.
A Small, Yet Sour Taste of Oppression
It was Benito Mussolini—the Italian fascist dictator of the 1930s—who once summarized totalitarianism: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”
At the core of China’s religious policy is the idea that everything must be subservient to the state, which means giving government power over all religious activity—including who, how, when, where and under what conditions houses of worship and religious people can operate.
It’s only been slightly over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic gave Americans a small, yet sour taste of what it looks like when government controls churches and religious activity, telling them if they’re essential, how many people can gather for worship or when they can open their doors.
It’s true that America has not yet seen authoritarianism as brazen as in China, but we’d be burying our head in the sand if we didn’t point out the ways that “soft totalitarianism” is quickly taking hold in the Land of the Free.
For the millions of people of faith who cherish the right to worship freely, we cannot become complacent in fighting for our First Freedom. Together, we can put a stop to the assaults that threaten to strip away our religious freedom and our First Amendment rights as Americans.