Purdue University



Identity, Organization, and Faith Going Public: Christians’ Civic Participation in Transitional China


Calvin College



Since 2000, more and more Christian groups, including unregistered house churches and faith-based NGOs, have departed from their “semi-secretive” state of existence to become an increasingly visible part of the civil society with their size, organizational form, and participation in different public spheres. The relationship between Protestantism and civil society has been a classical topic in sociology. Based on Weberian and Tocquevillian theories, we propose to study a few questions in the context of China’s transition: How has the Protestant faith become a motivating factor in Christian groups’ civic participation? In participants’ narratives, how do they relate their religious identity with their civic actions? How are their motives influenced by the organization they belong to? In the current restrictive environment, how are political actors playing a role on this stage of “faith going public”?

Considering regional variations, we choose two cities for comparison—the more economically developed coastal city of Shanghai, and the less developed inland city of Chengdu. In terms of the informal rules, civic culture, and local history of Protestantism, these two cities display vast differences. Christian groups in these two cities have developed in different ways when entering into the public space. This comparative perspective is helpful for us in contextualizing “social change” in our analytical framework.

Based on the literature of sociology of religion and institutional analysis, we develop a theory explaining how Protestantism motivates altruistic social behavior and collective action. Methodologically, in order to examine the social processes and causal mechanisms, we mainly reply using qualitative in-depth interviews. We aim to complete 100 interviews in total. By integrating the method of oral history into our interview outline, we inquire of the informants about their personal faith journey and their family history, and thus we can use comparative institutional analysis while dissecting the qualitative data.

Key words: social change, Christianity, urban house churches, NGO, faith going public, civic participation

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