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Rise of religious right and splits between evangelical and liberal Christians on gay rights and politics 

by Frances Sit and Silvia Li

Heads were sometimes bowed in quiet prayer, sometimes lifted towards the sky in song. Thousands of Christians gathered in a picture of harmony on a lawn overlooking Victoria Harbour on January 13 this year. But this was no ordinary prayer concert or mass worship.

They were taking part in a rally at Tamar Park next to the government headquarters to oppose consultation on legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Titled the Inclusive Love Praying Concert, the event was organised by various evangelical churches, such as the mega-churches affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of China: Yan Fook Church, Tung Fook Church and Kong Fok Church.

The participants made a declaration that they would not discriminate against homosexuals, would not verbally abuse them, would not deny them their dignity and would not force them to change their sexual orientation. A prominent pastor from the Yan Fook Church then knelt down to pray for “struggling” homosexuals.

Despite the stated theme of inclusion, the event clearly highlighted the divisions among Hong Kong’s Christians on the issue of homosexuality.  B. Tsang watched as a group of several dozen Christians held a counter-rally at the site. “I could not feel any inclusion and care,” Tsang said. “Despite the words of love they were saying, I only felt overwhelming pressure and fear, even as a non-homosexual.

“The concert is a carefully plotted and manipulative event. They attempt to use religious belief to override human rights,” he added.

On the other side of the divide, a participant who only wanted to be identified as Michelle said: “It is stated in the Bible, in God’s words, that monogamy should be practised…To disagree with homosexuality does not equal discrimination against them.”

Differences over homosexuality are the most visible division between different sections of Hong Kong’s Christian community, but there are also clashes over issues such as censorship and media depiction of sex, attitudes to drug users and participation in social activism and social movements. The socially conservative evangelical churches and the relatively more open liberal churches seem to be increasingly at loggerheads, or even at war – a culture war.

The idea of a culture war was popularised in the United States and is used to depict the struggle between two sets of conflicting cultural values. Sociologist James Davison Hunter identified a number of issues such as homosexuality, abortion and gun control, where society was generally divided along opposing lines.

Most Protestant churches in Hong Kong can be characterised as traditional or mainline churches. But a growing number of Christians are attending evangelical churches, and a smaller number worship in liberal or progressive churches.

Some scholars believe the current divisions between the churches began to take shape after local consciousness increased following the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Christians, like Hong Kong society in general, have become more engaged in social issues and begun to participate more in social movements.

The Catholic, mainline Protestant and liberal churches have pushed, to varying degrees, for socio-political reform while the evangelical mega-churches avoid criticising the government. Instead, they and evangelical para-church organisations like the Society of Truth and Light, devote more time to moral issues, the media, sex culture and family values. As a result, they are considered to be conservative and pro-establishment.

At the two ends of spectrum, liberal Christians have a more modern, inclusive outlook while the evangelicals tend to stick to more literal readings of the Bible. Compared to the liberal churches, mainline churches have become relatively quiet on socio-political issues, concentrating instead on charity work and maintaining their church operations.

With the mainline churches keeping out of the fray, evangelical Christians have been outspoken on issues such as homosexuality. Helen Fu Dan-mui is the deputy general secretary of the Society for Truth and Light, one of the most high-profile Christian voices against the so-called promotion of homosexuality or gay lifestyles. “God loves everyone unconditionally… however, he does not like the sexual act between homosexuals… It is the homosexual sex act that we oppose, not homosexuals,” she says.

Responding to the charge that evangelicals are too conservative on the gay issue, a minister from the evangelical Kong Fok Church, the Reverend Daniel Ng Chung-mun says: “Society has labelled the word ‘conservative’, it is not the same as ‘backward’. It should be something to be proud of as conservatism [is about] upholding some basic values that humankind needs.”

Meanwhile, Fu’s reassurance that conservative Christians are not opposed to homosexuals themselves is of little comfort to liberal Christians like Silas Wong Kwok-yiu, the resident pastor at one of Hong Kong’s few gay-affirming churches, Blessed Minority Christian Fellowship. Wong says his church is regarded by others as a heretic organisation and tells Varsity about the discrimination and suffering gays experience in the Christian community.

Theologian Chan Sze-chi, a senior lecturer at the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University, finds it unacceptable that such discrimination exists among Christians.  “Christianity is fundamentally a universal religion, a religion that accepts everybody in the whole wide world,” he says. “Why do you [evangelicals] accept everybody but the homosexuals?”

Such diverse opinions may stem from different interpretations of the Bible. Evangelicals view the Bible as an authoritative foundation, or as Chan puts it, a “crutch” and their interpretation of scripture tends to be more literal. Whereas David Cheung, a minister of the relatively liberal Narrow Church, says: “We maintain a conversational relationship with the Bible. The Bible is not an absolute power.” Cheung says faith and belief should evolve along with the changes of context.

The two factions also differ in the way they view social activism and participate in social movements. Liberal Christians have been visible in campaigns against capitalism and for universal suffrage and even gay rights.

But while evangelical churches rarely speak out on socio-political issues, they appear to be expanding their political influence. This has prompted some observers to speculate about the rise of the conservative religious right in Hong Kong. In 2007, an event with American evangelical preacher Franklin Graham was adopted as part of the government’s handover anniversary celebrations. Among the attendees were then Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and several mainland government officials.

The Rev. Daniel Ng of Kong Fok Church’s says society has alienated and marginalised religion, and there is a perception that the religious should not voice their opinions publically. “When people have already spoken on issues that we agree with, we don’t need to add to [the discussion],” he says. “But when our views on moral issues are not expressed, then we, the silent majority, need to speak out.”

The liberal churches, on the other hand, speak out on a variety of socio-political issues and are active in different social movements. Narrow Church, a relatively new and liberal church established in 2010, participates in social movements using their church’s name.

“The church has room to jump out of the box of individual participation in social movements,” David Cheung, minister of Narrow Church says.

Cheung believes Christians have a duty to link their faith to their daily life. According to his reasoning, for Christians living in Hong Kong at this time, this means taking drastic action because society has already reached a “tipping point” and a breakthrough is needed.

“We used to achieve justice through law. But to a corrupt regime, expressing opinion through moderate means doesn’t work. Now is the time to achieve justice through breaking the law,” he says.

But some are worried about what happens when churches participate in social movements. Professor Kung Lap-yan of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says: “The question is in what manner and with what attitudes do Christians participate in society. Are they dominating society with Christian beliefs? Are they striving for human rights or Christian values?”

The blurring of church and state is troubling for Kung because he believes politics is based on compromise. “Churches should be at a critical distance from the establishment and criticise the establishment in a detached manner,” he says.

Despite this, church involvement in both social movements and the political system are already a reality. Newspaper reports suggest Yan Fok Church, which according to the Chinese Christian news service, Gospel Herald, has more than 10,000 members, exerted influence on its members to vote for Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a conservative Christian, during the 2008 and 2012 LegCo elections.

And Kong Fok Church’s Ng caused controversy when some Christians objected to his teaching that Christians should obey those in power because the rule and order of the government are affirmed by God. The church has 700 members, including former Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung and a Hong Kong deputy to the National People’s Congress, Maria Tam Wai-chu.

However, Priscilla Leung, who has publicly opposed consultation on an anti-gay discrimination bill, plays down any fears about the undue influence of religion on politics. “Religion may affect my values or attitude at work rather than my political stance,” she says. “Religion is religion. Religion cannot directly influence all my political decisions.

“As a non-believer, one should participate in politics as a civil citizen; as a religious believer, one should speak up when politics is related to the core values of your faith,” she adds.

Chan Yut-wah, a pastor and former member of the board of the Society for Truth and Light ran in the 2012 LegCo Election as an independent candidate with the stated aim of bringing a voice of faith into the Legislative Council. Chan says his candidacy, though ultimately unsuccessful, sets an example for other Christians. “The separation of state and religion does not mean the two cannot cooperate,” Chan says. “With interaction and cooperation, the church can contribute a lot to the country.”

As Christians continue to participate in both social movements and establishment politics in Hong Kong, the divisions between them may become more apparent. But it is not always easy to distinguish between the different factions and many Christians choose not to label themselves at all.

DJ and social activist “Fast Beat” Tam Tak-chi, a member of Narrow Church, points out that one can be politically or socially progressive but morally conservative, and vice versa, so it is hard to label a Christian in reality. “Progressive Christian – like progressive social workers and progressive doctors – that is what I like to call myself,” he says.

So is there really a culture war in Hong Kong’s Christian community?

“We would not use war to describe the struggle between the two factions,” Professor Kwan Kai-man at Hong Kong Baptist University says. “There are no attacks and nobody is bearing a war mindset. We bear and listen to different opinions peacefully.”

Others see it differently, and believe it is a matter of time before the differences will come to a head again. As B. Tsang, who witnessed the counter rally against the Inclusive Love Praying Concert puts it: “It [cultural war] has only just begun.”

Edited by Astina Ng