What do China’s relatively restrictive religious laws have in common with two American parents who starved their toddler daughter to death partly for religious reasons?
Nothing and possibly everything.
Killing your daughter
Ten-month-old Mary, the daughter of Michigan residents Seth Welch and Tatiana Fusari, both 27, died in August from “malnutrition and dehydration due to neglect,” the local Kent County coroner reported after an autopsy. The little girl’s parents told authorities that although Mary had appeared “skinny and underweight” for about a month prior to her death they did not seek medical attention because of their religious beliefs against it, their fear of potential intrusion of Child Protection Services in their lives, and their abiding mistrust of modern medicine.
Charged with “felony murder” Aug. 6 along with Fusari in Mary’s death, Welch in Facebook videos reportedly had named mainstream medical institutions as “priesthoods of the medical cult” and that “God is sovereign over disease” regarding vaccines, according to a recent report in Yahoo News. A sign on the couple’s front fence reads: “Repent. Believe. Obey.”
The couple’s two older children, neither of whom have ever been to a doctor, were immediately removed from their now-imprisoned parents’ custody.
Shock and awe
What really stood out for me in the aftermath of this this slow-motion catastrophe driven by ignorance, superstition and self-serving fear was the unfathomably shocked disbelief of Welch and Fusari when they were charged before a judge and informed of maximum potential life sentences for the crime of murder.
Welch’s mouth opened in an extreme, gaping expression of total surprise and stayed like that for minutes, as he appeared unable to comprehend what he was hearing. Fusari, looking equally stricken, sobbed.
Welch’s response, especially, is what blind faith in religious chimera looks like when it crashes head-on into concrete reality.
To my mind, this is why the American concept and practice of “religious freedom” is inherently dangerous. It doesn’t account for the wages of extremism and it normalizes religious faith, which in actuality is superstitious belief, despite the absolute, unbridled freedom some people insist their faiths give them to carry out a divinity’s imagined commandments to humanity.
‘My very strong faith’
Welch appears fully unrepentant and unmindful of the gravity of what he and Fusari have wrought in their irresponsible faithfulness. Of their murderous negligence.
According to an Associated Press story, he told a reporter after his arrest: “I believe I am being unfairly charged, being made an example of for my very strong faith.”
Osama bin Laden likely thought something similar when most of the world turned against him for directing faith-fueled Muslim zealots to fly commercial jetliners full of innocent, doomed passengers into the World Trade Center, thus killing thousands more.
These types of religion-inspired calamity are not common, thank goodness, but common enough so that it makes no sense to just throw our hands in the air and say, “There’s freedom of religion. What can we do?”
Which brings me to China.
I recall an incident on a tour bus in the mid-2000s in Beijing that helps illustrate the point I’m trying to make. Our young female tour director was trying to explain the transforming Chinese cultural milieu in the early years of the new millennium, especially for the young, after the collapse of the Communist Soviet state in the late 1990s. She said, as I remember:
“Communism used to be the Chinese religion, but after the Soviet Union fell, we Chinese lost our spiritual moorings. For young people, money is now their new religion.”
Well, yes and no. Certainly after China instituted a vigorous form of capitalism under Deng Xiaoping in the last decades of the 20th century, getting rich became as Chinese as egg foo young. And China and America shared an exponentially growing gap between haves and have nots.
Yet, although the official atheist policy of China’s ruling Communist Party remained firmly in place, the party increasingly realized that religion, mainly the populace’s traditional “folk religion,” wasn’t going away for many tens of millions of its citizens, maybe more, and should be more purposefully harnessed for national harmony and progress.
So, like the United States, China today has enshrined freedom of religion in its national Constitution. Article 36 in that document reads, in full:
“Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”
A big differenceSounds similar to what ours guarantees, except for this important clause (I italicize the specific concepts that differ):
“No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.”
So, what China appears to be doing is allowing people to indulge their private beliefs as long as they don’t corrupt public health, harmony and the education of children.
Certainly, even religion-nurturing American law sees the felonious reality of the Michigan couple who killed their daughter with neglect, but it is tinged with an unnecessary (in my view) fealty to religious faith. In other words, the court system has to consider the parents’ private superstitious views in making a final determination of guilt by law. That means we have to weigh reality against surreality to sanction negligent manslaughter. Where’s the defensible rationality in that?
No church for kids
In early 2018, the Chinese government stiffened some of its laws to further restrict religion in the affairs of the nation. The government now prohibits minors from going to churches or other venues of religious worship, and requires clergy to clearly promote this new law by posting it on the outside of worship sites.
Personally, I wish this were an American law. I don’t care that adults choose to worship; but kids don’t choose, they’re indoctrinated.
Other new Chinese laws sanction only government-recognized religious groups to open religious schools or send students abroad, prohibits spreading religious ideas or conducting religious activities within public schools, and prescribes that “resisting and blocking extremism is explicitly emphasized,” according to an article in Providence, which describes itself as “a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy.”
These and other new Chinese statutes would probably strike most Americans as somewhat draconian, but China’s leaders are nothing if not pragmatic. Everything they do is to maintain a harmonious society whose citizens acquiesce to the authority of the government, not to the various religious chimera floating about in their minds.
Frankly, I’m sympathetic to Chinese authorities’ plight and their solutions. Religious ruination too often afflicts our own country because we don’t have adequate legal safeguards against the kinds of ignorant religious extremists who killed that innocent little girl in Michigan. It should never be acceptable that any American thinks they have immunity from the laws of man because they heed only an unverified divinity.
Is China religiously paranoid?
If you think Chinese authorities are paranoid and ruthless, keep in mind that despite decades of official government atheism, which continues, religious practice seems to be resurgent. Depending on the sources, tens to hundreds of millions of Chinese now subscribe to religions, a large minority of them Catholic and Protestant, both sects officially recognized by the party.
According to the introduction in a U.S. Council on Foreign Relations report on China:
“Religious observance in China is on the rise. Amid China’s economic boom and rapid modernization, experts point to the emergence of a spiritual vacuum as a trigger for the growing number of religious believers, particularly adherents of Christianity and traditional Chinese religious groups.”
Some of China’s religious groups have been militant and murderous, and some are eyed warily for rumored foreign connections. Although politically the government acknowledges the intractability of religion for many Chinese, it is disquieted by the power such emotion-laden aggregations might pose against state security.
As I have watched American Christian Right groups and individuals, including presidential and congressional candidates, labor for decades to insinuate their superstitious faith ever deeper into America’s laws and culture, I have the same worry as Chinese leaders. It’s as potentially destabilizing, as the alt-Right now is, and it’s based on imaginings, not factual reality.
So, when a daughter is killed in Michigan by criminally religious parents, I think of China with some sympathy.
Just as weaponized free speech is ravaging the American landscape now, I fear irrationally codified religious freedom has the same potential. Don’t believe me? Just look at the ruinous medieval religious wars that decimated Western Civilization.
Please sign up for new post notifications (top right). Shares, likes, comments appreciated!