Christian values

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 12:00am

This month, Taiwan's former president Lee Teng-hui was awarded an honorary doctorate in theology by the Taiwan Theological College to celebrate its 132nd anniversary. He had never sought to hide his Christian affiliation, the college said in its citation, and had always brought Christian principles to bear on his policy decisions.

It is sometimes claimed that if present trends continue in Europe (but not the US), there will be few practising Christians left 50 years from now. The same cannot be said of Asia. Today, there are probably as many church-going Christians in Taiwan as there have ever been. Quite what this signifies, though, is not entirely clear.

In Taiwan, being a Christian sometimes appears akin to seeing to it that your children take piano lessons. It is not strictly religious belief or a love of music that is important, but rather a feeling that you should keep yourself and your family somewhat apart from the rest of the population.

But one reason for the high numbers may be the influence of the US: the fact that religious observance is not declining in the US or Asia may not be coincidental. Nor is the personal example of individual Americans the only factor. It was not so long ago that having professing Christians in charge of non-communist Asian states was the policy of statesmen in Washington. In the 1950s, men like Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles believed that Buddhism was too pliable a philosophy to stand up to the communist threat.

What Asia needed, they thought, was stalwart Christians at the helm, and this is precisely what - to their satisfaction - they found. Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, Rhee Syngman in South Korea and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam were all Christian leaders presiding over overwhelmingly non-Christian populations. They may not have got where they were as a result of specific American strategies, but it was certainly the considered policy of Washington to keep them there.

As far as the situation in Taiwan went, Chiang's Christianity (he was an avowed Methodist) was not without its influence on the state of affairs on the island. But whatever else it did, it did not lead him to believe that religious faith implied democracy in any form.

Mr Lee may prove to have been the last of his line. Today, Christianity is seldom mentioned in Taiwan's ever-turbulent political scene. As for ordinary believers, reports indicate that they are more concerned with mundane issues, such as whether they should hold incense sticks when attending the funerals of non-Christian family members, than life after death, or the like. Religion, it is felt, should not have such an intellectual dimension.