Supporters of Donald Trump clash with the US Capitol police during a riot at the US Capitol on January 6 in Washington. Trump’s supporters stormed a session of Congress held to certify Joe Biden’s election win, triggering unprecedented chaos and violence at the heart of American democracy and accusations the president was attempting a coup. Photo: TNS
Peter T. C. Chang
Peter T. C. Chang

The religion behind a divided America and its conflict with China

  • The crises the US faces at home and abroad are the outgrowth of a peculiar American world view shaped by Christianity’s monotheistic belief system
  • Until Americans are willing to move past the myth of ‘American exceptionalism’, the US is unlikely to be able to coexist peaceably with the outside world

US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas reported last month that domestic terrorism was now the top threat to American national security. This real and present home-grown danger is an accretion of a toxic body polity mired in mistrust.

America’s democratic institutions, battered by misinformation and conspiracy theories, have suffered seriously diminished credibility and legitimacy. Take, for example, form president Donald Trump’s extraordinary assertion that the 2020 election result was valid only if he won.
The United States is deeply polarised and its social fabric looks to be fraying at the seams. Yet, a divided America appears united in confronting China. Purposefully anti-Trump in almost every other way, US President Joe Biden seems to have chosen to retain his predecessor’s China policy.
Not surprisingly, the US-China relationship continues to deteriorate, compounded by the White House’s decision to continue investigating the Covid-19 “lab leak” theory.
Identifying the origins of the virus is vital for dealing with future pandemics, but the scientific process has become so politicised that any “independent” investigation is unlikely to yield a result that will be accepted by both sides.

Trust between Washington and Beijing has hit an all-time low and the risk of open conflict is a real and present danger. 


The crises the US faces at home and abroad have a common thread. They are the outgrowth of a peculiar American world view shaped by Christianity’s monotheistic belief system. 


Nature or lab leak? Why tracing the origin of Covid-19 matters

Nature or lab leak? Why tracing the origin of Covid-19 matters
To begin with, the American faith in liberal democracy is the secular adaptation of the monotheist world view.

Just as most Christians believe there is no salvation outside the church, most Americans regard liberal democracy as the only pathway to a free and just international order. This has propelled the US into a global push to liberate and democratise the world. 

Next is the American sense of manifest destiny as the “shining city upon a hill”. The doctrine has origins in the Jewish people’s self-identification as God’s “chosen people”. Later, Christianity universalised the elect, whereupon Jews and Gentiles alike could be converted into God’s chosen people.

These Christian beliefs underpin Americans’ view of themselves and the world. It is this monotheism-inspired world order with which China has run into conflict.

The Communist Party’s rebuff of liberal democracy is seen as an affront to what Americans regard as their divinely ordained global leadership.


The US is determined not to let China challenge or dilute its peculiarly unreserved self-belief.

In March, during his first extended discussion on US-China rivalry as president, Biden vowed not to allow China to surpass the US as the most powerful country in the world, saying: “That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
For conservative evangelicals, Communist-Party-led China poses an ominous existential threat to Western and Christian civilisation. In Christianity’s dualistic moral universe of good versus evil, the atheist Chinese regime has found itself on the wrong side of the moral divide. 

But the Christian right is also vexed by an enemy lurking within, namely the liberal left and its seeming irreverence for and assault on the American way of life. The feeling of hostility is reciprocated.

The secular left is as agitated by the religious right’s purported contempt for American core values such as inclusivity, diversity and care for the marginalised.

America’s founding fathers envisioned a new world anchored on the Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Of course, as slave owners, some of these framers of the constitution lived a life of contradiction.


Still, the ideals enshrined at the birth of the republic did pave the way for a more open and freer America, transforming it into a land of opportunity for many. 

Last week, the US made Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate African-Americans’ full emancipation from slavery.
The context and backdrop of this celebration is telling, though – the “ Unite the Right” rally at Charlottesville and the murder of George Floyd, among other things, point to a country still haunted by its original sin.

The recent spike in anti-Asian violence underscores the convoluted dynamics threatening America’s race relations. 


New Yorkers rally against anti-Asian violence in call for solidarity after Atlanta shootings

New Yorkers rally against anti-Asian violence in call for solidarity after Atlanta shootings

In his testimony to the US Senate, Mayorkas warned that white supremacist militias represented the most persistent and lethal threat to the country. Republican lawmakers quickly responded with claims that some of the recent unrest was linked to far-left extremists.

Unable to reach a consensus on the nature of the domestic danger confronting them, a fragmented America faces an increasing risk of descent into ethno-political tribalism and religious sectarianism. 

The US is trapped in a religion-induced crisis at home and abroad. The republic has slipped into an era of absolutist, monotheistic morality with little room for nonconformity and ambiguity.

Unless Americans can find a way out of Christianity’s binary, puritanical world view, the country’s diverse constituents are unlikely to be able to sustain the enlightened common space needed for coexistence.

Until Americans are willing to move past the myth of “American exceptionalism”, the US is unlikely to be able coexist peaceably with the outside world, and with China specifically. 

Peter T.C. Chang is deputy director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia