The relationship between religion and protest has been thoroughly discussed in various academic disciplines of social sciences, but there is far from consensus on the topic. Scholars differ significantly in their opinions on how religious values and doctrines shape the mechanisms which link protest and religion, and on how interaction between religious groups, the state, and other secular and religious groups may increase or reduce the likelihood of protests. Contemporary China provides an ideal setting in which to further advance scholarly understanding of roles that religion plays in protest, thanks to its richness, diversity, and complexity of religion, protest, and their relationship. In contemporary China, due to the inherent, profound, and possibly deliberate ambiguities within the state’s legal and regulatory arrangements on religious affairs, the boundaries between government-sanctioned churches and “underground” churches are often blurred. Many Christianity-related protests directly respond to government crackdowns, which are aimed not only at those congregations and groups that are normally considered as “underground,” “unofficial,” or “independent,” but also at churches that have long been tolerated or even officially recognized by the state. Further, while many Christianity-related protests are closely associated with the clash of ideologies in contemporary China, the specific causes of protests differ significantly among Catholic and Protestant churches, and Christian-inspired groups. The ideological incompatibility between the ruling Communist Party and the Catholic Church in China is epitomized by their struggle for authority and influence over the Chinese Catholic community. Until the provisional agreement signed between Beijing and the Vatican in September 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Holy See had been competing fiercely for the authority to approve the ordination of new bishops, with such confrontations triggering numerous protests among Chinese Catholics. Unlike the Catholic Church, many of the Protestant churches that have emerged in the post-Mao era—including most “house” churches that do not affiliate with the state-sanctioned church—have no direct link with the transnational denominations which were active in China before the communist takeover in 1949 and are operated solely by Chinese citizens. However, while many Chinese Protestants display affection toward China and a sense of responsibility for improving their country, some influential Protestant church leaders have turned their progressive theology into social activism since the turn of the 21st century, leading to various forms of protests against the authoritarian policies and politics in contemporary China. Ideological and theological conflicts between different religions or religious schools may also trigger the Chinese state’s suppression of certain religious groups and activities, which often in turn cause protests. In particular, the Communist Party tends to impose extremely harsh repercussions on religious groups that are accused by mainstream Christianity of being “heterodoxies,” like the Shouters and the Disciples. These religious groups are often labelled as “evil cults” and their leaders and members often face legal action or even criminal charges. The protests organized by these religious groups have not only targeted the government but also the mainstream Christian churches that criticize them from a theological point of view. Given the profound ideological and political incompatibility of the CCP and various Christian groups, it is unlikely that Christianity can replicate the close collaborations that Buddhism and Daoism have developed with the CCP since the early 1980s.
Religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, was at the center of the emergence and initial mobilization of the pro-life movement in the United States. The movement originated in Catholic opposition to the liberalization of abortion law beginning in the 1950s, and accelerated rapidly after 1973 when abortion was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court. Protestants began entering the movement in large numbers beginning in the 1980s, which corresponded with a peak in the amount of antiabortion street protest (and violence). All forms of pro-life protest—educational outreach to influence public opinion, political and legal involvement to influence the legal status of abortion, the development of crisis pregnancy centers to persuade individual pregnant women to carry their pregnancies to term, and direct action against abortion providers—have their roots in this formative period of movement mobilization, and all have continued to be important elements of the movement over the last half century. All these forms of protest activity include a religious component. They involve activists of deep religious faith, motivated by religious ideas, using religious principles in arguments about abortion, and depending on the leadership and resources of religious organizations. But the role of religion in the movement is sometimes overstated. Religion has not been the sole source of support for the movement. Pro-life protest has always included activists and organizations that are partially or wholly outside these strands of religious influence. Religion has also been a frequent source of tension and conflict in the movement, in addition to being a source of support. And the relationship between religion and the movement in recent decades does not distinguish it from the underlying partisan political landscape in which it is now firmly rooted.
Mainline Protestant denominations in the United States have a history of using divestment as an economic form of nonviolent moral activism. While such activism can have a domestic focus, at times church divestment efforts have emphasized foreign policy issues as an extension of church activism in the areas of social justice and moral reform. Churches have used economic activism such as divestment from apartheid South Africa and investment screens to prevent church pension and other funds from being used for products and services—such as alcohol, tobacco and munitions—deemed “immoral” by church bodies. The case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict illustrates the broader themes and tensions involved in church divestment debates, given the media coverage that has been generated by the topic due to the special relationship between Christians and the holy land and the troubled history of Christianity and anti-Semitism. Some Protestant denominations, particularly those with a history of engagement in Israel/Palestine, have responded to the Palestinians’ call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to advance their freedom and human rights. However, such responses have not been immune from debate and controversy. Some mainline Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church have debated resolutions dealing with church divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Such resolutions have resulted in pushback from some parties, including efforts to criminalize boycott of Israel.