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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Religious politics in Pacific space : grounding Cantonese Protestant theologies in secular civil societies Tse, Justin Kin-Hung


This thesis argues that Cantonese Protestants often reinforce secularization processes by leveraging their ethnic Chineseness for secular political activism while downplaying their theological convictions and communities as private. The main theoretical intervention of this thesis is that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are both grounded theologies, placing into space narratives about the supernatural that shape modern understandings of the place of religion in the public sphere. I show that these grounded theologies are contested among Cantonese Protestants. There are grounded ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ theologies of how congregational spaces should engage the ‘world’: ‘progressive’ refers to churches whose grounded theologies blur the lines between the private congregation and their activities in a secular public sphere, while ‘conservatives’ seek to police those boundaries. While mainline Protestants dominated the Cantonese Protestant landscape since the nineteenth century with ‘progressive’ grounded theologies, ‘conservative’ Cantonese evangelicals challenged their attachment to secular states and civil societies in the 1950s to the 1970s. In the 1990s and 2000s, Cantonese evangelical traditional family activists argued that their activism seldom directly included their churches as institutions and instead leveraged what they considered their more universal concerns as ethnic Chinese citizens to combat the irrationality of sexual and social liberalization in each of their civil societies. In turn, Cantonese evangelical faith-based organizations and congregations have been re-structured to engage more effectively in different ways with local secular governments in their civil societies, engendering contestations by those who consider these moves either politically ineffective or theologically problematic. These activities are also intensely local, for a closer examination of Cantonese Protestant demonstrations in response to the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 as well as their participation in democratic politics reveals that their political practices focus on civil societies bound by their metropolitan areas, not their transnational Chinese networks. This thesis suggests that cultural geography can reconstitute fields such as religious studies, ethnic studies, and migration studies into disciplines that examine the ways that grounded theologies are used to contest religious placemaking and ethnic identity formation.

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