The Development of Political Theologies in the Malaysian Church
Undergraduate Summer Research Grants
This summer, I returned to my home country of Malaysia to conduct a four week research to investigate how political theology influences Malaysian Christian responses to political and social pressures. My interest in this research area arose as a result of rising religious intolerance against Christians in Malaysia’s multi religious society. Through a prior grant from the Kellogg Institute, I was able to conduct a project that looked at whether Malaysian Christians were using their Churches as tools for responding to rising intolerance. The results of this project showed that different Christian denominations responded to political and social pressures differently. For example, traditional Churches like the Catholic Church were more likely to respond to rising pressures through formal engagement with the government and society while Evangelical Churches tended to shy away from institutional responses.
Motivated by these results, I sought to further investigate one potential factor behind the differences in Christian responses to intolerance, political theology (examples of other factors would include level of independence from the government, and various demographic factors). The term ‘political theology’ is defined to mean a set of ideas that a religious actor holds on what constitutes legitimate political authority. For this project, I also narrowed down the terms ‘social pressures’ and ‘rising religious intolerance’ to mean incidents involving direct violations of religious freedom. The aim of this project was to investigate whether political theologywas the defining factor behind the different ways Malaysian Churches responded to violations of religious freedom. The working hypothesis that I used throughout the project is as follows: A Church’s political theology is the best indicator of how it responds to religious freedom violations. If this hypothesis were incorrect, one would expect to see other factors like Church size or wealth be the primary influence on Christian responses to religious freedom violations.
This research project was conducted through confidential interviews with Christian leaders, academics, and journalists familiar with how different Christian denominations are responding to religious freedom violations. My interview questions were sensitive in nature as they required interviewees to talk about government violations of religious freedom and reveal information about the responses of their specific Churches. As a result, a significant percentage of my interviews were obtained as a result of direct referrals from other interviewees and contacts that I established form my previous bout of interviews. I had a very low success rate with cold-calling and direct emails since many individuals were unwilling to trust someone that they did not know (the most common fear was that I would publish the responses publically on the internet). Despite this, I was able to secure 17 interviews over 4 weeks, and these interviews lasted between 30 and 60 minutes depending on the length of the interviewees responses. I spent the majority of my first week cold calling and emailing, and most of my interviews were conducted in the last 3 weeks. The majority of my interviewees were academics and pastors from Evangelical Churches with only a handful from the more traditional Christian Churches. These interviews focused on questions of political theology within the Malaysian context and whether different responses to religious freedom violations in Malaysia could be explained primarily by this factor. I then drew my conclusions for the study after transcribing the interviews and studying the responses of my interviewees. The two main results obtained from the study are as follows:
- There is no Church in Malaysia that possesses a coherent political theology. However, this does not mean that theology is not a major factor in determining responses to religious freedom violations. For example, the rising institutional and public responses of the Malaysian Catholic Church correlates strongly with the rising focus of Catholic Social Teaching within the Church. Additionally, Evangelical theologies that tend to focus on eschatology and spiritual well-being also play a large role in forming the political theology of the Malaysian Evangelical Churches.
- While political theology plays a large role in determining Malaysian Christian responses to persecution, it cannot conclusively be called the primary influence behind why Churches respond to religious freedom violations in different ways. My interviews also found Church size, demography, and level of government influence as factors that could be of equal importance. In particular, the demography of Churches seems to be a very important factor. For example, many interviewees cited East Malaysian Churches as examples of how economic development can limit the response of Churches that face high levels of religious freedom violations.
In conclusion, this study found that while it is quite difficult to directly ascertain the influence of political theology since there is no Church in Malaysia that commonly uses this term, it is undeniable that a denomination’s theological commitments play an important role in influencing its political and social response. There are also many other factors that can play an important role in determining the response of Malaysian Churches to religious freedom violations, and we cannot confirm the hypothesis that political theology is the primary factor in influencing Malaysian Christian response.
Challenges and Limitations
While the results of this study paint an important picture regarding the factors that influence Malaysian Christian responses to religious freedom violations, the results of this study are also limited due to several challenges I faced. My initial proposal for the project aimed at investigating how appropriate political theologies that encouraged political and social engagement could be developed in the Malaysian context. However, I quickly discovered that many of my interviewees were unfamiliar with the very notion of ‘political theology.’ As a result of this, I had to change the focus of my investigation and rephrase my questions to instead focus on uncovering the theological motivations behind the responses of different Christian Churches. In addition, this study does not include many responses from the East Malaysian Christian Church. Even though the most influential and well-funded Churches are in West Malaysia, the Christians in East Malaysia constitute the majority of Malaysian Christians with a large number living in rural, under-developed areas. While I was able to obtain 3 interviews from East Malaysian Christians, I found it logistically impossible to travel to the rural regions of East Malaysia where large communities of Evangelical and Catholic Christians reside. My lack of contacts in East Malaysia also proved consequential as my request for an interview was turned down by three prominent East Malaysian Christian leaders on account that they were not familiar with the topic of political theology. I believe that I could have made the purpose of my study clearer as I believe that another reason these Church leaders declined to be interviewed was because they did not think they could speak about the topic of political theology academically.
The results of this study have been extremely influential in the formation of my senior thesis, where I intend to build upon my results by investigating and ranking allthe potential factors that might influence the responses of Malaysian Churches to religious freedom violations. Now that I have established connections in East Malaysia, I also hope to broaden the scope of this study by travelling to East Malaysia in order to interview the rural Christian population.