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The recent uproar over investigations over the misuse of funds at City Harvest Church in Singapore has taken the media by storm. Not only has it been plastered all over Singaporean media at Channel NewsAsia, the Straits Times, and Yahoo! Singapore, but it has been recently picked up by blogs at Time Magazine and Christianity Today as well.

The reactions have been typical:

To be sure, scandal can whet our appetites, and a scandal like this takes us in all sorts of critical directions: orientalism, prosperity gospel, the need for church transparency and accountability to the public, the place of Christian celebrities, Bill Bright’s “seven mountains” vis-a-vis James Davison Hunter‘s To Change the World, etc.

The problem is, all of that elides what I think is the central issue here: church-state relations.

I think what’s interesting about this case is that it can easily be juxtaposed to something that looks completely irrelevant on the surface: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Fortnight for Freedom.

The Fortnight, of course, seems to have far less bearing on church scandal, than, say, the 2002 Boston Globe revelations of the Catholic sex abuse scandals and the efforts that followed that made the Church more compliant with public investigation of pedophilia among priests through the June 2002 release of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and its 2011 renewal.

As it is, on the face of it, the Fortnight is irrelevant to Kong Hee because it seems to have more bearing on the passage of universal health care in the United States. But it is relevant, I argue, because the opposition by the bishops to most of Obama’s health care policies is least rhetorically based on what it perceives as the Obama administration’s curbing of religious liberties by removing the right to conscientious objection to abortion, contraception, and welcoming undocumented migrants, all in relation to health care policy. (The evangelical response, it seems to me, is based more on libertarian principles than right-to-life activism.)  Not only were the bishops disappointed in the Roberts Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, but they began the Fortnight for Freedom prior to the ruling to oppose Kathleen Sebelius’s Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that all employers must provide contraceptives, including allegedly abortifacient ones, to all of their employees.

When the administration compromised by exempting religious organizations, the bishops weren’t satisfied: the exemption only applied to organizations where the membership is Catholic, not to, say, schools, hospitals, and non-profit organizations that are under the jurisdiction of Catholic bishops but mostly serve and employ non-Catholics.

psst…there’s a Canadian one too

The bishops argue that the state has no business telling the Church what is and is not religion.  The Church’s services do not only serve other confessional Catholics; the slogan goes: we don’t serve people because they’re Catholic; we serve because we’re Catholic. Part of the Catholic thing, the bishops argue, is that they should be able to abide by their rule of conscience on right-to-life issues when they run even these “secular” organizations, and for the state to police that is to violate the Church’s freedom of religion.

Let’s bring this back to Kong Hee and Sun Ho.

The allegations at City Harvest Church are that five members of the board misappropriated church funds to finance Sun Ho’s music career and lavish lifestyle in Los Angeles. More technically, it is that the usage of $23 million that were supposed to be for charity were found to be irregular as they were allegedly used for the secular purposes of financing music as non-religious as “China Wine.”

Bear with me, but if you think about it, you could make the same argument for the board members at City Harvest as the American bishops are making during the Fortnight for Freedom.  You could say: what business does the state have in determining what is and is not religious activity? After all, the point of Sun Ho’s Crossover Project is to use secular music to evangelize non-Christians.

That’s a pretty religious motivation for a non-religious activity. It could even be construed as charitable if your theology is that evangelizing non-Christians at all costs is the most loving service you can do for your neighbour. Just as the Catholic bishops would argue that schools, hospitals, and non-profits that serve non-Catholics still remain Catholic because they serve out of a Catholic spirit, so Kong Hee, Sun Ho, and the leadership at City Harvest could maintain that Sun Ho’s Crossover Project is religious, if not charitable, activity not because it is targeted to Christians but because the intention remains Christian evangelism.

Of course, especially on blogs like A Christian Thing, we could open discussion on whether we agree with this theology or not. We could talk about the fundamental theological differences between Catholic bishops and prosperity gospel preachers, and we certainly could do a series on how to write about Christian scandals that are exploding left, right, and centre at the moment, from Kong Hee to Creflo Dollar to Korean property tax scandals regarding church cafes to allegations of sexual harassment by a Ms K in Hong Kong when she went on a short-term missions trip to Taiwan with a Pastor/Mr. X. The Asian American in me also wants to rant about how orientalizing “China Wine” is. We could–and should–talk about all those things, and yes, of course, bring on the critique.

But like it or not, we cannot deny that Kong Hee, Sun Ho, and the board at City Harvest Church in Singapore have a theology. Much as some progressive Catholics think the bishops have gone too far, they can’t deny them their theological reasoning either. Critique, yes, but a full critique of these things would have to be a theological critique.

However, to acknowledge such theologies as theologies in their own right would also change the conversation from scandal to a more intricate theological question: what is the power of the state to regulate what constitutes theological activity in a religious organization?

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