The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference which brings together a select group of 20 nationally respected journalists with 3-5 distinguished scholars on areas of religion, politics & public life.
“The Coming of Global Christianity & the Future of International Politics”
Key West, Florida
Dr. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies & History, Pennsylvania State University
David Brooks, Senior Editor, The Weekly Standard
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: As the cover article of its October 2002 issue, the Atlantic Monthly ran an excerpt from Philip Jenkins’s book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. His argument is about not only the rise of global Christianity but also how this may affect such large areas as U.S. foreign policy, the situation of Islam today, and problems of international conflict. Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. We’re delighted that he could join us.
DR. PHILIP JENKINS: In all discussions of Islam since 9/11, we’ve heard a lot about Western culture meeting “the Other.” Today I want to talk about the other Other, which is Christianity in the global south or Third World. Some of what I have to say may surprise you.
In 1979, on the cusp of the Islamic Revolution, the Iran expert Fred Halliday published a book called Iran: Dictatorship and Development, in which he discussed the Shah’s fall and analyzed the forces that might take over. In his volume of about three hundred pages, Halliday gave Islamic groups about half a page. He passed them by as, in effect, a weird side current and focused instead on various nationalist and communist groups that he thought constituted the mainstream. The moral of the story is that religion does sometimes require a little bit of attention.
During the twentieth century, Christianity expanded dramatically and became a truly global religion. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia — a useful though fallible source — there are about 2 billion Christians alive right now. That compares to about 1.2 billion Muslims. All the convincing projections I’ve seen suggest that Christianity is going to hold that lead, so that by 2050 there will probably be about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide. When you see a claim that Islam is a decade or two away from being the world’s largest religion, you should take that with a grain of salt.
Of Christians, about 550 million live in Europe, in which I include the historically Orthodox Christian lands of the former Soviet Union. Latin America is not far behind with 470 million. Africa has about 360 million, Asia about 300 million, and North America (counting Mexico) about 280 million. If you track the numbers historically, you see that the share of Christians living in the global south has risen fast since 1900. In that year, for instance, about one in ten Africans was a Christian, and there were about 100 million Africans. Today, almost every other African is a Christian, and Africa has more than 700 million people. In both relative and absolute terms, that’s dramatic growth.
Projecting these trends, I estimate that over the next twenty five to fifty years, Christianity will become mainly a religion of Latin America and Africa, including the African diaspora in the Americas and Europe. By 2050, only about one out of every five or six Christians will be a non-Latino white. The average Christian already is someone who lives in Brazil or the Congo.
At the heart of this is the huge disparity in demographic profiles from north to south. Europe and North America are graying, while Africa and Latin America “skew young,” as demographers say. In a typical northern society, about 16 percent of the people are under 40 and 16 percent are over 65. A typical southern country, by contrast, will have 30 to 40 percent under 40 and only about 3 percent over 65. You’re dealing with an aging white north and a very young black and brown south. One thing this means is that population growth is concentrated in the south, while northern countries stagnate or decline unless they take in southern immigrants. By mid-century, for example, something like a third of all Americans will claim Latino or Asian descent. And the spread of Christianity around the globe means that the vast majority of these people will come from backgrounds that are basically Christian, whatever their actual religious beliefs or affiliations.
Associated with these large demographic facts are some other big changes, such as urbanization. This just took off a few decades ago in Africa and will accelerate over the next thirty to forty years. It’s going to be one of the greatest social movements in history. Everywhere you look around the less developed world, societies that just a generation or two ago were moderately populous and predominantly rural are now much larger and intensely urbanized. They teem with vast cities where huge numbers of the very poor live. The old social networks of country or village life are gone or broken, and the state, even if it is politically oppressive, is otherwise so feeble and inept that people must rely on their own efforts to get anything in the way of health care, schooling, and basic welfare or community services.
Religious groups often organize these self-help efforts. The reason radical Islam does so well is that it has a knack for building social networks. In Gaza, for instance, the Islamists are the people who can deliver food and medical supplies. In many an African or Latin American mega-city, the churches deliver these kinds of services.
In addition, the kind of Christianity that we are seeing in the global south is rather different from what we are used to in much of the global north. Southern Christianity is much more charismatic and believes intensely in signs, wonders, dreams, trances, visions, and, above all, healing. In all the varieties of so-called fundamentalism that are growing around the world, often in places where there is no access to modern medical care, healing is central.
The success of southern Christianity at drawing new adherents is striking. Again, take the case of Africa. For most of the last five centuries, Islam dominated that continent. Yet Christianity overtook Islam, and did so just yesterday — beginning in the 1960s. As I mentioned earlier, as recently as 1900 Christianity occupied a fairly marginal position in Africa. So in about half a century, Christianity reversed the trend of half a millennium and became the leading religion in Africa.
The situation in Asia — the world’s largest continent and home to about half the human race — is harder to summarize. Persecution is a huge problem. Christian believers and communities must hide their identities. How many are there? The World Christian Encyclopedia gives high-end estimates; I prefer the lower figures, just to be safe. The Communist government says there are around 22 million Christians in China, so we know there are at least that many: Beijing is not going to exaggerate the number of Christians. Everyone knows that there are many unregistered churches and unregistered or secret Christians. Estimates run as high as 100 million; I lean toward a figure of about 50 million. Even the low-range figures signal a lot of growth, most of it in just the last twenty years or so. Documents that leaked out in the 1980s suggested that in some areas there were mass defections to Christianity, and that converts included Communist Party officials. I think Beijing is worried.
Why don’t we hear more about all of this? In part because many Western observers feel uncomfortable with the kinds of traditions that are doing well in the global south. Also, southern Christians are poor and not particularly violent. For those who want attention in our age, a rule of thumb might be: Blow things up; conferences will follow. Southern Christians are not known for blowing things up.
The political impact of non-Western or southern Christianity is likely to be large, in terms of the domestic affairs of both Christian countries (I use that term advisedly) and religiously mixed countries — including especially countries where Islam is present. Most of the African and Latin American countries where Christianity has been expanding traditionally had one branch or other of Christianity as the established church. Any country with a history as a British, Spanish, French, Belgian, or Portuguese colony is going to be familiar with the notion of an established or quasi-established church. Thus integralism — meaning the idea that the polity must rest on a common religious framework — is popular.
Politics in the global south over the last twenty years has resembled politics in medieval Europe. Modern African dictators, much like medieval monarchs, often find that their most troublesome opposition comes from the church. Such dictators, like the kings of old, may respond to religious criticism by trying to display their own superior piety. For instance, the world’s largest Catholic basilica is in Ivory Coast; the country’s longtime president had it built in his hometown. Struggles for democracy often involve a large element of rivalry between churches and religious factions, with rulers trying to play some off against others. When the Catholic Church in Zaire criticized President Mobutu, he turned to Protestants and Kimbanguists, who form a kind of independent African church, as an alternative to those “foreign” Catholics. The founder of Kimbanguism, Simon Kimbangu, preached a message of healing and opposition to witchcraft; he was tried for sedition in 1921 and spent the rest of his life — thirty years — in prison in eastern Congo. When Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi came under attack from mainstream churches, he began currying favor with the Pentecostals, who preached political quietism.
Another thing that’s familiar from the Middle Ages and early modern Europe is the prominence of martyrdom, including that of high-ranking clerics. I date Christianity’s loss of decisive political relevance in the West to 1645, which was the last time anybody bothered to execute an archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in El Salvador in 1980, is the most famous but only one of many prelates across the global south who have been killed in the last few decades.
When Africa experienced a wave of democratization in the early 1990s, religious groups, and particularly the Catholic Church, played a major role. There were practical reasons for this: church rallies are less likely than street marches to be put down with force. There were even cases where the Catholic Church was asked to oversee and vouch for the democratic process in countries with Muslim majorities.
Recently there has been more talk in Africa of calling certain countries “Christian” states, though the only example so far — Zambia under Frederick Chiluba — is not a happy model. Chiluba was an opposition leader and avowed evangelical Christian who ousted the longtime “big man” President Kenneth Kaunda (the son of a Presbyterian minister, by the’way) in a free election. Then he himself showed worrisome signs of trying to expand his term beyond the constitution. Some Zambian Pentecostals rallied behind Chiluba in defense of the “Christian state.”
Where are these ideas coming from? The Bible, for starters, and especially the Old Testament. Southern Christians take those books very seriously. The Old Testament, in fact, seems to strike a sympathetic chord in parts of Africa. Genesis depicts an instantly recognizable world of nomads and polygamy. Many of Africa’s independent churches have a strong Hebraist flavor. In Ghana the Musama Disco Christo Church accepts many Jewish dietary laws and has a temple with a holy of holies that the priest enters only once a year. Other independent churches mandate male circumcision. The Old Testament also tells of kings who are the Lord’s anointed, and speaks of “smiting the Amalekites,” or in other words, waging holy war. It’s a reminder to northern Christians that “turn the other cheek” is not the only injunction in Scripture.
Within the last ten years, there have been many instances of conflict between Christians and Muslims worldwide. Media coverage focuses on resurgent Islamism, but these conflicts are two-sided. When studying them, moreover, one has to ask if they derive from local circumstances that pit Christians against Muslims or are part of a larger pattern.
The most intense religious conflicts today are coming in countries that are set to be among the most populous of the new century. Nigeria is Africa’s biggest country — 130 million strong and still growing at a terrifying rate, even if you take into account the deaths from AIDS that will be hitting full force in the next ten years. It is an intensely divided society, with roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Christians plus an animist minority of somewhere around 10 percent. The level of violence and polarization is high, as the Miss World Pageant riots of late November  made clear. And Nigeria has lots of oil.
In my book, I predict that by 2050, fully twenty of the world’s twenty-five most heavily populated countries will be either predominantly Christian, predominantly Muslim, or a mix of those two. The list of potential trouble spots begins with Muslim countries that have significant (around 10 percent) Christian minorities, such as Egypt, Indonesia, and Sudan. To these I would add Christian countries that have significant Muslim minorities such as Congo-Kinshasa, the Philippines, Uganda, and — fascinatingly — Germany. Finally, there are countries with many Christians and many Muslims but no strong majority of either, such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Nigeria.
Can we generalize about this kind of conflict? Historically, both religions have plenty to be ashamed of: Christians have slaughtered Muslims, Muslims have slaughtered Christians, and both have been known to turn on the Jews. Today, while I’m not claiming that there is a systematic Muslim campaign worldwide to destroy Christians, I do think we’re living at a time when the bulk of aggression is coming from the Muslim side.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, has long had a Christian minority of about 10 or 15 percent. It’s now an open question whether Christianity will survive for another generation there. Over just the last five or ten years, Christianity has come under severe attack in the eastern part of the country. Muslim militias have driven up to half a million people from their homes. The island of Ambon, now one of the main killing fields, used to be known for peaceful coexistence: there were villages where, to tie the communities together, Muslims visited Christians on Christmas and Christians visited Muslims at the end of Ramadan. Today all that is in ruins.
One of the forces that wrecked it is the homogenization of Islam under the influence of Wahhabi ideas backed by Saudi and other Gulf State petrodollars. Once upon a time, Malaysian mosques looked Malay and Indonesian mosques looked Sumatran or Javanese. Now they look Saudi because that’s where the money is coming from. Worse yet, Saudi money is backing campaigns for the establishment of shari’a and the creation of Islamic states.
The intent behind such a state is to “call” all the people within its borders into Islam. There is no such thing as a”mission” or “missionary activity” in Islam. Instead there is “calling,” which means reminding people that Adam was the first Muslim and that they are Muslims too, but have forgotten their identity and need to remember it. This is a genuine difference between the two religions, with dire implications for the continued existence of Christian minorities — even longstanding ones-in some parts of the Muslim world.
The influence of Gulf State and also Libyan money can be seen in Africa. When Idi Amin took over in Uganda, Muammar Qaddafi sent him a sword as a sign that he should rid Uganda of Christians. Twenty years ago the Muslims of Ghana were placid; now the country has legions of people who have been to Mecca and Islamic centers orchestrating demands tor shari’a. Increasingly, the situation of Christians in countries with large Muslim populations is coming to resemble that of Jews in old Europe. Periodic pogroms are the order of things.
Indonesia over the last few years has offered something that looks eerily like a replay of medieval anti-Semitism. When the economy collapsed in 1997-98, Suharto and his cronies blamed the urban, Christian, and often ethnic-Chinese merchant class, against whom riots ensued. Given Christianity’s strong growth in East Asia and the fact that many persecuted Asian Christian minorities are of Chinese extraction, I wonder if China will take an interest in their plight. If China were to make it its business to stop pogroms against ethnic-Chinese Christians, that could throw the politics of religion and ethnicity into an interesting new light. Something similar might happen if the people of Orthodox Christian heritage living in Central Asia became targets of persecution and the Russians decided to intervene to protect them.
Christians may also fight back on their own behalf. The Anglican bishop Jos, a city in northern Nigeria, recently told his people that they had run out of cheeks to turn and urged them to defend their churches against Muslim mobs. When that happened, the mobs were stymied; no longer did they have a free pass for assaulting Christians. We may see more of this in days to come. Perhaps Indonesian and Nigerian Christians will rediscover those seventeenth-century European hymns about “the Lord of Hosts” as their leader in battle.
By the way, we in the ambit of Western Christianity tend not to realize that in most times and places where it has existed, Christianity has been a minority religion. With the exception of Europe and its settler colonies over the last few centuries, most Christians have lived as minorities under non-Christian and often very hostile regimes. Persecution has been a remarkably stable part of the Christian experience.
As a quick concluding note, I should add that Islam and Christianity will both face growing rivalry from Hinduism. Indeed, I will go further and suggest that the most important conflict will be, not between Christianity and Islam, but rather between Christianity and the world’s third largest religion, Hinduism.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, Professor Jenkins, for that enlightening presentation. Our respondent is David Brooks, senior editor of The Weekly Standard and a commentator on the PBS “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
DAVID BROOKS: I want to begin by thanking Philip Jenkins for his remarks today and congratulating him for his remarkable book, The Next Christendom. His approach and the information he lays out expand our perspective considerably. I’d like to mention a few point that I found striking.
One is his projection that by 2050 there will be a billion Pentecostal Christians around the world. That’s up from virtually none just a century ago. As Professor Jenkins points out, this makes Pentecostalism the most successful ideational movement of our time. But I wonder: If Pentecostalism could go from none to a billion in 150 years, is there some new religious movement out there — we know that Christian sects are splitting and spinning off all the time — that might be the next Pentecostalism?
Another point in the book that struck me was that southern Christianity is markedly “conservative on social issues,” to use the parlance of American political life. In fact, the social conservatives coming out of southern Christian quarters make Bill Bennett look like Bill Clinton. If I were on the staff of UNESCO, I would expect big changes if these Christians were to mobilize to make their weight felt at the U.N.
Third, there is a notably dark mood toward the end of the book, where we get a vision of the decades ahead as likely to be filled with clashes along many religious frontiers, Nigeria-type bloodshed, religious leaders of one sort or other commanding squads of 14-year-old boys with machine guns, and so on. It’s quite a picture, and raises some questions that I want to ask in the spirit of testing and scrutinizing what we’re told.
But let me digress for a moment and dwell on a theme a bit closer to home. One thing that kept going through my head as I read The Next Christendom was that we are entering an era when a large group of people will be forced to watch society change before their eyes in ways they don’t understand. They will find the world incredibly complex. Some of them will cling ever more tightly to the past. Some will become fundamentalists and lash out in unpredictable, perhaps even violent, ways. Who are these troubled, retrograde souls, these “problem people”? They are of course the secularists who inhabit backward places such as New York and Los Angeles as well as much of academia, the Western media, and certain quarters of corporate America.
The educated classes of the West have been taught all their lives that history moves in one direction: toward ever greater pluralism and ever more profound liberal secularism. In the master narrative that has come down to them from the Enlightenment, religions are supposed to move inevitably from fundamentalism to pluralism, and people are supposed to become more secular as they become wealthier and better educated. The skirmishes along the way will be like the Scopes Trial, with progressive forces besting the forces of reaction. A religion such as Islam is said to need a Martin Luther figure to “reform” it.
It’s now clear that, as Peter Berger argues, this “secularization thesis” is wrong. One of the key signs of its faultiness, as Professor Jenkins points out in his book, is that religious institutions that have tried to adapt to secularism and modernity are withering away, while those that reject secularist assumptions — and clearly the churches of the global south fall into this latter category — are succeeding. We are now living in the era of late secularism. The signs of secularist decadence are apparent: going to churches only for chamber music concerts; sending your kids to insulated secularist monasteries called universities; falling into the grip of strange moral fervors and crusades (mostly having to do with bodily health and safety) against things like smoking and sport-utility vehicles; and putting a little fish with legs and a tail and the word “Darwin” on the back of your car. In the late secular stage the assumption is that it’s okay to be religious as long as you keep it private. Future historians looking back at us will wonder how so many highly schooled people could be so ignorant of religion and the waves of both Christian and Islamic resurgence that were about to sweep over them. When I speak at colleges, I always ask who in my audience has heard of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. If you get one or two hands, that’s good. These men, of course, have written a series of Christian apocalyptic novels that have sold 50 million copies. Someday I’d like to walk through the newsroom of a major U.S. paper and ask people if they know why “Pentecostals” are called that. My guess is that if anyone knows, it will be the secretaries and not the reporters and editors. And then there are the traditional stereotypes about evangelicals. My favorite is that they are prudish. In fact, the only definitive study so far shows that evangelical white women have more orgasms than any other group in society!
Let me move on to a second thing that I think the future will find odd about us: our deep need to avoid the entire subject of creedal contradictions between religions. These differences plainly exist. Professor Jenkins just described one for us and explained how relevant it is to current events. The other day I did a Nexis search to see how many times in 2002 the New York Times mentioned Abd al-Wahab, the founder of Wahhabism. His name came up twice. The London Times mentioned him only three times. Given the depth of Wahhabi militancy and the enormous, Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabi influence, this neglect is amazing.
A third thing that I think future historians will note is how our public discourse gropes uneasily, even desperately, to assign materialistic causes to 9/11 and other shockingly violent acts. Recall the expressions of surprise that Mohammed Atta and Osama Bin Laden were not poor and uneducated.
The misconception that may be the most damaging is seen in the social-science, quantitative, cost-benefit mindset in our intelligence and foreign-policy agencies. The ClA’s published assessment of world trends to 2015 says almost nothing about religion. Globalization is the focus. Religious motives escape the ClA’s rationalistic categories, and so they get left out. I’m not saying that material motives never matter, but I do think we’re clueless when it comes to including spiritual motives in our accounts of these religious movements.
The final thing that I think will stand out about our age is the collapse of the secular worldview under the weight of its own contradictions. Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch politician who was assassinated by a leftist fanatic, was a pioneer in publicly confronting people with the need to choose between multicultural tolerance and a way of life premised on individual choice. You can’t have the freedoms of action and expression that we secular Westerners and Northerners cherish and yet think that all cultures are wonderful. Yasser Arafat jails gays, and many African societies stigmatize people with AIDS. Sooner or later such unpleasant facts have to tell.
Herein lies the decadence of our late secular situation: we all know at some level that secularization theory is wrong, but the Enlightenment and Adam Smith and Sigmund Freud still shape our thinking and prevent us from dealing coherently with religion. A symptom of this is our tendency to veer wildly from materialistic to spiritual explanations — it’s poverty and oppression, or it’s the Koran — without any sense of whether or how the two might be blended.
We have to find some way of thinking about religious actors and religious conflict in the world that takes intelligently into account not only economics and power politics but also people’s genuine beliefs and willingness to act on them. In some cases, customary categories such as “secular” and “sacred” may not apply. Is militant Islam about religion or about politics? It seems to me that it’s about both. So something we’ve been trained to split turns out to be indivisible, and the beginning of wisdom is to deal with that.
Another case is our very own familiar modern institution of the nation-state. Far more than we often realize, I think, this too is a spiritual or even a religious phenomenon. Here’s an area where I disagree with Professor Jenkins. In his book, he says, “It remains to be seen whether or not the nation state will outlive the printed book, that other Renaissance invention that may also fade away in the coming decades.” The state’s replacement, he thinks, will be religion in one form or another. As the church (or the Islamist or Hindu-communalist movement) increases, the state will decrease.
Notice the assumption here that the state is a secular institution. I think that’s wrong, and further, that nation-states are here to stay because they draw powerfully on spiritual as well as material supports. States — or some of them, at least — are about more than interests. They are also about deep attachments and loyalties and even eschatological visions — powerful ideas of where history is going and is supposed to go, what righteous rule means, and how to bring about that rule and spread it around. The United States is certainly this kind of nation-state, as is France. So, for that matter, is Ba’athist Iraq; if you don’t believe me, listen to a few quotations from Saddam Hussein:
We can state without hesitation that our nation has a message. That is why it can never be an average nation. Throughout our history our nation has either soared to the heights or fallen into the abyss.
I should point out that by “our nation” Saddam might mean Iraq, he might mean the whole Arab nation, or he might mean Iraq as the vanguard state of the Arab nation: It depends on whom you ask. Here’s another thing he said:
The Americans have not yet established a civilization in the deep and comprehensive sense we give to civilization. What they have established is a metropolis offeree. Some people, including Arabs and plenty of Muslims and more than these in the wide world, consider the ascent of the United States to the summit as the last scene in the world picture after which there will be no more summits and no one will try to ascend and sit comfortably there. They consider it the end of the world as they hope for it or as their scared souls suggest it to them.
He said on other occasions that he envisioned a unified Arab world achieving global supremacy. This is not purely secular talk. His way of talking about states was at least quasi-religious. Now consider what Saddam has said on the theme of revolution:
[A] revolution has no beginning and no end. It is not like a war, and its soldiers must not profit from its soil. It is something continuous. It is a message to life, and the human being is only the bearer. . . .
The revolution has its eyes wide open. Throughout all its stages the revolution will remain capable of performing its role courageously and precisely without hesitation or panic once it takes actions to crush the pockets of the counterrevolution.
To understand Saddam and his opposition to America, we need to understand that he sees himself as the leader of a revolutionary state with a special half material, half divine mission. America, too, is founded on an eschatological vision. Many who first came to the New World thought they were here to build a new Jerusalem. Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and many other early American theologians agreed that God willed America to become the world’s culminating nation. Westward runs the course of empire, and history ends up in the United States.
This was not just a quirk of early colonial days. In the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
They who complain of the flatness of American life have no perception of its destiny. They are not Americans. They don’t see that America is a garden of plenty, a magazine of power. Here is man in the Garden of Eden, here the genesis and here the exodus and here the revelation.
And my favorite quotation from Herman Melville:
We Americans are the peculiar chosen people, the Israel of our time. . . . Mankind expects great things from our race, and great things we feel in our souls. We are the pioneers of the world, the advance guard sent on through the wilderness of untried things to break a new path in the new world that is ours. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves and doubted whether indeed the political messiah had come. But he has come in us.
Melville is a little over the top there, but Lincoln put the same sense of mission into more palatable words when he called America “the last best hope of mankind” and said at Gettysburg that our civil war tested not only our nation but “any nation so conceived and so dedicated.”
One of the reasons why George W. Bush reacted to 9/11 the way he did, I think, is that he, like many other Americans and especially Christians, has inherited a deep conviction that American democracy has achieved something special and must help the rest of the world scale the same heights. Americans by and large do seem to feel, as Europeans and most others simply do not, that as long as there are people anywhere who are misruled and have no future, the American promise is unfulfilled. President Bush, I believe, feels this sense of unfulfillment in his mind and soul. Looking at the Middle East, ruled as it is by tyrants and spawning terrorists, he senses the incompleteness of history. America, as he might put it, still has a charge to keep. There is no understanding Bush without seeing how he taps into this semi-spiritual, semi-material concept of the American nation and its destiny.
Secularism, and hence our official public discourse, is breaking down as a way of describing the world because events are showing that reality defies secularistic categories in hugely important ways. In the secularist twilight, we must ponder the possibility that clashes not merely of civilizations but of eschatologies are coming our way.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, David. Now we invite everyone else to join the discussion. [All participants will be identified at the end.] Christopher?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, Vanity Fair: I want to add something that a lot of people may have missed. The recent statement that purported to be from Osama bin Laden gave as one of the reasons for the Bali bombing Australia’s role in securing the independence of East Timor. In other words, Al Qaeda finds intolerable the idea that Christians should ever get out from under Muslim rule. If that’s not evidence that we have a clash of civilizations on our hands, I don’t know what is. Yet, amazingly, both the New York Times and the Washington Post left the East Timor factor out of their reporting on Bali.
A second point: There’s an important dimension of religious tension or conflict that both of our speakers left out, and that is conflict not between but within religions. Schismatic wars within apparently unified faiths are very often the most terrible wars of all. The Hazara in Afghanistan are Muslims but Shiites, and must have suffered far more from the Taliban than any other group did. The Islamo-fascist terrorism that we must crush is happening because one side of a civil war within the Muslim world has decided that attacking non-Muslims is part of the recipe for victory. The Serbian Orthodox Christians who murdered 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 would have done the same to Catholic Croats if they could have. And we know that Catholic Croats slaughtered Serbs during World War II. Less dramatically, will Archbishop Desmond Tutu be pleased to hear that there will certainly be a lot more evangelical and charismatic Christians in Africa? Is the Catholic Church delighted at how many more evangelicals there are in South America?
You see the point I’m making. It was the Thirty Years’ War, and episodes like it, that fractured Christendom and led to secularism in the first place. After all that bloody and ultimately stalemated fighting, people began to develop a healthy skepticism about any political authority that claimed to have God uniquely on its side. Pragmatic secularism comes as a reaction against religious absolutism, and will continue to do so.
The more religions you breed, the more secularists you’re going to have to take into account. To David Brooks I would like to say that those of us who live without God and who believe in a secular state find the most eloquent “quotation,” if you will, to be the United States Constitution itself, which simply makes no mention of God whatsoever. Look at the Preamble. The blessings invoked are the “blessings of liberty,” not those of divine providence. Only such a literally godless constitution, I might add, can secure religious freedom. On behalf of my fellow non-believing citizens I would like to say that we too participate in the nation as a spiritual reality. We have convictions and principles, and we’ll fight for them if the need arises. We don’t make a big parade of how easily we’re offended or how our feelings can be hurt, but we can take offense, and it would be very unwise — as well as very impolite — to provoke us. I hope the faithful of all denominations will bear in mind that respect is a two-way street.
DR. JENKINS: Your point about conflict within religions — something that I discuss at length in my book, by the way — is obviously important. No, plainly the Catholic Church is not delighted by the spread of Protestantism in Latin America. In fact, the matter worries the present pope a great deal. He once called evangelicals “ravening wolves” who prey on the Catholic flock. Sometimes the tensions spill over into actual violence. You might say that large parts of Latin America are reminiscent of Europe on the eve of the wars of religion in the sixteenth century. You know the story: Protestants poke fun at a procession in honor of the Virgin, Catholics set fire to the Protestant church, and off you go. Welcome to Germany, circa 1580.
I would add that the Pentecostals come in a much broader range of political shades than you may think. They tend to be conservative on some issues, but very often they do give a voice to the poorest. They engage in a lot of social activism. Perhaps their greatest impact is on the place of women; a lot of research on Latin America suggests that the urban Pentecostal churches are giving women from the poorest classes a voice they’ve never had before.
MR. BROOKS: Framing the war against terror as a dispute between secular democracy and religious tyranny would be neither politic nor accurate. It’s a trap we ought to avoid. If you tell people they must choose between democracy and their religion, it’s not clear they’ll choose democracy. Happily, it’s also truer to say that this is a conflict between religious democracy and religious tyranny. The United States as it is currently constituted is unimaginable without the seedbed of religious ideas from which it springs. The nice thing for people in the secular tribe is that the unalterable things we all believe in — government by consent, a basic list of unalienable human rights — are transcendent but not necessarily theological. In the effectual sense, there is no quarrel between us.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: I have two questions. The first has to do with how Africa and Latin America will affect Christianity here in the United States. I’ve heard stories about African churches setting up evangelism efforts here — reverse missions. Will things like this change the texture of American Christianity? My second question comes from my own early background as a Christian Scientist. Christian Science flourished at a time when medicine — or at least the kind of medical treatment available to most people — was often crude, painful, dangerous, and ineffective. Christian Science seemed like a viable alternative. As medicine advanced, Christian Science waned, and it’s now a rather small religion. Could the same kind of thing happen in Africa? Right now they don’t have much access to medicine, but if that changes, what will happen to healing-centered Pentecostalism?
DR. JENKINS: African Christians and African churches now have a large presence in Europe and North America. A city to watch is Houston, which has America’s biggest concentration of Nigerian immigrants. It’s home base for a lot of what are called “Aladura” churches, which are healing churches that are now found in black neighborhoods from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. Stories about them crop up in the media every few years. Most of their congregants are African immigrants, but you’ll find African-Americans as well, and maybe some Latinos. There hasn’t been any significant movement to white communities as yet.
One small but interesting trend involves the growing numbers of dissident Anglican and Episcopal congregations, often affluent and mostly white, that have become so appalled by the liberalism of the Episcopal establishment in the United States and Canada that they have placed themselves under the authority of Anglican bishops in Africa or Southeast Asia or joined the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA). Talk about the empire striking back — this reverses all the usual notions about which way missionary activity flows.
In highly secularized Europe, most of the churchgoers on a typical Sunday will be Africans. There are groups I love writing about, like the Federation of African Churches of Switzerland. Who knew there were African churches in Switzerland?
Could all these trends change? Certainly. We should expect African religion in particular to diversify dramatically as time goes by.
JOHN FUND, The Wall Street Journal: I think we will see a lot of religious diversity in parts of this country. I grew up in northern California, and to me Marin County has always seemed to be on the leading edge of secularism. The other day I read that 9 percent of the residents of Marin County now report that they are Buddhists, which I find fascinating. I’ve been to Africa, and while I was there 1 got the impression that the Christian churches are influenced by local traditions and beliefs, sort of like what you see in Haiti. I suspect that portions of Latin America with Indian populations would reveal much the same picture. As time passes and the old European missionary influence fades, to what extent will the Christian churches of Africa and Latin America continue to resemble forms of Christianity that the people in this room would recognize?
DR. JENKINS: It’s often argued that African churches are highly syncretistic, that they freely blend in older — or as some might say, “pagan” — elements. Perhaps there’s an element of exaggeration here. Much of what you see in, for instance, an African church or for that matter a Korean church today will have strong New Testament roots. Scripture, after all, is laden with healing miracles, dreams, visions, and so on. The locals will tell you that they are just doing what Saint Paul did. If the cure rituals happen to look a lot like what the traditional healer is doing over in the next village, that’s just coincidental. So maybe there is some syncretism after all.
But we should recall that the Christianity familiar to us in this room is not some absolutely pure form of the religion that everyone everywhere would recognize. Our standard-issue notions of Christianity, whatever they are, are also drawn from many different cultural influences. The design of Gothic cathedrals is supposed to imitate the sublime forests of northern Europe a thousand years ago, and Saint Paul, of course, never saw either the forests or the buildings. So all forms of Christianity have their own histories.
What we’re seeing now is one of the greatest experiments in inculturation ever undertaken: the process of trying to make Christianity meaningful for various local cultures. Perhaps the most visible sign of this is the racial and ethnic variety that we now see in Christian iconography. When I was young, pictures of Jesus made him look blond, almost like a surfer dude. Those were hardly historically accurate portrayals.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The New Yorker: I used to live in Liberia, where the wags said that the country was 50 percent Muslim, 50 percent Christian, and 100 percent juju. People took juju very seriously, and the missionaries, both Catholic and evangelical, spent a lot of time fighting it.
To turn to the Arab world: What is the situation of Christians there today? Organizations such as Freedom House discuss their plight in dire terms. I understand that there are fewer Coptic Christians in Egypt, and fewer Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon. How bad is it? Are Christians disappearing entirely from the Arab world? Are they all moving to the Detroit area, which I think is now home to hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians? Do you have any figures on this sad situation?
DR. JENKINS: Reliable figures are hard to come by. Estimates of the Coptic share in the Egyptian population vary between 5 and 15 percent, which works out to somewhere between 3 and 10 million or so. Official census data from that region belong on the fiction shelf. The last real bastion for Middle Eastern Christians is Syria. With all its flaws, it has become a major reservation — and I use the term very seriously — for Christians who have been driven out of Turkey and other areas such as Iraq, where the number of Iraqis in the ancient Christian communities is way, way down.
Arab Ba’athism was founded in part by Michel Aflaq, who came from a Syrian Christian background. And the Assads, the ruling family in Syria, come from the Alawite religious minority, a Shiite group (accounting for 10 percent of the population) that Wahhabis and Sunni fundamentalists often revile as syncretistic and quasi-Christian. The Assads have made Syria a haven for Arab Christians as part of a strategy to provide themselves and their Ba’ath regime with counterweights against the Sunni Muslim majority in their country. The massacre that the late President Hafez al-Assad ordered at the city of Hama in 1982 was directed against the stronghold of Sunni Muslim Brothers there. One of the conclusions I’m led to is that if majority rule ever does come to Syria, it will be an awful thing for the non-Sunni minorities there.
The Sunni demographic juggernaut that looms over the Middle East gives other, smaller communities an incentive either to band together to try to deflect it somehow, or to flee. Most have fled. In a way, the story was written years ago. The ten years from 1915 to 1925 saw one of the greatest changes ever in the history of Christianity, as Christians were virtually extirpated from the cradle of their religion, the Middle East. Everyone knows about the slaughter of the Armenians, but the Chaldeans and other groups were also victims of ethno-religious cleansing. The Christian communities you find in the Middle East today are pale shadows of what was there a hundred years ago. So is there any good news? No. Welcome to Detroit.
WENDY KAMINER, Freelance Writer: I want to challenge something David said about secularism. I can’t think of more than a handful of people who fit his description of secularists. I think it’s a great mistake to talk about secularists as people who want to keep religious belief private. The debate is not about whether religious belief is private or public; it’s about the relationship between government and religious institutions, which is a very different matter. I want to second much of what Christopher Hitchens has said as well. When you were speaking about the yearning for righteous rule, David, I found myself thinking that this is a yearning shared by religious and nonreligious people alike.
MR. BROOKS: Three quick comments. First, when I said secular, I didn’t mean liberal. The Republican Party, especially its corporate side, is as secular as anything. Second, on domestic issues, I actually don’t see secularism as such a big problem. I think we’re heading toward a pretty amicable set of understandings and a consensus of sorts about what sort of role faith should play in domestic life, with faith-based initiatives and all that kind of stuff. Third, I was commenting strictly on how we think about foreign affairs. In the case of Saddam, for instance, we talk about weapons of mass destruction but are extremely hesitant to talk about what Saddam and his supporters are thinking. And when it comes to the larger problem of anti-Americanism in the Arab world, we careen clumsily from purely “objective” policy analysis to a purely religious analysis.
MS. KAMINER: Is our problem one of a hesitancy to discuss religion per se as a force in world affairs, or of plain old ignorance?
MR. BROOKS: I think that ignorance is certainly part of the problem.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. News & World Report: Perhaps we are currently watching the early stage of a very bleak scenario. The guardian of this secular vision is, of course, the nation-state. In parts of the world, including Africa, weak states seem to be dissolving, with religious or ethnic groupings coming to the fore as both carriers of identity and providers of services. Even in a place where a civil nation-state looked good for a while, India, we’re starting to see communalism — more specifically, Hindu nationalism — become a real problem. Traditionally, there was never anything like a unified Hinduism; the word is a Western catchall term. But in recent decades intellectuals have made it into an identity marker roughly along the lines of European nationalism. Now it has reached the point where the secular and civic foundations of the Indian state are in jeopardy.
All this suggests a worrisome thought: What if the nation-building projects we’re now ready to take on lead to the rise of hostile nationalisms? It’s a risky business, this nation-building, when you do it by anything other than example. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do it, but I think we should be aware of the risks.
E. J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: With respect to Christianity in Africa, is there a paradoxical effect in the offing here? Will Christianity subvert itself in the long run? It comes preaching spiritual ideas, but they carry a series of modern and indeed secular ideas along in their train.
The other thing I’d love to hear Professor Jenkins say more about is the political implications of the competition between evangelicals and Catholics in Latin America.
DR. JENKINS: In India, both Islam and Christianity have had a very beneficial destabilizing effect because they subvert the system of untouchability, which affects 200 million people, making it the world’s largest single instance of structural injustice. Dalits, or “untouchable” castes, can become or threaten to become Christian or Muslim to get out of the system. The Hindu-identity movement is a reaction to this. It’s largely a movement of upper-caste Hindus who fear that they’re losing their grip. The good news is that Christianity is liberating; the bad news is that this is destabilizing.
As for Latin America, the best bet at the moment is that evangelicals now have perhaps 50 million members around the continent. And they’re approaching 40 to 50 percent in some countries, including Chile and Guatemala. In the best case, the evangelical versus Catholic tension could work out sort of like the tension between High Church and Low Church factions in England, with a church interest and a dissenting interest becoming the basis for peaceful party competition. The Latin Protestants do a great job of creating networks of alternative institutions. And they also scare the Catholic authorities into becoming more attentive and energetic, which is healthy.
Latin Protestants vary enormously in their political leanings. The new Workers’ Party government in Brazil counts Pentecostals as part of its base, and the new vice-president is an evangelical. Many Protestants are what you’d call middle class reformers. They played a big role in making Alberto Fujimori president of Peru back in 1990, before finding out he wasn’t what he seemed. Fifteen years ago you would hear that Latin evangelicals were CIA plants who were being used as the cheap alternative to helicopter gunships for the purpose of keeping the people down. Well, no. They really do represent a fairly broad spectrum.
MR. BROOKS: The trends that Professor Jenkins has identified show that we’re not satisfied with a secular nation-state. We don’t want a theocratic nation-state either, of course, but we do want a nation-state that is committed to transcendent values, including democracy and human rights abroad.
MR. CROMARTIE: Peter Berger would say that we want to have some sense that we, as a nation, dwell under a “sacred canopy.”
DAVID FRUM, National Post: The question I want to raise is whether Pentecostalism or something like it might have a big future in the Islamic world. Modem persons seem to look to religion to tell them about a God who cares, who’s personally interested in them. They want some opportunities for personal betterment, and they want a clerical structure that responds to them, that gives a say to the people who pay the bills. This is why these religions have worked so well in Latin America. Are there any areas around the fringes of the Muslim world — say in sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia, or western China — where charismatic Pentecostalism might conceivably make inroads into traditional Muslim structures? Or are there inherent reasons why that wouldn’t happen, such as the fear that such “apostasy” would be punished by extreme violence?
DR. JENKINS: You’ve put your finger on the biggest single factor associated with the riots, civil strife, and church burnings that Muslims perpetrate against their non-Muslim neighbors: the question of conversion. The tension is bad enough where you have Muslims and Christians competing to convert African animists. But when it becomes a question of Muslims’ converting to Christianity, even the most moderate Muslims become frightened, enraged, and radicalized. As a well-known saying goes, Islam is a one-way door: you can enter but you cannot leave. Some of the areas that you listed are the ones where conversion has been a great issue (Islam’s historical core region, the Middle East, seems impervious to anything like this). Families become split because the old custom of converting the father and getting the rest of the family as a bonus no longer generally applies. You have Muslim fathers trying to marry off their Christian daughters, and that’s where you have a whole new range of family wars as well.
MR. FRUM: But is there any potential for evangelical or Pentecostal sects to attract people? Perhaps the intense fear and opposition to the very idea of Muslims’ converting out of Islam is a sign that such potential exists.
DR. JENKINS: The violence of the reaction may betray fear, yes. There’s some evidence of that in Pakistan, for example. As things stand now, however, conversion is a ticket to persecution and probably martyrdom. Across much of the Islamic world there is simply no access to the Christian message. This is why American evangelicals talk about the ” 10/40 window,” by which they mean the zone of opportunity for evangelization that they see between those two latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, in places such as Iran. But I think most people just don’t see it. For one thing, I can’t think of any moment in history when large numbers of Muslims converted to another religion. The only case that comes close might be that of the many African Muslims who came to the Americas as slaves and were converted to Christianity. But that’s hardly a happy precedent. By the way, you left out an important source of attraction, which is the voice that the newer forms of Pentecostalism give to women in societies where they’ve traditionally been voiceless.
FRANKLIN FOER, The New Republic: I spent a few weeks in Brazil earlier this year, and had the thought that the new variety of Christian sects — many of them quite small — now in evidence might encourage greater pluralism and secularism on the state level.
DR. JENKINS: Well, not all the new sects or churches are small. The Assemblies of God, for example, is an American denomination that now has about 25 million members worldwide. But there are many small local churches, too. Some may be huge, but you’ll never hear about them because the media only cover scandals. There’s the Philippines based El Shaddai movement, for example, which has about 6 million members in thirty countries worldwide; you never hear about it because the members don’t get up to any antics or questionable dealings. In Brazil, meanwhile, the new Protestant churches have become a well-known part of the scene. They’re not as startling as they once were, but they’re having a big impact on the traditional Catholic community. You know the old saying about Latin America: The Catholic Church adopted a “preferential option for the poor,” while the poor adopted a “preferential option” for the Pentecostals!
KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek: Professor Jenkins, what about the influence of tribalism in Africa? Given the weakness of states there, isn’t tribalism important, especially since tribal and religious identity are so often bound together? Uganda and Nigeria have tribes that are more or less all Christian or all Muslim, don’t they?
Your numbers are startling. Christianity’s center of gravity is already in the global south. Is Pentecostalism popular because it looks so “primal” or shamanistic, with exorcisms, healing rituals, ecstatic visions, mantic utterances, and all that? And is this all going together, interestingly, with a “Made in America” aspect? On my trips to Africa I’ve seen self-declared bishops — in some places promoting yourself to the higher clergy seems to be the quickest career path to the top — handing out tracts and other literature that turned out to be from Florida or California. And I think that the more “mainline” African churches, whose clerics tend to be better educated, will usually send them to Europe or the United States for schooling.
So maybe northern Christianity will remain influential because northern Christians are training the global south’s most promising young priests and ministers. How do you see this working out? Will Ghanaian Christianity ever have as much influence on Cambridge University as Cambridge has on Christian clerics from Ghana?
But then again, I recall that an able and entrepreneurial Pentecostal leader in Ghana has founded a university to teach practical things such as accounting and computers. That strikes me as a hopeful sign, because I don’t see how these village Pentecostals are going to get anywhere otherwise.
DR. JENKINS: Tribalism is indeed very important in many countries, including South Africa as well as Uganda and Nigeria. And yes, it is often tied up with religion. As for the “shamanistic” character of southern Christianity, it’s worth noting that in Africa, quite contrary to expectations, active belief in witchcraft seems to have become stronger, not weaker, as urbanization has progressed. The churches provide a way of channeling some of the concerns and energies that might otherwise fuel involvement in witchcraft, and so they battle witchcraft peacefully. And while I don’t doubt that you saw tracts printed in the United States, I would not make the mistake of thinking that southern Christianity lacks strong indigenous roots in the countries where it is practiced. True, the money is still in the north even if the members are in the south.
In the Anglican Communion today, liberals and conservatives from the north seem to be competing to buy the support of southern bishops. Northerners will donate money for, say, church construction in some part of Africa if the local bishop lets it be known that he’ll vote their way on some issue of family or sexual morality at the next convention.
Nor do the pitfalls of the gospel of success go unnoticed or unsatirized in Africa. The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka has a play called The Trials of Brother Jero in which the title character, a Nigerian pastor, declares, “I say to those who they walk today, give them their own bicycle tomorrow. I say who they push bicycle, give them big car tomorrow. Give them big car tomorrow, 0 Lord.” Brother Jero not only is upwardly mobile but also has a way of dismissing corruption as the work of the devil.
So is Elmer Gantry alive and well in African Christianity? Yes, but you also find these pastors who are the main voices for poor communities that need roads and sewers and other basics, communities that the powers that be might easily ignore otherwise. The bottom line is that we’re talking about a huge phenomenon here, so of course their leaders run the gamut.
JOHN JUDIS, The New Republic: Let me try to defend the Marxist theory of history against David Brooks’s New Testament, Cotton Mather version. First, David’s point about the surprising affluence of the 9/11 hijackers doesn’t prove much. In terms of class analysis, it’s not one’s absolute situation that matters so much as one’s expectations or ambitions. It has always been more complicated than merely whether someone is rich or poor. As for secularism, I follow Wendy in thinking that it’s not a question of extirpating religious belief or rendering it somehow impossible; rather, it has to do with protecting the political sphere from certain types of belief that would demand a kind of totalitarian, all-encompassing, institutionalized religion with the state as its instrument. Call this “benign secularism” if you will.
The things we associate with progress in the world are first of all this kind of benign secularism and secondly the acceptance of science. And again I think that if you look at the world over the last few thousand years, the secularization process seems to be holding up pretty well. Will it continue to do so? To a large extent that depends on the character of globalization. So maybe the CIA is right to focus on globalization after all. If globalization is seen as creating immense inequalities and injustices, we may see a potent backlash against it involving backward religious notions, anti-scientific ideas, crazy politics, and so on. If globalization seems basically fair and beneficial, however, I think that benign secularism will triumph.
MR. BROOKS: But that’s part of my point, which is that there are certain assumptions about the way the world works, and that 9/11 violated such an inherited assumption. Do class and power relationships and aspirations make a difference? Obviously they do. I read a book that suggested the following mental experiment: Suppose that the Christian world, after a great history, had fallen into centuries of relative stagnation while the Muslim world went from strength to strength. Is it imaginable that under such circumstances it might be the Christians rather than the Muslims who were more inclined toward terrorism? I think it’s quite easily imaginable. So of course inequality or perceptions of relative communal deprivation (including perhaps the deprivation of honor that one thinks is one’s due) probably do play a role in fanning the flames of conflict. Notice, however, that the explanation is no longer material but psychological.
As for science, what I think is wrong about the secularization theory is its assumption that science would replace or water down religion. We’ve just heard recently about the rise of sorcery in the cities of Africa. The fading of religion in the light of science has just not happened; science and religion seem to flourish simultaneously. If you look at domestic policy journals from the early 1960s, they exude a kind of high social-scientific mentality that is self-assured to the point of arrogance. Over the past few decades, that mentality has eroded. And for the past decade or so, we’ve devoted a lot of attention to trying to figure out what role religion can play in public life. The idea that religion should play an important role in domestic life is hardly even disputed any more.
But if you look at our foreign policy journals today, or if you go to State Department briefings or read the CIA report on what the world is going to look like in 2015, to me it’s like the domestic policy journals of 1960. They either treat religion as some kind of weird, unaccountable zealotry or ignore it altogether. That’s a big problem at the CIA, where it’s hard to push ideas about religion up the chain of bureaucracy. Religion is too abstract, too hard to define and measure, too hard to standardize. Religious yearnings just don’t compute, and we haven’t learned to study and assess religious forces intelligently as part of our policymaking. Our foreign policy community, in short, is backward when it comes to understanding religion.
MR. GOLDBERG: Professor Jenkins, if I heard you correctly you said that for most of Christianity’s history Christians have been a minority and have been persecuted. I don’t mean to sound disbelieving, but I’m Jewish, and my own people’s experience has been . . . well, you know where I’m going.
As for the question of Muslim conversion: Is there anywhere a peaceful marketplace of theological ideas where Muslims might meet Christians in debate rather than resorting to force? Has anything like this ever happened? Or are fear and violence always the response to anything that looks like a diffusion of the Christian message among Muslim populations?
DR. JENKINS: Let me take those questions in reverse order. Are there places where Christians and Muslims can meet and talk peacefully? Sure there are: America, England, France. There were other places where co-existence once obtained but has now collapsed, though even there, at the best of times, the idea of trying to convert Muslims was simply out of bounds. From the Islamic point of view, such conversion is just unthinkable. It’s asking for the death penalty.
Could the Christian religion have somehow spawned large and persistent terrorist movements? If you look at the origins of Palestinian terrorism in the 1960s and ’70s, you see that the first Palestinians to hijack planes and attack embassies were Arab Christians from a branch of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine that had a Greek Orthodox chaplain bless hijack teams before sending them out.
As to persecution: Whenever you look at a TV documentary about the spread of Christianity, you see Christianity beginning in Palestine and spreading to the Roman Empire, and then you see those eastern bits of the map darkening as Islam takes over and Christianity migrates west where it’s meant to be, which is France and Germany, right? But guess what? Probably up until the late Middle Ages, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia were all predominantly Christian lands. Remember, the Middle East at this time was much more heavily populated than Western Europe, and the normal state of affairs in the Middle East was to have mostly Christian populations living under Muslim rulers. At the time of the Crusades, the average Christian in the world was quite likely to be someone living in Syria or Mesopotamia — both Muslim-run areas where Christians were subject to persecution. It was probably not until the sixteenth or seventeenth century that Europe became home to a majority of the world’s Christians. That may seem odd, but only because we tend to forget those Christian communities of the East. Christianity spread from Jerusalem in three directions: into Europe, into Asia, and into Africa –and it remained stronger than we often think in the latter two areas for a long time thereafter. So I defend my claim that Christians have been a minority in most times and places.
JANE EISNER, Philadelphia Inquirer: When you look ahead and see this growth in Christianity, do you see it accompanied by attempts to create social policy along the lines favored by fundamentalist Christians in America?
DR. JENKINS: Yes, but I’d be hard pressed to generalize about how this might work out in different societies. It’s interesting to note how southern Christian leaders, including middle of the road Catholic cardinals and Anglican archbishops, have organized to push for debt forgiveness. This is the first major global issue to arouse this kind of activism. Christians — including many American evangelicals — were the most effective lobbyists for debt relief in Washington this last time around. On the level of nation-states, you may find local or national activists taking up conservative positions on issues such as homosexuality and abortion (the latter of which remains at least technically illegal in virtually every African country except South Africa). These may also be issues where you find Christians and Muslims cooperating, since they agree in opposing both homosexuality and abortion. Whether there will be transnational Christian or Christian plus Muslim activism on these issues I’m not sure.
In worldwide meetings of the Anglican Communion, recent efforts to pass fairly liberal measures regarding homosexuality have failed because bishops from Africa and other places in the global south were opposed. One African bishop tried to exorcise a homosexual, which was among the things that led the liberal American Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong to complain about “irrational Pentecostal hysteria” and to suggest that the Anglicans of Africa had moved from a primitive kind of animism to a superstitious kind of Christianity. He didn’t actually use the phrase “just down from the trees,” but it seemed to be lurking in the back of his mind.
Looking at the debt forgiveness campaign, I wonder if the idea of a sort of Marshall Plan against AIDS could catch on as something that southern Christians would like to lobby for. If they got on the stick about the terrible AIDS pandemic that is ravaging Africa the way they have done with the debt issue, this could be a very successful campaign. And then there are religious freedom issues, which are particularly acute in places such as Sudan. Those are the issues that come to mind: debt, AIDS, and religious freedom.
Two southern Christian leaders to watch are N. W. H. Ndungane, who is Desmond Tutu’s successor as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who some people think might become pope. Both were outspoken advocates of debt forgiveness for less developed countries, and both could emerge as serious global figures.