Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, October 2002
Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2002, 270 pp.
About half-way through Treasure Island, the hero Jim Hawkins stumbles across a castaway left on the island. The first words out of the man’s mouth are, “I’m poor Ben Gunn, I am; and I haven’t spoke with a Christian these three years.” Jim, who at first thinks the deeply-tanned Gunn might be a native, quickly realizes his error: “I could now see that he was a white man like myself . . .”
As the British Catholic author Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) famously noted in 1920, “Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe.” “Christian” was another word for white man, and Christendom another name for Europe. Not any more, says Philip Jenkins, who teaches religion and history at Penn State University: “The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes.” As Christianity wanes in the West, especially in Europe, primitive variants of it are flourishing in the Third-World. Prof. Jenkins argues credibly that this change — largely overlooked — could be as significant an historic development as the collapse of Communism.
The numbers tell the story. The Philippines reports 1.7 million Catholic baptisms every year, more than France, Spain, Italy and Poland combined. There are more Catholic baptisms in Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of Congo than in any single European country, and in Africa 37 percent of baptisms are of adults. At an estimated 20 to 50 million, there are probably more active Christians in the People’s Republic of China than in Britain or France.
In 1800, approximately one percent of all Protestants lived outside of Europe and North America. In 1900 the figure was ten percent, and now it is 65 percent, with huge increases in Latin America and Asia. Whites are a minority of believers. In Korea alone there are as many Presbyterians as in the United States.
Only a generation ago, the Mormon Church was overwhelmingly white. Now, there are more Mormons living outside of North America than within it. In Uganda, 35 to 40 percent of the population are Anglicans and some 30 percent are Catholic. This makes it more Christian than Britain, where 44 percent of the population expresses no religious affiliation at all, and 66 percent of those ages 18 to 24 have no religion.
Today, an estimated one third of the people on earth are Christians. The largest single bloc of 560 million at least nominal believers is still in Europe, but next comes Latin America with 480 million, Africa with 360 million, Asia with 313 million, and North America with 260 million. This means only 42 percent of Christians live in what we think of as the West. Prof. Jenkins projects that current birth rates alone mean that by 2050 only 20 percent of the world’s Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. The figure could be considerably smaller if Third-World conversions continue at their current rate. The number of African Christians surged from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million in 2000, and shows no signs of slowing.
Changing church demographics are reflected in church leadership. In the early 20th century, there were practically no non-white clergy outside of the black denominations in America. Now, over 40 percent of the cardinals who can vote in papal elections are from Third-World countries, and there is a good chance the next pope will be non-white.
Already in the United States, an increasing proportion of active Christians are non-white immigrants. In the Boston-Cambridge area, reports Prof. Jenkins, half the congregations worship in a language other than English, and in the United States as a whole, one sixth of the working priests were born overseas.
Prof. Jenkins thinks this transformation is just fine. He says Christianity has changed complexion many times, and that there is no reason it should remain European forever. It was founded by Jews, then Hellenized, then adopted by Copts and Syrians before taking on symbols of European paganism to assume its current form. Prof. Jenkins takes pleasure in pointing out that Armenia was probably the first state officially to become Christian, making the switch in AD 300, 13 years ahead of Rome. Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the same century, whereas Lithuania, for example, was not Christianized for another 1,000 years.
Likewise, although whites may shake their heads at what now passes for Christianity in the tropics, Prof. Jenkins emphasizes that Europeans have often repackaged Christianity for local consumption when it suited them. In the 17th century, for example, Jesuits converted several hundred thousand Chinese by canonizing Saint Confucius, permitting ancestor worship, using the names of local pagan gods in Chinese translations of the Bible, and conducting mass in Chinese. In 1704, Rome prohibited the Chinese Rite, and ordered that mass be celebrated only in Latin. The emperor promptly banned Christianity, and put the Chinese church out of business. (Prof. Jenkins argues that the Coptic church, which was beyond the reach of Rome, prospered because services were in Coptic rather than Latin.)
Although it is now fashionable to sneer at missionaries as blundering cultural imperialists, Prof. Jenkins points out they were hugely successful. Some converts no doubt were seeking the sheen of the West, but many were sincere. Prof. Jenkins writes that the lecherous king of Buganda (now part of Uganda) turned against Christianity when converts refused his homosexual advances. He insisted on recantation or death, and in 1885 and 1886 hundreds chose death. On one day, no fewer than 32 Bugandan Christians were burned alive rather than recant.
During decolonization after the Second World War, many church leaders feared Third-World Christianity would wither, but it boomed like never before. However, what Prof. Jenkins delicately refers to as “inculturation” picked up speed. The process had begun in the early missionary days, partly because there were never enough Europeans to keep native converts entirely on the rails. The result was not just odd flavors of Christianity but new, breakaway religions. As Prof. Jenkins explains, the usual pattern was for a native to convert enthusiastically to European Christianity but then strike off on his own so he could include more native practices.
In Africa, Simon Kimbangu attracted a large following in the Belgian Congo in the 1920s. He encouraged invocations to ancestors, and declared himself the mediator between God and the flock. He was also convinced whites had got things wrong. One of his prayers proclaims: “The Kingdom is ours. We have it! They, the whites, no longer have it.” Kimbangu’s surging movement became such a threat the Belgians locked him up until his death in 1951. What is now known as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ on Earth of the Prophet Simon Kimbangu still claims to have six to eight million current members.
William Wadé Harris was a Liberian who, early in the 20th century, walked the country in a white robe carrying a bamboo cross, and reportedly made 200,000 converts. He traveled with several wives and performed miracles, healing the sick and casting out demons. Pagan shrines are said to have gone up in flames when he approached. Many Harrist churches survive to this day.
The Taiping Rebellion of 1850 to 1864, which tried to overthrow the Manchu dynasty, was based on a homegrown Chinese church. Recruits, for example, were required to learn the Lord’s Prayer within a certain time or be put to death. Taiping means “great peace,” and describes the perfect communism the movement intended to establish.
All over the Third World, whether visionary locals have started their own cults or have remained within European churches, Christianity tends towards prophecy, faith healing, exorcisms, and the whooping style of worship typical of American blacks. “Today,” writes Prof. Jenkins, “rising African churches stand or fall by their success in healing, and elaborate rituals have formed around healing practices.” He quotes an expert on Brazil: “[I]n some churches, faithhealing so dominates the liturgy that the sanctuary resembles a hospital.” However this may strike Westerners, Prof. Jenkins notes that church members are often so poor they cannot afford doctors.
As Prof. Jenkins notes, Third-Worlders love Biblical accounts of exorcisms and miracle cures. “African Christians [for example],” he explains, “find it difficult to understand just why there are some parts of the Bible they are expected to believe with absolute literalism — for instance, the resurrection — while [other] stories . . . must be treated as no more than instructive fables.” He explains that since the lives of Third-Worlders have always been full of magic and witchcraft, they “can read Biblical accounts [of miracles] with far more understanding and sensitivity than Northern Christians can.” The new Christians wonder how northerners can claim to be Christian and not believe in miracles.
African Christianity, in particular, permits “a wide range of traditional practices, including polygamy, divination, animal sacrifices, initiation rites, circumcision, and the veneration of ancestors.” The Catholic Bishop of Bloemfontein in South Africa has proposed that animal sacrifice be added to the mass. African priests are also notorious fornicators. Now, explains Prof. Jenkins, because of the fear of AIDS, some specialize in seducing — or raping — nuns.
Just as among the lower classes in America, Christianity can be a high-paying racket for Third-World entrepreneurs. In Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God teaches its members that the more money they put into the collection plate, the richer they will become. Some of its millions of members put glasses of water close to the television screen to be blessed by remote control during broadcasts. The church’s boss, Edir Macedo de Bezerra, was caught on video gloating over how much swag he was squeezing from the faithful, but carries on undaunted.
In Latin America there are now Catholic versions of the doctrine that God will make you rich, especially if you hand over cash. Catholics have had to let in snake handlers, faith healers, prophets, and glossolaliacs to keep from being left behind by Pentecostal Protestants, whose ardent and colorful practices are a hit among Latinos. All over the underdeveloped world, charismatic, money-oriented churches are popular among the millions of poor who have crowded into the cities. Church becomes family for them.
Another popular Third-World practice is to treat Mary as more or less equal to God, and to make her a fourth member of the Trinity. The primitive mind seems to require mother goddesses.
Prof. Jenkins insists there is plenty of sober Christianity south of the equator, and maybe there is. However, the churches with real momentum are the exotic kind, and given the force of numbers, he concludes that “in the coming decades, the religious life characteristic of those regions may well become the Christian norm.” He adds that “the dominant churches of the future could have much in common with those of medieval or early modern European times,” by which he means that the mental tone of Third-World Christianity is ripe for witch-burnings, religious wars, and trial by ordeal.
To Europeans who are put off by this, Prof. Jenkins asks: “Whoever said that European criteria were absolutely valid for all times and place?” “Northern views on religious matters,” he points out, “should become less and less significant” as Christianity turns brown.
White Christians no longer have the confidence to march off to foreign countries and tell the natives what’s what, but the natives are happy to export hopped-up Christianity back to the white man. Matthew Ashimolowo is a Nigerian missionary who came to England and started the Kingsway International Christian Centre in London in 1992. Now he can seat 5,000 worshippers in his main facility, and has several satellite congregations. He says the Anglican church should “die gracefully” and hand over its buildings to groups like his. There are reportedly 1,500 missionaries in Britain from some 50 countries, many of them African. “The country needs reconverting,” explains an Ugandan. Third-World evangelists may be learning from European Muslims, who like to parade in the streets carrying signs that read “Islam — our religion today, your religion tomorrow.”
Prof. Jenkins believes that Third-World Catholicism has already influenced church hierarchy at the very top. He thinks the election of a Pole as John Paul II in 1978 was a compromise offer to non-whites cardinals, who would have been very grumpy about yet another Western European pope.
Politics and Conflict
The non-white shift has greatly changed the politics churches advocate. In the 1960s and 1970s there was much talk of “liberation theology,” and priests like the Colombian Camillo Torres actually became guerrilla fighters. Now, Third-World Christians are flocking to get-rich-quick churches, whose ministers in flashy suits and diamond rings are living proof that faith brings wealth. Poverty is for chumps, and salvation can wait.
At the same time, speculation about the death of God, and European flirtations with outright denial of the supernatural do not go down well with congregations that expect miracles. Third-Worlders also don’t like abortion, homosexuals, or lady priests, and Christianity that promotes that sort of thing is found only in countries where the faith is dying. Liberal white Christians who thought their tropical brothers were going to be allies in the revolution have had a nasty shock.
The latest doings in the Anglican church are likely to be increasingly typical. In 1998 at Lambeth, England, the conference of Anglican bishops was all set to vote in a pro-homosexual resolution. However, of the 736 bishops in attendance, only 316 were from the US, Canada, and Europe. Africa sent 224 and Asia sent 95, and these men rallied to crush the resolution. It is dawning on the whites that they have created a monster. Bishop John Spong of Newark no doubt spoke for many when he complained: “I never expected to see the Anglican Communion, which prides itself on the place of reason in faith, descend to this level of irrational Pentecostal hysteria.”
The lines of battle are clearly drawn. Moses Tay, the Anglican archbishop of South East Asia, who is based in Singapore, will not go to meetings held by pro-homosexual bishops. He, in turn, was forbidden to pay a visit to New Westminster, Canada, by its pro-homosexual bishop.
Some conservative American and Canadian Anglican priests have even gone to Rwanda to be made bishops by the anti-homosexual, anti-abortion Rwandan archbishop. They have come back to North America to “lead the Episcopal Church back to its Biblical foundations,” and fight “manifest heresy.” This greatly displeases the liberals. Presiding bishop of the US Episcopal Church Frank Griswold says “bishops are not intercontinental ballistic missiles, manufactured on one continent and fired into another as an act of aggression.” Ordinary congregants, however, have rallied to the reactionaries. Now there are some 30 Episcopalian congregations in North America that are technically under the jurisdiction of the archdiocese of Rwanda! Needless to say, for white churchmen who love to grovel to non-whites, it is disconcerting to have to face them down in order to please abortionists and homosexuals. Conservatives, on the other hand, now enjoy the moral glow of having authentic people of color on their side of the barricades.
Prof. Jenkins suspects the new converts are likely to put an end to Christianity’s accommodating and even apologetic attitude towards Jews: “African and Asian Christians do not necessarily share Northern qualms about blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus, or about believing that this guilt should fall upon the whole race.” This is the sort of thing Prof. Jenkins means when he writes about the return to “Medieval” Christianity.
Likewise, in Third-World countries, Christian hierarchs have a political status not seen in Europe since the 17th century, and Prof. Jenkins predicts the coming of militant theocracies that will be just as hard boiled as the regimes of mullahs and ayatollahs. “A worst-case scenario,” he writes, “would include a wave of religious conflicts reminiscent of the Middle Ages, a new age of Christian crusades and Muslim jihads.”
Even without officially Christian governments, there is constant fighting between Muslims and Christians, with especially fierce blood-letting in Nigeria, the Philippines, Indonesia, and even in relatively stable Ivory Coast. Once sectarian violence begins, revenge killing can keep it going indefinitely.
With Third-World Christianity on a collision course with resurgent Islam, Prof. Jenkins writes, “the fundamental question here is whether Islam and Christianity can coexist.” Activists are campaigning for Islamic states in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and other parts of the former Soviet Union, and Prof. Jenkins predicts more governments — Islamic and Christian — that try to wipe out minority religions. For many Third-Worlders, Revelation is their favorite part of the Bible. They thrill to the story of Armageddon, and they expect God to smite non-believers.
This only deepens the divide between Europeans and Third-Worlders. Christians who read the Bible for inspiration in the face of martyrdom, and who love the passages in which God blasts the heathen are scarcely practicing the same religion as those who search scripture for reasons to ordain homosexuals.
Prof. Jenkins recognizes that religious tolerance and separation of church and state are alien concepts in the tropics. He notes that on the Indian subcontinent, Muslims and Hindus have been killing each other for generations, and that Hindus like to burn down Christian churches, especially in Gujarat Province. He says the troubles in the Mexican province of Chiapas are largely a conflict between Amerindian Pentecostals and wealthier mestizo Catholics. During the wholesale slaughter in Rwanda in 1994, both Hutus and Tutsis went strictly Old Testament, and tried to purge the church hierarchy of tribal enemies. Religion can be particularly dangerous when boundaries of race and faith coincide, as they do in the Sudan, where Arab Muslims and black Christians and animists have slaughtered each other by the million.
Prof. Jenkins never writes one positive word about specifically European Christianity, and tries very hard to be cheerful about the demographic transformation of the church. Still, even he understands there is a chance that “Christianity comes to be seen as, in effect, a jungle religion.” What is happening, of course, is that the Third World is simply adapting Christianity to its own state of mind. To a visitor from Copenhagen, the Christianity of Kinshasa will be as alien as everything else. Prof. Jenkins writes blithely that 35 to 40 percent of Ugandans are Anglican, but what on earth is an Ugandan Anglican? There may be conservative American Anglicans who agree with the Rwandans on homosexuals and abortion, but what about witchcraft and ancestor worship?
Prof. Jenkins predicts that Third-World practices will become the Christian norm. If that is true, it will either drive yet more Europeans away from “jungle religion” or there will be divorce, with white and brown Christians denouncing each other as heretics. Nothing — not a neighborhood, not a school, not a city, not a country, not even God almighty — remains the same once it falls into the hands of non-whites.