Forget the West

Western Christianity?

Book Review by Ryan McMaken

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity By Philip Jenkins Oxford University Press 2002

Western Intellectuals have a hard time with the Third World. As the ongoing conflict in Iraq has illustrated, not all peoples of the world want what Western intellectuals think they should want. Today, as in past generations, Western colonizers see what they want to see in the Third World. In the 19th century, European and American imperialists saw the poor masses of foreign continents as blank slates waiting to be civilized by the benign hand of the imperials. Likewise, 20th century Marxists saw a peasant revolution waiting around every corner in the developing world. And today, American neoconservatives dream up democratic revolutions everywhere. Yet, then as now, things rarely seem to go as planned, and the failure of the Westerns is inevitably blamed on some moral or intellectual defect of the imperial subjects themselves, whether it be an unwillingness to attain a proper level of Marxist class consciousness or their allegiance to an allegedly diabolical religion. The revolutionary dreams of many a Western politician has fallen into ruins in the incomprehensible complexity of the Third World.

Yet, in the Third World, there is one European export that has flourished: Christianity. As Christianity withers in the West, it is exploding in the Third World not just through high birth rates, but through adult conversions as well, and this trend will likely continue well into the future. In his recent book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins argues that a new brand of Christianity is emerging from what he calls "the global South" (which includes South America, Africa, and much of Asia) and how the global South’s vision for the Christian world will have profound effects not only on the developing world, but on the Western world as well.

To do this, Jenkins liberally employs population statistics and examines what these numbers indicate for the future of Christianity and where it will be practiced. Jenkins is forever aware of the dangers of using current statistics to predict the future, so he continually makes conservative predictions, and ends up making claims that, rather than appear controversial, seem almost blatantly obvious. As Jenkins asserts, however, such trends have long been in plain view, it’s just that no one has bothered to notice them. The question we are left with then, becomes not one of if the Third World will become a dominant force in global Christianity, but a question of how dominant it will be.

As the Christians of the West become a smaller and smaller part of the total Christian population, the new dominance of the non-Western Christianity will change the faith in fundamental ways. The Christians of the Third World are more conservative, zealous, and much more likely to be subject to violent opposition from competing Christian sects and Islamic communities. All of these factors have shaped, and will continue to shape Christianity in the global South.

Jenkins notes that the first characteristic that many Western observers — and especially religious conservatives — point out is the morally conservative nature of most Christian groups in the Third World. While many religious liberals in the West predict the impending triumph of modern feminist and multicultural ideals in the Christian world, Jenkins asserts that this is becoming less likely every day with the growth of the Christians in the South. This conservative influence will be felt most strongly in global Christian organizations like the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Indeed, Jenkins claims that the election of Pope John Paul II, who has taken solidly conservative positions on matters like priestly celibacy and contraception was due in large part to the influence of the South American and African cardinals who worked to block the election of another Western European or reformist pope, and settled for a Eastern European with a morally conservative agenda. Today, the typical Third World bishop, like the much ballyhooed Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria, is notable for his religious conservatism and his loyalty to Rome. Cardinals like Arinze now make up over 40% of the College of Cardinals (the body that will elect the next pope), and as the Christian populations of Europe and North America continue to decline, the influence of the global South at the Vatican will only continue to increase.

The Anglican Church has also been shaken up by the growing influence of the developing world in their hierarchy, as in the case of Archbishop Tay of Singapore who refuses to attend international Anglican meetings called by Anglican bishops who support gay rights. The rift among Anglican bishops between conservative Asians and Africans and their Western colleagues has grown increasingly rancorous. As Jenkins tells it, this rift reached a new dramatic level in 2000 when Archbishop Tay and Archbishop Kolini of Rwanda ordained two Americans as bishops under their authority. These Americans then returned to the United States where they would become part of the "Anglican Mission in America" which is to "restore traditional teachings on issues like the ordination of gay clergy, and blessing same-sex marriages: in short, to combat the u2018manifest heresy’ of the current U.S. church leadership." These new American-born bishops answer not to the North American hierarchy, but to the Archdiocese of Rwanda, and in a phrase that is a commentary on the state of Western Christianity, Jenkins notes that these new bishops are in fact "White soldiers following Black and Brown generals."

Naturally, the response to such developments from many Western Catholics and Anglicans has been thoroughly hostile. The Anglican Mission in America has been denounced as "dangerous fundamentalism" by the American Anglican hierarchy, and liberal Catholics daily predict the disintegration of the Catholic church thanks to the supposed intolerance of the conservatives at the Vatican. As Jenkins’ statistics show, however, these reformers will be continually frustrated as their relevance continues to decline in the face of the growth of the African and Asian churches. The evangelical and Pentecostal churches of the South will be bastions of Christian conservatism as well, although, it appears that due to a lack of an international hierarchy, their influence is not as immediate on the West as with the Anglicans and Catholics.

Jenkins cautions his readers, however, to not read too much into the moral conservatism of the Christians in the global South. Jenkins writes that while the theology of these conservatives will meet with the approval of Western religious conservatives, the outward expressions of religiosity in these new centers of Christianity will make many Westerners uncomfortable. In the case of the Catholics, for example, orthodoxy in doctrinal matters may not translate into liturgical forms that Western Catholic traditionalists will approve of. As it develops, the African liturgies may prove to be as different from the Latin rites as the Latin rites are different from the ancient Byzantine rites. Jenkins compares modern African styles of worship to those of the first century where outward expressions of religiosity were common and much emphasis is put on "prophecy," healings, and miracles. As in the Philippines, some Catholic liturgies have become more Pentecostal in their style to compete with the growing Pentecostal movements there, although they are still centered on the Catholic sacraments.

Similar developments exist across the spectrum of Christian denominations, and it is easy to see how some Christian conservatives might be horrified by what might be interpreted as an irreverence for ancient traditions. Jenkins contends, though, that the success of Christianity in the global South has been tied to the ability of the indigenous cultures to make Christianity their own. That is, just as the Western Europeans took a Middle Eastern religion and made it their own (one can’t help but think of The Heliand, the "Bible" of the Saxon tribes), so too will the Christians of Africa, Asia and the Americas continue to reshape Christianity into forms that they can relate to, and as time goes on this will be reflected in new Christian architecture, music, and language.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the Christianity of the South is its lack of regard for the virtues of religious pluralism. This issue was brought to the fore in 2000 when "the Vatican issued another encyclical seemingly designed for the sole purpose of enraging American liberals, when in Dominus Jesus, it reasserted the exclusive role of Christ and Catholic Christianity as vehicles of salvation." Jenkins notes that in the West, this encyclical was "deeply offensive" to Jews and multiculturalists. For Western intellectuals, the encyclical was little more than hate mongering in a world where everybody knows that religious pluralism is a good thing. The problem, Jenkins says, is that, as with most Church efforts these days, Western religious leaders were not the target audience of Dominus Jesus. Instead, the Vatican was addressing the faithful in places like Africa and Asia where Christians must deal daily with competing religions like Islam or traditional Asian religions like Buddhism: "The encyclical was not addressed to Northern liberals practicing a dilettantish kind of cafeteria religion, but to fast-growing Southern churches anxious for practical rules to ensure their authenticity."

The Pentecostal and evangelical churches of the South are no different in their rejections of pluralism, and Christians of the Third World are not looking to find "common ground" or to make non-Christians feel better about themselves. In reality, they are faced daily with religious and political opposition from competing religious communities. Conflicts with Muslims have been particularly troublesome in places like Indonesia and Nigeria where violence can break out often, and allegiances can solidify along ethnic as well as religious lines. Competition among Christian groups is also no joke, and Jenkins has noted that in Latin America for example, religious conflict between Catholics and evangelicals starts out in much the same way that it did in Europe during the religious conflicts of the Thirty-Years War. The Christians in the South who live daily with the possibility of real violence and religious strife are not willing to sit back and decide that all religions are pretty much made the same. So while Western intellectuals condemn the intolerance of the Vatican, Christian leaders of the South welcome and depend on documents like Dominus Jesus to guide and defend the faith in places where its success is hardly assured.

How the new Christianity will change the political face of the world remains to be seen. For the most part, Jenkins’ research only tangentially covers the future of global politics (he discusses numerous past church-led freedom movements), although he does offer some key insights and speculative remarks on how the West may deal politically with these trends in global Christianity. First of all, Jenkins sees no revival in Western Christianity. Europe will continue to secularize at a rapid pace, although the United States will hold steady in its population of active Christians. Much of this will be due to immigration, as a lopsided majority of immigrants to the United States are Christians, but the indigenous population will retain much of its Christian identity as well. Contrary to the assertions of American multiculturalists, the United States is primarily a Christian nation and will continue to be so. Americans who profess to follow a religion other than Christianity still hovers around 5%, and this will not change significantly in the next generation. Europe will be another story as many more of their immigrants are adherents of Islam.

Indeed, much of what Jenkins discusses will be alarming to anyone who has read and agreed with Pat Buchanan’s essay on the decline of Western religion and culture, The Death of the West, and many of Buchanan’s predictions are echoed here in Jenkins’ work. As Jenkins illustrates again and again, population growth in the global South is immense, and by 2050, only Los Angeles and New York will be on the short list of the world’s largest metropolitan centers. Most will soon be in places like the Philippines, Brazil, and Nigeria. In terms of population, the West will soon be overwhelmed. Jenkins emphasizes that this Third World growth is not necessary growth in Muslim populations, though. He takes issues with Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations where Huntington claims that "In the long run…Muhammad wins out," and that Islam will be the world’s largest religion by 2020. Jenkins predicts that Christianity will have a "massive lead" over Islam and that by "2050, there should be about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide." Naturally, the global competition between Islam and Christianity will have global political implications just as Huntington suggests, although while Huntington habitually refers to the West as Christian, Jenkins wonders whether or not a thoroughly secularized West will, in the long run, align itself with those who control the oil, and if they are Muslims, so be it. The importance of religious affiliation in the future should not be underestimated, Jenkins tells us. For, as new religious bonds further weaken the authority of the manufactured nation-states of the global South, the new political realities will be difficult to ignore.

There is no doubt that Jenkins could have made this book considerably longer than it is. The book’s format, a survey of demographic change, is both enlightening and frustrating as there are so many issues that could be explored further but are not. This is the chief limitation of the book, for there is little room for much exploration of the implications of Jenkins’s thesis, although he does an admirable job of colorfully illustrating the points he does make. Above all else, though, the lesson that Jenkins seems to want his reader to take from him is the fact that while we can see many good or bad things in the growth of Christianity in the developing world, it is essentially a unique movement that the people of the global South have made their own, and when the West begins to feel its effects, it will be seem alien and strange, and no doubt provide a challenge to a formerly Christian civilization.

Ryan McMaken Archives

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts