Christianity's New Center

Philip Jenkins, the author of "The Next Christianity" in the October Atlantic, argues that most Americans and Europeans are blind to Christianity's real future

In the past year, coverage of religious issues has focused tightly on two themes—the present and future dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and the scandal in the American Catholic Church. There's an assumption that Christianity's worldwide influence is waning, as Islam's influence—especially in the political sphere—grows. And there's a belief that if Catholicism is to remain a healthy, vibrant religion, it must adjust itself to "modern" mores by revisiting its policies on celibacy, women's roles in the Church, and the amount of influence accorded to the laity. But Philip Jenkins, a scholar of history and religion at Pennsylvania State University, believes that on these issues the American public can't see the forest for the trees. In his article in the October Atlantic, "The Next Christianity," (and in his recent book, The Next Christendom), Jenkins argues that Americans are all but unaware of what is one of the most important shifts of the twentieth century—the explosive growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Christianity practiced in Africa, Latin America, and Asia tends to be much more rigidly conservative and traditional than that of the North, and its practitioners are often guided by a strong belief in the power of the supernatural to directly shape their lives. As Jenkins writes,

The most successful Southern churches preach a deep personal faith, communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on obedience to spiritual authority.... Whereas Americans imagine a Church freed from hierarchy, superstition, and dogma, Southerners look back to one filled with spiritual power and able to exorcise the demonic forces that cause sickness and poverty.

The places where Christianity is spreading and mutating are also places where the population levels are rising quickly—and, if Jenkins's predictions hold true—will continue to rise throughout the next century. The center of gravity of the Christian world has shifted from Europe and the United States to the Southern Hemisphere and, Jenkins believes, it will never shift back. So when American Catholics, for instance, talk about the necessity and the inevitability of reforms (reforms that Southern Catholics would most likely not condone), they do so without fully realizing that their views on the subject are becoming increasingly irrelevant, because the demographic future of their Church lies elsewhere.

That demographic future puts Christianity on a collision course with Islam. Though there will continue to be more Christians in the world than Muslims, they will be jostling for converts in the same places, and Jenkins forsees that several countries "might be brought to ruin by the clash of jihad and crusade." The Northern world is unlikely to be the instigator of future crusades. But it seems inevitable that both Europe and the United States will be shaken by the reverberations of growth and conflict in the new Christian world.

I spoke with Jenkins recently by phone.

—Katie Bacon

Philip Jenkins
Philip Jenkins   

For someone who isn't familiar with Christianity as it's practiced in the Southern Hemisphere, how would you define it? In general terms, how does it differ from the ways that Christianity tends to be practiced in the North?

There are a number of prime things I would list, but high on the list is the fact of poverty—that very often in the global South you're dealing with people who are not the world's fat cats. That means that they tend to relate much more closely to the biblical world and its concerns than do people who are rich and from the First World. Often they're people without access to the kind of medical care that the First World takes for granted, so the medical, healing, and exorcism elements of the Bible make very good sense to them. The other fact, apart from poverty, is novelty. In many parts of the global South, Christianity is a much newer religion than it is in Europe or North America. That's particularly true in Africa. Of course, Christianity has been in South America for a long time, but the kind of Pentecostal and Protestant Christianity that's come in over the last fifty years is obviously a newer kind of experience. So in some cases these are families that are discovering the Bible and Christianity for the first time, and it seems to be a new and rather intoxicating experience.

You write that the "denominations that are triumphing across the global South" are "radical Protestant sects, either evangelical or Pentecostal, and Roman Catholicism of an orthodox kind." What are the differences between evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and orthodox Roman Catholicism, as they are practiced in the global South?

Let's start with Catholicism. In the global South you have almost a pre-Vatican II, old-world kind of Catholicism. Catholics there are more concerned with the traditional, more willing to accept authority and leadership, more prepared to insist on orthodoxy. Whereas in America and Europe we tend to have cafeteria Catholicism, as in, I'll take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, throw in a bit of Wicca, and see what we come up with. In terms of Protestantism, a lot of the mainstream churches, like Episcopalian and Methodist, have a real presence in the global South. The Anglican Church, for instance, is a real force in Africa and in large parts of Asia. But some of the fastest growth has been in newer denominations, and they're usually called Pentecostal. The word goes back to the early twentieth century, to a series of revivals in which people believed they were getting direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was speaking through them. It's sometimes called Charismatic Christianity, and often involves a belief in trances, visions, and dreams. Pentecostal Christianity also has an impact on the edges of Catholicism—these are ideas that make sense across the denominational boundaries.

What is it about Christianity that makes it so adaptable to new conditions and new places? Is Christianity more adaptable than, say, Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism?

The great competitors are Christianity and Islam—no other religion comes close. That was the great trend of the twentieth century—the proportion of people who have gone to one of those two has increased steadily. I think the appeal of both of them is that they can be taken at lots of different levels but that ultimately you can take them as very simple packages. Both have pretty accessible scriptures with a wide range of messages. Both are very adaptable, very flexible. Over time, both of them have evolved into a lot of different forms, which can adapt to different settings. The biggest single difference between them is probably the matter of translation, and I can see plusses and minuses for each. In Islam, wherever you live, you have to learn one particular language to read the scriptures, and that's an equalizing, democratic message, because it suggests that all languages in the world are equally inadequate before the holy language. Christianity operates in a different way, which is that it validates all languages as ones in which you can transmit the scriptures. I think that may be why Christianity is ahead, because by translating, by always putting the scriptures into new languages, it encourages literacy, it encourages the vernacular. And when people read for the first time, it probably gives them a great deal more self-confidence, more ability to make their own decisions, and that tends to spill over into political and social matters.

In your book, you talk about how in the coming century Christians and Muslims will each be striving to find more converts—and often in the same places. What parts of the world are still open for conversion?

There are a lot of potential converts in Africa, which has many countries where ten or twenty percent of the population practice traditional African religions. There are also areas of the world that aren't so much on our religious maps right now, and the biggest by far is China. Religion in China has always been a complicated matter. It's an area where people often have more than one of what we traditionally think of as religions. It's possible to be a Confucian and a Daoist and a Buddhist at the same time. It's easy to imagine a situation where you would find Christians pushing very hard for conversions there. Islam traditionally has not been a big missionary religion in China, but it could be, and you're talking about twenty percent of the world's population. The other area where you get a lot of competition for converts is India. For both religions, Hindus are fair game. We don't have a good idea of how many Christians and Muslims there are in either India or China, but in both cases there's a good deal of evidence that both Christian and Muslim numbers are being understated. So those are a couple of the areas where we could have... well, let's say friendly rivalry. Let's be optimistic.

If the Southern Hemisphere comes to dominate Christianity—and hence becomes the main locus of conflict between Christianity and Islam—what sort of effect will that have on the tensions between Islamic powers and the North?

My main concern in that regard is that conflicts in the South cannot be contained, because although they may take place in countries like the Congo or Nigeria, it's likely that as time goes by, regional powers and superpowers will become involved. The great example of this is Indonesia together with the Philippines, where you have an ethnic division—an awful lot of Christians in Indonesia are Chinese. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine China saying, You must stop the massacres of our people, or we will become involved. We will not stand idly by. When you have that, how do other regional powers respond? I sometimes say that God has a very grim sense of humor, because so many of the areas on these religious fault-lines are also the key oil-producing regions. So religious politics are oil politics. I'm not sure how much we've taken that fact aboard.

Let's imagine another situation, which is not too hard to contemplate, in which you had a full-scale war break out in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims, with the prospect of millions being killed. The potential there for drawing in regional powers, or powers concerned about oil wealth, is enormous. But people just aren't paying attention to such possibilities. As time goes by, though, such violence is going to be harder and harder to ignore. I think this will be much more of an issue for the United States, where you could see a significant Christian voting block emerging, than in Europe, where Christianity is largely a dead issue.

You write that "it is Christianity"—not Islam—"that will leave the deepest mark on the twenty-first century." Why do you think this will be the case?

Primarily I mean that in terms of the numbers. As I try and say in the article, and I certainly said this strongly in the book, the numbers are not fixed. It is possible that there will be wars and persecutions and that things will change so that Islam might in fact surpass Christianity. But as far as we can see from the numbers right now, Christianity is going to continue to be the world's most numerous religion, at least until the end of the twenty-first century. Christianity is growing most quickly in the areas that are probably going to be the great centers of population, if not centers of power, in the new century. So if we're looking for the religion that is going to affect the largest number of lives in the twenty-first century, it is almost certainly going to be Christianity, which gets me to another issue: why people in the West can't see that.

Yes, people in the West seem almost blissfully unaware of the roiling growth of Christianity in the global South. How have most people here managed not to pay attention?

There's a cynical remark that is none the worse for maybe being true, which is that people in Europe and North America really aren't very interested in the poorest of the poor. If you are a poor person in Ethiopia or Uganda or Peru, you don't show up on the radar screen. And we're dealing here with countries that aren't even in the Third World economically—we're dealing with the very very poor. Islam has registered in the last twenty or thirty years only because we see it as politically threatening. Maybe some Christians somewhere would have to take hostages before anyone would really notice they're there.

I think there's a prejudice about Christianity—that it is the religion of the rich West, that where you find Christianity in Africa or Asia, it's an imperial hangover and really doesn't belong there, it's just tacked on. Connected with that is the idea that Christianity is interfering with authentic cultures. The Christianity that tends to be practiced in the global South is also the kind of Christianity that people don't feel any sympathy for, at least in the media. Pentecostal, traditional Christianity is just not what we want.

It's similar to the type of Christianity that the media in the U.S. don't like to pay attention to—the John Ashcroft brand. Exactly. You'd never guess from looking at history that through most of the twentieth century at least half of American Christians were evangelical/Pentecostal fundamentalists. They really got lost to the media between the Scopes trial back in 1925 and the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. And suddenly people discovered them and thought, My God, there are millions of these people out there, this must be a right-wing explosion. No, they've always been there, you've just never noticed them. It's a question of what you see and what's really there. The famous phrase is, If I hadn't believed it, I wouldn't have seen it with my own eyes.

As you just touched on, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over the past few decades about missionaries having imposed Christianity on people in Africa, Asia, and South America. I got the impression from your book that you feel that maybe it was imposed, but at this point that's pretty irrelevant because it has taken off and mutated and become its own force.

That's right, and it's quite surprising how many Africans, for example, will say something like that. Their view now is that wherever it came from, Christianity is now their religion. In my book I quote Julius Nyerere, who was the president of Tanzania and a great figure in radical African socialism, and he was absolutely lyrical about the missionaries. He said they were good, generous people, and they came to try and help us, and let's be grateful for them. There are lots of German Christians out there, and I don't think many Germans are bothered by the fact that it was Irish and English missionaries who brought them Christianity a thousand years ago. These days, it's German Christianity. So I think religions like this tend to get imported and internalized quite quickly. Islam is just the same. The vast majority of Muslims aren't Arab, but they regard it now as their religion.

Is there still a role for Northern missionaries who want to spread the word in the South?

Yes, I can see some role, but I think in terms of making converts the bulk of the traffic is going to be the other way round. I think there's a lot that people can do in terms of helping to build networks and infrastructure, helping to bring food and medical facilities and so on. But the religion is spreading pretty well of its own accord right now. It might be that some of the biggest roles that Northerners can play are political, trying to ensure that Northern governments intervene to prevent too much military pressure against Christian communities in the South. If you have communities that are being destroyed by religious persecution, as has happened in Indonesia, then maybe that should very much be the West's business.

In terms of the reforms being called for in response to the American Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal, you seem to feel that Northern liberals are missing the point—they are now a small minority in a Catholic world that is essentially conservative and that would not agree to end the celibacy rule, have women priests, or give more power to the laity. What do you think will result from this fundamental disconnect between North and South?

There is obviously enormous pressure for change within the American Catholic Church and within some European Churches, and the sense is that the Church has gotten out of sync with secular standards, particularly over issues like gender and sexuality. But the fact is that the Church is not out of sync with secular societies elsewhere in the world, and particularly in the parts of the world where the Catholic Church is doing quite well. I think I quote this in the article, that Americans make up only six percent of the Catholic Church worldwide, and even that's a little bit deceptive. Among those six percent a good number are already Latino and Asian, and that's the growing segment. White Anglos make up quite a small proportion of the Catholic Church. There are reformist groups within the American Catholic Church that have quite radical agendas, including things like the ordination of women. The big issue is whether that sort of change might happen in the American Church and lead to some kind of American schism, some kind of break with the mainstream of the Catholic Church. My guess is no.

Ultimately, all these issues are moot because they entirely depend on the personality of the next Pope. It might be that the next Pope will launch a lot of radical reforms and will very much be somebody who will go down well in Boston or New York, and it'll be the Africans who are unhappy. That could happen. But maybe it will be the other way round. That's not something we can predict right now. All you really can say is that the current Pope has pretty much filled the ranks of cardinals with his own people, so the odds of it being a pretty conservative choice are quite high.

And whom do you think the Pope is paying more attention to at this point—his Southern flock or his Northern one?

I think he is listening much more to the Southerners. I think he is feeling much more at home with people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Pope has long been horrified at liberal Western Europe and parts of America. But one thing I think a lot of people haven't noticed is how horrified he's been by the liberalization of Churches and countries in Eastern Europe since the breakup of communism. Far fewer people go to church in Poland now than they did under communism. I think he's really very bothered by Europe generally.

If the next Pope is conservative and continues to listen more to the Southern part of the world, do you think the Catholic Church will lose a lot of those who are agitating for liberal reforms?

A lot of people have talked about Catholics leaving the Church, but it's been interesting how few of them have actually done so. Even the quite liberal people who disagree with the Church on lots and lots of different things still very often turn up to Mass on Sundays—though they complain a lot. I don't think we're necessarily talking about a lot of defections, but we're talking about continuing unhappiness and agitation, maybe contributing to further scandals and further emphasis on scandals. But I get myself in enough hot water trying to predict demographic trends. Trying to predict specifically where the American Catholic Church is going to be in five years would be very tough.

You write that "the first Reformation was a lot less straightforward than some histories suggest." In what ways is it more complicated than the story that's typically presented?

The standard idea of the Reformation is that you had heroic figures standing up and making this new statement, launching a revolution, kicking in the door, the door was rotten, and the whole structure fell down. Well, there are a number of things wrong with that picture. First of all, what people were fighting about was nothing like as simple as that—it wasn't just an issue of liberty and the freedom to marry and fighting a corrupt church. One side was as religious and "superstitious" as the other one—the Protestants were just as anti-Jewish and likely to burn witches as the Catholics, in some cases they were even more so. It wasn't a case of the revolution triumphing overnight. The revolution triumphed by employing a great deal of persecution. Protestant countries became Protestant by rigidly repressing the old Catholic ways. They had to kill an awful lot of Catholics in order to become Protestant societies. And the other issue is that the old world did not go away gracefully. The Catholic Church did not collapse, it became a reformed institution by becoming more Catholic, and that's a very successful recipe. Today the Roman Catholic Church is still the largest religious organization on the planet—there are more Catholics on the planet than there are Muslims, for example. We have a kind of simple, heroic vision of the Protestant triumph, which is in terms of Protestant freedom versus Catholic slavery, to put it crudely, and it's just not like that. It's much more ambiguous.

How might a twenty-first-century Reformation—and Counter-Reformation—play itself out?

Moving away from the Reformation/Counter-Reformation terms specifically, the main analogy I see is that of a religious revolution and its aftermath. A liberalizing revolution starts off in one area and instead of sweeping the whole Christian world what it actually does is invite a conservative, traditionalist reaction that proves to be even stronger in the rest of the world. When you look at the numbers in the Catholic world, they are pretty overwhelming. The parts of the world that seem to be tempted by a liberalizing "reformation" are relatively small. But the areas that might be tempted to a much more conservative, traditional Christianity are very large.

There are a number of Catholics around today who speak in terms of Martin Luther nailing the theses on the church door at Wittenberg. Some of them talk about a third Vatican council which would bring about the reforms they want. The idea I play with is that they could end up with something they don't want. Instead of a Vatican council, they could end up with another Council of Trent, which was something that was called to deal with reform and did it by saying, Look, all those things you didn't like, we're bringing them back double. So it became an even more conservative, traditional system than what they were trying to get away from.

Your article hints at some scary scenarios—for instance that a religious revolution coupled with a conservative reaction might result in sectarian violence similar to what Europe experienced during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Sectarian violence could flare up in a number of ways. One of them is the Christian/Muslim issue, which we've talked about and which is a very pressing danger. Another thing to watch for is Protestant/Catholic conflict or rather Pentecostal/Catholic conflict. Pentecostalism has been growing very fast in Latin America, and most people would say that in Latin America one person out of every nine is a Pentecostal. In some of the areas of fastest growth, notably Peru and Mexico, there have been conflicts between Protestants and Catholics which look exactly like what would have happened in France and Germany around 1580. They even start the same way—the Catholics have a procession of the Virgin, the Protestants gather round and make fun of it, the Catholics go off and burn down the local church. At the moment that's largely at the level of rioting, except in some areas of southern Mexico where it really does look like civil war. That's a worrying issue for Latin America. It's not so much an issue in Africa, where Catholics and Protestants still have lots of space between them, and lots of other people to convert.

I've been interested in some of the responses I've gotten to my books. People tell me that the things I write about are really scary. You know, I don't intend them to be scary. People say, Oh, this is a terrifying book, it suggests that we're going to have all this fundamentalism and all this traditional Christianity. But I don't think that's necessarily scary. It's just a different kind of Christianity. If people are shooting at each other, that frightens me. But if people are just believing differently, that doesn't.

But some of the implications of your book—the religious clashes we could see in the future—do seem fairly apocalyptic.

Oh, sure. The most worrying areas, as I said, are in the Muslim-Christian interaction. Those do worry me. When U.S. soldiers find themselves in the southern Philippines, for example, I'm not sure how many policy-makers realize that what they're doing is walking along one of the key religious fault lines in the world.

Some of the tensions in U.S. society—between separation of church and state and Christian fundamentalism, between liberal Protestant denominations and movements such as Pentecostalism, which are reminiscent of a more radical, conservative brand of Christianity—seem to reflect the growing rift between Northern and Southern Christianity. Do you see the U.S. as in some ways an anomaly in the North/South picture you draw?

I almost see three different demographic trends here—you have Europe, which is de-Christianizing at an amazing rate; you have Africa and Latin America, where Christianity is growing very fast; and the U.S., where Christianity is holding on very well. It's still the default religion for the great majority of Americans. It's as difficult for Europeans to take American God-talk seriously as it is for them to look at, say, Africa or Latin America. I think that's one concept that we tend to misunderstand in the United States. We have this idea that America is becoming a very religiously diverse society. For instance, there's a very interesting book by Diana Eck called A New Religious America, about how America is becoming the world's most diverse society. In fact I disagree. I think it's becoming a more Christian society—a society in which Christians are if anything more numerous and more dominant, because the more Latino a country becomes, the more you get those kinds of religious traditions. One figure I always quote is that by 2050 a third of Americans will probably be claiming Latino or Asian roots. The great majority of those are going to be coming from Christian backgrounds. I do think the U.S. is very odd in terms of where it fits into the world's religious picture. And even odder is the split between the religion of the mainstream and the non-religion of the elite. The sociologist Peter Berger has this famous quote about Indians and Swedes—he says Indians are the most religious people in the world, Swedes are the least religious, and Americans are a nation of Indians governed by Swedes. I wish I'd invented that quote—it's very accurate.

There really does seem to be a split within the U.S. The "Christmas and Easter" Christians seem to be the ones running the media—and looking at the fundamentalist Christians with amazement.

From the archives:

"The Next Church" (August 1996)
Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities around the country the old order gives way to the new. By Charles Trueheart

Or horror. In my book I quoted an article by Brent Staples in The New York Times that begins by commenting how churches across America are deserted and if only they would just come to terms with secular norms about issues of gender and sexuality, maybe they'd have a chance. This shows that Brent Staples has probably never looked inside a church outside midtown Manhattan, because when you go anywhere else in the country, the churches are trying to build ever bigger car parks. I sometimes say that if you want to see the symbols of soaring faith in architecture, you can look at the Gothic spires in the Middle Ages or the church car parks in twentieth-century America.

Do you see the U.S. evolving toward the Swede version or the Indian version? Or do you think it will maintain the current dichotomy?

From the archives:

"One Nation, Slightly Divisible" (December 2001)
The electoral map of the 2000 presidential race became famous: big blocks of red (denoting states that went for Bush) stretched across the heartland, with brackets of blue (denoting states for Gore) along the coasts. Our Blue America correspondent has ventured repeatedly into Red territory. He asks the question—after September 11, a pressing one—Do our differences effectively split us into two nations, or are they just cracks in a still-united whole? By David Brooks

As far as I can see, I think it will continue very much as it is—ideally with Indians and Swedes blissfully unaware of each other's existence. We leave them alone, they leave us alone.

Do you travel extensively to do the research for your books and articles? If so, are there any personal impressions that jump out at you from having witnessed different versions of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere?

I've traveled a fair amount, but oddly, the best impressions I got were actually in Europe. When you're in Mexico, for example, you tend to see some things as part of the context. But it's where you see the two cultures coming together that you're really struck. One impression that leapt out at me happened was something I observed in Amsterdam a couple of years ago on a Sunday. You realize that you are in a completely different city from an American city, because there is virtually nothing you would call church life anywhere in the downtown. The churches are non-functioning or empty—Amsterdam is as secular a city as you can find. And then you move into the poorer suburbs, and you can see the churches filling up, and they're entirely made up of Africans. You think of all the lessons this has in terms of stories of colonial empires, and you think of all these Dutch missionaries going out to Africa or Asia to convert. This is an example of the obvious phrase the empire strikes back. Seeing these Africans who are clearly not the world's richest people, but who are very sober, respectable folk, you think, Well, that's the future of Christianity. It's a very powerful visual statement.

Many of the characteristics of Christianity as it's practiced in the global South—a belief that God will intercede on a personal level, a belief in using prayer to exorcise demons or witches, a certain apocalyptic worldview—seem to hark back to earlier versions of Christianity in the North, as it might have been practiced during the Middle Ages, or perhaps in Colonial America. Do you think what we're seeing in the South is part of a natural progression, and that in two or three hundred years Southern Christianity may look a lot like Northern Christianity does now?

I'd say two things. Firstly, you'd be amazed how many Americans practice the kind of Christianity you just described. You would not have to go far from where you are now to find a church where people believed those things. They could be Latinos, they could be African-American, or they could be white. Just because religion moves on to a more liberal, more secular approach doesn't mean that everyone else gives up the older ideas.

But I think it is important to say that African or Asian Christianity will become a lot more diverse. Something like that is already happening. If you look at South Africa, for example, which is probably the most socially advanced country on the continent, you have a very wide range of religious belief—everything from very liberal academic intellectual folk associated with mainstream churches like Anglican and Methodist, over to some of the independent churches, the Pentecostal churches. Will the Christianity of the South liberalize? Yes, I think that's happening already. But that won't necessarily shut out some of the older ideas and practices. Built into Christianity, I think, is a kind of cycle, in which the further people move toward secularism and intellectual approaches to religion, the more at least some people will be drawn back to the idea of an original "primitive" religion. Wherever you have a religion based firmly on a scripture, you'll always get that cycle. That's why fundamentalism has always been around and always will be, under different names. People will always be trying to get back to the pure ideal, as they imagine it. It's a very Newtonian system—for every action, there's a wildly disproportionate reaction.