The Next Christendom: Discussion 6

We now turn to Chapter 7 in our continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins' book "The Next Christendom."  This chapter is probably one of the most complex chapters in the book and could be expanded into a book itself.  It deals with the nexus between Christianity and politics.

In Europe Christianity has become politically irrelevant after the disasterous mix of Christianity and politics which led to Christendom.  Europe's experience with "Christian Kings, armies, Popes, and governments has left a permanent mark on this continent.  Meanwhile, the United States was established to force a separation of church and state in order to preserve religious freedom (and dynamism).

In the Global South where non-Western Christianity is exploding, there is more of an integration of faith and politics (within Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism).  This chapter fleshes out examples.

Church and State have been merged in the Global South as well.  The Roman Catholic Church has wielded a lot of influence in many countries, particularly in Latin America.  In many cases, the Catholic Church sided with repressive governments which led to an opening for theological and political resistance movements to form.

The "Liberation Theology" movements that emerged in the late 1960's encouraged believers to wage political struggles against oppressive regimes.  This often meant going up against Western-backed dictatorships and consequently, much of Liberation theology was infused with Marxist critiques.

In Africa, many of the anti-colonialism activists of the 1960's were educated in mission schools and many of these nationalist and revolutionary figures (including Nelson Mandela) started movements.  This created the paradoxical situation that while the Roman Catholic Church often supported corrupt, oppressive regimes, the church itself educated many of the people who would rise up against those regimes.  So much so that Political Scientist Samuel Huntington identified the Catholic Church as one of the principal engines for progress as it relates to democratization.

Sometimes the oppression of an outside force allows Christianity to emerge as a political force as it did in South Korea under Japanese repression--and in Chile under Pinochet.

In some cases, the rise of Christianity or Christian parties can have negative consequences or be used as a tool of oppression itself--as is the case in Fiji where a majority Christian population attempts to subjugate the Hindu minority

Page 154 is key:  "Submission to a 'Christian State' can easily turn into a willful refusal to acknowledge the flaws of that regime, and to connive at official corruption and violence....In addition, there is a real temptation for churches hat have led or participated in revolutions to provide uncritical support for the new regimes, and to judge them by different standards from those applied to the old order.   Acknowledging this temptation in the newly democratized South Africa, Archbishop Tutu shrewdly observed that 'It is easy to be against.  It is not nearly so easy to be clear about what we are for."

Another form of "political activism" which is not so overtly tied to political parties but which takes up social causes and assists the poor.  And that is Pentecostalism, surprisingly enough.  In places like Brazil, Pentecostal churches make their presence known in places where the police and social services dare not enter.

Jenkins seems to worry that the politicization of Christianity (and religion in general) can lead to a new Christendom.  Whereas the West has largely realized that a close fusion of politics and religion can be highly detrimental (particularly toward religion), the non-Western parts of the world may be in the pre-Christendom phase.

***Patrick's thoughts***

It's not true that Christianity only expands through the needs of oppressed minority groups--however, this is certainly a great part of Christian expansion.  Samuel Huntington in his politically incorrect (but I think prescient book) forecast an era in which there would be a "Clash of Civilizations" between different religious worldviews.  Fault-lines opening up between Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims etc.  It was a very politically incorrect thing to say in 1993, but what was often missed by the critiques was this key point:  even in the modern world, religion matters.  A world of technology doesn't make deeply held religious beliefs disappear.  If anything, modern progress can lead to explosive situations where ancient religions are viewed as the tool by which to attack all the socio-political changes and the modern world in general.  It's hard to remember what a bold and insightful critique this was 7 years before 9/11.

Nevertheless, Jenkins belief (which he has since walked back or disavowed) that new Christendoms may emerge in the non-Western world has not been borne out yet.  For the most part, the expansion of Christianity (and it has been explosive over the past 50 years) has gone on with remarkably little political conflict compared to Christendom's expansion (330AD-1750AD).  In other words, Christians in new Christian territories are far less militaristic than Europeans were.

Why would this be the case?  My guess is because 20th and 21st Century Christians outside of the West have had to live in very pluralistic environments.  Where life cannot really be lived without interacting with people of other faiths.

In 2009, I was in Mumbai, India and got stuck there after my flight left without me.  I had a fantastic time being stuck in Mumbai.  I was in a neighborhood full of Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians.  It was impossible to do anything in that neighborhood without interacting with people of radically different faiths.  It was fantastic.  "This," ---I thought to myself, "is how so many of the world's Christians live."  The idea that religion constantly breeds religious conflict is a very Western one, really.  It comes from Christendom (Europe's) negative experience with religion.  It also probably comes from Christianity's absolutist nature, which Westerners think must mean there's religious conflict all over the place when Christians and Muslims are involved (both religions being very absolutist).  But that is simply not the case.  Throughout the world, both Muslims and Christians can co-exist side by side peacefully.  It is actually the norm.

The media and certain flashpoints constantly in the news:  Israel, Sudan, and Sri Lanka come to mind---make people think that pluralistic religious societies always result in war.  They don't.

The flipside of this, however, is that when governments seek to use one religion to dominate a country (a return to Christendom), those countries and that regime get discredited over time.  Live by the sword, die by the sword...  And see religious influence and belief decline rapidly.

There's no doubt that overall--religious conflict will increase in the near future.  It is an irresistible way of attacking new ideas and foreigners.  But there will be lots of places of peaceful expansion, and there will also be places of rapid secularization.  There will be multiple tracks that the world takes in the first part of the 21st Century.