Historians missed century's biggest trend

Saturday, April 27, 2002

Did journalists, pundits and historians miss one of the 20th century's biggest social trends in writing all those backward looks at New Year's 2000? Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, thinks so.

While Fascism and Nazism have vanished and Communism is dying, he observes, "perhaps the most successful social movement of the past century" is Pentecostalism, which started with a handful of believers and now encompasses hundreds of millions. And that's only part of the picture, since there are far more Roman Catholics than Pentecostals.

What many have missed, Jenkins says, is Christianity's strong expansion in the "South" -- Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia -- while in the "North" it merely holds steady in the United States and shrinks in western Europe.

That scenario is spelled out in Jenkins' book "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity" (Oxford University Press). There's statistical support in the two-volume World Christian Encyclopedia from the same publisher.

Jenkins says southern Christians read the Bible quite differently from western liberals. The rising Christendom is drenched in supernaturalism, both biblical and present-day, he reports. So it resonates with the world of the literal New Testament as a faith for the poor, despised, diseased and persecuted.

Unlike declining liberal churches to the north, Jenkins says, southern Christianity gives the Bible "authenticity and immediacy." Scriptural messages to the oppressed are drenched with meaning, and pessimism about the secular world is widespread. Churches preach evangelism, moral conservatism, mysticism, miracles of healing, exorcism and strength under persecution.

Westerners can understand the sufferings of God's people in the Bible as "an intellectual exercise." But in many lands, martyrdom and oppression are current realities and churches cherish "visions of a coming world in which God will rule, persecutors will perish and the righteous be vindicated."

Jenkins believes communism's death and the declining credibility of many nation-states makes religious identity perhaps the most powerful force in global affairs. This has a potential nightmare aspect, since Christianity and Islam are the two main competitors and each is massive and expansion-minded.

That differs from Samuel Huntington's much-mulled "Clash of Civilizations" (1996), which depicted Islam's growth and militancy but downplayed Christian expansion. Jenkins is convinced that into the foreseeable future, Christianity will maintain its numerical "massive lead" over Islam.

At one time Islam was largely tolerant and Christianity was often oppressive, Jenkins observes, but in recent years "there is no question that the threat of intolerance and persecution chiefly comes from the Islamic side." He cites numerous examples.

By 2050, many major nations "could be profoundly divided between Islam and Christianity and, judging by present trends, any or all of them could be the scene of serious interfaith conflict," he writes. Dangerous types of countries:

Predominantly Muslim with significant Christian minority (for example, Indonesia, Egypt, Sudan).

Predominantly Christian with significant Muslim minority (Philippines, Congo, Germany, Uganda).

Muslims and Christians roughly equal (Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania).

Though Christianity usually "atrophies among the rich and secure," he says, the United States is a huge exception. So are professional and high-tech groups within Pacific Rim nations.

Regarding the United States, he notes an amazingly daft 2000 piece by a New York Times editorial writer that described emptying pews and aging memberships, as though American Christianity were dying. That's true in some situations. But overall, the numbers remain constant, and churches are growing among Pentecostals, Charismatics, evangelicals, Roman Catholics, blacks and immigrants.

By Jenkins' projections, the United States will still have the world's biggest Christian population in 2050, and by then will be the only nation in the "North" with more than 100 million Christians.

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