The Magazine


Religion matters more than ever in global affairs. But don't count on the experts--or the State Department--to know that.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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Speaking last December before journalists assembled by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Peter Berger had some explaining to do. Berger, an emeritus professor at Boston University, is a rightly esteemed sociologist of religion. "We live in an age of overwhelming religious globalization," he began. But, as late as a quarter-century ago, neither he nor most other academics saw it coming. Most analysts, he explained, had the same stale orthodoxy about religion's inevitable demise. "The idea was very simple: the more modernity, the less religion. . . . I think it was wrong."

Except in Europe, where it has proven half-right, the idea was all wrong. This year marks the European Union's 50th anniversary. Next year is the 40th since Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae. Europeans mocked the pope's warnings about family planning cultures that promote abortion and produce few children. As a result, a fitting inscription for the European Union's gold watches would be "World's largest unfunded pension liability land mass."

Europe still has more Christians (over 500 million) than any other continent. In Rome and several other European cities, Catholicism, but not its practice, still permeates local culture, while its architectural pageantry promotes foreign tourism. But post-1968 survey data on European beliefs, church attendance rates, and more show that postindustrial modernity has indeed loosened if not broken Christianity's grip on the continent's diverse peoples. Still, this decades-in-the-making European vacation from Christianity is not a permanent vacation from religion itself. From Scotland to France, Christianity's slide has been accompanied by growth in other faith traditions including Islam. And it is not entirely clear that Europe's Catholics have fallen so far from the cradle that their children or grandchildren (if they start having some) will never return.

Most countries once ruled, in whole or in part, by Europeans have modernized to varying degrees, but without religion losing its hold. Christianity, in particular, is growing in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One cannot begin to understand post-colonial Africa, for example, without knowing how profoundly religion matters--and which religions matter where and to whom. Nigeria is one small case in point. There are now about 20 million Anglicans in Nigeria, on the way to 30 to 35 million over the next generation. In 1900, Nigeria was one-third Muslim and had almost no Christians. By 1970, the country was about 45 percent Muslim and 45 percent Christian.

Outside of Nigeria, Anglicanism is hardly the wave of the future, but Pentecostalism and other charismatic varieties of Christianity might be. Throughout the 20th century, various Pentecostal sects crept or swept through Latin America and Africa. In each continent, Pentecostals are now an estimated one-tenth to one-fifth of the population. In Asia, Pentecostals now number well over 150 million, with concentrations in places like South Korea.

No matter what the host country or culture, Pentecostals tend to start fast but remain concentrated in one city or region for a generation or two before spreading. Here in America, the century-old Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination, now stretches from traditional storefront "Holy Ghost" or "blessing station" ministries in the South (still its home base) to a 26,000-member congregation in Los Angeles, the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where Hollywood celebrities crowd into cathedral pews next to the inner-city poor.

In 2005 and 2006, the cathedral's presiding pastor, Bishop Charles E. Blake, traveled extensively in Africa and met with top government leaders in Zambia and other nations. Through a new nonprofit organization called Save Africa's Children, he expanded the church's HIV/AIDS ministries in sub-Saharan Africa. Via satellite broadcasts, he and other U.S.-based Pentecostal pastors are heard by poor people in Africa and other places. When Blake goes to these countries, he is mobbed like a rock-of-ages star.

Most international relations experts, however, know little about Pentecostals in America or abroad. Many journalists who cover global affairs could not tell you who Bishop Blake is. A few might even have trouble identifying another California preacher who has partnered with Blake on several international initiatives, Rick Warren. In 2005, at the same Pew-sponsored event that featured Berger in 2006, I was the opening act for Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? I joked that the conference organizers wanted the day's first two speakers to average 15 million in book sales (his 30 million and my next to none). Most laughed, but some were puzzled, apparently unaware of Warren's massive success.