The Magazine

Spiritualpolitique

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.

First published in 2002, and since reissued in many different languages, Warren's prayer-and-meditation manual has sold globally in volumes few nonfiction books have ever achieved. (Warren co-pastors a megachurch in California called Saddleback, with more than 80,000 members.) The goateed, born-again baby-boomer boasts a Bible-believing pro-life, pro-family theology. True to stereotype, a few journalists at the gathering looked for Pat Robertson beneath Warren's Hawaiian-print shirt but could not find him. In fact, Warren has long since fallen out with many fellow white evangelical leaders. To them, his sins include cavorting with Pentecostals and others they consider to be theologically incorrect; tooting "creation care" (environmental protection); and nonpartisan hobnobbing with pro-choice politicians, including Democrats, who share his global antipoverty and public health agendas.

At the Pew gathering, the purpose-filled pastor got relatively few questions in the session and over meals about his international ministries and other globe-trotting adventures. His various training programs and "tool kits" have reached an estimated 400,000 ministers in more than a hundred countries. His interfaith antipoverty and public health (most recently antimalaria) programs have purportedly reached millions. His biggest battles to date have been over how he has used his global bully pulpit. For instance, last November he saddled over to Syria and sounded off on human rights, but seemed dangerously naive about the regime's terrorist ties. In February he was scheduled to preach in North Korea but postponed the trip. (Good call.)

Still by far the single biggest "megachurch" presence on the global scene is the Catholic church. Roman Catholicism claims a billion followers and growing. America's Catholics, roughly a quarter of the U.S. population, are just 5 percent of the church's global flock. Pope Benedict XVI is "too strict" for many Catholics in America, not to mention Catholics in Europe. But he is generally viewed as a moderate by the conservative Catholic leaders and throngs in Africa.

All in all, there are today two billion Christians worldwide, and Christianity in various orthodox forms, from Pentecostalism to Vatican-certified Catholicism, is the world's fastest-growing religion. Take it from Penn State's superb global religions watcher, Philip Jenkins, who has established beyond any reasonable empirical or historical doubt that, for decades now, Catholicism and many other Christian sects have been growing rapidly in the southern hemisphere. By or before 2050, Africa will supplant Europe as home to the most Christians. In 1900, Africa had an estimated 10 to 15 million Christians. In 1959, the Catholic church had not yet appointed a single black African cardinal. By 2000, however, Africa had some 350 million Christians, including well over 100 million Catholics.

Some demographers would bet that Latin America will outdistance Africa, and that South America will be first to succeed Europe as the continent with the most Christians. It has long had the heaviest country-by-country Catholic concentrations. Even as Pentecostals and other Christian sects have made converts, South America's Catholic seminaries have grown (up more than 350 percent since 1972). The Vatican counts some 60,000 priests, 100,000 lay missionaries, and 130,000 nuns on the continent.

So, from Brazil to Belize, from Beirut to Boston, religion in over a hundred forms and in a thousand different ways has outlived "modernity" and "postmodernity," too. And whenever religious individuals, ideas, and institutions get newly mobilized into politics and public affairs, at home or abroad, look out, because they have the power to transform things, and fast.

For example, just consider how the late Pope John Paul II changed both the Church and Latin America by throwing Catholicism's weight behind democracy movements there (as he also did on other continents). In 1987, the pope confronted Chile's dictator, General Pinochet, with these words: "I am not the evangelizer of democracy; I am the evangelizer of the Gospel. To the Gospel message, of course, belong all the problems of human rights; and, if democracy means human rights, it also belongs to the message of the Church."

History teaches that democracy has not done well in countries dominated by Catholicism, Islam, and Confucianism. But as I argued in Rome before the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in 1998, Catholicism changed after World War II. I invoked the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, who, writing that same year, agreed that the Church had changed "in ways that positively affected the potential for democracy."

Similarly, writing in 1991, Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington explored the global fortunes of democracy during the period 1974 to 1990, which he termed democracy's "third wave." Huntington identified 33 instances of democratization (versus just three of "democratic reversal"). Religion, he argued, was critical to this wave: "In many countries, Protestant and Catholic church leaders have been central in the struggles against repressive [governments]. . . . Catholicism was second only to economic development as a pervasive force making for democratization in the 1970s and 1980s."

Correct, but after The Third Wave, Huntington half-forgot how best to think about religion. In a controversial 1993 article and 1996 book, he speculated about the conditions under which the world might witness (or avert) a "clash of civilizations." He argued that ideology, economics, and nation-states would be far less central to future international conflicts than they had been in the past. The "principal conflicts of global politics," he predicted, "will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations." He stressed that Western democracies did not have all the answers, and scolded those who graded other "civilizations" by how kindred they were to American political norms.

But Huntington's conceptual framework was a sweeping, multivariable mess that loosely related religion to ethnic, racial, regional, and other history-moving forces. His provocative prediction was not warranted by such empirical data as he mustered. When it came time to delineate "civilizations," he created his own categories: "Islamic" covered places from Albania to Azerbaijan; "Sinic" included China and Vietnam; "Japan" was its own "civilization." And so on. Ostensibly well-informed people describe the situation in Iraq in relation to Huntington's "clash" thesis. But it should be obvious that the contest between Sunnis and Shiites is an intra-religious conflict with deep roots in Islamic history. It is not unlike the conflict (receded but not forgotten) in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, an intra-religious conflict with centuries-old roots in Christian history.

You know that you are skirting rather than seeing important realities when you are using identity concepts that are nobody's actual identity. You do not need to go globe-trotting to understand why. For example, New Orleans is home to Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Its Catholic members are not Creoles or Cajuns. The church's "Post-Katrina Recovery News" website is in Vietnamese. Since the biblical-sized floods receded, its leaders have deepened ties to many English-speaking churches and community groups, Catholic and non-Catholic. To understand these leaders, their people, and their institution, to map their community relations, or to gauge their present or potential civic role, it would not help to categorize them as either "Sinic" expatriates or "Westerners" on the make.

Huntington's big-think Harvard colleague, Joseph S. Nye, has been less controversial and more cogent conceptually. Nye is famous for his 2004 work on so-called soft power, meaning how nations get what they want through attraction rather than coercion (multilateral ties, not military tussles; economic incentives, not muscle-bound sanctions). America, he claims, has squandered opportunities to amass and use soft power. He does not deny that religion can pack a soft-power punch, but religion gets only a few passing mentions in his magnum opus.

Nye opens with Machiavelli, who wrote that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved. Nye challenges that dictum by claiming that soft power often succeeds where hard power fumbles or fails. Fair enough, but as Nye also knows, the medieval Italian for all seasons counseled that rulers need both hard-power swords and soft-power plowshares (or swords that rulers can opt to beat into plowshares as circumstances may dictate).

As Nye might have emphasized, history teaches that when religion is used as hard power, it sooner or later destroys those who wield it. Christianity's hard-power-wielding religions, including king-making Catholicism, had their days (even centuries) but resulted in ruins (and, in Catholicism's case, a junior role in North America). Protestant-inspired church-state separation doctrine is a prudential prohibition against using religion as hard power at home, and a caution against using religion as hard power abroad. It is also an invitation for the state to be faith-friendly, promote religious pluralism, and avoid sectarian strife.

Thus, what I hereby baptize as spiritualpolitique is a soft-power perspective on politics that emphasizes religion's domestic and international significance, accounts for religion's present and potential power to shape politics within and among nations, and understands religion not as some abstract force measured by its resiliency vis-à-vis "modernity" and not by its supporting role in "civilizations" that cooperate or clash. Rather, a perspective steeped in spiritualpolitique requires attention to the particularities that render this or that actual religion as preached and practiced by present-day peoples so fascinating to ethnographers (who can spend lifetimes immersed in single sects) and so puzzling to most of the social scientists who seek, often in vain, to characterize and quantify religions, or to track religion-related social and political trends.

Consider how this perspective might inform the ongoing debate on Iraq. Some have advocated increasing the U.S. presence in Iraq and staying there until violence is well under wraps. Others have devised or advocated various draw-down or get-out plans. Although it took a few years, almost all now acknowledge that the struggle behind most homegrown bombings that have killed innocent civilians in Iraq has specific religious roots. But some on both sides in the debate over U.S. policy seem not yet to know that any conflict-ending compromise or resolution, no matter its military, economic, or other features, will not last unless it takes those particular religious differences very seriously. It is not a "civil war." It is "sectarian violence," complicated by the region's wider religious rifts and their intersections with state-supported terrorism networks.

Spiritualpolitique lesson one is that even in stable representative democracies, intra-national religious cleavages, whether long-buried or out in the open, always matter to who governs and to what ends. The religious cleavages in Iraq existed long before the U.S. occupation. And the sectarian sources of the violence there will persist even if the country somehow, some day becomes a textbook, multi-party, stable parliamentary democracy. (If you doubt it, just study the Israeli Knesset in action.)  

Spiritualpolitique lesson two is that constitutionalism, not democratization, matters most where religious differences run deepest or remain most intense. It was good to hold elections in Iraq. Majority rule via free and fair plebiscites is often among the first steps toward a more humane polity, whatever its official form and legal formalities. But majority rule can also mean the proverbial two wolves and a sheep deciding what is for supper. Constitutionalism, democracy or not, means that a government's powers are limited and any law-abiding civic minority's fundamental rights--starting with religious rights--are legally sacred.

Nothing, however, complicates the march to constitutionalism like religious differences, especially when, as is almost always the case, those differences are fodder for what the Founding Fathers denounced as "foreign intrigues." Consider what James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, and reflect on America's own history. When Madison discussed how political "factions" could tear a people apart, the very first source he mentioned was "a zeal for different opinions concerning religion."

The Constitution's ratification was threatened by Protestant true believers who cursed the clause forbidding any religious tests for federal office-holding. They rejected, but Americans now happily live, Madison's vision--a "multiplicity of sects" (Methodists, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and others) that each shape but do not dominate life in this large, commercial republic "under God."

Madison and company cut a political deal known to us as the First Amendment's two religion clauses: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." This meant that, for the time being, each state could have a tax-funded and ceremonially favored religion if it wanted, but the national government would remain forever neutral on religion. In the early 20th century, the Supreme Court erased the deal's last legal traces by holding that religious liberty is so "fundamental" that no religious establishments by the states are constitutionally permissible.

Until midcentury, not much changed. But then, in the early 1960s, tradition-minded Protestants, largely self-exiled politically since the Scopes "monkey trials," became convinced that the Court was going too far in ridding religion from the public square (the 1962 decision banning state-sponsored school prayer was the watershed moment). They entered the political fray. Thus began the evangelical mobilizations that revolutionized our two-party politics and shaped several recent presidential elections.

Interestingly enough, the single biggest program to result from born-again President Bush's push for faith-based initiatives has been international, not domestic: a $15 billion, five-year effort to address the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. In May 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the aforementioned Bishop Charles Blake and other church leaders with ties to religious nongovernmental organizations abroad that could help to get the job done.

Targeted mainly at 15 countries, and zeroing in on Africa (where two-thirds of the more than 3.5 million yearly deaths from the disease now occur), the soft-power program was championed inside the West Wing by Michael Gerson, the chief speechwriter who became the president's "compassion agenda" czar. Gerson is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He and his council colleague Walter Russell Mead are two foreign policy wonks who take religion seriously. And the council's president, Richard N. Haass, has publicly opined that religion matters in world affairs today more than it has for centuries.

But Gerson, Mead, and Haass remain exceptions to the expert rule, and not only at the council. In fact, to a remarkable degree, most foreign policy elites remain not only ignorant but also reluctant when it comes to discussing religion. In November 2006, the Pew Charitable Trusts (parent to the Pew religion program cited above) published in its magazine, Trust, a feature essay by a freelance writer named Sue Rardin. Entitled "Eyes Wide Shut," Rardin's article quoted numerous thought leaders and policy makers who expressed reservations about focusing on religion. She summarized their core concern as follows: "Addressing religious differences means entering discussions where moral values--our own as well as those of others--may not be governed by reason alone, but may be held more fiercely than if they were."

There is only one word for American foreign policy elites, Democratic and Republican, left and right, who downplay or disregard religion to their peril, ours--and the world's--in deference to the dogma that being faith-free promotes objectivity: preposterous. Or, as Rardin editorialized well: "It's as imprudent to ignore the role of religion in foreign policy as it is to pretend that the elephant is in some other room, rather than right here."

It is bad to doubt the overwhelming empirical evidence that religion matters to domestic politics as well as the delivery of social services. But it is far worse to treat religion as a back-burner reality in global affairs when it is boiling over in so many places. The State Department needs to wake up and smell the incense. There is already an international legal framework for thinking out loud and acting in concert with other nations on religion's role in global affairs. Religious freedom is addressed in the 1948 United Nations "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Article 18, which encompasses "teaching, practice, worship, and observance." Its terms are echoed by several other U.N. Declarations, including a 1981 General Assembly-backed document calling for ending all state-sponsored religious discrimination.

This international legal framework is reinforced by several federal statutes that were passed with bipartisan support. For instance, a 1998 federal law, signed by President Clinton, puts America firmly on the hook to support religious freedom abroad (the International Religious Freedom Act). Subject to that act, the State Department and other federal agencies are required to report any relevant information they have regarding "countries of particular concern." The 2006 list included Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

Not much, however, is actually done by Washington to act on these concerns, end religious persecution, or support nations that abide by both U.N. and U.S. standards governing respect for religious pluralism. Just how little can be glimpsed by comparing the federal government's faith-based funding at home and abroad.

At home, domestic sacred places serving civic purposes have been discriminated against in myriad ways by grant-making federal agencies. Things have gotten a bit better since the first relevant federal laws protecting their rights went on the books in 1996. The Bush administration boasts that more than $2 billion a year in federal grants now goes to qualified, community-serving faith-based organizations. Even if that figure is accepted at face value (many experts dispute it), $2 billion is still a relative pittance: The federal government gives out hundreds of billions of dollars in such grants each year, and over a third of all organizations supplying certain social services in big cities are faith-based.

It is, however, a bishop's ransom compared with the $591 million that the United States Agency for International Development granted faith-based organizations operating abroad in Fiscal Year 2005. Last September, Terri Hasdorff, the agency's faith-based center director, testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa. She noted that "the vast majority of faith-based awards are made to a small number of groups." Judged against both the more than $20 billion a year in bilateral foreign aid and the government's professed goal of providing better public health and other services around the globe, it is an astonishingly low sum.

Totalitarians, secular or religious, who know what they are about have always gone beyond merely banning this or that religion or establishing a state religion (Mao's little red book and cult come quickly to mind) to killing religious leaders, gulag-ticketing or terrorizing religious followers, and destroying (physically in many cases) religion's last traces (books, buildings). Religion, however, almost always proves resilient, often reasserting itself in its very pre-revolutionary or dictator-forbidden forms.

Thus, today's democracy-loving, constitutionalism-forging leaders in America and other nations should acknowledge, respect, and, where appropriate, boost religious good works both at home and abroad. When it comes to spiritualpolitique, God will help those who help others.

John J. DiIulio Jr., a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future, from which this essay is adapted, forthcoming this fall from University of California Press.