Is God Going South?

Philip Jenkins stands before his audience, eyes closed as if scanning an internal text, a slightly bemused smile flickering on his face. His pleasure in his topic is palpable and the crowded room is hushed, waiting.

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"Western Christianity," Jenkins proclaims, "is a very dubious concept."

So began the second lecture in the geography department's mini-symposium on globalization, held on March 18 at University Park. Welsh-born and English-educated, Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history and religious studies and a prolific author (publishing three books in 2003 alone) whose far-ranging subjects have included serial homicide, terrorism, and priestly pedophilia. In his recent geography coffeehouse lecture, Jenkins focused on the subject of his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Picture a Christian

The "dubious concept" Jenkins referred to is not Christianity itself, which in Jenkins' view is experiencing a monumental revival. Rather, at issue is whether the Western world will continue to be the center of power for Christianity, in light of the religion's rapid expansion into Africa, Latin America and Asia, and its steep decline in Europe.

"Probably within another 40 or 50 years there should be around three billion Christians in the world," predicts Jenkins, "and the proportion of those who will be non-Latino whites will probably only be one-sixth or one-fifth."

Jenkins asks rhetorically, "Can you describe a typical Christian?" and quickly ticks off a list of defining criteria. "Usually he is a she. Usually she is brown-skinned. Usually she is very, very poor." Where will we find this woman? Jenkins pauses before answering in a deadpan, "Quoting the prophet John Updike, 'I don't think God plays too well in Sweden. God sticks close to the equator.'"

The West and the Rest

"The fact is," declares Jenkins, "we are at a moment as epochal as the Reformation itself...Christianity as a whole is both growing and mutating in ways that observers in the West tend not to see."

According to Jenkins, the Eurocentric view of both Christianity and the Catholic Church is passé. By virtue of the sheer numbers of adherents and the intensity of religious fervor, the global South—"the areas that we often think of primarily as the Third World"—has replaced the global North as the epicenter of Christian practice and influence.

For instance, in the wake of the priestly child abuse scandals, many liberal, affluent American Catholic parishes have criticized the church for its "primitive doctrines" and have called for Catholicism "to become much more inclusive and tolerant, less judgmental, and more willing to accept secular attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles."

Is Rome listening? Less likely than ever, thinks Jenkins, who points to the fact that Americans represent a mere six percent of the global church. "By 2025," says Jenkins, "something like 80 percent of the world's Catholics will be African or Latin American." If these nations represent the future of Catholicism, they will take the church in a direction far different from that envisioned by many American reformers. "If we look beyond the liberal West, we see that another Christian revolution...is already in progress," Jenkins says. "Worldwide, Christianity is actually moving toward supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy."

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Religion and the replacement rate

The replacement rate, defined as the number of children per woman it takes to replace each generation, is generally estimated to be 2.1. To some degree, the evolution of global religion is dependent on this birth-death balancing act.

Despite the church's ban on abortion and contraception, Catholic Europe is in a depopulation freefall, with many countries seeing more deaths than births each year. Italy and Spain are tied for the lowest birthrate in Europe, with 1.2 children per couple. In contrast, says Jenkins, the birth rate is booming in the global South. "There are more baptisms performed in the Philippines these days," he points out, "than in Italy, Poland, France and Spain combined."

Poverty and the ecstatic church

This "exponential population growth" in Africa, Latin America and Asia has contributed to the migrations of impoverished millions who abandon traditional village life and move into urban centers. Jenkins cites the city of Lagos, Nigeria as an example, describing how the city's infrastructure was designed to support a maximum population of approximately one million (its population in 1960). Today Lagos is home to around 13 million people living in sprawling slums, with 1,000 more arriving daily, seeking work.

Overburdened infrastructures and lack of social services in Southern mega-cities contribute to illness and desperation. (By some accounts, 50% of people in Lagos are infected with malaria and 1 in 20 children die by age 5.)

In Jenkins' view, the quest of the poor (or "the very, very poor" as he describes them) for physical and spiritual support is a factor in the success of conservative and charismatic Christian denominations. "The most successful Southern churches," he notes, "preach a deep personal faith, communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and Puritanism...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." In the midst of such misery, churches function as an "alternative social system," whose influence "is likely to grow in importance as the gap between people's needs and government's capacities to fill them becomes wider."

Seeing the forest

If it's true, as Jenkins believes, that "the American public can't see the forest for the trees" regarding the state of global religion, what are the trends we should be watching?

Of the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants into the United States, Jenkins states unequivocally, "The global South is coming North." "If you're not familiar with the Virgin of Guadalupe," he quips, "get used to her."

Jenkins believes that immigrants from the South will strengthen the prophetic, charismatic Christian and Catholic churches (most notably, Pentecostalism, he adds) in the United States. Writing of the political impact of the global religious shift, Jenkins predicts that eventually "sheer numbers will overwhelm the present political secular nation and state and replace them with theocracies."

A more immediate result of the doctrinal change in America, says Jenkins, will be an increased political concern with religious matters.

"For this coming election or the next, religious freedom and religious persecution are going to be big issues for candidates," he forecasts.

"If I was Hillary Clinton, I'd be thinking very hard about this right now."

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, can be reached at jpj1@psu.edu.

Last Updated May 18, 2005