The Unintended Consequences of African Christianity to Politics and Power
July 21, 2005 11 Comments
I have just come across an amazing columnist called Spengler who writes for the Asia Times. It turns out that the African church which was the subject of one of my recent posts has been exercising Spengler’s mind with provocative and interesting results. His focuses on the role of belief in political life, especially in the United States and the Islamic world. Though I do not agree with some of what he says, I must say I enjoy the boldness of his inquiries. See for yourself.
In ‘the unmaking of the neo-conservative mind’ Spengler charges the neo-cons with irrelevance. He argues that they are fighting political and cultural wars of past generations whose moment is long past. And that they ‘play at faith rather than live in the world of faith, a stance that eliminates their relevance to a world in which faith politics dominate.’ It is this very notion that I was finding so difficult to capture. How wedded to the form of power are secular elites who are without the will to face the kernel of belief that lies within them. The momentous shift in the church and mosque has caught them unawares and they are if anything digging their heads deeper into the sand. In Africa, I believe, the church shall soon dominate the state and that the result will be the obliteration of much of what we regard as politics and government. Oh, the offices will remain as will the titles. But the animating force will be religious belief and practice, which will mean the rolling back of many liberal freedoms for good or ill depending on where you stand. Like the neo-cons are finding, the religious flame they wished to control for their own purposes shall engulf them while their liberal opponents will be consigned to greater irrelevance with time as Spengler reveals in ‘Power and the evangelical womb’. If you are an African interested in politics and the future, and have not considered seriously the role of the evangelical movement, then you are seriously off base. It is the great movement of our time and this is true whether it will prove to be generally negative or the opposite.
Spengler then brooks the idea of Jesus as a super African ancestor in ‘Africa, Islam and the next pope’. He suggest that differing concepts of personhood by African christians and muslims leaves little space for common dialogue between the two. From which article comes the following inquiries from two readers followed by Spengler’s replies:
Will African Christians raze Mecca?
If Mecca is ever razed by an invading army, it will not be Israeli or American or European, but will march up from Africa south of the Sahara – though it would take a couple of generations more for the impending Christian transformation of Africa to proceed that far. If I were an Arab, I would be looking anxiously south. The current crisis in the Anglican Communion is revealing. Elan and freshness of thought are actually with the conservatives. The prominent role of the Nigerian Archbishop Akinola is also telling (his province contains many more practicing Anglicans than Britain and North America combined).
The challenge from Islam may produce a number of surprising and unexpected responses in the West, of greater significance than the military conflict. Interesting times ahead.
Thank you for bringing this issue forward. Prof Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University predicts an “historical turning point” in Christianity, “one that is as epochal for the Christian world as the original Reformation”. In the October 2002 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, he wrote, “In the global South (the areas that we often think of primarily as the Third World) huge and growing Christian populations – currently 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia, compared with 260 million in North America – now make up what the Catholic scholar Walbert Buhlmann has called the Third Church, a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Orthodoxy, and one that is likely to become dominant in the faith.” (Click here for the article.) This may look like a “Third Church” to Catholic eyes, but what I perceive is the proliferation of Anglo-Saxon, that is, American, Christianity, albeit in the patchwork raiment of local peoples. Growth of church membership in the southern hemisphere concentrates in denominations of American or British origin. Observes Prof Jenkins, “it is Pentecostals who stand in the vanguard of the Southern Counter-Reformation. Though Pentecostalism emerged as a movement only at the start of the twentieth century, chiefly in North America, Pentecostals today are at least 400 million strong, and heavily concentrated in the global South. By 2040 or so there could be as many as a billion, at which point Pentecostal Christians alone will far outnumber the world’s Buddhists and will enjoy rough numerical parity with the world’s Hindus.”
Samuel Huntington’s characterization of American civilization as “Anglo-Protestant” has merit, but his shot goes astray. No predestination prevents other peoples from adopting the Anglo-Protestant principle as their own. Of the 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, two go extinct every week (Why radical Islam might defeat the West, July 8, 2003). We are well into a Great Extinction of the Peoples, such as has not occurred since the collapse of Rome. Just as the endangered peoples of the 4th century embraced Christianity as a promise of immortality beyond the grave of their culture, so the peoples of the South flock to the same Cross. Seventeen hundred years ago they acknowledged the authority of Rome. Today the source of Christian authority is America.
The secularists who dominate American foreign policy seem to think that they can export the shell of the American system, namely its constitutional forms, without its religious kernel. It seems that the peoples of the South know better. It is no stranger that America’s hold over the world’s imagination should find religious expression first and political expression later, than that radical Protestants should have founded America in the first place. The new Christians of the South will surprise us for ill as well as good. Such matters of the spirit lie beyond anyone’s capacity to predict and well may have huge strategic impact, as you observe.
Your recent assertion that the philosophical underpinnings of American civilization are more Hebraic than classical Greek is intriguing. The Hebrews saw themselves as God’s chosen people, and it is certainly true that we Americans similarly see our country as being called out from among nations to bring a message to the world. But, where the Hebrews and early Christians preached a message of universal brotherhood, ours seems to have devolved into one of universal suffrage. It is one thing to construct a model of society where all are equal in the sight of God, but quite another to found a government on the principle that a crack addict is entitled to an equal voice in the affairs of state as, say, a Medal of Honor winner.
The founding fathers of the United States, men born of the Reformation, Enlightenment and Age of Reason, extended this principle by declaring that “rights” were inherent in the individual and that political power flowed from God to the individual, who then passed on limited authority to the state. However, these principles are far from being “self-evident”. They are, in fact, not only a mystery to most of the rest of the world, but increasingly to Americans as well.
But does the proposition that the only acceptable form of government is one that derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed imply that only a Boolean choice either of “one man one vote” or tyranny is possible? Or is there room in this world for more than one legitimate definition of democracy?
Dear Mr Taber,
That America’s roots are Hebrew rather than Greek is widely argued. See for example the Catholic writer Michael Novak’s On Two Wings (San Francisco 2002): “The way the story of the United States has been told for the past 100 years is wrong. It has cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies, her compact with the God of the Jews – the God of Israel championed by the nation’s first Protestants – the God who prefers the humble and weak things of the world, the small tribe of Israel being one of them; who brings down the mighty and lifts up the poor; and who has done so all through history, and will do so till the end of time.” His book contains many an interesting anecdote, although from an American vantage point, therefore, even the crack addict is important in the sight of God (although I believe a crack addict once convicted of a serious offense may lose the right to vote in American elections).
Democratic constitutions clutter up the dustbin of history. Every satellite of the failed Soviet empire had one. Democracy does not work unless the people truly believe that the individual is sovereign – not the people, I hasten to add. Since the odious J J Rousseau, we have had enough varieties of the “fuehrer principle” to choke on, in which an absolute leader embodies the spirit of the nation, disdaining the vulgarities of democracy in which candidates must persuade even crack addicts. One cannot be a little bit pregnant. Either the individual as a living image of God has such rights as pertain to his station, or not. If democracy comes to the peoples of the southern hemisphere it will come as a consequence of the evangelizing described above by Douglas Bilodeau, not as a set of transitional measures by the political scientists of the Pentagon.