The Unintended Consequences of African Christianity to Politics and Power

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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?
Dear Spengler,
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.

Douglas Bilodeau

Dear Douglas,

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.


Dear Spengler,

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?
Peter Taber

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.


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About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

11 Responses to The Unintended Consequences of African Christianity to Politics and Power

  1. ozymandiaz says:

    First off, you are correct concerning Robert Guests book. Many views from the west, even from “enlightened” folk, base everything on templates of independence. I believe it to be common amongst many peoples that we look for, or more over see, their reflection in the eyes of others. To me, the important aspect is possession of lands. (nod to dr. evil.)
    Second, perhaps unfortunately, I suspect any power structure of corruption. If Mecca falls and is razed from the south, the people who are driven to that may be following religious edict, but most likely would be commanded by those with ulterior motive. Mecca happens to be sitting on (or near) a ton of oil. All though there is plenty of oil in the southern African regions, those deposits to the north have already been tapped into. That and the southern states may not “share” the wealth with the rest of Africa being that, as you say, they will be religious states backed by big business (foreign). Thusly the northern rulers would find it easier to attack Mecca on bases of Anglo Christian idealism. Or perhaps I am untrusting and paranoid.
    As for the Pentecostals, as least as I understand, they are much less brutal but no less invasive than the catholic missionaries.
    Thanks for another compelling post.

  2. BlakeC says:

    I have always taken great interest in religion’s role in the founding of democracy in America. Certainly the “founding fathers” were a diverse group and not all of them were Christian (notable amongst these of course would be the deists…especially Jefferson and probably Washington as well). It’s also intriguing that Christians on both sides of the democracy debate found basis for their political ideals in their religion. Much the same thing can be seen during the American Civil War with the Biblical justifications for both slavery and forced emancipation. It seems to me that far too often individual desires and beliefs have shaped people’s perception of the religion they follow (at least I feel this is more often the case than the reverse). American protestant Chistianity also has a dual, often times conflicting, perception of what GOD wants His people to do. Namely should we Christians concern ourselves primarilly with our own salvation through theological debate and hope that our example to the world will lead to conversion or should we evangelise to the nations spreading the Truth both far and wide. At the outset the diversity in Christian understanding in the American colonies is almost overwhelming. The major movements were almost all reformed Calvinist to varying degrees. Some of the most active evangelists could be found within a congregation that was quite a bit more stand-off-ish. But one positive aspect of these early congregations was that they represented a balance between the two extremes. Such congregations produced Jonathan Edwards who was both an intelectual dynamo and an active praticipant in the Great Awakening, as well as a devoted missionary to the Mohawk Indians. Over time the two strains of Christian action seemed to have diverged and down to the present day it is easy for most Americans with an elementary understanding of American protestantism to place major denominations into more or less two baskets: evangelical or main-line. I am of the personal opinion that the two should be combined more often than they are at present for a fuller view of Christianity.
    This same dichotomy is found in views that the founders held as to the role of the new federal republic. The Federalists led by Washington had a more outgoing and forceful view of the ideal government. While Democratic Republicans associated most frequently with Jefferson were more focused on a live and let live ideal. The funny thing, to me at least, is that there is no real connection between how one viewed the religious ideal and how they viewed ideal governmental action. This is probably due in some part to the fact that for many of the evangelical Puritans (a much more enfluential and encompassing group than most recognize) fear of government persecution of their religious beliefs were entrenched into their psyche from the tales of their forefathers persecution by the British crown and the history of protestant persecution on the continent. I wander if the geographical distance between the American evangelcals from their percieved enemies may in some way have effected their views in a way that the African Christian does not today experience.

    Great post.

  3. MMK says:

    blake C – Even as I write this, I am rooting around your very cool blog home. I must learn more of what you speak of! I am very curious about the beliefs that underpin the political institutions that we call government today. And the role of religion in American political development is a key. Please tell us more.

    Ozymandiaz – Will get right back to your comment in a few hours.

  4. WM says:

    I have some problems with the structure of this debate. First of all, these “broad brushstroke” sorts of analysis tend to miss the nuances, details and locatedness that constitutes culture and society, leading to conclusions that are vague at best and downright wrong at worst. Secondly, I find this business of African Christians razing Mecca to the ground ludicrous. Despite the evangelicals’ belief that all Muslims will go to hell, they haven’t seemed to evince much of a belief to actually send them there. You will remember that the only armed religious wars in the last five hundred years in Africa were the great Islamic invasions of West and North Africa. As a rule, the sorts of identities that Africans construct for themselves do not lend themselves easily to religious conflicts that produce violence, so I fail to see on what empirical basis anyone imagines that African Christians are about to fall into a literal interpretation of “Onwards Christian Soldiers Marching Off to War. Thirdly, yes, certainly, evangelism is extremely important here and yes, it is certainly growing, but to succumb to the sort of reductionism that suggests that this then becomes the most important identity for Africans only means that whoever is indulging in this speculation knows less than nothing about Africa or about Africans—we with our constantly shifting identities, with our cross-cutting alliances, with our capacity for tolerance that, I argue, is much greater than anything the “liberal nations” could ever think up. (Special note for MMK—think of all those Catholics happily massacring each other—NOT other religions—in Rwanda) If you think of the sheer number of say, ethnic groups, or linguistic groups on this continent, the war analysts would predict that the number of wars or even low level violent conflicts that should have occurred are exponentially greater, say, about 1000% than those that actually do—I happen to have been trained in a department that had a disproportionate number of international relations/war studies people, and some “experts” had actually done these statistical runs. My faith in statistics is notoriously low, if only because the results that were obtained in this particular case were so preposterously wrong. Fourthly, all of these experts seem not to realise that historical analogies are immediately skewed because all history is a result of present perceptions, and as these change, so does the “meaning” of historical events. Fifthly, if all these prophets of the future would look away from their crystal balls for just a second, they would understand that what militant islam objects to is a matter of foreign policy, resource distribution and allocation, the imperial nature of the united states’ thought structure and other factors which it is convenient to lump together unthinkingly under the name of “religions.” Thus, even the Huntingtonian “clash of civilisations” is awe inspiring only in its complete idiocy, simplification and crudeness of analysis. Finally, yes clearly the majority of the West claim the Greco-Roman civilisations as part of their heritage, but anyone who has actually lived in the U.S. will know that they DESCRIBE themselves as Judeo-Christian. They talk about their judeo-christian ethic, their judeo-christian traditions etc. Thus, I am somewhat perplexed at the terms of any “debate” that would arise as to the self-identification of the white Americans, generally speaking. I love disagreeing with you, MMK, but in this instance I am more sincere than usual: I do not find Mr. Spengler or his interlocuters the slightest bit interesting, much less fascinating. Indeed, they only make me fear for the future of intellectualism and scholarship if this the kind of thing that is accepted as cutting edge these days—I’ve never seen anything blunter.

  5. fogo says:

    it seems also that mr. spengler is understimating the role of religion in the neocon movement: don’t forget they are all born agains, etc.

    it is maybe revealing that the italian version of the neocon has been named teo-con, coz it is linking neoconservative analysis with a strong defence of roman catholic values.

  6. Dr Evil says:

    WM writes: “what militant islam objects to is a matter of foreign policy, resource distribution and allocation, the imperial nature of the united states’ thought structure and other factors which it is convenient to lump together unthinkingly under the name of “religions.”

    The point is, it is self-proclaimed Islamists voicing these objections, not a multiculti agglommeration of revolutionaries. Whether their reasons are compelling is debatable, their self-identification, however, indisputable.

  7. Dr Evil says:

    Oh, and WM, you forget that even up to this day there are slaves in Arabia. Isn’t that a compelling enough reason to want to smash Islam? And guess who’s gonna be behind them? Follow the link…

  8. HASH says:

    Damn you for writing such interesting posts!

  9. ozymandiaz says:

    Oh, my, we do sit on a high horse, do we not? It is cool. You have a strong mind that echoes in your words. It seems, though, that your sky is littered with storm clouds. Sometimes a storm is needed to cleanse, but don’t let the sun be evicted. Forgive me as I see no more intrinsic value in heritage than what I see in tradition. They are all tools of identity theft usurping true being.
    I on my part do not see Africa razing Mecca, I was merely speculating the influences of the possibility. Actually, I foresee global corporations racing to rape your land of natural resources to feed the machines of consumption which sustains economic markets of the world powers. (Mecca will raze itself) I don’t believe that this consumption is essential for free markets but consumption has taken over economic ideal because of profit margin. This is unfortunate for everyone on this planet. It does, though, adversely affect some more quickly than others.
    And those “religious” invasions you speak of reflect what I had previously stated. Religion is a means to an end for governments willing to use them. With that in mind, weather you like it or not, religion does now and historically has had influence on a peoples identity. But I also look at it like this, the identity of “my people” is not my personal identity. Yes I have a national pride (as do you) even though I recognize that my belief systems and that of most of my country people are far from the same, religiously, politically and otherwise.
    You may be, for the most part, right about Spengler. He does, though, make great fodder for conversation.
    Like your blog, by the way.
    Dr. evil
    It is not Islam that must be smashed, it is anyone, anywhere who would use religious ideal to usurp individual rights.

  10. WM says:

    Hi Ozymandiaz,
    If you have indeed read my blog you will know that yes, no horse is higher than the one on which I sit, and I like it that way; yes, I am in agreement with you on most points but find specious intellectualism of the spengler type insulting and annoying and yes, that being the anti-even non-militant or radical religion of any stripe person that I am, of course I would agree that using religion to short circuit thought is both criminal and insane.

  11. Dr Evil says:

    Ozymandias, I did not say that Islam had to be smashed. I can understand, though, if blacks have deeply-held grievances against the erstwhile slave-catchers.

    Anyhow, the idea of individual rights is foreign to most religions; it is most definitely a Christian notion to the point of being the hallmark of Christian civilization.

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