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Christianity's New Center

Katie Bacon

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In the past year, coverage of religious issues has focused tightly on two themes--the present and future dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and the scandal in the American Catholic Church. There's an assumption that Christianity's worldwide influence is waning, as Islam's influence--especially in the political sphere--grows. And there's a belief that if Catholicism is to remain a healthy, vibrant religion, it must adjust itself to "modern" mores by revisiting its policies on celibacy, women's roles in the Church, and the amount of influence accorded to the laity. But Philip Jenkins, a scholar of history and religion at Pennsylvania State University, believes that on these issues the American public can't see the forest for the trees. In his article in the October Atlantic, "The Next Christianity," Jenkins argues that Americans are all but unaware of what is one of the most important shifts of the twentieth century--the explosive growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Christianity practiced in Africa, Latin America, and Asia tends to be much more rigidly conservative and traditional than that of the North, and its practitioners are often guided by a strong belief in the power of the supernatural to directly shape their lives. As Jenkins writes,

The most successful Southern churches preach a deep personal faith, communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on obedience to spiritual authority.... 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.

The places where Christianity is spreading and mutating are also places where the population levels are rising quickly--and, if Jenkins's predictions hold true--will continue to rise throughout the next century. The center of gravity of the Christian world has shifted from Europe and the United States to the Southern Hemisphere and, Jenkins believes, it will never shift back. So when American Catholics, for instance, talk about the necessity and the inevitability of reforms (reforms that Southern Catholics would most likely not condone), they do so without fully realizing that their views on the subject are becoming increasingly irrelevant, because the demographic future of their Church lies elsewhere.

That demographic future puts Christianity on a collision course with Islam. Though there will continue to be more Christians in the world than Muslims, they will be jostling for converts in the same places, and Jenkins forsees that several countries "might be brought to ruin by the clash of jihad and crusade." The Northern world is unlikely to be the instigator of future crusades. But it seems inevitable that both Europe and the United States will be shaken by the reverberations of growth and conflict in the new Christian world.

I spoke with Jenkins recently by phone...

Read the complete article on the Atlantic Monthly website.



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