Evangelical Christianity: the future beyond liberalism?

Dave Belden
3 December 2003

“There were so many devils on the bus today, David. So many devils!”

“Oh?” I raised a sceptical eyebrow. Henry was never this voluble. I wanted to hear more, yet dreaded it. Were these ‘devils’ gay men? It was San Francisco in the 1980s. Henry was a Pentecostal or some similar kind of evangélico, and in fact a lay preacher. We were both self-employed immigrant carpenters. But I was ahead in that game, and was employing him.

He was from El Salvador, I from England. We were cosmologies apart.

The two of us worked on our own together for weeks, remodelling a smart Victorian flat. He was as careful a worker as I was, and trustworthy, kind, gentle; just a sweet man. We came to like each other a lot. So much so, that his concern for my uncertain future grew.

“David, David, if you do not believe, you will go to hell

“It’s a risk I’m prepared to take.”

“But couldn’t you just say you believe, take Jesus as your Saviour, just in case

“As insurance, you mean? I don’t think I could.” I was surprised he thought that would work. Isn’t Jesus supposed to see into our hearts? But I was touched. It was almost as if he was bending the rules for me as his friend. My reply made him look so sad.

There were mysteries about Henry. Why the Anglo name? He was immersed in Hispanic culture, his church and family were the most important things in his life. He had no ambitions to appear Anglo. It seemed he had been christened Henry (not Enrique) back in El Salvador, but I was never quite sure. His English wasn’t always clear to me. Tea-break conversations had a way of revealing how little we understood of what each other said. Should I tell him that a Jungian therapist had led the naming ceremony for our baby son, or that my son’s godfather was my closest friend, a gay man whose life partner had died of Aids? I didn’t tell him. Tea-breaks weren’t that long.

I had come to carpentry from the hippie side, below the legal radar. I had health insurance myself, but no worker’s compensation. I paid little attention to legal bureaucracy. Henry was off the books. Our client was Swedish. She wanted him to get proper benefits and shamed me into agreeing with her.

“Henry, I need to pay you workers’ compensation, and take taxes out of your paycheck. It’s time we did this thing legally and properly.”

“I do not want it.”

“Why not? If you get injured on the job, workers’ comp and disability will pay you money. And if you pay into Social Security you will get an income in your old age.”

“No. I will never get it.”

“Why not?”

“Because, David, Jesus will come long before I get old. The world is coming to an end very soon.” His intensity would admit no contradiction.

So we rejected each others’ offers of insurance. We could only view each other sadly from afar. Each saw a totally decent man who was utterly misinformed and heading for disaster.

Henry and me

For Henry and me, read how the rich world and the developing world will increasingly look at each other over the next decades.

Today many liberals in the rich world look with condescension at the poor and their juvenile religious enthusiasms.

But the tables will turn. Already, the developing world is growing in power. Many people there are already looking across with condescension. We who are in the rich world are standing still, our populations contracting, while they are rising fast. They are already sending missionaries to us. They see us as lonely, atomised, depressed or manic, sex-obsessed, spiritually adrift. In the popular struggle for the hearts and minds of the world’s poor between Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and Pentecostal churches, the churches (and mosques) are winning hands down.

The 20th century’s success story?

Fill in the blank spaces: “Since there were only a handful of _____s in 1900, and several hundred million today [2000], is it not reasonable to identify this [_____ism] as perhaps the most successful social movement of the past century?”

How many highly-educated people in rich countries would put Pentecostal in the blank?

At current projections the number of Pentecostals will surpass the one billion mark by 2050. By 2000 Pentecostal numbers were increasing at the rate of about 19 million a year. That’s 52,000 a day. These figures and the quote above are from a convincing, and readable, book on world religious trends: Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity (2002). Pentecostalism is growing faster than any other religious or social movement – including Islam and Catholicism.

Samuel Huntington, in his influential book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) argued that Christianity will be supplanted as the world’s largest religion by Islam by around 2020. But Jenkins’s calculation shows that by 2050 Christianity will have a three-to-two lead.

Rich-world liberals tend to decry Pentecostalism as the advance guard of the takeover of the world by the United States right. They see how the rise of an ‘apolitical’ Pentecostalism in the 1990s, even more than a conservative Pope, subverted the liberation theology of the Catholic church that in the previous two decades seemed to promise a humane route to people’s power in many poor countries. But it wasn’t apolitical, say the liberals. It was funded by US conservatives and preached St Paul’s dictum, in Epistle to the Romans, that “the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”

This is too one-dimensional a view. It fails to understand what enthusiastic, charismatic, apocalyptic Christianity offers the poor. Modernisation may be underway, and even social reform in places, but often things are getting worse for the poor. Plagues, hunger, and oppression abound. Politics and globalisation has so far mostly failed the poor.

Enthusiastic sects in the southern hemisphere offer contact with the “right” side in the unseen but daily felt cosmic war of good against evil. They offer a clear path to heaven above and, for apocalyptics, an imminent turning of the tables here below. They also offer healing powers, self-help communities, rousing and comforting music and ritual, local leadership, and often some connection with pre-Christian traditional beliefs. In response, Catholic and other ‘western’ churches have had to become more like the sects to survive and grow.

In colonial days, Christian missionaries preached gospel stories of devils cast out, the dead raised, the blind seeing, and people talking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost. They did not themselves regularly cast out devils, generate miracles or speak in tongues: that was all appropriate to earlier times. But the poor live in those “earlier” times. Millions have no better water, food, medicine, work, science or government than Jesus’ contemporaries – often worse. For them, the gospels live.

Liberalism’s fate

In the long run, I assume that history will repeat itself on this issue. I don’t know about Islam, because there is as yet no history of modernisation to repeat (though I hope it will develop in a somewhat similar way). But in England, for example, Methodism filled in the void for the poor in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the revolution of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity failed to materialise.

Methodism looked apolitical, accepting. But out of its sectarian communities arose people who knew self-help, were schooled in leadership of their own congregations, and confidently believed they were in communication with God. In time they led the trade union movement, and founded the Labour Party. They valued education, the word. Their self-discipline helped them become time-bound factory and office workers, as well as radical reformers. Both sides of that equation built prosperity. That was my family’s experience. I am in the same game as my fellow-carpenter Henry, just a few generations ahead.

In this very long run, US social conservatives (including Attorney-General John Ashcroft, well-known as a Pentecostal) will be disappointed. The evangélicos will do their best to remake authority in the image of the self-help community. They will lead their own unions and movements of reform. Worldwide, it will be a struggle of several centuries. Prosperity will come, and with it individualism, feminism, secularism, and the struggle for freedom (intellectual, scientific, sexual).

Before then, though, the religious and social conservatism of the evangélicos and the imams will triumph across three quarters of humanity. What does the Pope care that the proportionally declining few that make up his American flock want contraception and married priests, when the Catholic Church’s majority and future lie in the socially conservative, patriarchal southern hemisphere?

The same goes for Anglicans and the issue of gay priests. The Pentecostals and independent Christians will set the pace. How many gay ‘devils’ will be exorcised or crucified? How many ‘non-believers’? How many Muslims will be killed by Christians (or Hindus), Christians by Muslims?

It is probable that this period when liberal social values seem to be rising inexorably – witness the legalising of sodomy by the most conservative Supreme Court in memory, and the endorsement of gay marriage in the old Puritan stronghold of Massachusetts – will one day be seen as an interval between conservative eras. Liberals will survive in the countries that industrialised first, but it will be a long time before their day will come again.

A future in faith?

I have much enjoyed the recent talk on the discussion forum connected to this column, yet there still seems something tame about it. It reads like peacetime talk, at the dawn of an era of religious zealotry and its accompanying conflicts.

So here is a challenge to secular web surfers: leave the house now and go down to a Pentecostal church in your area, to find out who is evangelising the next generation – in messages of communal energy, joy in worship, miracles of healing, and hope. For many western seekers of the post-war “baby-boom”, eastern religions held a fascination. Their grandchildren may instead be drawn to that vibrant eastern and southern religion, Christianity.

From Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom (2002):

“In one possible scenario of the world to come, an incredibly wealthy although numerically shrinking Northern population espouses the values of humanism, ornamented with the vestiges of liberal Christianity and Judaism… Meanwhile, this future North confronts the poorer and vastly more numerous global masses who wave flags not of red revolution, but of ascendant Christianity and Islam…In this world, we, the West, will be the final Babylon.”

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