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Contemporary Christianity has shifted south, and its preponderant weight has gone pear-shaped, which is the gist of Philip Jenkins’ remarkable and disturbing synthesis, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity . The bare facts may be old news, but few have spelled out the trouble they portend for the cultural empire of the liberal establishment of the North Atlantic. Perhaps the broadest public hint so far was provided by the 1998 Lambeth Conference (which in part stimulated Jenkins’ book), where southern Christians used their numerical clout to promote opinions thoroughly unfashionable in the north. Queen Victoria’s ex-empire from southern Africa to Singapore struck back.

When it comes to the much larger sphere of Roman Catholicism, today’s tussles were prefigured five centuries ago, when the Spanish arrived in Chile and the Philippines, and the Portuguese in Congo. According to Jenkins, the key to the ecclesiastical politics consequent on the shift in demographic influence since then is obvious: there are now, for example, only five million Dutch Catholics, and the Vatican can count.

What Jenkins documents without precisely saying so is the dead end seemingly reached by the master narratives generating and generated by the European experience. 1789 petered out in 1989. The Rest of the World had been scheduled to follow the path of ex-Catholic France and post-Protestant Sweden. Philosophy decreed that religious fantasy should empty itself in politics, while liberal theology required faith to demythologize or die. But the corridors of history turned out to be as perverse and cunning as ever.

In the burgeoning Rest of the World we now see a sizable number of Fanon’s “damned of the earth” mobilizing behind the banners of the redeemed, and (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) you can see that as a global version of Elie Halévy’s thesis about Methodism sidelining revolution in industrializing England. Just as Wesley’s movement was repudiated by, and escaped, episcopal oversight, so the ebullient Christianity of “the South” is repudiated by and escapes mainstream Protestant oversight. There is naught here for the comfort of Bishop Spong or the Jesus Seminar, and what we see bears a disconcerting resemblance to New Testament Christianity. Indeed, were New Testament scholars (or Reformation historians) to leave their academies for the fields currently “white unto harvest” they might learn a lot about the dynamics of religious revolution relevant to a.d. 50 or a.d. 1520. Similarly, rationalist Catholic elites might discover just what acculturation means in terms of social reality rather than policy recommendation. It might also be worth noticing just where in the world the Catholic clergy of the future are going to come from.

Alternatively, those millions who “stand before God” in Schiller’s prophetic “Ode to Joy” turn out behind the antique drum of a radical Islam. Admittedly, the philosophes admired Islam as a relatively rational religion, but nothing in the Enlightened master narrative prepared us for this half a millennium later. The much promoted empowerment of “The Other” was not really supposed to negate the ideology of its promoters. Hence the unreasoning dismissal of contemporary religious dynamism under the blanket pejorative of “fundamentalism,” implying that it is only a reaction to modernity rather than an alternative way to name it and claim it.

If Jenkins’ principal subject is the southward shift of Christianity, his answering second subject is the encounter of Christianity and Islam as they expand into the unoccupied territories between them all the way from West Africa to Irian Jaya. Again, though this may not be hot news to specialists, especially since Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996) stirred things up, Jenkins is pushing the argument on and into new territory.

First, he takes issue with Huntington by arguing that the population explosion consequent on “birth control lag” among southern Christians will not only sideline white, and especially white European, Christianity, but virtually equal the population explosion of Islam. Second, and more speculatively, Jenkins suggests on the basis of the kind of arguments advanced by Paul Gifford for Zambia (and, in a forthcoming publication, for Ghana also) that we may see a partial reversion to older models of Christendom. This does not mean a reversion to medieval organicism or to a synthesis of church and state, but it may be that some African countries will mobilize their identities in Christian terms.

More immediately alarming is the third leg of Jenkins’ argument, which simply states an obvious fact that has thus far been politically incorrect to articulate. Whatever the superiority of Islam in tolerating minorities during its millennium of imperial dominance, in the future a globally subordinate Islam will turn increasingly intolerant. That will be so even allowing for the many divisions in Islam itself. Indeed, one might speculate that Islam is now entering that phase of militant ethno-religion signaled in Christendom by the Iberian expulsions after 1492. Clearly that spells danger from Sudan to Indonesia, even though the latter country has so far managed to devise a non-Islamic identity. The places where ethnicity and religion correspond are especially ripe for conflict.

In Africa over a third of a billion Christians are juxtaposed to a roughly equal number of Muslims, and in Nigeria the two are precariously balanced. As for the European border with the Middle East, there has historically been an extrusion of ethnoreligious (and other) minorities in both directions. Ethnic cleansing is no novelty, as Muslims in Crete and Bulgaria, and Christians in Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq know very well, but henceforth the Islamic Middle East will become increasingly homogeneous, with its Christian populations moving elsewhere, particularly to the Americas. Meanwhile, a pluralistic Europe may receive some seventy million economic migrants, most of them Muslim, raising the Muslim minority from one percent to approximately 12 percent. One has to hope that recent tensions in Britain with a Muslim minority of 2.5 percent are not an augury of what that could mean.

There are, it seems to me, contrary global tendencies, one mainly pluralistic in partial association with Christianity, and one homogenizing, in partial association not only with Islam but with supposedly tolerant faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism. Maybe the conventional characterizations of these faiths in terms of comparative tolerance lack adequate sociological contextualization. With respect to Jenkins’ speculation about a new homogenizing “Christendom” in parts of southern Christianity, I rather doubt it, given the riotously fissiparous nature of African Christianity. Some countries in Africa are indeed entering a phase of national mobilization and there are ethnoreligious models for emulation available, for example in the Hebrew Scriptures, but if I read Paul Freston’s Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2001) correctly, these tendencies are not all that pervasive. Certainly global Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, has moved away from established churches, messianic nationalism, and intégrisme , towards voluntarism and pluralism.

The sub-themes of The Next Christendom mostly relate to the decline in the numerical and intellectual influence of Europe. One consequence is that Orthodox Christianity, stepping eastward from Serbia to the Urals (and via earlier Russian expansion to Kamchatka), will stay static, and so no longer be the third party of global Christianity. Judaism will also stay static, with some complicated geopolitical consequences in terms of alliances. A U.S. decreasingly European in the origins of its people will, nevertheless, become increasingly Christian, perhaps increasingly Catholic, if one assesses the overall impact of Hispanic immigration and of a differentially Christian immigration from all over the Pacific rim.

Jenkins deserves praise for his willingness to assess realities rather than focus on vague aspirations and righteous indignation. The effect of his book’s trenchant realism is to highlight the dilemmas that follow from the fact that “we’re all liberals now.” In particular we have to note the price tag attached to acculturation and indigeneity in terms of the disavowal of liberal Western tutelage on such issues as gender and sexuality. We have also to recognize that we cannot be morally relativistic, and at the same time lambast southern Christians as backward people misled by Texans on the rampage. If we are going to be nonjudgmental and sensitive to the values, choices, and creativity of others, then even fellow Christians should benefit.

Yet another new world is appearing (to quote a British foreign secretary of the nineteenth century) to “redress the balance of the old,” and we cannot dismiss it airily as just needing to go to school in our better universities. The Christian mainstream, and especially the education it provided, contributed massively to the emergence of the ex-colonial world, and a Kofi Annan (Methodist) or a Julius Nyerere (Catholic) are witnesses to that. But the simple facts are that the new world in the south is not made in the northern image, whether with respect to northerners who expected its Catholicism to be liberationist when it more often turned out charismatic or traditional, or with respect to the liberal mainstream of Protestantism. In “the South,” even the mainstream is relatively conservative, as Lambeth showed in 1998. We live in interesting times, and should perhaps reflect gratefully that nobody identified the likely perpetrators on September 11 as Pentecostals from Brazil or Benin.

David Martin is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

Image by Keerti Bhalla licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.