A quiet tendency to spread the word

June 30, 2006

The relationship between politics and religion will take centre stage at this year's Anglo-American Conference of Historians, University of London, July 5 to 7

The global community of evangelical Christians is diverse, divided but quite distinct from its fundamentalist US brethren, writes Paul Freston

For much of the 20th century, it was assumed that modernisation meant religion would be increasingly sidelined in public life. Europe was the model. The US seemed to be an exception in being modern and still fairly religious, but it was nevertheless expected that the world would follow the European pattern.

The first jolt to this assumption came in 1979, with the Iranian Revolution and the participation of Catholic priests in the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua. Events in the early 21st century have persuaded even the most cynical that religion is still important globally and must be taken into account, for better or worse, in world affairs.

Three forms of religion can claim to be fairly global in their reach and in their political impact. One is Islam, the second is Catholicism. The third is less well known and often poorly understood. It is the form of Protestant Christianity that frequently goes under the name of "evangelicalism".

Because the term "evangelical" has become associated with America's "religious Right", it is important to stress that, even though American missionary efforts are numerous, most evangelical growth in Latin America, Africa and Asia is a result of indigenous initiatives and cannot be read off from the political attitudes of white evangelicals in the US.

Most Protestants in Africa, Asia and Latin America fit under the rubric of "evangelical" as defined by British historian David Bebbington. They are a subset of Protestants who lay an emphasis on evangelistic and missionary efforts, the need to actively convert and change one's life, the special importance of the Bible (although they do not necessarily believe in its inerrancy) and the centrality of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Indeed, most of them are also Pentecostal and so emphasise the contemporary manifestations of "gifts of the Holy Spirit" such as speaking in tongues, divine healing, prophecy and exorcism of evil spirits.

Third World evangelical Christianity is growing rapidly, particularly among the poor, where it is overrepresented. It is not a state religion; in a few countries it is discriminated against. Being a non-traditional religion composed disproportionately of the poor, it usually does not have strong institutions and its cultural resources are limited. Many church groupings have no international contacts.

This global evangelical Christianity tends, therefore, to be "invisible" to most informed people in the developed West, partly because (unlike Catholicism) it has no global centre to organise or register its activities, and (unlike Islam) it has not been involved in the sort of politics that attracts the attention of the global media.

Evangelicals probably number between 300 million and 400 million people, or 5-6 per cent of the world's population. Their importance is enhanced by high levels of practice (in churchgoing and proselytism) and by their global distribution (the major centres of evangelicalism include the US, China and South Korea). Evangelicalism is largely a non-white religion and is increasingly distant from worldly power and wealth. Moreover, being a conversionist religion, it is today practically everywhere that it is politically permitted to be.

The region of most startling expansion has been sub-Saharan Africa, above all in postcolonial times. Another region where evangelicals have grown is Latin America, where they are 10-12 per cent of the population. Pentecostal churches predominate there, being associated disproportionately with poor, less educated and dark-skinned people. In Asia, the picture is patchier, but the Philippines and South Korea have sizeable evangelical communities.

Evangelical Christianity is also fairly strong among diaspora Chinese, and it has become the dominant religion among several ethnic minorities from India to Indonesia. Last, but not least, evangelicalism has grown dramatically in China, both in the officially recognised Protestant Church and in the unregistered churches. Some scholars think that China is poised to go through an explosion of Christian adherence similar to that of Africa in the past century. It is possible that by the time China becomes a great power, it will have a sizeable and influential Christian minority.

What does all this mean for politics around the world? First, it is clear that worldwide evangelicalism does not fit well into the category of "fundamentalism". Although some evangelicals can be considered Christian fundamentalists, evangelicalism is an older and broader tendency within Protestantism, which relies on conversion and making tolerance, peaceability and pluralism advantageous.

Evangelicals have been increasingly involved in politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The positions adopted have been extremely diverse, and the record very mixed. Evangelicals' fragmentation means that their direct political impact is always smaller than hoped or feared. In any case, a very small minority of evangelicals have theocratic political projects similar to those of militant Islamists. Also, it does not seem to be true that Third World evangelicalism will automatically line up with the First World Christian Right on many issues. It may do so on abortion and homosexuality (though without making them such central questions), but it is far more fractured on questions of gender and economics, and it is distant from the Christian Right on geopolitical issues.

The results are paradoxical. Evangelicals firmly resist totalitarian regimes or movements, as well as non-Christian religious nationalisms; but they might not confront authoritarian regimes that do not impinge on evangelical religion.

In terms of state building, evangelicalism, because it is so fissured, is of less "use" in securing democratic transition than it is during the more extended periods of democratic consolidation, when it helps to incorporate marginal social actors and instil the confidence and skills that strengthen democratic culture at the level of civil society.

Some scholars have expressed the fear that African Christianity might have a serious terrorist potential, but there is very little evidence for this.

It is true that Indonesian Christian militias have reacted violently to Muslim militias in the eastern islands, and evangelicals in northern Nigeria have killed Muslims who, they would say in justification, were attacking them. In such contexts, the tendency of some Pentecostal groups to consider religious rivals as possessed by demons could well be explosive.

However, evangelical Christianity, compared with Islam, has had a very different historical relationship to the state, territory and the use of force. Some people have argued that evangelicalism's growth in the South is an extension of America's "soft power". However, the War on Terror and, especially, the war in Iraq have revealed a deep fissure within global evangelicalism, with Third World evangelicals in clear disagreement overall with their American counterparts. Although not monolithic, the majority current in Third World evangelicalism is closer on these questions to Christian currents in the US that might be called "mainstream" and "theologically liberal" than it is to American evangelical positions.

All this points to a geopolitical divide within global evangelicalism, which makes it risky to read Third World evangelicalism through the lens of contemporary Islamic politics or that of evangelical politics in the US. It is unlikely to become the next constituency of recruits for geopolitical terrorism. It is not an extension of US soft power. And it is not likely to dramatically change our globalising world.

Today, evangelical Christianity is located principally in the Third World. It has become one of the main religions of those marginalised by globalisation. As a faith that straddles global divides, evangelicalism might potentially offer a different vision of what globalised society could be, and its more privileged members might be able to act as mouthpieces for their less privileged brethren far away. But it is unlikely that evangelical Christianity, economically divided, organisationally riven and politically fractured, will be willing or able to play a really effective role in such questions.

Paul Freston holds the Byker chair in sociology at Calvin College, Michigan, and teaches at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil.

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