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The Young, the Fertile, and the Ambitious: Interview with Philip Jenkins

The Young, the Fertile, and the Ambitious
Author Philip Jenkins discusses the demographic trends and religious movements that the elite don't notice.

Interview by Jeremy Lott
March 2007.

Philip Jenkins is a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in a little bit of everything. In addition to general histories of Wales and the United States, Jenkins has published widely on terrorism, Communism, fascism, cults, moral panics, clerical sex scandals, and other issues. A reviewer for the Baltimore Sun called Jenkins's The New Anti-Catholicism "a book of powerfully convincing fairness, of impressive scholarship, and of extraordinary courage." He's written over 20 books since 1983. The latest, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis, will be released this May by Oxford University Press. Jenkins talked with CWR in January about demographic trends, American exceptionalism, and the future of the Catholic Church.

Your publisher advertises God's Continent together with The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity as part of the "Future of Christianity Trilogy." Did you mean to write a trilogy?

Philip Jenkins: When I originally wrote The Next Christendom, no. I thought I was writing a book. But by the time I was at one and a half books there were clearly going to be three.

Your latest book is about the religious future of Europe. How thoroughly has institutional Christianity collapsed there?

Jenkins: There are a lot of Christians in Europe and there's a lot of Christian sentiment remaining. If you talk about institutional, organized Christianity, it's in deep trouble, but there's still a lot left. The evidence I use for that is things like pilgrimages, which are at an all-time high.

Were you able to find a rough number of Europeans that go on pilgrimages?

Jenkins: I can't do it because so many of them are serial pilgrims. They are people who go to Lourdes and then Nock and so on. If you assume that there about a half billion notionally Christian people in Europe, about 75 million would be pretty dedicated, pretty devoted, pretty hard core.

Explain the "rule of ten."

Jenkins: If you're trying to track the decline of institutional Christianity in Europe, you can take a point in 1960 or 1965 and compare that to today. Whether you are looking at vocations or number of seminarians, we are now at one tenth of where we were, across the continent. People are not going to seminaries. They're not choosing vocations in anything like the number they used to.

How effective was the Soviet Union at stomping out religious belief, in Russia and in its satellite countries?

Jenkins: They were very effective in transforming it. What they did was almost a Darwinian process. In some areas, they drove away a lot of the more lukewarm believers and created a very fiery hard core. The great example of that would be in the Caucasus with the Chechens. Middle-of-the-road tolerant people got purged and that just left the very hardcore Sufi-run resistance.

Sometimes the scale of the destruction was so total they did uproot the whole apparatus. The Buddhists in Central Asia were basically utterly destroyed-it was a very bad century for Buddhism. But they couldn't be as effective in Eastern Europe, in Poland, where they did a wonderful job of making the Catholic Church the symbol of anti-Communist resistance. They just made going to mass a way of ticking off the Soviets.

What did you think of the resignation of Stanislaw Wielgus at what was supposed to be his installation Mass as archbishop of Warsaw, for his collaboration with the Communists?

Jenkins: I was very interested in the comments that the people were making at the mass. They were counterintuitive because people were saying things like "Oh, thank God the Vatican has saved us." You look at that and you think, What? But the suggestion was that everyone knew there'd been collaboration. I think they appreciated Benedict stepping in so hard, so fast.

With this archbishop, I think they were getting him for a relatively low degree of collaboration. He was being an informant on some things but he wasn't being what some clergy were being in other places, which was KGB operatives.

Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that post-Vatican II relaxation of distinctive cultural markers-such as the prohibition against eating meat on Friday-led many Catholics to identify less strongly with their religion. In your opinion, was that a major cause of lowered religious observance?

Jenkins: I think it contributed in a big way. In fact it's interesting to think of an alternate world where Vatican II never happened. A lot of the spiritual upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s would probably have done what it had done in the past-would find its way into the Catholic Church-as opposed to going off in some of the New Agey directions.

It contributed [to decline] but I don't think it was enough on its own. I think there were demographic trends already in progress which were contributing. Vatican II just came at the worst possible time because it aligned the Church with a kind of modernity that was already looking dated. Stark is right to say it's important, certainly. But I think the single biggest factor of decline in the 1970s and 1980s was the decline of children.

How does the rate of Christian observance in the U.S. compare to Europe if we count only mainline, well-established denominations?

Jenkins: Well, until you added the last clause, I had a great answer. In terms of church attendance, it's probably about three terms larger. In terms of how people identify and how they assume that religion is part of the landscape, it's even higher.

There are obviously regional peculiarities. Much of the West Coast, such as Seattle and San Francisco, tend to look more like Europe. Agnosticism is an option. Generally, American churches are doing better. However, some of the churches which are among the best and oldest established are in steepest decline. One of the strengths of American churches is that they're always falling and always rising at the same time. It's a very dynamic religious landscape.

Why are the rates of religious observance so much higher in America?

Jenkins: There are all sorts of possible answers. Two things I pay attention to. One is the constant history of migration in this country. You continually have new waves of people coming in. They are looking for community. They find it in churches, synagogues, religious institutions. Europe, traditionally, was a much more static society.

Linked to that, America is a vastly larger country. It's best to think of it as a subcontinent by European standards. When people move around within the United States, they look for community, they look for somewhere they can send the kids. The obvious place for that is a religious institution. Historically, Europe, a much smaller society, much more compact, much less mobile, has not had those kinds of forces. Belgium is about the same size as Maryland. If you move from one side of Belgium to another, you haven't actually gone all that far. If you move within the United States, then you are cutting yourself off from your older, established community and roots.

Is America's greater church-state separation one reason for the difference?

Jenkins: I don't believe so because I look at countries like Great Britain, where notionally church and state are very closely allied. That doesn't prevent a vast amount of religious life happening outside that church-state link. People set up these great Methodist churches and Presbyterian churches which were actually bigger than the state church. They have contracted also since the 1960s, so it really doesn't seem to be a variable.

Through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the established church in Ireland is actually a rinky-dink little Protestant body which nobody goes to, and meanwhile everybody is off going to a non-established Catholic Church. It may be that a church-state alliance is bad for a particular established church, but there's no reason why people can't just go off and set up big churches elsewhere, and they do.

How does immigration affect America's religiosity?

Jenkins: Because you have constant new waves of people who want to get together and share community and keep alive standards from the old country. Very often the way they do that is in religious institutions.

One of the problems the Catholic Church has had in the last couple of hundred years is convincing people to go to a Catholic Church rather than setting up a German Catholic Church, an Italian Catholic Church, a Polish Catholic Church. That immigrant history is something that makes America a very distinctive kind of society. Since [the Immigration and Nationality Act of] 1965, America is again this great immigrant society. That contributes to the growth of lots of Latino and Asian churches.

Also, there is evidence that when people migrate, it's that quest for community that makes than more religious than they ever were at home. That's what happened to Italians when they came to America at the end of the nineteenth century. People who'd never been inside a church in Italy suddenly find themselves quite devoted churchgoers in the U.S.

Are you saying it's solely because of community?

Jenkins: That's part of it but community is a very big thing. It's where you meet people from your kind of background. It's only when you move that you acquire more of a national identity that you never had at home. A lot of Italians, for example, aren't really Italians until they get to America. Then suddenly they find that "Gee, that's what we were."

Are fears of a future "Muslim Europe" well-founded?

Jenkins: I don't think they are because the numbers at present are very small. And while they're going to grow, by American standards Muslim minorities in Europe are not going to be that huge. The other big issue is that when people talk about Muslim minorities, they automatically assume that everyone of Muslim background is going to continue to be a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore Muslim in Europe.

There's a lot of evidence that they're not. If you look at Algerian people in France, they have a strong sense of ethnic identity, but there's quite a low level of religious observance. They look like Episcopalians more than anything. Now obviously, there's a small and potentially very dangerous hardcore of quite extreme Islamists, and you'd have to be a fool to ignore that. But the majority of people are very happy to assimilate to some kind of French or Dutch or German identity.

Population-minded pundits such as Mark Steyn argue that you don't need Muslims to be a majority in any European country for them to exert disproportionate influence, especially given that: (a) a good plurality that knows how to hold together can run a country with a Parliamentary form of government; and (b) being an immigrant minority in a country can reinforce a sense of group solidarity.

Jenkins: Both valid points, but having a solid and well-organized minority can also generate more of a sense of national identity among that majority community that thought it had lost it entirely. We've certainly seen something of that in England, where English national identity is just coming into existence in the last five or ten years after being vaguely British for many years. Cultural Christianity is a much stronger force probably than it has been for 50 years in Europe.

Does that explain why so many Europeans stood up for the Pope when Muslims lashed out against his Regensburg lecture?

Jenkins: Exactly. I think a lot of people were more disturbed by his apology for his Regensburg speech than by the speech. I would also say that a lot of what we see in Europe in terms of Muslim identity is a very artificial phenomenon that has been sustained by European governments letting other regimes-Moroccan, Turkish, etc.- fund the mosques. There were grounds for this originally but if you talk to people in the mosques, very often the thing they say is, "Well, we're glad for the money but I wish we could get rid of this interference."

So I think European governments are only just figuring out the rules of this. We're still at a very, very early stage of migration. One question I ask in the book is, "Okay, how well was America doing with its integration or assimilation in the mid-1920s?" It was doing abominably. Most "Muslims," many of whom are not particularly religious at all, in Europe, are people who are first and second generation. My bet would be that if you roll on another generation or so, the worst that I can say about them is the ones in France will be French and the ones in Holland will be Dutch, with all the good and bad that implies. I think Mark Steyn underplays those tendencies to assimilation which really are quite strong. And they do show up in quite a lot of survey evidence.

Let's return to another issue where you and Steyn disagree. You note that birthrates have leveled off in some countries that most readers wouldn't expect. Between 1986 and 2000, average births per woman in Iran have fallen from 6 to 2, which is slightly lower than the replacement rate of 2.1. Indeed, birthrates almost everywhere are plummeting. Why is that?

Jenkins: That's right, across the Middle East. The Middle East in the last 15 years is going through the great demographic transition and that is one of the great facts in world politics. What it should mean is that in about 15 years these countries should be vastly more stable. The next 15 years could be a very rocky ride, but the long-term trend is to underpopulation. These countries will have to figure out how do deal with all those old people. Sometimes-and I'm not speaking about Steyn particularly here-when people talk about these astronomical birthrates, they're using pretty dated figures.

You write that the U.S. has managed to "resist the trend of sharply falling fertility" nearly everywhere. What explains that?

Jenkins: Partly, it's very very high immigration rates. People who migrate tend to be the young and the fertile and the ambitious and that creates a particular kind of population profile. Also, you still have this strong religious commitment which is usually reflected in larger families. Increasingly, the U.S. looks like a very weird society on the global stage. On religious affiliation, it's half way between Europe and Africa and in some ways it looks like that in demography too. It's not a European society, it's not a Third World society, it's something very distinctive. So there I am back to American exceptionalism.

After detailing the current state of Christian observance in Europe, you say that "there are intriguing signs of growth within that secular framework." What are some of those signs?

Jenkins: In all the major churches, including the state churches, there are smaller hardcore activist minority movements, like the evangelical congregations within the Church of England, some Lutheran movements, but above all all these new religious movements, new religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church. Opus Dei is probably the most sensational but there are also a lot of different ones. Though they don't include a huge number of members, they do command a lot of influence.

Pope Benedict XVI many years ago was talking about the future of the church and he seems to have this idea in mind.

Jenkins: Right. [Thus] the "new evangelization." He's very frank about that. He uses the example of the city of Magdeburg and he says, "If eight percent of the population claim to be Christian, in what sense can you be living in a Christian society?" So you have to go back to square one and try again. The analogy I use is the Counter-Reformation. What the Catholics are trying to do is very similar to the Counter-Reformation. If you look at where Benedict comes from in Germany, in that area of Bavaria, I think that's his model.

A substantial subset of recent immigrants to Europe is not Muslim but Christian. What effects are these immigrants having on religious life in Europe?

Jenkins: There is a huge network of immigrant churches, in Britain certainly, but also in basically every country there are some very large congregations. When people look at immigrant areas in France, they tend just to see Muslims, but a lot of the folks are actually black Christians-there are networks of Congolese churches-and they really provide a whole alternative religious structure across Europe. In London on an average Sunday, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of people in church are nonwhite, and a lot of those are very recent immigrants. The best known congregation is probably that one in Kiev in the Ukraine which claims to be the largest congregation in Europe these days, with 30,000 members. It's Nigerian.

Your previous two books in the series are about how most of the future growth of Christianity will occur in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and about how that will shape global Christianity. What's going to change?

Jenkins: The first thing is the huge change in the social foundations of Christianity and consequently the way people view the faith. As Christianity moves south, it becomes poorer. It becomes more open to supernatural ideas, ideas of healing. Tying that together with the most recent book, that's also the picture you get of immigrant Christianity in Europe itself. That's having something of an effect on "mainstream" white Christianity as well. Healing is more in the public eye in Europe than it has been lo these many years. It's partly an ethnic change and a color change, but it's also a change of styles of worship and devotion.

You argue that Christians in Africa and Asia are very likely to view the Bible differently than many Westerners. How do they see it differently, and why?

Jenkins: Partly because they are coming at it with fresh eyes, when they read the Bible, they read of a society that makes more sense to them. For example, if you're debating the subject of homosexuality, then it's very tough in North America to cite something from Leviticus because Leviticus is obviously written for such an alien world, and it invites so many comebacks, such as: "So you believe the skin of the pig is unclean? Football's out."

In Africa, the main problem is not getting people to take the Old Testament seriously, it's getting them to realize that the New Testament takes precedence. In so many ways the Old Testament describes a world which is familiar. It might not be the world they're living in, but they know about worlds nearby where there is no medicine, polygamy, paganism, blood sacrifice. That means that a lot of the debates in the Bible, about the proper role of sacrifice, ancestors, and so on, are immediately present debates.

Link that to the whole point about poverty and an interest in the supernatural and healing, and people read the book of Acts as if it's not an ancient text but if it's like a current documentary. If you regard a book like that as something that's written for your world, it's easer to take its words as authoritative.

What do you think of the struggles in your own Anglican communion, where African leaders are being invited to oversee conservative American parishes?

Jenkins: The most important thing about it is that it's the first manifestation of something that all denominations that have any kind of global claim are going to face sooner or later. To a lesser extent, similar things happen to Lutheran, Methodist and down the road will happen in the Catholic Church.

I don't think you'll see a full scale schism in the Episcopal Church in the United States because of the problems over property and churches. If you're a conservative, in most cases you tend to be tied to the idea of the church and the beauty of holiness. You don't want to go off and be kicked out and worshiping in a high school gym. A lot of people will rather buckle down and put up with what goes on in the Episcopal church rather than try lighting out.

The Episcopal Church is a very congregational kind of body, so what goes on at the episcopal level doesn't impinge upon them necessarily. So I don't think it will cause a mass schism but in terms of the concepts involved, these are very important things that are going to hit all denominations sooner or later.

The other big area of this is a lot of denominations have been hit hard by disputes with immigrant congregations in American cities that are much less willing to put up with ordained women or gay-friendly churches.

In previous writings, you have worried about the fate of the U.S. in its fight against Islamist-terrorist networks. The end of the latest edition of A History of the United States, for instance, claims that the hijackers came very close to paralyzing the country...

Jenkins: We almost lost the capital.

God's Continent seems less alarmed. You preface one point by saying "Assume...that the terrorist menace fades within a few years..." My sense is that there's been some reevaluation on your part. Is that correct and, if so, why?

Jenkins: When I wrote that second edition of A History of the United States, it was a very very short time after September 11 and I think that conditioned it to some extent. It's also a question of what has happened in the interim. The U.S. has scored some very major successes, for all that's happening in Iraq, and I think that really has changed the landscape a lot.

It's also a question of what can happen in Europe. The more you look at it in a longer perspective, the more you could see something like the London train bombings happen again. You could see something like an IRA campaign. You can imagine a situation where maybe hundreds or even thousands of people will die. But the terrorist campaign would ultimately be defeated. I mean, if the IRA can be defeated, then anything can. If the European countries survived that, they will survive other stuff.

There have been major victories in the terrorist war, best indicated by the fact that as of this interview, there has not been a major mega-terror attack on the United States in over five years. That's remarkable.

What you think of the upsurge of liberal criticism of President George W. Bush and the people who were most likely to vote for him? Charges of "theocracy" are growing louder and more frequent. Former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges even went so far as to write a book labeling conservative Christians "American Fascists." What is causing this animosity?

Jenkins: When you look into about the sixth or seventh year of any conservative regime, opponents really start to get a little desperate. I look at what people were saying in, for instance, 1986. The theocracy stuff strikes me as not just singularly foolish, but I don't think we're going to hear any much more about it. It can't be much of a sinister theocracy if one little election seems to get rid of it. So I honestly don't think that critique is worth taking terribly seriously.

Liberals believe that once they get their own person in the White House, all this is going to go away. I think they're going to discover that payback can be very unpleasant. If the next president, whoever he or she is, is going to be attacked in very similar ways, I don't think they realize the consequences of how much they have upped the ante with their attacks on the executive. Come back in five years and let's see what the tone of debate is then.

If you look at liberal European countries like Denmark or the Netherlands or Sweden, by American standards they are already theocratic in terms of the involvement of the church with schools and state. Nobody seems particularly bothered about that.

---Jeremy Lott is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of In Defense of Hypocrisy.

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