Sometimes the stone that the builders rejected ends up as the cornerstone of the whole building. That may not quite describe the role of Christianity in American foreign policy, but in some important and little understood ways the massive surge of Christian faith in the developing world is tilting the global playing field in America’s favor. At home, the appeal and the vigor of African-American Christianity, especially of the Pentecostal variety, may be America’s best defense against a sharp increase in home-grown terror.
From Barbary to Baghdad
Managing the impact of Christianity at home and abroad on America’s image and on its real power is one of the jobs that our leaders — in the military, the State Department, the intelligence services and in the White House — will have to take in hand as they work out new foreign policy directions for the twenty-first century.
Christian Baptism Ceremony in Benin
It is a tricky job. Christianity has had its ups and down as a factor in American foreign policy. In its earliest diplomatic efforts to negotiate with the Barbary Pirates, American diplomats were instructed to stress that constitutionally speaking the United States was not a “Christian nation” in the way that the European powers were. At other times, stressing the country’s Christian roots was seen as a way to build alliances. In the Cold War the United States benefited enormously from the perception of many religious people around the world that we were the captain of “God’s Team” in the struggle with atheistic communism. The Soviets, the Chinese and their associated regimes regularly murdered and persecuted believers of all stripes. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews were all viciously persecuted, herded into camps, victimized by economic and educational discrimination and intrusively watched by the secret police. Even today, religious believers can be objects of suspicion and official repression in what remains of the communist world.
After the Cold War, and even more after 9/11, religion became a two-edged sword for the United States. Even for Muslims who generally sympathized with America’s core goals and who strongly opposed the attempted hijacking of Islam by fanatical throwbacks, America’s Christian identity was a serious problem. It was easy for the House of Saud to explain its Cold War cooperation with the American Christians against the Soviet atheists; it was harder to explain cooperation with American Christians against Muslim countries and movements — even misguided ones. Meanwhile, Europeans were increasingly secularist, hostile to religion and faintly embarrassed by the past. With American elites increasingly drifting in the same way direction, after 1989 and even more strongly after 2001 the instinctive response of many people in the foreign policy world was to keep the question of religion off-stage. The failures of the Bush administration–at times attributed (wrongly in many cases) to the influence of religion within the administration–only deepened the general sense that American religion was a problem to finesse, not a strength to exploit. Christianity would not help win the COFKATWOT (Conflict Formerly Known As The War On Terror) and it might even make things worse; why bring up a divisive subject?
There is some good common sense in this view. Many Europeans do perceive American Christianity (and especially its evangelical variety) as knuckle-dragging barbarism; America’s problems with Islamic public opinion are serious enough without entangling the current issues in 1400 years of Christian-Muslim relations.
Nevertheless, the global perception that the United States is a predominantly (if not always successfully or sincerely) Christian nation is not going away; neither is the sense that our greatest enemies in the COFKATWOT are a noxious and bizarre outgrowth of Islam. Many of those in the Islamic world who are convinced that the United States is a crusader state seeking to crush Islam are going to keep thinking that way regardless of what we do or say. The American foreign policy establishment and the broader community of people interested in our foreign policy need to understand the various and cross-cutting ways in which America’s Christian roots simultaneously offer challenges and opportunities for our work.
The challenges are fairly obvious to most people in the establishment; the opportunities are less well understood. Partly because many people in the foreign policy world are nervous about religion (and especially about Christianity) and partly because so much religious behavior happens in places few diplomats and journalists ever see, many otherwise sophisticated observers fail to grasp just how much the global rise of Christianity helps the United States. And Christianity is a rising religion; whatever its problems in western Europe and the United States, worldwide we are living through the greatest and most transformational expansion of Christianity since the earliest times.
Virtually everywhere in the world outside the EU and Islamic countries which forbid Christian proselytization, Christianity is on the biggest roll in its 2000 year history. Both in absolute numbers of adherents and in terms of its global ‘market share’ (the percentage of the world’s population that professes the Christian faith), Christianity is at an all time high. In the last fifty years it has surpassed Islam both as the most popular religion in sub-Saharan Africa and as the leading Abrahamic religion in China. The Roman Catholic Church alone claims almost as many members as the total number of Sunni Muslims in the world; all told, Christianity claims almost twice as many adherents as Islam worldwide.
Apple Pie and Prosperity
Christianity is not only the world’s largest and fastest-growing faith. Christianity is also the world’s most pro-American faith. Not all Christians like American values and American ideas; from Pope Pius IX to Dietrich Bonhoeffer modern European religious history is filled with Christian thinkers and writers who have been almost as horrified and appalled by American-style capitalism and society as Sayyid Qutb. Yet during the Cold War and again today in the struggle against the Force That Must Not Be Named overwhelming numbers of Christians worldwide, and especially in the developing countries, instinctively sided with the United States and saw us as the good guys.
And the fastest growing force within global Christianity is the most pro-American group within it: the global Pentecostal movement has grown from zero to something like half a billion members in the last 100 years. This is the fastest growth in percentage terms for any religious movement in world history, and in Africa, Asia and Latin America the growth continues today. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Pentecostal Christians and their beliefs are a substantial and in some cases dominant force among Christians in some of Africa’s largest and most important countries. From beliefs in divine healing and speaking in tongues, to the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return, to faith in the ‘prosperity gospel’ (the belief that God will bless those who truly believe with secular prosperity and physical health), some of the most characteristic beliefs and practices of Pentecostal Christians are found among both Protestant and Catholic Africans across denominational lines.
Christianity does not make people pro-American, but Christian faith gives people a perspective on life that is often congruent with American beliefs and ideals (if not always concrete American actions). For Pentecostals in many developing countries, America and its friends are seen as good guys upholding freedom of religion (including the freedom to share your religion with your neighbors) and promoting economic development. The radical terrorists and their various nasty allies are seen as murdering thugs who persecute Christian believers and fight the spread of God’s truth. Pentecostal Christians are often accused of belief in the so-called Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God favors believers with worldly riches and good health. This is a tough theology to reconcile with the Book of Job or, for that matter, the life of Christ; however, when preachers tell their congregations in cities like Lagos that God doesn’t want them to stay poor and marginalized, that God yearns to see them well housed, well fed and well cared for, that God wants their children to have an education and a better life — who among us would dare to call them wrong?
Whatever the theological problems and the abuses, this prosperity gospel approach inclines many Christians around the world to support entrepreneurial values, individual liberty and other traits that harmonize with American objectives and promote a positive view of American society. It may even encourage the kind of economic development that Max Weber identified with the rise of Protestantism in north European history.
In much of Africa and along the Islamic borderlines, the relationship of world conflict to local politics is very real. In these mostly poor countries, which are often undergoing huge social and economic transformations in the midst of a population explosion, the religion on offer isn’t subtle and sophisticated. Debates between Muslims and Christians aren’t always conducted by sophisticated and tolerant Sufi mystics on the one hand and nuanced and reasoned Christian theologians on the other. Young, angry, semi-literate men are shouting slogans at the members of rival gangs. Sometimes the two groups are carrying machetes and Molotov cocktails. The ‘religious leaders’ that these young men respect are often half-educated and young themselves: young Muslims who have only a narrow and sectarian education, and young Pentecostals who know very little outside (and sometimes inside) their Bibles.
God may have (and I believe that He does have) a special love for the poor, but that does not mean that the poor get sophisticated religion. They get strong religion and hot religion more than they get subtle religion and sophisticated religion. Pentecostal preachers all over the world are casting out demons, speaking in tongues, healing the sick and in some cases raising the dead. While many African Christians have broadly positive views of Muslims, I have heard African Pentecostals describe Muslims as demon-possessed; I have heard Nigerian Christians (in a country where interfaith violence has taken thousands of lives) singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a very non-metaphorical sense. The Muslims across town are getting a similar version of their faith; stripped of nuance, ready for combat. The backwoods Nigerian imams who tried to block a polio vaccine on the grounds that the vaccine was a western plot against Muslims were no more learned or sophisticated than some of the neighboring Christian pastors who tell their flocks that if they will only believe, God will bless them with good jobs and fancy cars.
Many western observers have a ‘pox on both your houses’ attitude toward the competition between these two versions of the great monotheistic faiths. Whether it is a judge in predominantly Christian Malawi sentencing an engaged homosexual couple to a jail term for public indecency or Muslim theologians in other parts of the continent claiming that the sexual mutilation of young girls is sanctioned by the Koran, many westerners find both traditions so distasteful that there is nothing to choose between them.
Whether that is true morally and spiritually I do not venture to say. But when it comes to politics and to the future of American foreign policy, the competition matters a great deal. If Africa and Asia fill up with fundamentalist, demon-exorcising, gay-condemning, Israel-supporting and Armageddon-awaiting Christians, we will live in one kind of world. While the United States could function very well in a world filled with tolerant, enlightened and sophisticated Islam, if China, southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa fill up with radical, alienated Muslims preaching absolute and intolerant versions of that faith, we would will live in a quite different and, from a US standpoint, more dangerous and less friendly world.
The Home Front
The faith competition between ‘hot Christianity’ and ‘hot Islam’ also matters at home. The elites pay only a very casual attention to this competition, but a war is being fought in America today for the souls of the African-American underclass. In our prisons, in our inner cities, even in our military barracks a silent struggle is going on for individual souls, one soul at a time. A preacher I know told me recently that the battle is for the soul of the forty-year-old unemployed and unmarried grandmother whose eighteen year old unmarried daughter has a one year old child. “Somebody‘s going to reach her,” said the preacher. “And she’s either going to be wearing a veil or carrying a Bible and singing in church.”
In raising these tough but real issues, I am making a point, not promoting a strategy. To say that global Christianity, and especially Pentecostalism, is a strong and vital force that on the whole promotes American interests does not automatically tell us what we should do about it. Our strategic COFKATWOT goal remains to work with serious and levelheaded Muslims to defeat a scourge that has killed far more Muslims than US citizens and is wreaking havoc throughout the Muslim world. But sometimes you need to walk and chew gum at the same time. As we continue to deepen our strategic partnerships with the Muslim friends who are–often at great risk to themselves–helping us make enormous strides against the miscreants, we should also find ways to reach out to the growing throngs of developing world Christians who want to work with us to build a safer world.
In any case, until and unless the foreign policy world comes to grip with the role that Pentecostalism and other forms of ‘hot Christianity’ play in both the United States and the world, it will have only a partial understanding of the forces that shape our world and make billions of people feel and believe–and act–as they do.