By 1896 the 19th century was decidedly Great Britain’s. At 1945 we rounded-up and called it the American Century. 12 years into the 21st and already there’s a contender: Christianity.
The latest numbers from the Pew Religious Forum pegs global Christianity at 2.2 billion persons (and growing) – roughly 32% of the world’s population. The meek may well inherit the earth. Islam is next in the peloton with roughly 1.6bn, Hinduism hovers around 1bn, Judaism is 14m and atheism (notoriously difficult to statistically record) numbers somewhere around 250-400m: more atheists than microwaves, but fewer than French speakers. Coup de maître.
Christianity’s predominance is bad news for new-atheism types, but is it good news for the rest of the world? The short answer(s): No, No, Yes, Yes, and sort of. Allow me to explain.
First off, Christianity’s track record isn’t awe-inspiring. The Church – the body of Christ – has never outgrown its human shadow. Medieval Crusades and 19th century colonialism are common, if not glib, altercations – but there are others: Jewish pogroms, intellectual suppression and slave trades, to name a few. For something more recent, remember the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Equally unsettling is Christianity’s domestic disturbances. It often does, in the words of St. Paul, precisely what it does not want to do. For every one St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430 AD) there are hundreds of bishops and leaders peddling or protecting child sex-crime rackets. Only recently has Ireland put to rest the violence that separates its Protestants and Catholics. Look further back and it’s been worse: European history is littered with vicious inter-Christian fighting, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Battle of Tolbiac.
So more Christians isn’t a surefire recipe for better ones. Nor is its rise welcome in many quarters. Correction: its rapid rise. In 1910 Asia-Pacific Christians numbered 27.5m, today it’s 285m; Sub-Saharan African Christianity underwent a rabid 60-fold increase from 8.5m to 516m. This is the second concern: Christianity is growing in places it’s least welcome, and the inevitable tension complicates international relations.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, it also dislikes upstarts. By nature I mean China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, India and co. In these countries Christians face official suppression, rigged juridical indifference or simple lack of protection.
Elsewhere, such as in Egypt and Iraq, ancient Christian populations are now largely but only very recently displaced. (See Second Gulf War and Arab Spring respectively). And Sub-Saharan Africa is host to sordid violence between Muslims and Christians. This bush fire is fueled by potent mix of youth (median ages below 25), poverty, limited education, and tribalism.
Protecting religious rights is an important dimension of geopolitical calculations. And it’s on the upswing. Popes and pulpits may not command armies anymore, but Christianity continues to exert muscular influence over foreign policy. Case in point is the American religious right and its support of Israel and hawkish suspicion of China. Religious persecution can strain already complex bilateral relations and adds credence to ‘clash of civilizations’ type analysis. Sorry Neville, but there won’t be peace in our time either.
Christianity’s rise doesn’t deserve a bad rap. Like a Zebra, for all its black stripes there as many white. Among its many virtues, Christianity promotes the fundamental dignity of individuals (born and unborn) – and this primes global democratic reform.
David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, put it best: “When every human being is of equal and infinite importance, created in the very image of God, we get the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights. A foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women…” This is a major reason China’s so wary of its 65m Christians. Beijing and the Vatican are in a constant row over naming Bishops and adjudicating Chinese-Catholic affairs. It isn’t all politburo-paranoia: late 20th century democratic reform in Poland and South Korea was classic church-against-(dictatorial) state.
The tenets of the New Testament (and broader Judeo-Christian tradition) are the greatest moral regimen known to mankind. Christianity at its best makes Mother Teresas out of Mussolinis. If only 0.001% of Christians are devout, that’s still 2.2 million people who are indefatigably living for the glory of God and goodwill towards all. Not bad if it only takes one person to make a difference. Add to the list the number of remarkable Christian charities and NGOs, such as the Salvation Army, World Vision and Hands at Work, and the world is quickly becoming a better place.
Obviously not all Christians are devout, or even practicing. Many are in fact a detriment to themselves, others and their God. Hence the ‘sort of’ answer. Christ is good for the world. Whether Christians can be too is a laborious experiment in free will and divine grace.
Let’s pray for the best.