[Paleopsych] Kristof: Where Faith Thrives
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Sat Apr 9 17:15:01 UTC 2005
Where Faith Thrives
New York Times opinion column by Nicholas D. Kristof, 5.3.26
DETE CROSSING, Zimbabwe So with Easter approaching, here I am in the
heart of Christendom.
That's right - Africa. One of the most important trends reshaping the
world is the decline of Christianity in Europe and its rise in Africa
and other parts of the developing world, including Asia and Latin
I stopped at a village last Sunday morning here in Zimbabwe - and
found not a single person to interview, for everyone had hiked off to
church a dozen miles away. And then I dropped by a grocery store with
a grim selection of the cheapest daily necessities - and huge
multicolored chocolate Easter eggs.
On Easter, more Anglicans will attend church in Kenya, Nigeria, South
Africa, Tanzania and Uganda - each - than Anglicans and Episcopalians
together will attend services in Britain, Canada and the U.S.
More Roman Catholics will celebrate Easter Mass in the Philippines
than in any European country. The largest church in the world is in
South Korea. And more Christians will probably attend Easter services
in China than in all of Europe together.
In short, for the first time since it began two millenniums ago,
Christianity is no longer "Western" in any very meaningful sense.
"If on a Sunday you want to attend a lively, jammed full, fervent and
life-changing service of Christian worship, you want to be in Nairobi,
not in Stockholm," notes Mark Noll, a professor at Wheaton College. He
adds, "But if you want to walk home safely late at night, you want to
be in Stockholm, not Nairobi."
This shift could be just beginning. David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor
University sees some parallels between China today and the early Roman
empire. He wonders aloud whether a Chinese Constantine will come along
and convert to Christianity.
Chairman Mao largely destroyed traditional Chinese religions, yet
Communism has died as a replacement faith and left a vacuum. "Among
those disappointed true-believer Marxists, it may well be that Marxism
has served as a kind of John the Baptist to the rapid emergence of
Christianity among Chinese intellectuals," Professor Jeffrey said.
Indeed, it seems possible to me that in a few decades, China could be
a largely Christian nation.
Whether in China or Africa, the commitment of new converts is
extraordinary. While I was interviewing villagers along the Zambezi
River last Sunday, I met a young man who was setting out for his
Pentecostal church at 8:30 a.m. "The service begins at 2 p.m.," he
explained - but the journey is a five-hour hike each way.
So where faith is easy, it is fading; where it's a challenge, it
"When people are in difficulties, they want to cling to something,"
said the Rev. Johnson Makoti, a Pentecostal minister in Zimbabwe who
drives a car plastered with Jesus bumper stickers. "The only solution
people here can believe in is Jesus Christ."
People in this New Christendom are so zealous about their faith that I
worry about the risk of new religious wars. In Africa, Christianity
and Islam are competing furiously for converts, and in Nigeria, Ivory
Coast and especially Sudan, the competition has sometimes led to
"Islam is a threat that is coming," the Rev. William Dennis McDonald,
a Pentecostal minister in Zambia, warned me. He is organizing
"operation checkmate" to boost Christianity and contain Islam in
The denominations gaining ground tend to be evangelical and especially
Pentecostal; it's the churches with the strictest demands, like giving
up drinking, that are flourishing.
All this is changing the character of global Christianity, making it
more socially conservative. For example, African churches are often
more hostile to gays than mainline American churches. The rise of the
Christian right in the U.S. is finding some echoes in other parts of
Yet conservative Christians in the U.S. should take heed. Christianity
is thriving where it faces obstacles, like repression in China or
suspicion of evangelicals in parts of Latin America and Africa. In
those countries where religion enjoys privileges - Britain, Italy,
Ireland, Spain or Iran - that establishment support seems to have
That's worth remembering in the debates about school prayers or public
displays of the Ten Commandments: faith doesn't need any special leg
up. Look at where religion is most vibrant today, talk to those who
walk five hours to services, and the obvious conclusion is that what
nurtures faith is not special privileges but rather adversity.
E-mail: nicholas at nytimes.com
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