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The Religious Crowds | Roberto Rivera | First Things, 6-4-15

2015-06-04 3:48 PM | Daniel

 Note: I include the text of this article, rather than a link, because accessing the link requires a subscription to First Things. Daniel

In the 2002 Brazilian film City of God (Cidade de Deus), the narrator, Rocket, provides the audience with a kind of social taxonomy of the eponymous favela during a street party. There was the “samba crowd,” the “soul crowd,” the gangs and the “religious crowd.” (Comunidade do crença, literally “community of belief.”)

By “religious crowd” he almost certainly meant Pentecostals. (Pentecostals play an even more prominent role in another acclaimed movie about a poor Brazilian community, O Homen do Ano, The Man of the Year.)

It could scarcely be otherwise. By some estimates, twenty percent of all Brazilians are Pentecostals of some sort. In addition, half of all practicing Catholics in the country identify with the Charismatic renewal in their church.

In the Philippines, forty percent of the country’s approximately seventy-five million Catholics “identify as charismatic” and seventy percent of Protestants “indicate they are either Pentecostal or charismatic.”

It goes way beyond Brazil and the Philippines. In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins informs us that “According to current projections, the number of charismatic/Pentecostal believers [around the world] should cross the one billion mark before 2050. In terms of the global religions, there will be by that point roughly as many charismatics/Pentecostals as Hindus, and twice as many as there are Buddhists.”

An “unintended” consequence of the competition from Pentecostalism in places like Latin America and the Philippines is that it forced the Catholic Church to “up its game.” In many instances throughout the Global South, this included embracing the charismatic renewal, including some of its features, such as lay evangelists.

Then there’s China. In his award-winning Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos only mentions the explosive growth of Christianity in China in passing—he devotes more words to Tibetan Buddhism—but his passing references show he much he is burying the lede.

He tells readers that are as many Christians in China as there are members of the Communist Party. (Given the risks associated with the former and the potential benefits of the latter, that fact is extraordinary.) He says that “as I traveled around China, I stopped being surprised by my encounters with Christians.”

Aslan is on the move. You just have to have eyes to see and know where to look.

Someone who knows where to look is Wes Granberg-Michaelson. In a recent Washington Post article, he brought some much needed perspective to the overblown “Christianity in decline” meme that followed the publication of a recent Pew Survey showing the percentage of Americans calling themselves Christians in decline while the number of the religiously unaffiliated was growing.

Granberg-Michaelson tells readers that “While rising numbers of “nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation when asked—claim the attention of religious pundits, the world tells a different story. Religious convictions are growing and shifting geographically in several dramatic ways.”

The story he tells will be familiar to readers of Jenkins’s The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South

What won’t be as familiar is his argument that the effects of this revival—what else can it be called?—isn’t limited to Rio, Lagos or Manila. Of the nearly 214 million migrants in the world, nearly half are Christians. And they are bringing their faith with them to the new homes, including the U.S.

Ever heard of the Redeemed Christian Church of God? Neither had I. But this Nigerian denomination has 720 churches in the United States, just opened a 10,000-seat “worship pavilion” in Dallas, and has churches all across Europe, and even in India and Pakistan.

Closer to (my) home, the women who clean my home come from Mexico, Peru, and El Salvador. You know what they talk about while they work? Jesús. I ask them to pray for me and my friends and family. (I give my friends Spanish names like Tomás and Juan. The Lord knows who they are.)

It isn’t only Pentecostal immigrants. “Fifty-four percent of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics, and fifty-one percent believe that the Second Coming will take place during their lifetimes. Charismatic Hispanic Catholics are more likely than non-charismatic Hispanic Catholics to believe in transubstantiation, go to confession, pray the Rosary, and serve in a parish ministry.”

National Public Radio, citing its own research done in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s School of Public Health, says that “about one-third of Latino Catholics in the U.S. identify as Charismatic.” Half or one-third; in either case, we are talking about a lot of people about whom little, if anything, is said in public debates about religion in American life.

When I read the reactions to the Pew report, both among the religious and the nonreligious, the word that comes to mind is “blinkered.” In all the talk about Christianity’s “decline’ and the rise of the “nones” it is clear that those doing the talking had a particular image of Christianity in mind that definitely did not include the people I just mentioned or even their children or grandchildren.

Take the the much-talked-about rise of the religiously unaffiliated or “nones.” Pew tells us that “Whites continue to be more likely than both blacks and Hispanics to identify as religiously unaffiliated,” adding “But the religiously unaffiliated have grown (and Christians have declined) as a share of the population within all three of these racial and ethnic groups.”

If you dig a little deeper (and do a little math) and the story is a bit more complicated. The “nones” were asked whether religion was “important” or “not important” in their lives. Both African-Americans and Hispanics were significantly overrepresented, relative to their percentage of those who were described as “unaffiliated,” among those who answered that religion was “important,” while whites were significantly underrepresented.

Specifically, Hispanic “nones” were nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to say that religion was “important,” while African-American “nones” were two and a half times as likely. This raises the question of whether being religiously unaffiliated among African-Americans and Hispanics means something different than it means among their white counterparts. (For instance, an earlier Pew survey found that 39 percent of religiously-unaffiliated Hispanics had a religious symbol, such as a crucifix, in their homes.)

Are they “secular” and/or “post-Christian?” Or are they “unchurched?” Those are questions worth asking in any discussion of Christianity’s future in America, especially given our changing demographics.

Bem-venidos ao comunidade do crença. 

Roberto Rivera is a fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and a writer for Breakpoint.

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