Christianity, Sociology, and Germans

They’re more related than you might expect if this article from the American Interest is to be believed. All I’ll say is that it’s the first article about the state of modern Christianity I’ve read in a while that didn’t make me want to punch myself in the face. I agree that’s not a very high bar, but it’s encouraging nonetheless about the growth of evangelical Christianity in Germany and in general:

Please take it from me, one solidly steeped in in German religious esoterica: The Alliance with 1.3 members should rightly be called “Evangelical” in the American sense of that word! Like their American cousins, these German Evangelicals insist that the Bible, Old and New Testament, should be taken literally as the highest authority in all matters of faith and morality.

Why is this happening in Germany now? I don’t know. Is this a singular event, or is it part of a larger process of desecularization in western Europe, a region more secular than any other part of the world? Possibly. The British sociologist Grace Davie has been warning us against over-estimating the degree of “eurosecularity”—as she put it, many things are happening “under the radar”. Eastern Europe, especially Russia, has undergone some dramatic returns of religion in the wake of the enforced secularism of the Communist party. But even if I must honestly say that I don’t fully understand the present situation of religion in western Europe, there is one fact that we can be reasonably sure of: Evangelical Protestantism (especially but not exclusively in its Pentecostalist/charismatic form) is going through a period of rapid growth in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia (notably in China). Why is this? David Martin, another British sociologist who has been a kind of dean of Pentecostalism studies, has shown in great detail how this astounding development can be understood as yet another incarnation of the Protestant ethic, which was a crucial factor in the genesis of modern capitalism.

I think he is right. But I think there is another important factor, which has been generally overlooked. Allow me to regale you with the Berger hypothesis on why Evangelical Protestantism is doing so well in much of the contemporary world: Because it is the most modern of any large religion on offer today. I am well aware of the fact that this contradicts the prevailing view of Evangelicals in academia and the media—so brilliantly expressed in President Obama’s priceless characterization of a demographic not voting for him in the 2008 election as economically challenged people “clinging to their guns and their God”. In other words, seen from the perspective of Harvard Yard these are the great unwashed out of step with modernity. But curiously this is also how diehard Evangelical fundamentalists see themselves—as defenders of the true faith against the intellectual and moral aberrations of modernity. They are both wrong.

Evangelicals believe that one cannot be born a Christian, one must be “born again” by a personal decision to accept Jesus. What can be more modern than this? This view of the Christian faith provides a unique combination of individualism with a strong community of fellow believers supporting the individual in his decision. It allows individuals to be both religious and modern. That is a pretty powerful package.