Growth, Violence and the Coming Religious Peace

Decades ago an Atlantic editor suggested an idea for an article which I somehow failed to produce. I recall him saying that the magazine rarely covered religion, but when it did, as it had in a recent feature article, it quickened an enormous response. Today, Atlantic editors, along with so many others, recognize the ever-growing power of religion in the world and treat it in depth, as in the commendable March issue.

The cover banners the three major stories. First is Walter Russell Mead’s: In sum, “America’s evangelicals are growing more moderate—and more powerful.” His observations and thesis run counter to favored opinion of not long ago, pioneered by Dean Kelley in 1972 in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, which contended that in order to grow and grow powerful, churches had to be strict, hardline, demanding, and counter-cultural. Mead notes that today, Adam Smith-ian enterprising competition to “get butts in the pews” has turned this around. Yes, there are still some latter-day Fundamentalists, but the winners are churches that offer most, are most at home in pop culture, and are “flexible, user-friendly, and market-driven.” They are moderating, and thus growing more powerful.

Contrast this with the major and tragic story, “God’s Country” (Nigeria) by Eliza Griswold. “Using militias and marketing strategies, Christianity and Islam are competing for believers by promising Nigerians prosperity in this world as well as salvation in the next.” There are mass conversions, defects, animosities, and massacres in this dire competition between the Muslims of the North and the Christians of the South. Rene Girard’s thesis about “the mimetic principle” is in effect: The two sides imitate each other and escalate in both marketing efforts and militial action. The well-document killings by Muslims are truly abhorrent; Christian belligerency, reactive or initiatory, is apocalyptically fierce. Griswold tells, for example, how the Christian Association of Nigeria “militia” attacked a Muslim town, killing 660 Muslims, burning twelve mosques and three hundred homes.

Griswold’s father had been primate of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A at the time of the massacre, and a colleague of Archbishop Peter Akinola, who was then the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Akinola is now the head of the eighteen-million-member Anglican Church in Nigeria, and the spiritual and ecclesiastical host to many dissident American Anglicans who have accepted him as their bishop. To put it politely, Akinola, stiffing Griswold, launched into an attack linking Islam and liberal Protestantism while defending what Americans call “the prosperity gospel.” “I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.” Both sides in the Muslim-Christian conflict cite their Scriptures; one pastor legitimated rape by Christians on the basis of Matthew 24:19: “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days.”

Those who think Atlantic is interested in religion only when there is conflict in its name can find a match for Mead’s piece in a third article by Alan Wolfe, a regular commentator on religious trends in the U.S. He writes on “the coming religious peace” in an article called “And the Winner Is…” The price of peace, says Professor Wolfe, is an American version of “secularism,” which pervades market- and success-minded churches. I think his definition is a bit too neat and he is too sure about its victory, but he has a strong point overall. Given the cost in lives—on both sides—of Nigerian religious self-assurance, the American compromise looks attractive. Archbishop Akinola would call that confession a sell-out, typically “satanic,” and would cite biblical texts to back himself up.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.