Are Evangelicals Winning the World?
Why are parts of Germany formerly under the enforced secularism of the Communist party rediscovering charismatic religion?
By Peter Berger in The American Interest
In its story of May 16, 2015, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel carried a story tiled (on its cover at least) “Are Evangelicals Winning the World?” [That is my translation. The German wording is “Are Evangelicals conquering…” I substituted the less martial-sounding English “winning”. To the best of my knowledge, there is a remarkable scarcity of Evangelical suicide bombers.] The story states that Evangelical congregations are generally growing in Germany. But it concentrates on two congregations: one in Stuttgart, in western Germany, the other in a suburb of Dresden, in the former DDR (the defunct Communist German Democratic Republic.) The second location is particularly startling.
The Stuttgart congregation is described as the first American-style mega-church. It is also clearly Pentecostal or charismatic. On Sunday morning some 2,000 people attend services, close their eyes and raise their hands in ecstatic prayer, “speak in tongues” (meaningless babble to outsiders), and watch their preacher perform miracles of healing. The Dresden congregation is located in a suburban area that has been called the Saxon “Bible belt”, in yet another echo of America. Both regions have a long history of Pietism, the German phenomenon closest to American Evangelicalism (but without the miracles). Whether this Pietist heritage (going back some three-hundred years) provides some links with what is happening now is an open question. But the Dresden case raises a more proximate question: how relevant is its more recent history under Communism? The Austrian sociologist Paul Zulehner has called the former DDR one of three European countries in which atheism has become a sort of state religion (the other two are the Czech Republic and Estonia). Is this wild eruption of supernaturalism a delayed reaction to the period when the Communist regime made propaganda for “scientific atheism”? Immediately after the fall of that regime there was a popular revival of the much more sedate form of Protestantism of the Landeskirchen, the old post-Reformation state churches; that revival did not last very long after these churches lost their appeal as one of the few institutions at least relatively free from the control of the party.
According to some data, there are now about 1.3 million members of congregations united in something called the German Evangelical Alliance (the German word is “evangelisch”). To add to the confusion of any reader of this blog not familiar with the esoterica of German religion, in ordinary parlance, “evangelisch” just means “Protestant”; to distinguish ordinary Lutherans from the aforementioned devotees of the supernatural, the German term “evangelikal” has been invented. Unfortunately, some Lutheran and Scandinavian churches implanted in America have retained the European meaning of “Evangelical”, as in the biggest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.—Evangelical Lutheran Church in America/ELCA (also known in its precincts as “Aunt Elka”). Too bad, dear readers: I didn’t create the confusion, I’m trying to dispel it. (In any case, if a devout Southern Baptist stranded in the Upper Midwest goes to an ELCA service expecting to answer the call from the altar, to accept Jesus as his personal lord and savior, he will be disappointed.)
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. Oddly enough, Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic have an affinity with right-wing and anti-immigrant politics. Dresden in particular has seen its Evangelicals very visible in the ongoing anti-Muslim demonstrations. At the other end of Germany, in Bremen, an Evangelical pastor has attracted media attention by warning against the notion that Christians have anything in common with Islam or Buddhism—they should purify themselves from all this “Muslim nonsense”, and not put up statues of the Buddha, that “fat old gentleman”.
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. Is my hypothesis just an expression of my own faith? Definitely not. I am not Pentecostal nor any other sort of Evangelical. But if (instead of being an incurable evangelisch Lutheran), I were Evangelical but also an objective sociologist, I would look at the empirical evidence and find the hypothesis plausible, and worthy of exploration. Am I sure of this interpretation? Of course not; science, including social science, does not lead to certainties, only probabilities. This is not the place to develop my hypothesis in greater detail. Let me just suggest that to be a Saxon Evangelical is not as much of a contradiction as it may seem, and that such an individual can find congenial places of worship from Sao Paulo, to Lagos, to Seoul (not to mention Dallas).
There is one obvious objection I should deal with: My hypothesis (a man-bites-dog story if there ever was one) seems to fly in the face of the fact that Evangelicals have great problems with many aspects of a modern, science-based worldview. How can one be a modern person who also believes that the world is only six-thousand years old, or that prayer can divert the course of a hurricane to hit my neighbor rather than myself? Or, for that matter, that the first five books of the Old Testament were written by Moses? Come with me to Dallas and you can easily meet people who manage this feat: successful petroleum engineers, heart surgeons or computer specialists. It is good to keep in mind that most people are not philosophers who want to have a logically coherent worldview. But all of us, including philosophers, operate in different “relevance structures” (to use the very useful concept coined by Alfred Schutz), and we constantly switch from one to the other. For example, I earnestly discuss sociology with a woman colleague at a scholarly conference, and find her increasingly attractive: I am switching from a professional to an erotic relevance. Alternatively, I discover that she is an ardent supporter of a politician I find very objectionable: She loses her attractiveness, as I switch from an erotic to a political or moral relevance. Probably this ability to switch relevances already belonged to our Neolithic ancestors, but it becomes specially important if one is to operate in a complicated modern society.
Back in Dallas, our petroleum engineer does drilling in the morning, plays chess in the evening—and goes to a conservative Baptist church on Sunday morning, listening to a sermon repudiating the theory of evolution. As long as these different relevances don’t collide on the level of actual behavior (say, some Evangelical Old Testament scholar claims that a hitherto overlooked passage in the Book of Leviticus condemns chess), one can happily go on switching relevances. Perhaps the following joke is (indeed) relevant to this discussion: Why are Baptists opposed to premarital sex? Because it may lead to dancing!
Finally, let me tell a Pentecostal joke (perhaps the only existing one): At a meeting of Pentecostals, how do you find out how many people want to stay for lunch after the meeting? You go in and say: Those who want to stay for lunch after the meeting, please lower your hands!