THE FIGHT FOR GOD DECEMBER 19TH 2002 Traditional churches are in trouble. But Christianity is doing rather well DO YOU believe in God? If you are European, you probably shuffle your feet, look mildly embarrassed, and mutter, "Well, it depends on what you mean by God." Or something of the sort. In Western Europe, a mere 20% of people go regularly to a service; in Eastern Europe, only 14%. But if you are American, the answer is almost certainly an unabashed "Yes". Only about 2% of Americans are atheists, and a startling 47% tell pollsters that they go to a religious service at least once a week. Even if that is an over-statement, the broad difference between continents is clear. To most Europeans, it has seemed obvious for the past century and more that modernism is the foe of religion, and of Christianity in particular. But religion is flourishing in both the developing world and America. The reason is largely the powerful evangelism of new denominations that sprang up in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. How has this come about? The answer lies in the unique history of religious experience in the United States, in the adaptive genius of Pentecostalism, and in the power of the fundamentalist Christian message in an era of rapid social change. Moreover, as fundamentalist Islam has moved back into the limelight, so too has the political role of Christian organisations in America. Some believe the true power of both to have peaked. None, though, can deny their current prominence. TAKE YE THE SUM OF ALL THE CONGREGATION Counting believers is difficult. The world's Christian churches claimed some 2 billion adherents in 2000, up from 1.2 billion in 1970, which is roughly in line with population growth, but still leaves Christianity a larger faith than Islam. In America, the number of Christians rose from 81m in the early 1950s to 171m in 2000. Over the last two centuries, the proportion of Americans belonging to a church has grown sharply (see chart). But not all denominations have done well. A survey by the Glenmary Research Centre of Cincinnati, Ohio, found impressive increases in the past decade in the number of Mormons, Catholics and non-traditional Protestant churches such as the Pentecostalists and the Southern Baptists. The losers were traditional churches such as the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians. Catholics apart, Americans are fleeing in droves from the churches with set liturgies, organ music and ministers in robes, and towards those that offer fiery preaching, noisy music and telegenic men in suits. Go to a Sunday service at the Thomas Road church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and it is easy to see the attraction. When you arrive, joining a congregation of 2,000 or so smartly dressed Americans, Jerry Falwell, a well-known television evangelist, is dedicating babies. Lines of parents and grandparents offer their bundles. The genial Mr Falwell, his face smoothed with television make-up, reads out each infant's name and date of birth, and the names of the rest of the family. "Can we get that little face right on camera?" he asks. After this celebration of the nuclear family comes the service itself. Cheerful and easy to follow, the first half is full of music, accompanied by a jazz orchestra and a swaying, blue-robed choir of perhaps 100, who whack their way through such evangelical favourites as "The Old Rugged Cross". Then a young man, bleach-blond and clean-cut, takes the microphone and croons his way through a song about love--God's love, as it happens, though it might go down equally well at a nightclub. Mr Falwell's sermon fills the second half-hour and pauses bang on time: a whirring digital clock tells him when the live television coverage will switch to the commercial break. The sermon is deftly structured, the points repeated on a vast screen above Mr Falwell's head. The emphasis is on the basic doctrines of Christianity. At the top, he puts the infallibility of scripture. Even faster-growing are churches such as the James River Assembly in Springfield, Missouri. It is part of the Assemblies of God, whose membership grew by more than 16% between 1990 and 2000. These are mainly white Pentecostalists (black Pentecostalists tend to adhere to a separate body, the Church of God in Christ). At the headquarters in Springfield, Brother Thomas Trask, one of the bigwigs, sits in a vast wood-panelled office, looking like a prosperous mid-western executive. The Pentecostalists' selling point is their tradition of "speaking in tongues": babbling nonsense when the spirit moves them. Pentecostalists are also keen on the literal truth of scripture, on strict morality and on sending out missionaries to convert others. They believe in tithes, too: that is, in coaxing the faithful to hand over a tenth of their incomes. "You can tithe net or gross," says Brother Trask, helpfully. Missionary work absorbs much of the church's money: $178m last year. A snapshot of American congregations in "Faith Communities Today", published earlier this year, shows how universally this sort of mix seems to work its magic. It found that congregational growth went hand-in-hand with "clarity of mission and purpose", with the use of electronic music, with an emphasis on abstinence from pre-marital sex and with a strict sense of morality among worshippers. For the traditional churches, this recipe for success is exasperating. "Why does it take my denomination 20 years to build a church of 300 people," wonders Ronn Garton, a retired Presbyterian minister in San Diego, "when some of the newer churches can build one of 3,000 in two to three years?" Many decide that, if you can't beat 'em, learn from 'em. Robert Mooty is pastor at Timberlake Christian Church, a form of Congregationalism, not far from Mr Falwell's vast edifice. He has increased his flock by starting a relaxed family service, in a room with chairs and a synthesiser rather than the main church's pews, organ and Isaac Watts hymns. In all this, America differs starkly from Europe, where religion is often what Grace Davie of Britain's Exeter University describes as a "public utility". As she puts it, "In Europe, there is a concept of 'vicarious religion': of a small number worshipping on behalf of everyone else." Americans find Europe's secularism bizarre. "My American friends' eyes stand out on stalks when I say that I don't have a single friend seriously interested in religion," says Karen Armstrong, an ex-nun and the author of several books on religion. But in America, religion has always been a competitive affair, founded on personal belief. In "The Churching of America 1776-1990", Roger Finke and Rodney Stark point out that, because America was settled by people opposed to state-supported religion, there was never a monopoly, one-size-fits-all faith. Instead, churches have always had to vie for devotees. They have done so in much the same way that firms attract customers: by tailoring their product to suit a particular niche in the market. New churches can spring up easily. Their preachers have often had relatively little education but lots of energy and drive. However, once a church becomes established, with a hierarchy and a trained ministry, its clergy acquire theology degrees, often losing the raw certainty of their faith in the process. The authors argue that the most successful churches have always been those that preach traditional doctrines and make tough demands on their members. The Methodists, for example, flourished in the 19th century, when they were seen as an extremist sect. With subsequent respectability, however, has come decline. The same holds for other churches that have modernised and compromised. The reason, the authors argue, is that "religious organisations are stronger to the degree that they impose significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members." Religion, they explain, is a collectively produced good, partly because people are more willing to accept the risks involved in pursuing benefits that arise only in the hereafter if others around them have accepted the same deal. But the problem with any collectively produced good is the free rider--in the case of (especially European) religion, the church members who turn up only at Christmas and Easter, leaving the pews discouragingly empty in between. The answer lies in demanding a sufficient level of sacrifice to chase away free riders and to motivate the faithful to pitch everything into their church life. If they cannot drink alcohol, play cards or take drugs, they may find the social life at church more appealing. And a congregation of whole-hearted devotees gives everyone greater spiritual rewards than a half-empty churchful of sceptics. Although some may dislike the idea that faith can be analysed as an economic good, there is no doubt that the most successful churches are also the ones that require a lot of their members. Mr Falwell, like many popular conservative preachers, has set up a university, where students only recently won the right to wear Bermuda shorts, and are still not allowed to watch unwholesome movies. SPREADING THE WORD Success in America breeds a desire to spread the word abroad. Battalions of American missionaries now live and work in some of the roughest countries on earth. Two churches have been especially active. The Mormons send out more than 50,000 missionaries a year and are now more numerous outside the United States than in it. "They are the McDonald's of the religious world," says Laurie Maffly-Kipp of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies them, "in the sense of a complete standardisation of what is taught everywhere in the world." They offer an essentially American package, that appeals wherever families aspire to join an Americanised middle class. The other great missionary success is that of the Pentecostalists, whose strategy is the opposite of the Mormons'. As Harvey Cox of Harvard University explains in his book, "Fire from Heaven", they have a faith based on spiritual experience, rather than doctrine. That has helped them to adapt brilliantly to local religious tastes. As a result, he says, they have become the fastest-growing Christian movement on earth, with more than 400m adherents--one in every four Christians. They have been hugely successful in South Korea, where the largest Christian congregation in the world is Pentecostal, and in Brazil, where they contributed to the recent election victory of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. One other reason for the success of non-traditional Protestant churches, especially in Latin America, is the social benefits they bring. James Grenfell, an Anglican curate who studied these churches in Guatemala, noticed that women were especially attracted to their emphasis on thrift, punctuality and honesty, and to their hostility to domestic violence, gambling and booze. Get the husband to come along, and before you know it, the whole family has enough to eat. On one guess, he reports, 400 Latin Americans an hour leave the Catholic church to become Protestants. Immigration has long provided a steady flow of new Catholics into the rich world. Now, the non-traditional faiths are being carried back into rich countries by immigrants from the countries where America's missionaries have worked. One result: there are twice as many Pentecostal congregations as Church of England ones in the east end of London, an area with many immigrants. Not all Pentecostalists are fundamentalists; nor are all evangelicals. Wade Clark Roof, chair of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, characterises them thus: "fundamentalists emphasise what you believe; Pentecostalists, what you feel; and evangelicals, sharing the message." Mapping non-traditional religion in America is made harder by the diminishing importance of the label on the door. "American religion is increasingly non-denominational," says Stephen Warner, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, many non-traditional churches share a bunch of beliefs, some of which have political ramifications. Most arise from an insistence on scriptural infallibility. This is the basis for some Christians' rejection of Darwinian evolution. Fundamentalists make much of the fact that evolution is "only" a theory, as if the word meant "guess", and had no more scientific validity than the dogma of creationism. In fact, all scientific explanations are described, by scientists, as theories. This does not diminish their power to explain. Earlier this year, 2,000 people in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, signed a petition asking the local school board to put stickers on biology textbooks to tell students that evolution is a theory rather than a fact. Which is true, but it is a theory that fits the evidence rather well. It is also, whisper it, perfectly compatible with a divine Creator. WHY CAN'T I ENSLAVE CANADIANS? Of course, the faithful tend to pick and choose among bits of scripture (see article). The Biblical ban on homosexuality troubles liberal churches, as they wonder whether to bless gay unions and to ordain openly gay ministers. In general, the elite tends to be most in favour of being nice to homosexuals, the people in the pews most hostile. But fundamentalists know exactly where they stand. Mr Falwell, for instance, blamed homosexuals (along with feminists, civil libertarians and abortion supporters) for the attack on the World Trade Centre. Others share his revulsion. The Alabama Supreme Court recently refused to grant a mother who was a lesbian the custody of her child. American homosexuals react to such views with dismay. Mel White, an ordained minister who ghost-wrote Mr Falwell's autobiography, later revealed that he was homosexual. He and his partner have now rented a house directly across the street from the Thomas Road church, and go to many of its services, in mute protest against the fundamentalist view of homosexuality. Mr White argues that fundamentalists encourage the persecution of homosexuals and condone violent attacks on them. "This is the new McCarthyism," he says. Certainly, there is a curious contrast between the religious tolerance that has allowed so many faiths to thrive in America and the moral intolerance of some beneficiaries of that freedom. Perhaps the most controversial political impact of non-traditional churches is on America's attitude towards the Middle East. "We believe that the Jewish people are God's chosen people," says Brother Trask. "God has blessed America because of our support for the state of Israel," echoes Mr Falwell. Non-Americans tend to ascribe more power to the Jewish lobby, but fundamentalist Christians try even harder to influence America's policy towards Israel. As for Islam, some churches are rudely uncomprehending. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, one of America's most famous evangelists, describes Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion". Jerry Vines, a leading Southern Baptist, called Muhammad "a demon-obsessed paedophile." When, this summer, the University of North Carolina asked its freshmen to read a book by Michael Sells, an American professor, on the Koran, there was an uproar. Egged on by the Family Policy Network (FPN), a fundamentalist lobbying group, a number of students took the university to court. Joe Glover of the FPN regards the Koran as inflammatory stuff to put before the young. "It says: 'Fight and slay the pagan wherever you find them'," he says. Such talk dismays the tolerant majority, and is in contradiction to the generally moderate response of Americans to Islam since September 11th. George Bush has been anxious to stress his high regard for Muslims at regular intervals, ever since that attack. Such are the passions and provocations of these times, that he would be wise to carry on doing so.