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Ready to compete

Q&A | God Is Back authors say Christianity is poised to do well-and better than Islam-in the 21st century

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote of the great gift we sometimes have of being able to see ourselves as others see us. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge are editor-in-chief and Washington bureau chief of The Economist, the best secular newsweekly in the world. Their new book, God Is Back, details the findings that surprised them as they assessed the state of Christianity in America and religion throughout the world.
What were you trying to find out as you did the reporting for God Is Back?

John Micklethwait: Whether the secularization theory taught to us in elite universities-the idea that the more modern the world gets, the more secular it is-is true.
And you found out . . .

JM: It's not.
What about in Europe?

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Adrian Wooldridge: Religious questions are now a center of European culture in a way they haven't been for a hundred years, for many reasons. The most important is the rise of Islam and the repercussions of that in Europe. Not only is God back in the sense that He's significant enough for people like Christopher Hitchens to devote their energies and talents, such as they are, to battling Him; but also, He's there in Europe in the center of political debate.
We're hearing that Christian political influence is waning in America.

AW: That's true concerning gay marriage. On abortion, what is probably slightly rising in this generation is skepticism about whether abortion is constitutional. But more subtle and more interesting is that religion has escaped from the clutches of a particular political party, the Republicans, and has become much more pervasive in American life.
And at the United Nations also . . .

AW: On lots of issues at the center of the United Nations, lots of religious people have more influence than they have had ever before. The United Nations was created after World War II by a bunch of secularists who saw religion as a problem that needed to be excluded from public life and international life-and now the UN addresses all sorts of religious issues. I see the political influence of religion becoming actually greater in the United States, rather than less. This is true times 10 for the rest of the world.
How does American Christianity affect the rest of the world? You write, "American multinationals are contributing not once but twice to the global revival of religion-as the world's leading exporter of religion and as the world's leading supplier of the capitalism that increases demand for religion."

AW: America is one of the great suppliers of religion, partly because its mega-churches look to the world, not just to America, but also because it is the leading supplier of missionaries, Bibles, and books. America is also the leading exporter of capitalist culture. Capitalism is an extremely disturbing and revolutionary process that creates turbulence wherever it goes, but all of that turbulence creates demand for the consolation that comes from religion. Many people find the values of Hollywood turbulent and disconcerting, and their reaction is to turn back to their traditions and become more religious, rather than less.
A lot of people see competition within Christianity as a waste, but you see it as a good thing.

JM: It's a great irony that sometimes American Christians don't realize how wonderful that competition is. That is the thing that makes American religiosity different, the ability of different churches to spring up and to compete against each other. Look at the Methodists: They came in after the Revolution, and within 50 years they converted an eighth of the country. That set the trend for a variety of different traditions that followed. That element of competition, I think, keeps American religion enduringly fresh.
Europe misses that element?

JM: Adam Smith pointed out that if you have a religion backed by the state, they're not going to work as hard to bring people in or to convert people. Think back through English literature that you've been forced to read at different times; think of Trollope, where you might remember people sitting around and talking about the kind of "livings" they would get. Think of Jane Austen's Mr. Collins who spends his time desperately sucking up to his patroness.
Some people worry that Islamic countries have an advantage because they don't have the religious competition that we have in America.

AW: If you go to Dearborn, Mich., there are a lot of people who pray to Mecca every day. If you go to Mecca itself, I don't think you'll hear many people pray to Christ. I think that's a weakness rather than a strength of Islam. Christianity has two very powerful strengths on its side in the 21st century. One is that it has survived the acids of modernity. It's had its reformations, it's had its competition, it's had all of that and it has been strengthened by it. Islam has to go through all those tests, and it has to learn how to live with all those criticisms. It's going to be a very severe testing: The question is whether it will survive or not.
Do you see a Reformation coming to Islam?


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