A Post-Secular World?

Cesare Merlini
Cesare Merlini Former Brookings Expert, Chairman, Board of Trustees - Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome

April 28, 2011

Introduction: The past two decades appear to have been marked by a return or revival of religion on the international scene. Christians in the United States are wielding powerful and visible, sometimes decisive, influence in the political sphere. More Muslim women are taking up the headscarf to mark their identity in their native or adopted countries. Israel seems increasingly to be becoming a Jewish state. And since it is always tempting to read such phenomena as trends and extrapolate them into the future, a picture has emerged of a world turning post-secular, as it is becoming post-Western. Several authors link the growing activism and visibility of private religious or ecclesiastic organisations with the rise of religious fundamentalism and the related attempt to impose a chosen reading of basic scriptures on the conduct of public affairs. The two developments do seem to be taking place at the same time, but a closer look suggests that they are often distinct and occasionally contradictory, at least as far as the three major monotheistic faiths are concerned.

Christian Metamorphosis

Christianity is undergoing a profound transformation. The traditional European churches, both Catholic and Protestant, appear to be approaching their twilight hour, despite the spiritual richness of certain circles. There are, to be sure, occasional high-profile and successful media events, but ordinary worship services are increasingly deserted and pollsters who ask about faith are receiving fewer and fewer positive answers. The paedophilia scandal, affecting the Catholic Church in particular, has been another downward step in an already adverse trend. The Vatican may continue to enjoy some political influence, mainly in Italy, but the original Christian connotations of many centrist parties in Western Europe have to a large extent faded. The cases of the Orthodox churches may differ for local reasons, but their roles have been relatively marginal in the fate of Christianity as a whole. The decline of traditional European Christianity, moreover, inevitably reduces proselytism abroad, raising questions about the fate of its past missionary vocation. This decline has been paralleled over the last few decades by the rise of neo-Protestant confessions – Evangelists, Pentecostalists and others – which have displayed an impressive capacity to reach people and raise funds. These groups epitomise the Christian contribution to the global religious revival. They are successful in Latin America, Africa and East Asia, but their cradle was, and their driving force remains, in North America, especially the United States. While the American constitution famously provides for the separation of state and church, the political influence of neo-Protestant organisations grew substantially during the last quarter of the twentieth century, first domestically under the influence of popular TV preachers, and then internationally. The trend continued through the first decade of the present century. The American way of proselytism has spread worldwide, promising God’s help for earthly wealth and health and making ample use of the media, commercial slogans and private funds. The triumphant mega-church model is now being introduced to emerging Brazil and poor Nigeria; while it has been flourishing for some time in industrialised South Korea. Thus, although some depict this Christian transformation as a shift of its main focus and influence from the northern hemisphere to the southern, following demographic dynamics and in parallel with the decline of the West, it has in fact not been so much a transfer southward as a shift westward, from Europe to America.