Every now and then, a magazine like The Atlantic Monthly -- a must-read publication, no matter what one's cultural worldview -- publishes a cover story that transforms how thinking people think about an important issue. At least, that's true if lots of members of the thinking classes are open to thinking about information that may make them uncomfortable.
This was certainly the case in October, 2002, when historian Philip Jenkins published a massive Atlantic cover story that ran with this provocative headline: "The Next Christianity." For those with an even longer attention span, there was the book, "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity."
Now, before I hit you with a key passage from that important Atlantic piece, let me tell you where we are going in this Sunday think package.
Jenkins was writing about a wave of global change in pews and pulpits, as the face of Christianity moved -- statistically speaking -- from Europe and North America to the multicultural reality that is the Global South. Thus, if you are looking for a "typical" Christian in the world today, it is probably an African woman in an evangelical Anglican (or maybe Methodist) congregation. She is probably a charismatic believer, too.
Now, I thought about that Jenkins piece when reading an amazing new Bloomberg essay by Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter, addressing the media storm surrounding that bizarre New Yorker sermon about You Know What (click here for my most recent piece, and podcast, on this hot topic). Here is the dramatic double-decker headline on the Carter piece:
The fast-food chain's "infiltration" of New York City ignores the truth about religion in America. It also reveals an ugly narrow-mindedness
What's the connection here, between Jenkins and Carter?
Hint: Demographics is destiny (and doctrine is important, too). Here is a famous (and long) summary paragraph from the 2002 Atlantic essay:
If we look beyond the liberal West, we see that another Christian revolution, quite different from the one being called for in affluent American suburbs and upscale urban parishes, is already in progress. Worldwide, Christianity is actually moving toward supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy, and in many ways toward the ancient world view expressed in the New Testament: a vision of Jesus as the embodiment of divine power, who overcomes the evil forces that inflict calamity and sickness upon the human race. In the global South (the areas that we often think of primarily as the Third World) huge and growing Christian populations -- currently 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia, compared with 260 million in North America -- now make up what the Catholic scholar Walbert Buhlmann has called the Third Church, a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Orthodoxy, and one that is likely to become dominant in the faith. The revolution taking place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is far more sweeping in its implications than any current shifts in North American religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. There is increasing tension between what one might call a liberal Northern Reformation and the surging Southern religious revolution, which one might equate with the Counter-Reformation, the internal Catholic reforms that took place at the same time as the Reformation -- although in references to the past and the present the term "Counter-Reformation" misleadingly implies a simple reaction instead of a social and spiritual explosion. No matter what the terminology, however, an enormous rift seems inevitable.
What does this have to do with the Chick-fil-A wars in today's hyper-diverse New York City?
You need to read Carter's entire piece, which is quite provocative, but here's a hint, one that may cause flashbacks to some of the elite media (and academic) criticisms of the Jenkins thesis. To be blunt: Carter wants to know why The New Yorker author is so uncomfortable with black people and black Christians, in particular.
What the author really seems angry about is that the company’s CEO opposes same-sex marriage. But the framing of the piece made Christianity the villain, and the headline -- “Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City” -- was sufficiently troubling that Nate Silver quickly tweeted “This is why Trump won.” Fair point. Religious bigotry is always dangerous. But there’s a deeper problem here, a difficulty endemic to today’s secular left: an all-too-frequent weird refusal to acknowledge the demographics of Christianity. When you mock Christians, you’re not mocking who you think you are.
A 2015 Pew Research Center study of race and ethnicity among U.S. religions provides some basic facts. In the first place, if you’re mocking Christians, you’re mostly mocking women, because women are more likely than men to be Christians. The greatest disproportion is found among black Christians, of whom only 41 percent are male. So you’re mocking black women in particular.
Overall, people of color are more likely than whites to be Christians -- and pretty devout Christians at that. Some 83 percent of all black Americans are absolutely certain that God exists. No other group comes close to this figure. Black Christians are far more likely than white Christians (84 percent to 64 percent) to describe religion as very important in their lives. Of all ethnic groups, black Christians are the most likely to attend services, pray frequently and read the Bible regularly. They are also -- here’s the kicker -- most likely to believe that their faith is the place to look for answers to questions about right and wrong. And they are, by large margins, the most likely to believe that the Bible is the literally inerrant word of God. In short, if you find Christian traditionalism creepy, it’s black people you’re talking about.
You think that's blunt? Check out Carter's finale statement:
Narrow-mindedness of this sort is alarmingly common on the left. A few years ago, a well-known progressive commentator mused to his large Twitter following that sometimes he wishes all the Christians would just disappear. I would like to believe he was simply too uninformed to realize that he was wishing for a whiter world.
By the way, I stopped by the new Chick-fil-A in lower Manhattan just before I left town the other night (I teach at The King's College about two-plus months a year in two-week seminars). It was crowded, of course, and I would say that the Friday-night clientele was about 75 percent African-American -- about the same as the establishment's staff.
I wanted to get reactions to the New Yorker essay among customers and staff members, but -- after several attempts (staff members taking breaks, for example) -- I couldn't find anyone who had read the piece or even heard of it.
Obviously, these Chick-fil-A customers in New York City were not true New Yorker New Yorkers.