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Feature: Christian ferment in Third World

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent   |   July 1, 2002 at 8:41 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- A democratic revolution driven by evangelical Christianity is sweeping the Developing World, a massive study conducted by 18 scholars from five continent shows.

The data they presented at an international conference in Potomac, Md., last weekend conveyed a strong correlation between the growth of Christianity and the growth of democracy, according to Harvard University professor Samuel P. Huntington.

Boston University sociologist Peter L. Berger predicted this development would have a significant economic influence. Following the theories of Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, Berger called the accelerating conversion of Southern cone residents to Protestantism a "first step into modernity."

By becoming evangelical -- and chiefly Pentecostal -- Protestants, they are undergoing what Berger called a "process of individuation." With the erosion of collective solidarity people are constructing their own fate.

Voluntary associations, such as churches, political groups and businesses, are replacing the social structures they were born into, for example the clan and the tribe.

This shift from fate to choice -- the mark of modernity -- made evangelicalism "a most dynamic force." Added Berger, "While Islam has a difficult time with modernity, Protestantism takes to it like a fish to water."

The apostle Paul's reference to the universal priesthood of all believers -- a key element in Protestant theology -- is of special import here, David Maxwell, who teaches at the University of Keele in England, explained, "People are proud of being part of this royal priesthood."

The study funded by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trust produced a vast amount of data from Africa, Asia and Latin America. They filled three thick volumes handed to the participants of the Potomac conference titled, "The Bible and the Ballot Box: Evangelical Faith and Third-World Democracy."

United Press International will discuss these findings in a series of articles to be published intermittently over the next few weeks.

As project director Vinay Samuel said, the result of this research addresses a quintessential question: "Is hope a critical device in politics?"

Reverend Samuel, an Indian-born and Oxford-based canon in the Church of England, is currently one of the powerful voices among the world's evangelicals. He and his son-in-law, Timothy Samuel Shah, resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, organized the Potomac gathering.

In a UPI interview, Isabel Phiri, professor of African theology at the University of Natal expressed this notion of hope most forcefully when she described Pentecostalism as the antidote to the "very force that is keeping our continent down -- witchcraft."

"The source of witchcraft is evil, most Africans believe," explained Phiri, a Presbyterian. "To fight the spirits of darkness we depend on the only spirit that is stronger -- the Holy Spirit," she said, referring to the third person in the Trinity who has a special place in Pentecostal theology.

"This is a reality in Africa," agrees Phillip Jenkins, who teaches history at Pennsylvania State University and ranks among the world's leading specialists on evangelicalism. "It is one, though not the only explanation for the rapid spread of Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity not only in Africa but also Asia and Latin America.

The operative Biblical text for this phenomenon is Paul's reminder, "For we are not contending against flesh and blood but against the ... world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:12).

Malawi-born and English-educated Isabel Phiri, whose Calvinist theology ranks among the most sober in Protestantism, warned this northern European not to make light of the ever-present African reality of what Jenkins called spiritual warfare.

"Witchcraft is so strong that when my husband and I built our house we have had to have prayers at every stage of construction to neutralize its demonic impact," she said.

"European missionaries used to say there is no witchcraft. But our experience tells us that it is very present. That's why so many of us Christians belong to two denominations -- a mainline church and a Pentecostal fellowship. I have resolved this problem by joining a charismatic fellowship."

Charismatic practice is by no means limited to the ever-growing, ever-multiplying, freewheeling Pentecostal groups in sub-Saharan Africa that has by now become a Protestant-dominated part of the world, according to Terence O. Ranger, an Oxford University professor emeritus on race relations.

Charismatic worship has long penetrated the mainline denominations and the Roman Catholic Church, all players in what Ranger termed the "third democratic revolution" that is being attempted at the beginning of the 21st century.

This revolution is "a struggle to develop not only electoral institutions but also to achieve a democratic culture and practice," he made clear. It fights for incorrupt "transparency," and an "ism" peculiar to that part the world.

It is called "third termism," and has occurred, ironically, in Zambia, the one country that has enshrined its Christian character in its constitution. Zambia, investigated by Isabel Phiri for the Pew-sponsored research project, will be the topic of a future installment in this series.

It was in Zambia, where the president who had inserted Christianity into the constitution was prevented from running for a third term. Thus Zambia succeeded in overcoming this "ism," as it has emerged from the previous two "democratic revolutions." The first among these was the anti-colonial struggle, which brought independence.

"It is clear that this revolution was democratic in intention. It is equally clear that it was not democratic in result," wrote Ranger in his introduction to the findings of the researchers assigned to Africa.

Thus followed a "second democratic revolution" in the late 1980s. "In very many countries this challenged led to the collapse of one-party systems and the introduction of a competitive electoral system," Ranger related.

But "movements originally committed to pluralism themselves became in effect one-party regimes; democratically elected presidents (and their clients) had too much to lose from yielding power."

The churches have played a different role in each of the three stages. However, in the current revolution, faith groups appear to have the strongest influence ever, the research shows.

This seems to be in part due to the phenomenon that the driving force are not the "Armani Apostles with Rolex watches conducting prayer breakfasts in international hotels," to quote David Maxwell.

Rather, they are hands-on African Christians prompting what Maxwell termed a "cultural reformation" and a struggle for social reproduction.

While this Christian-driven revolution is still unfolding, researchers such as Jenkins noted a reverse evangelization. Africans, once introduced to Christianity by Europeans, are now busy reminding the descendants of their former colonial masters of their ancestors' faith.

Already half of all Sunday worshipers in London are black. In the theologically wayward mainline denominations African and Asian prelates urge doctrinal purity. As one presenter at the Potomac conference remarked, "The empire is striking back."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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