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January 15, 2024

Will Africa Save America?

Even in Africa, Islam is now growing more quickly than Christianity.

A century ago, the Catholic intellectual Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Europe is the faith.”

Today conservative Christians, Catholic and Protestant, increasingly say, “Africa is the faith” — because the demographic future, and the strongest commitment to traditional teachings, is there.

At a time when the American right is strongly opposed to immigration and globalization, and the left casually portrays conservatives as racists, many Christians who make up the Republican base — and much of the center-right elite, too — are looking to the developing world for hope.

Africa has galloping population growth, while birth rates in the United States, Europe and East Asia are below replacement levels.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, there will be 2.5 billion Africans, and the growth won’t stop there.

Nigeria, closely divided and hotly contested between Muslims and Christians, already has a population of nearly 240 million, with a birth rate of 4.5 children per woman — compared to America’s 1.8 per woman.

Ethiopia, a Christian-majority nation, has approximately 120 million people and a birth rate of 3.8.

The United States is also a Christian-majority nation — but the majority here is dwindling, with only 64% of Americans now identifying as Christian, according to Pew Research Center data.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story; there’s also a qualitative difference between the faith in Africa and its character in the U.S. and Europe.

African Christianity is, on the whole, more conservative.

America’s traditionalist Catholics were dismayed by a recent statement from the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith that allowed blessings for same-sex couples under limited circumstances.

No, the Catholic Church is not sanctioning gay marriage — but conservatives fear the guidance set out in “Fiducia supplicans” is a leap in that direction.

Yet if Rome under Pope Francis is a source of consternation, Africa offers conservatives reassurance.

African bishops issued a statement of their own: “the extra-liturgical blessings proposed in the declaration ‘Fiducia supplicans’ cannot be carried out in Africa,” they announced Jan. 11.

“We, the African bishops, do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.”

The “cultural ethos” of America’s communities — and Europe’s — is what troubles conservatives:

Here same-sex marriage finds wide acceptance among mainline Protestants and many Catholics, and some conservative Christians are coming to feel like strangers in their own churches.

But they feel at home, in their hearts, with the African church.

Christianity has always been a global religion, in aspiration if not reach; Jesus’ disciples not only evangelized to the Roman empire and the Germanic tribes to its north but also sent missions east to India and beyond.

Ethiopia became Christian by the 4th century, and north Africa under Roman rule produced such early Christian leaders as Athanasius and Augustine.

Yet this history bears a warning that today’s conservative Christians, with all their hopes for the global south, must heed.

Belloc could write “Europe is the faith” because outside of Europe, Christianity met with bitter and often bloody and conclusive setbacks.

Islam conquered north Africa, and before the age of European colonialism, Christianity had little permanent presence south of the Sahara Desert.

The growth of Christianity worldwide, in China as well as sub-Saharan Africa, has been strongest during the centuries of European and American ascendancy.

Earlier churches planted in Persia, India and farther east were tenacious but largely unsuccessful, perishing from persecution or the perception of being an exotic foreign faith.

There are millions of Christians in the Middle East and Turkey — lands under Roman authority in Jesus’ lifetime and for centuries after — but Islam is dominant.

And even in Africa, Islam is now growing more quickly than Christianity.

In places violence accompanies that expansion.

Between Dec. 23 and Christmas Day, Muslim Fulani tribesmen launched attacks that left hundreds of Christians dead or wounded in the Nigerian state of Plateau.

Early Christians believed that the Roman empire, for all its sins, served a providential role by creating the worldly conditions for the spread of Christianity, even among the peoples who ultimately conquered the Roman west.

Europe and the United States have likewise fostered an environment in which Christianity flourishes, on a global scale.

Will a post-Christian Europe and America sustain that environment — or if Christianity succumbs to culture wars here, will Christianity everywhere be in mortal danger?

Conservatives are right to take heart from the religion’s growth in Africa.

Yet if the civilization that Christianity created in Europe and America cannot survive here, the prospects for Christian civilization anywhere are bleak.

The West is not the faith — but it is the moral battleground on which the future of the faith on several continents depends.

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