That New Time Religionrnby Philip JenkinsrnAmericans in the 19th century had a confident pride thatrnthey would dominate the coming age, not only because ofrnthe immense economic power of the new nation, but as a naturalrnoutcome of its moral and religious strength. As Melville hadrnwritten in White Jacket, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosenrnpeople—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the libertiesrnof the world…. The rest of the nations must soon be in ourrnrear.” Millennial hopes grew during the 1890’s: The age torncome would be “The American Century,” and also, inevitably,rn”The Christian Century.” In 1893, a World Parliament of Religionsrnmet in Chicago to celebrate the imminent global triumphrnnot just of Christianity but of its liberal, Protestant, andrnquintessentially American form. The influential liberal magazinernThe Christian Century took its present optimistic title inrn1901. Anyone who doubted the truth of this vision would be reassuredrnby the vast achievements of Western, and particularlyrnAmerican, missionaries throughout Africa and Asia, and abovernall, among the huge population of China.rnLooking back at the last hundred years, it v’ould take a rarernoptimist to proclaim it a Christian centun,-: From a Westernrnstandpoint, it has rather been an era of secularization, of steadilyrndeclining commitment to any supernatural system whatever.rnAnd yet those earlier visionaries mav not have been as wrong asrnfirst appears. The 20th centun- was indeed characterized by anrnastonishing growth in the numbers and geographical spread ofrnChristianit)’, which gained influence in Africa and Asia just asrnrapidly as it was losing ground in Europe and North America.rnWhy, then, are ve so blind to this historic achievement? Muchrnof the answer seems to be that the religion currently burning itsrnway across the globe is a traditional, enthusiastic kind of Chris-rnPhiUp Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History andrnReligious Studies at Pennsylvania State University.rntianity, spiritually dynamic yet politically conservative, and, forrnmany reasons, this is anathema to Western elites. A West inrnspiritual decline confronts a wider world in the midst of religiousrnrevival, and neither understands nor likes what it sees.rnThe depth of the cultural schism was suggested last fall,rnwhen the world’s Anglican bishops held one of their periodicrnget-togethers at Lambeth. The gathering made the news in arnquite imcharacteristic way, as a public well accustomed to hearingrnthe familiar denunciations of apartheid and colonialism wasrntaken aback to hear a forthrightiy traditional statement aboutrnthe evils of homosexuality and the impossibility of reconcilingrnhomosexual conduct with Christian ministry. Western liberalrnchurchmen of most denominations had waited for decades tornhear the authentic voice of the liberated Third World, that radicalrnprophetic voice which would challenge Western imperialism,rnand now that they heard it, that voice violated the most basicrnliberal principles: It was in fact ver}’, very conservative. Thernresponse to the statement on homosexuality can best be describedrnas incomprehension mingled with sputtering rage,rnnowhere more so than in the words of the arch-liberal gadflv,rnBishop John Spong of Newark. In a truly offensive statement,rnhe declared that these mainly African bishops were basically arnprimitive bunch who have “moved out of animism into a ver’rnsuperstitious kind of Christianit}'” and, therefore, should not berntaken too seriously. The whole tone of Third World spiritualityrnappalled him, as did the “religious extremism” which dominatedrnthe Lambeth conference: “I never expected to see the AnglicanrnCommunion, which prides itself on the place of reason inrnfaith, descend to this level of irrational Pentecostal hysteria.”rnHis words recalled the bygone years in which black Americanrnspiritualit}’ was scornfully dismissed as simplistic holy rolling.rnThe whole controvers) over gays in the Church neatly illustiatedrnthe adage about being careful what you wish for, lest you getrnAUGUST 1999/17rnrnrn