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Deck the halls with boughs of holly: Fears of a non-Christian planet are terribly misplaced

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Christianity was used to prop up and advance laissez-faire economics and Puritan devotion to work and thrift. This fusion of Christianity and free-market capitalism became embedded in the American psyche.

I cannot remember the last time I wrote an article based on a press release. I received one this week that got the two beans that make up my intellect jumping about in my brain. A Muslim country is inviting the world to come and “embrace the festive spirit”. Indeed, in almost every Muslim or Muslim-majority country, the halls have been decked with boughs of holly to celebrate Christmas.

After receiving the press release which invited revellers to Dubai, my handful of brain cells picked up on three main things. The first is my view on religion or deism, which I will not go over again. The second is about the pervasiveness of a culture of consumer capitalism, which I will touch on. The third is about the fear of the end of Western civilisation and the Judeo-Christian values that have shaped the world, arguably through an elision of Western liberal democracy and Christianity. This “decline” should not be surprising — all cultures have a “sell-by” date. Part of this paranoia is driven by a perception that Christianity is under threat, especially in the Middle East and Africa.

Is Christianity reaching its ‘sell-by’ date?

There are several indicators, some selective, some biased, others objective and less biased which give the impression that Christianity is indeed in decline. A British Catholic group, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), published a report about six years ago which suggested that Christians were rapidly “disappearing from entire regions — most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East [and] in Africa”.

The ACN averred that this diminution of Christianity was “the product of an ethnic cleansing motivated by religious hatred”. A more recent report is “Persecuted and Forgotten”, described by the ACN as “a report on Christians Oppressed for their faith 2017-2019”. Their main argument rests on a belief that Christianity was “changing from being a global faith to a regional one, with the faithful increasingly absent from ever-widening areas”. The ACN blames “militant Islamism” “extremists of other faiths” and “totalitarian regimes such as North Korea” for the decline in true believers.

In the US there is a rather crude attack on Muslims (and on black or brown people of different faiths in general).

What these attacks seem to miss is that there is a general and “rapid pace” in the decline of Christianity across the US, with an increase in people who are either agnostic or atheist. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of adults in the US describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion. This was down by 12 percentage points over the preceding decade.

At the same time, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” increased to 26% (from 17% in 2009). People seem to be increasingly disenchanted with religion. Note that those are examples mainly from Europe and its outgrowths — mainly the settler colony of the United States — and these regions have shaped much of the modern world.

There is, however, a political paranoia associated with this decline which can be explored.

The entwined destiny of Christianity, democracy and capitalism

Politics in the US, especially right-wing politics, is heavily influenced by religion — especially by Christianity. One “problem” that stands out is the way that the US, in particular, has merged capitalism, Christianity and its own version of democracy. Parenthetically, in an earlier incarnation, I attended several meetings of an evangelical Lutheran synod in the upper Midwest of the US, and always found it peculiar that that country’s flag was placed prominently beside a crucifix. As it goes, this is not an isolated incident.

In One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kevin Kruse explains in great detail the ways in which Christianity historically served capitalism in the US. Christianity was used to prop up and advance laissez-faire economics and Puritan devotion to work and thrift. This fusion of Christianity and free-market capitalism became embedded in the US psyche to the extent that high-powered bankers can claim that they are “doing God’s work”.

This, as far as is evident, seems to be closer to the truth in the purported decline of Christianity in the West. We have to acknowledge that individual Christian communities are persecuted in countries like Pakistan, the Islamic State is a danger wherever it has a presence, and Muslim communities are persecuted in India and Myanmar. Let us keep digging to try to get closer to the truth.

What is evident is that having fused Christianity, its own version of democracy and capitalism in the US is probably getting shaky because it is liberal capitalism that is under threat from state-led capitalism, and democracy is (globally) coming under pressure from authoritarian, theocratic, populist, fascistic groups and illiberal regimes in general.

In Capitalism and Christianity, American Style William Connolly refers to a stranglehold that conservatives and the right wing — a veritable “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” — have over religious and economic culture in the US. This, Connolly suggests, has caused egalitarianism and ecological integrity to drift to the margins of politics in the US. The most devastating outcome is the way that the evangelical-capitalist machine operates, the way its main themes resound across class lines, and how it infiltrates aspects of life in the US.

After the Great Depression, the super rich in the US were worried that populist politics were a threat to their wealth. Kevin Kruse explained in One Nation Under God that the wealthy did what they do best and simply bought a congregational pastor, one James Fifield Jr, who made loads of lolly from preaching to the fabulously wealthy of southern California.

Fifield convinced wealthy Christians that their riches were the result of virtue rather than vice. Fifield entwined Christian thought with (capitalist) economic development. He had a simple plan which took aim at Christian support for a generous welfare state with its emphasis on concern for the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable and the elderly, and to advance, replaced it with a fresh new theory of Christian libertarianism that continues to pervade US politics — mainly among conservatives and the right wing.

It’s capitalism, stupid

On the basis of all of this, it is not difficult to conceive of an entwined destiny of capitalism, Christianity and democracy heading on a collision course of some sort. What is under threat is Western liberal capitalism and democracy, which, with a growing disinterest in religion — in this case, Christianity — when seen together for the way they have shaped “Western civilisation”, may account for the fear and trembling in the face of an actual or imaginary non-Christian world.

We should, however, be careful and think deep and hard. Accepting that hard thinking among 7.9 billion people does not necessarily lead to a single notion, it remains a fact that the actual world in which we live has been shaped by Christianity and “Western civilisation” quite significantly.

There really is no indication that we are about to abandon “the year of our lord” as a historical or calendric marker and adopt the Islamic or Judaic calendar nor, for that matter, will we turn to the fabled calendar invented by Emperor Huangdi in 2637 BCE.

Likewise, the International Date Line, which runs from the North to the South Pole (passing through Greenwich, London), is not about to be abolished or reimagined.

These are only two examples that more or less determine the activities in the daily lives of 7.9 billion people — very many of whom may in their homes privately follow the Lunar Calendar — and that are stand-out examples of how the world remains more or less the way that the Europeans laid it out for the rest of the world. (Because of the way that it has shaped our world, it is imperative that all of these should be placed under critical scrutiny, but that’s another discussion).

Any way, the spread of religious intolerance — expressed in brutal violence and cruelty — and the weaponising of one group’s historical suffering and persecution to inflict great injustice on others, are serious threats to the world and should not be understated.

I have to add to that the spread of nuclear technology, the global environmental crisis (and stupidity) are among the likely threats to human life on Earth. None the less, as the press release I referred to above demonstrates, even non-Christian countries are gearing up for Christmas — notwithstanding the fact that there is scant reproductive biological (or historical) evidence that adequately accounts for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

From the perspective of the longue durée I would suggest that much like feudalism reached its end, capitalism will probably reach its sell-by date, and because it has been so entwined with Christianity we should probably not be too surprised if that, too, is replaced by something else. Not necessarily something better.

However, if you do believe that making mountains of money is “god’s work,” and that the weak should suffer what they must, everything is hunky dory. Well, it ain’t… But we can jingle all the way and Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly. DM

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  • The supreme irony is that Jesus owned nothing, demanded nothing and gave that which societies and communities are desperate for: tolerance, love, inclusion and sacrifice. As Dr Jaqui Lewis reminds us in a column about how we have ‘weaponised religion’, and that Jesus was at times homeless and a refugee. There are many Christians who have distanced themselves from ‘weaponised religion’ (consumerism, power, politics, etc) to return to the essence of their faith. They work quietly to make a difference on this planet. Many do not worship in the pews of churches but in their service to humanity. I see the same in other faiths, where many of the faithful eschew its manipulation and weaponisation to live in service to humanity. Jeremy Lent’s ‘Web of Meaning’ points to the kinds of changes needed at fundamental levels in living out our faiths.