Saturday, March 26, 2005

On Mr. Kristof on Religion

Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about Christianity developing in developing countries. He describes some of the adversity believers in Africa face in order to practice Christianity. He goes on to draw a comparison between the rise of Christianity in places like this with the decline of religion in Western Europe. In he his peroration, he writes:
Yet conservative Christians in the U.S. should take heed. Christianity is thriving where it faces obstacles, like repression in China or suspicion of evangelicals in parts of Latin America and Africa. In those countries where religion enjoys privileges - Britain, Italy, Ireland, Spain or Iran - that establishment support seems to have stifled faith.

That's worth remembering in the debates about school prayers or public displays of the Ten Commandments: faith doesn't need any special leg up. Look at where religion is most vibrant today, talk to those who walk five hours to services, and the obvious conclusion is that what nurtures faith is not special privileges but rather adversity.
I don't agree. I don't think his conclusion is "obvious." There isn't anything necessarily causal about adversity and the nurturing of faith, at least when adversity is negatively defined in relation to the privileges that Mr. Kristof alludes to. After all, there must be places where adversity exists and faith does not; most evangelicals would even say that a lack of faith is a state of adversity!

And I don't know if Western Europe’s religious climate is a very good contrast to draw. The religious climate here is one shaped and molded by our own history, one that intersects with religion differently from Europe’s. (And I don't get that Iranian reference Mr. Kristof tacks in at the end. However much clout the "Religious Right" may have in the US, America's hardly a theocracy like Ayatollah Khamenei's Iran is!)

In addition, just like Mr. Kristof makes a logical leap (of faith?) when he claims that adversity nurtures faith, he fails to make the case that state support causes the atrophy of faith. Certainly, I take his point that religion doesn’t need the state, but he shouldn't be so quick to assume that any decline in faith is a function of how much the state grants religion privileges. There might be something else leading to Europe's decline in religion.

Yes, these parting paragraphs seem out of place—more like parting blows, than anything else. I presume that Mr. Kristof has used the adversity that Africans and Chinese (though he spends very little time developing the Chinese struggle) face to create a parallel with the Unites States and some of its religious people's attempts to foster religious values and morals through government. But there seems to be a different sense of the adversity experienced in Kenya and the privilege that religion might have in the West. Kenya's adversity seems to be rooted in poverty. The opposite of this kind of adversity is prosperity--the situation Europe and the United States do find themselves in. So, what religious people in the U.S. might be worried about is a state of prosperity that would sap people of their religious faith--something that makes sense and is echoed throughout some of today's Church and its people.

Now, it seems to me that many of the religious people attempting to place the Ten Commandments or prayer in schools are doing so because they are worried about the prosperity that is connected to consumerism, hyper-sexualism, and all that jazz. Sure, it’s questionable that this type of involvement will work; Jesus, after all, never went to Rome. But, as Mr. Kristof concludes his column, this idea isn’t well made. Instead, he quickly and simply inserts a relationship between faith and adversity: the more of the latter, the more of the former. Instead, Mr. Kristof should recognize and acknowledge that when some religious folks attempt to legislate values, they do so because they are attempting to curb much of the prosperity that this country seems to have blessed with--not to grant religion privilege.


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