Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Timothy Samuel Shah Explains ’Why God is Winning’

Washington, D.C.

For much of the 20th century, social scientists and policymakers argued that democratization and modernity would render religion insignificant and irrelevant. They were wrong, says Timothy Shah, senior Pew Forum fellow in religion and world affairs, who contends religion is booming in many countries and democracy has given religious leaders a growing political influence, spawning “prophetic political movements.” Shah and co-author Monica Duffy Toft, assistant director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, wrote the provocatively titled “Why God is Winning,” first published in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The article has since been reprinted in The Dallas Morning News.

Featuring: Timothy Samuel Shah, Senior Fellow in Religion and World Affairs, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Interviewer: Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

What do you mean by “God is winning”?

Monica Toft and I used the term — “God is winning” — to suggest that there does seem to be a worldwide trend across all major religious groups, in which God-based and faith-based movements in general are experiencing increasing confidence and influence vis-à-vis secular movements and ideologies. In other words, it is not just Islam that is resurgent or radicalizing, which is often what is claimed. Rather, what is happening within Islam must be understood in the wider context of what is happening within other religious communities. Only then will we have a proper understanding of the causes and consequences of what is, in fact, a global trend toward more politically influential religious movements.

We did not mean to suggest that a common deity with a unified political agenda is winning global political power. The increasingly mobilized and powerful “God-based” movements we are talking about differ from each other in profound ways. Some are violent, many are not; some are Muslim, some are Hindu, some are Christian, some are Buddhist. They differ profoundly in terms of their theologies, their political goals, as well as their political tactics.

Where do you see “God winning”?

In North and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and even in Europe and Russia, religion is enjoying significant and growing political influence — more so now than perhaps any time in recent memory. In public life “God is winning” almost everywhere. Religion is not necessarily the most dominant public force in these places, and its political influence varies from country to country. But if religion’s political impact waxes and wanes over time, a lot of evidence supports the conclusion that it’s waxing in most parts of the world at the present time.

In some countries religion’s growing influence is a familiar story. Most of us are well aware that Islam is playing an increasing public role in places such as Iran, Iraq and throughout the Middle East. And the 2004 presidential election in the U.S. dramatically underscored the political clout of evangelicals in this country. But we are less aware that pentecostals in Latin America and Africa, Hindu nationalists in India, Buddhist revivalists in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka and Catholic charismatics in the Philippines — just to name a few leading movements — are also powerfully influencing mainstream public life and often shifting their societies’ political center of gravity in a more religious direction.

What about more secular parts of the world such as Europe, Canada and Japan?

It is true that opinion surveys — including one by the Pew Global Attitudes Project — show that Western Europe, Canada and Japan are relatively secular. But even these places have had religious issues and groups increasingly shaping the public agenda in recent years.

For example, a number of Europe’s most contentious public controversies, such as Turkish accession to the EU and immigration, involve Islam and the role of religion in European identity. In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced last year that it would try to change the constitution to relax the traditional separation of religion and state — mostly to deflect domestic criticism of the prime minister’s regular visits to Yasukuni, the controversial Shinto shrine for Japanese war dead. And in our neighbor to the north, not only does a respected recent survey suggest that church attendance is increasing, but Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister since January, is an evangelical and arguably the country’s most openly religious leader in decades.

When did God’s public “winning streak” begin, and what were some of the factors behind it?

Today we are asking whether God is “winning,” but only 40 years ago Time magazine ran a famous cover asking whether God was “dead.” To many informed observers back then, religion appeared exhausted, publicly irrelevant, and increasingly on the defensive — thanks partly to the global expansion of atheistic communism. Sometime between 1966 and 2006 a shift occurred, and it seems to have begun in the late 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the developing world, secular leaders and ideologies that seemed in the 1950s and early 1960s to be the harbingers of modern progress began to falter shortly thereafter. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president who dominated the Middle East with his secular brand of pan-Arabism for nearly 20 years, suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and died three years later. The legitimacy of the secular and Western-oriented Shah of Iran declined in the 1970s and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought the Ayatollah Khomeini and an Islamic theocracy to power. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, secular concepts of national identity gave way to more religious forms of nationalism in the 1970s, a trend which has continued to this day.

Greatly accelerating God’s “winning streak” was the decline and fall of Soviet communism in the 1980s and early 1990s. Soviet communism was perhaps the most politically powerful and globally successful anti-religious movement in history. Partly due to religious groups such as the Catholic Church in Poland and the mujahideen in Afghanistan, communism was increasingly on the moral and military defensive in the 1980s. The eventual collapse of the Soviet socialist model created a political vacuum in numerous developing countries, which some religious groups, such as Islamists in the Middle East, were able to fill. The collapse of Soviet communism also emboldened some religious groups — above all Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda — to seek a wider field of operations, as well as to target a longer list of enemies, including the United States.

What about God’s “winning streak” in American public life?

At the same time that secular ideologies and political movements declined in the developing world in the 1970s and 1980s, a widespread perception that public morality was declining in the United States led some Americans to turn to religion to renew public life.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade mobilized millions of previously disengaged evangelicals in 1973. Three years later, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Americans elected the “born again” conservative Democrat Jimmy Carter, who promised to uphold morality and decency as president. In 1979, Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority. Since then, not only evangelicals but many Americans across the religious spectrum have concluded that religion is the solution to America’s moral problems. According to a 2000 Public Agenda survey, “Americans strongly equate religion with personal ethics and behavior, considering it an antidote to the moral decline they perceive in our nation today.”

You write that we are seeing more “prophetic politics” and “prophetic political movements.” What do you mean by those terms and why are we seeing these developments in recent years?

Prophets are divine spokespersons, people who claim — rightly or wrongly — that they speak for God in a given situation. The decline of secular ideologies in the developing world and the perceived decline of morality in parts of the developed world have enhanced the authority of modern political prophets and prophetic political movements. A host of religious leaders and movements over the last couple of decades, such as Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Franklin Graham, Desmond Tutu, Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Sistani have played a “prophetic” role by applying what they claim to be divinely authorized teachings to immediate political circumstances. In some cases, these prophets have commanded great authority and their political influence has been decisive.

Another important factor opening up numerous societies to the influence of prophetic politics in recent years is global democratization. As we pointed out in “Why God is Winning,” the worldwide trend toward democracy has been strong in the last thirty years, with the number of “free” and “partly free” countries jumping from 93 in 1975 to 147 in 2005, according to Freedom House. Democracy is crucial because although perceived secular failures and moral crises may give prophetic movements the motive to shape political life, these movements lack the systematic means to do so as long as politics is closed to popular influence. Conversely, where political systems have recently become more open and democratic, religious leaders, religious movements and religiously oriented political parties have often proved competitive at the ballot box, winning unprecedented political power. Such cases include Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Palestinian territories, Brazil, India and Mexico.

Your research implies that we can no longer assume that if people become wealthier, more educated and enjoy greater political freedom they also become more secular. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite is true, with such people embracing traditional religions. Where do you see this trend and what accounts for it?

It is undoubtedly true that some forces associated with modernization often weaken the hold of traditional religious explanations of the universe as well as the power of traditional religious authorities. At the same time, other aspects of modernization often enhance the power of religion — on both the “demand-side” and the “supply-side.”

On the demand-side, tens of millions of people in the developing world who are facing modernization in its various dimensions — urbanization, modern education, economic and political bureaucratization — often experience it as disorienting and dislocating. They may become somewhat better educated, more prosperous, more cosmopolitan and more autonomous due to modernization, but at the same time they often desire new and stable sources of community and identity to replace the traditional village structures they have left behind. What they are often looking for is a new form of religion adapted to their new life in the modern city.

On the supply-side, modernization gives religious communities new organizational, technological and financial resources, as well as access to international networks of co-religionists. These resources often empower them to form new and highly sophisticated organizations that are designed to meet the spiritual and social needs of the millions of people migrating to a more modern life in the city — as well as the millions buffeted by war, poverty and failed states. Such organizations include neo-pentecostal churches in Africa and Latin America, such as the enormous Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil and Mozambique, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Territory, and Muhammadiyah in Indonesia. Modernization is helping to create a whole host of sophisticated and adaptable religious movements that we describe in the article as “neo-orthodox”: they do not merely recapitulate tradition but creatively adapt it to new circumstances using modern means.

So is religion growing in the world today mostly as a haven for the poor?

This is part of the story, but it certainly is not all of it. Modernization and globalization are bringing increasingly rapid social and moral change to people all over the world, especially those prosperous enough to consume satellite TV and the internet. Such innovations are widely welcomed, but they also help create a pervasive perception among modern publics that traditional ways of life are getting lost — a perception the Pew Global Attitudes Project has identified in almost every society in the world.

One way some groups try to offset the perceived decline of tradition is to identify with religious revivalism. This dynamic is one factor behind the strong and consistent support for Hindu revivalism among large segments of India’s urban middle class, as well as a similar pattern of urban middle-class support for Buddhist revivalism in Sri Lanka.

[A Harvard University working paper summarizes data on this issue.]

Have analysts of global politics neglected the powerful role religion can play? Are they paying more attention to religion now?

There is little question that analysts of global politics have generally sidelined religious factors. In fact, religion’s role in world politics seemed increasingly irrelevant and out of date to many scholars and informed observers for most of the 50-year period from the end of World War II until the beginning of the new century. They were not unaware of its existence, but they tended to believe that religion was incapable of being a driving political or social force. Instead, it was a passive and static throwback that was doomed to fade away in the face of modernization. For example, Daniel Lerner’s classic and hugely influential 1958 study of modernization, The Passing of Traditional Society, cited a consensus of scholars who agreed that “Islam is absolutely defenseless” in the face of the “rationalist” and “positivistic spirit” brought by modernity’s rapid advance in the Middle East. In fact, as our article demonstrates, none of the major world religions has been “absolutely defenseless” in the face of modernization. Most have used modernity to make fresh and sometimes successful appeals to a wide range of groups at various stages of modernization.

Nearly five years after the 9/11 attacks, a shift has certainly occurred. Religion is finding its way into mainstream analysis. Major foreign policy think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, have started to turn their attention to religion’s role in world affairs. Various agencies of the U.S. government have made an effort to better understand religion as a distinct factor in global politics. A sign of the new willingness on the part of much of America’s foreign policy establishment to take seriously religion’s geopolitical role is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s candid new book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World. She is clearly speaking for more than just herself when she writes, “Like many other foreign policy professionals, I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world…. Almost everywhere, religious movements are thriving.”

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