Philip Jenkins of Baylor University is an insightful scholar of global Christianity. He’s maybe best known for his 2011 book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which chronicles the rise of Global South churches. His latest book is Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions.
In our conversation, Jenkins and I discuss the impact of fertility rates on religion and secularization. Does low fertility presage less religious faith, or vice versa? How are the two intertwined? His analysis is not limited to Christianity but examines religions and cultures globally. The collapse of birth rates in Iran, where they are now on par with Scandinavia’s birthrate, is likely not good news for the theocracy’s ruling mullahs.
I learned a lot from Jenkins and I hope you do too.
00:00 Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington, D.C. as well as Editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. And today I have the pleasure of talking to Philip Jenkins, Professor of History at Baylor University, author of many wonderful books, perhaps his best-known book is The Next Christendom, which chronicled the rise of the global south church. But we’re going to start off by talking about his impending book, and if I’m recalling the title correctly Fertility and Faith?
00:42 Jenkins: Correct.
00:43 Tooley: About the I assume demographic future of the church as it relates to fertility. So Philip, thank you so much for joining this conversation.
00:52 Jenkins: Well thank you very much.
00:55 Tooley: Let’s start off by talking about your new book. What is it saying and why is it speaking to our present moment in terms of today’s Christianity?
01:06 Jenkins: Right, well I agree there’s a very strong correlation between those two phenomena, between fertility and faith. When fertility rates decline, when children become scarcer, that tends to correlate very closely to a secular drift and to secularization. The exact pattern of causation, the exact direction is not totally clear but the two things march along together. If you tell me the fertility rate of a particular society, I will tell you with fair confidence about how institutional religion is doing in that community, about its degree of political power, about levels of faith, and practice, and probably a measure of legal changes such as, for example, gay marriage. So a low fertility society tends to be a more secular society, that echoes through those things, the phenomenon I’m describing with very low fertility for many years was regarded as a European phenomenon. That European shift correlated nicely to secularization there, and the United States was very different. Just in the past five to ten years, American fertility rates have fallen very steeply to below those of Denmark. And the question then is the United States is likely facing a similar kind of secular drift, by the way this is also a global phenomenon. It applies to all regions in different ways, but for present purposes I will focus on Christianity.
02:51 Tooley: Now isn’t it true that fertility is declining dramatically everywhere around the world almost without exception?
03:00 Jenkins: It is declining very steeply. There are some very important exceptions, especially in Africa in sections of the Middle East, and South Asia. So roughly half the Muslim world, for example, that is heading very rapidly for what you might call Danish figures. The other half is not. The other half is what you might call the traditional third world pagan, and again that is reflected in levels of religious faith and practice. The falling fertility corresponds to more secular societies. The sharpest falls of all, interestingly, are in a country like Iran, which is very Scandinavian in its demography, which is an intriguing thought.
03:49 Tooley: I think I recall that the fertility rate in Iran under the current regime has fallen over forty years from something like eight children per woman to just above replacement level. Is that accurate?
04:01 Jenkins: It’s even more than that. In fact, it’s now down to about 1.7 or 1.6, which is where the replacement is. The problem about writing about it is every time you look at new figures, it has fallen further so it’s very hard to catch up.
04:15 Tooley: Which probably does not bode well for the theocratic regime in Iran, does it?
04:18 Jenkins: It does not, and there are very interesting phenomena there. I mean, I’ve seen for instance the head of the Revolutionary guard said a couple of years ago that the country had 60,000 mosques, in which 3,000 were ever used. And there’s a very large number of Iranians who would define themselves roughly as what we would call “nones,” that is no religious affiliation.
04:46 Tooley: And I guess the obvious question is does secularization precede the fall of fertility or does the fall of fertility fuel the secularization?
04:54 Jenkins: My answer would probably be yes, and yes they run together very closely. And very closely in times and a great example that for instance is in the 1970s in Catholic Europe, secularization runs very quickly, fertility rates collapse, and they’re so closely linked it’s very hard to tell which comes first. But as I say, I point out a correlation. So like I said, this used to be regarded as a European phenomenon, a protestant phenomenon. Then it was Catholic Europe as well. Then it was Latin America, and now it’s global with the great exception of Africa, which as far as we can tell is going to have an ever-larger proportion of the world’s religious believers, Christian or Muslim.
05:45 Tooley: I’ve seen predictions about the future populations of respective nations and it seems that the US is virtually the only “advanced nation” whose population is not expected to decline, but that’s only because of immigration and despite falling fertility.
06:01 Jenkins: Yeah, that’s entirely because of immigration. An interesting phenomenon is that some of the steepest falls in recent years are actually among Latinos. In the United States there was an enormous shock with the 2008 economic crisis. It made it very difficult for people to form families and form homes. A lot of people lost their houses, and I’m imagining that the present 2020 crisis, which is just an epic event, is going to advance that process even further. So my, I don’t know how long the 2020 pandemic is going to continue, but my bet would be that it will have a sizable further demographic effect.
06:50 Tooley: And honestly it seems that China will be suffering perhaps the worst population, or the most dramatic, population decline looking at their current fertility rates.
07:00 Jenkins: Absolutely. There are some interesting divisions within countries though. So for instance, India is interesting. You know we all have these images of like third world population explosion. Half the states of India, India is a federal nation, have fertility rates below Denmark. And the high fertility rates tend to be very conservative and Hindu. Low fertility states tend to be very secular, and once you understand that, you understand a lot about contemporary political divisions. In the country where you have a conservative Hindu government that appeals to the high fertility areas, where the votes are.
07:45 Tooley: Well I guess I’m jumping to the very last chapter of your book, but in terms of your conclusion, is it theoretically possible that a nation or society could have simply replacement level fertility and remain relatively religious, or are they mutually exclusive? Do you need to have a high fertility rate to sustain a certain level of religiosity in a society?
08:09 Jenkins: The replacement rate itself is not a problem. When it falls significantly below that, I suppose my point is I see constant change and replacement so as societies lose fertility, as they lose numbers, they tend to be replaced and supplemented by immigrants with high fertility rates, and so in a sense, more enthusiastic religion keeps coming in and that’s really been the story of the United States. Immigration is just such a large part of American religion and European religion, so the one constant we can talk about in terms of American religion is change.
08:59 Tooley: Do you think that global South immigration with sustain a certain level of religiosity in the United States and to a lesser extent will it also do the same for Europe?
09:11 Jenkins: I believe it will and I believe that’s what we are seeing, but I say things will change and it also might mean that the kind of religious practice changes. So what seems to go first is what you might call the institutional traditional church going, but there’s a huge interest in less institutional, more personal, forms of religiosity. For instance, we presently live in the golden age of European pilgrimage. Those Europeans who won’t go to church are very fond indeed of visiting shrines of the Virgin Mary. So it’s partly a shift in kinds of religiosity as opposed to a simple decline.
09:58 Tooley: I suppose this question leaves the parameters of your impending book, but there had been talk, mostly anecdotal, that the surge in Islamic immigration to Europe was provoking if not a resurgence and a renewed interest in some European nations. Is there any data to back that up in terms of actual religious practice in Europe?
10:25 Jenkins: There really is not. As I say, there’s a lot of what you might call para-religious practice, like pilgrimages and so on. It absolutely is not being reflected in people going back to traditional churches. Among old stock people now there’s a huge enthusiasm. Among newer stock immigrants, if I took you to London or Paris now, I could take you to some very fine African mega churches where people are very enthusiastic indeed. And some of those try to reach out to the local white population, but it’s like a different kind of religion. By the way, those tend to be very conservative churches morally and often practically, but most of the older churches really are in free fall.
11:12 Tooley: And in terms of American religious democracy, traditional Christians in America as of late tend to be very, very pessimistic and assume an ongoing spiral. I assume the reality is more complex and data as I recall seems to indicate that the hardcore religious, their percentage of population, seems to be remaining about level in the US, but the more nominally religious seem to keep fading into outright non-religious religiosity or at least non-affiliation, is that what you’re saying?
11:54 Jenkins: Yes, and you have the growth of this famous category the “nones” and very, very important- if somebody is a “none” it doesn’t mean no religion, it means somebody who does not admit a religious affiliation. But the increase in numbers just over the last ten to fifteen years has been remarkable. Presently there are more “nones” in the United States than Catholics. Within a couple of years, they will probably be outnumbering Evangelicals and be the nation’s largest single group. And these are all things I would have said six months ago before the pandemic, and I would hypothesize the pandemic is going to accelerate those changes in cutting people off from the roots and support system of the churches and the places of worship. I may be wrong about that and other people would disagree with me, but I think in the 2020s the United States would be going through a kind of secular shift rather like Europe went through in the 1970s.
12:57 Tooley: And you’re not a sociologist, much less a prophet, but if you continue to have this continued level of hardcore religious practice in the US alongside a growing non-religious demographic, doesn’t that bartend even greater polarization potentially?
13:16 Jenkins: It certainly does and I think we can already sit down and sketch so many of the issues that will be around in the 2020s. Obviously they’ll be connected with gender and trans issues, and so the cultural wars are going nowhere. But my argument, as with this core argument of my book, is if you understand these issues, you look at the demographic realities, and that if you like the underlying story, that’s if you like the skeleton of American religion.
13:57 Tooley: Last I saw another grim demographic outlook for a particular nation is with Russia, where the regime has tried to institute policies to promote fertility but seemingly, they’ve not been very successful. Is that accurate?
14:15 Jenkins: Yeah, pro-natalist policies have a very bad track record. They can make a small impact, but they require a huge financial investment. Unless the government is going to do something insane, like banning women from the workforce, or something like that. So that’s very unsuccessful. Really in the picture I’m describing, there’s only one example I’m aware of a country that is an extremely low fertility with very high religiosity and that is Poland, which looks exactly like all the European countries in its demography but has the, you know, pre-1950s religious patents. I think that’s a transitional stage and Poland will start to look more like the rest of Europe in a couple of years. But again, as I always say, I am a professor not a prophet.
15:12 Tooley: And if I could hearken back to your book, the title was The Next Christendom?
15:18 Jenkins: Fertility and Faith. You’ll be back to the next person, I’m sorry about it, yes.
15:24 Tooley: Do you basically stick by what you said in that book in terms of the surging strength of the global South? I would think if anything, your next book confirms that book’s original thesis.
15:40 Jenkins: It absolutely does. The only thing I would do different if I was writing that book now is, I would double down on everything I say about Africa, and in fact, I understand in some ways some of the trip to Africa, some of the Latin America countries are looking rather more European. I mean the global South is in no sense some, you know, homogenous bloc, but the African figures are even more amazing in their growth than I projected twenty years ago, and that’s going to have an impact on religion worldwide that will just echo through the rest of the century.
16:19 Tooley: Of course, birth rates are plunging throughout Asia without exception if I recall correctly, and yet Christianity continues to grow in not all of Asia, but much of Asia. So, what’s going on there if you had to summarize it?
16:37 Jenkins: It’s very patchy because Asia, you know, very large continent, some of the countries that people used to have high hopes for in terms of Christian growth would be Korea, for example. Korea has among the lowest fertility rates in the world, and if you talk to people in Korean churches, they’re very alarmed. Their failure to connect with younger people, their failure to bring and keep younger people into the churches, and in Korea, South Korea of course, as in the United States, you have an extremely rapid growth of “nones”. So Buddhism, for example, in Korea is near collapse. In other eras, people might have said “well they’re going off to join the churches, they’re not drifting away from religion altogether.” There are some countries that are great success stories. China is still one, but I think there are many warning signs across much of the continent. The Philippines, for example, is probably going to be the world’s largest Catholic country before too long, but you look at the demographics, the fall is very steep. The fertility is just above replacement right now and I’d be interested to come back in ten or twenty years and see what is happening there. That’s one of the key tipping points, and that affects the church as a whole. Many people said the next pope will come from the Philippines; well we’ll see what the state of the country is that he leaves.
18:18 Tooley: Does Pentecostalism remain the main focus of church growth in the global South, as it has been for much of the last 30-40 years?
18:29 Jenkins: Pentecostalism, but also Pentecostal and charismatic styles within regular denominations. So for instance, if you go to a Anglican church in many parts of Africa, you’ll think you’re in a Pentecostal church. So not so much maybe the Pentecostal churches are such, but Pentecostal-inclined denominations. And you see some amazing statistics still, and I’ve seen the argument that on a typical Sunday you have the Assemblies of God denomination, which is a great American-founded Pentecostal church, and you’ll see the claim that there are more worshippers and Assemblies of God churches in the greater Sao Paulo area than in the United States on a difficult Sunday. The numbers are still amazing and spreading very fast. All the growth in China or India, for example, is in Pentecostal or charismatic churches, often very badly organized, very, very decentralized, and all the stronger for that. But yes, that is so much of the current direction of global, or world, Christianity.
19:42 Tooley: This is anecdotal, I don’t know if there’s any data to back it up, but it seems to me that there are many, many traditional Catholic families and conservative Evangelical families in the U.S. who will have three, four, five, six children, still standing out from the overall trend. Are there any statistics that back up that? There is an element of traditional religion in America that’s being sustained by somewhat higher birth rates than in the rest of the population.
20:13 Jenkins: I thought the best example for that is in Judaism, both in Israel and in the United States, where Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, mainly through demographic factors, have come from being an extreme marginal fringe 60 or 70 years ago to coming close to being a mainstream today. And possibly by 2050, constituting a majority of the Jewish population of Israel, which would have all sorts of political connotations. In terms of conservative Catholics, conservative Protestants, the numbers don’t seem to have anything like the same affect, same impact. The one possible exception for that is Mormons, where so much of Mormon growth, Mormons maintaining their loyalty, is a demographic thing. The one tends to go with the other. You have an ideology that promotes strong families, those strong families promote faith, the two work together, and there’s no real sign that that is cracking as of yet.
21:30 Tooley: Is there any possibility that the plunging fertility rates will promote clergy once again to, as in the years of old “preach from the pulpit, go forth and multiply”?
21:41 Jenkins: They certainly could do that, but I think they would get a very stony and skeptical response from most of their congregations. And I think there would be a very chilly response and possibly questions, so far as “Will you be providing child care? Which is what we need.”
22:03 Tooley: Well on that ambivalent note, Philip Jenkins of Baylor University, thank you so much for a very enjoyable conversation.
22:09 Jenkins: Thank you so much.