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Philip Jenkins interviewed by Italian news: It’s a mistake just to identify migration and religion – the reality is much more complex

“The British historian is one of the most anticipated speakers at the Rimini meeting, and he puts out a warning: Europe needs bridges but it dreams of walls! It can no longer live behind those.”

by Alessandro Zaccuri August 11, 2018

1.Eleven years after God’s Continent the role of religion is more relevant than ever in
the European scenario: a great part of populist propaganda is based on the idea of
Christianity as the religion of West in contrast to Islam and president Trump has a
similar position in USA. Which are the main causes of this evolution?
The great difference in European affairs came with the crises that developed in Syria and
Libya after 2011, and the major surges in refugees. A decade ago, I projected the growth of
Muslim populations in Europe, and suggested they would not be as high as many people
thought or feared. But the refugee crises really tore up those projections, and raised concern
that tens of millions more people might arrive very suddenly, far too quickly to be absorbed
and integrated. That has naturally aroused fears of very swift social change.
But religion has often become a symbol for race and ethnicity, for culture and identity. When
white Europeans denounce Muslims, they are rarely complaining about a rival theology, nor
do they even know if their neighbors hold religious views. They are speaking of people who
come from countries where Islam is the standard or default religion. In some British cities,
for instance, people draw a division between “Muslims” and “whites.” Whites, not
Christians. Is this really a struggle of religions?
Matters are very different in the United States, because most of the immigration issue
concerns Christians rather than non-Christians. Most of the US debate concerns Latino
people, who are mainly Catholic, but with a Protestant minority. Some Americans hate and
fear Muslims, but Muslims in the US are a tiny proportion of the population, perhaps one
percent in all. A great many Arab-Americans are Christians. Hence, the issue of “defending
Christianity” is really not part of populist debate in the US, except in terms of resisting
secularism. In the past, nativism and populism might have been anti-Catholic, but that is no
longer true. When President Trump has tried to restrict immigration from Islamic countries,
that has had the effect of excluding many Christian refugees.
2.The debate is not only historical, but truly political: there are two different projects
of society involved, we could say an “open” one (more compassionate, welcoming
etc.) and a “closed ” one. Bridges and walls, to state Pope John Paul II. How
happened that walls have become more Christian than bridges?
Again, this is often because people are often confusing religion with race or ethnicity, and
fear of change is at the heart of the matter. Here is the problem: in order to survive, Europe
needs bridges; but those bridges would cause so many changes that people demand walls.
That is a fundamental paradox.
Real social trends are at work, especially driven by changes in family size, in the number of
children, and in aging. Since the 1970s, Europe has become a very low fertility society. That
means it has become a much older community, a trend reinforced by medical advances and
general prosperity. As people lived much longer, so the median age of societies grew steeply.
Most West European societies have a median age in the early forties, in contrast to an
African figure of sixteen or so. Around a third of Italians are aged over 55, compared to just
seven percent in fertile Nigeria.
That age structure poses real problems about the long-term sustainability of that continent
and its social order. At a minimum, the situation demands a steady influx of immigrants
from more prolific societies outside Europe, who are essential in order to undertake the jobs
and pay the taxes needed so that society can function. Older and newer populations are of
course multiply divided, by ethnicity and often religion, and the resulting conflicts are now
endemic. The age schism was a critical element in Britain’s BREXIT vote to leave the
European Union in 2016, a debate that centrally involved immigration policy.
Across Europe, shifting demographics spawned an apocalyptic literature about the coming
extinction of the old nations, about “why the Germans are dying out” (to cite the title of a
book by Günter Grass). More generally, about how Europe would be swamped or overrun
by teeming masses of migrants. Initially those fears were strongly racial in tone, but
increasingly the nightmares became more specifically religious: Christian Europe would be
conquered and then supplanted by an Islamic “Eurabia.”
That is a world that calls for walls, but cannot understand that it cannot survive behind such
3.Refugees and migrants are a worldwide phenomenon and are now part of the
global agenda: it is a real complex problem and the temptation for easy solutions is
strong. How can a real awareness of the role of religion in public space help?
Again, this is a matter of demography, and demographic shifts. In 1900, there were three
Europeans for every African, but by 2050, there will be three Africans for every European.
If even a small proportion of those people migrate – for instance, because of climate change
or war – then that would transform Europe. The migrations will happen and really nothing
can prevent them. The question then is how societies respond, especially in Europe. The
first priority is to remove religious conflict from the equation. Even if every new African or
Middle Eastern arrival in Europe was a faithful Christian (as many of them are), then the
cultural and ethnic issues would still be present. Because of its global role, the Church has a
unique role in spreading awareness of these trends and pressures.
4.If not yet in the Church itself, Pope Francis brought a revolution in the imagine of
the Catholic Church: he is the first Pope who is not European but American, and not
Northern American but Latin, and he is a Jesuit. Which are the political
consequences of these novelties, at least in terms of empowerment?
Pope Francis has had an enormous impact in North America, as much in terms of his
personality as any part of his background. He gives a sense of being so humble, and willing
to listen to different ideas. This has had a great impact on may people who were very critical
of the Church.
In terms of his Latin origin, the coming of Francis sent a powerful message about the
directions in which the Church is moving, and the numbers are amazing. A century ago, the
European continent accounted for almost two-thirds of the world’s Catholics, but by 2050,
that proportion will fall to perhaps one-sixth. In that not-too-far future year, the church’s
greatest bastions will be in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, which together will make up 77
percent of all Catholics. Actually, those numbers understate the Southern predominance,
because a sizable number of Catholics living in Europe or North America will themselves be
of migrant stock – Nigerians or Congolese or Filipinos in Europe, or Mexicans in the United
With all respect to Francis, I am waiting for the epic moment when the Church chooses an
African pope. In 1900, there were two million African Catholics, today there are almost 200
million, and by the 2040s, there will be some 460 million. That number would be greater
than the total world population of Catholics as it stood in 1950.
5.Usa and Europe have different traditions about the separation of State and Church:
do you think that the American solution is going to prevale or a mixed, in a way
milder system is possibile?
The American system has worked very well in most ways, in that excluding religion from
schools (for instance) has not prevented the churches from flourishing. Also, despite the
legal separation, religion is still very present in public life. See for instance the use of religious
language in political speeches – especially by President Clinton, but then by Bush, and
Obama. Laws about separation are one factor, but only one, in the health of religion in a
particular country. This is already much milder than something like the French laïcité.
6.Sometimes the debate about religion involve symbols: the compulsoriness of the
Cross in some European countries (e.g. Hungary, but similar laws are on discussion
in Bavaria and Italy itself), the ban of Islamic veil in others (French laïcité) and so
on. But can religious symbols be considered as just symbols? How can we deal with
Much might be learned from looking at the history of the US, which dealt with very similar
issues of mass migration and religious conflict a century or more ago. A hundred years ago,
the US faced the nightmare of these terrible immigrants with their strange ways and bad
religious practices – but of course, the immigrants then were usually Catholic, and they were
Italians, or Poles, or Germans.
American Protestants organized to fight immigration and Catholicism, through groups like
the Ku Klux Klan. The movement in the 1920s had five million members, pledged to fight
against Catholics. Then too, many states passed symbolic laws to fight immigration, insisting
for instance that schools had Protestant Bibles, and that no public body supported religious
(ie Catholic) schools. The same issues arose then as now, but the targets were quite different.
Every word that is today said about Muslim migrants as then said about Catholics and Jews.
Today, those ideas and laws look dreadful and incomprehensible.
There was a fine American sociologist called Joseph Gusfield, who studied these religious
conflicts and their impact on policy, and he invented the idea of the Symbolic Crusade. When
for instance American Protestants were fighting alcohol and demanding Prohibition, they
did so as a symbolic way of showing that they were still masters, and they could pass laws
that Catholics would dislike. They passed the laws because they could, as a declaration of
status, and above all of power. It had little to do with the specific content or purpose of the
individual laws themselves. There are many analogies between those symbolic crusades and
modern day laws about the public expression of religion.
But it helps to remember that once upon a time, Catholics were the targets of these
“crusades” – in this historical case, they were the victims, not the crusaders.
7.In Africa and Asia Christians are heavily persecuted, but this Church of martyrs
risks to remain invisibile in our countries: poor news, lack a global vision etc. How
can we help? And what can be learn from this tragedy?
Race determines so many media attitudes, and especially a dangerous sense that other
countries are naturally primitive and violent. A terrorist killing of two white people will make
a far greater impact in the news than the murder of two hundred Africans. There is often a
sense that such violence in countries like Nigeria or Sudan is just a natural part of their life.
Obviously, that is a dreadful approach, but I do not know how to change it. Many American
Christians are working hard to encourage the sense of Christians in Africa or Asia being
fellow-Christians, who demand all attention and respect.
Many Jews and Jewish groups in the US work hard to encourage awareness of Christian
sufferings worldwide. They know that religious persecution is indivisible and cannot be