God is back: How Ned Flanders won the evangelical crusade
The media may portray evangelicals, such as Ned Flanders, as losers, but US-style Christianity has gone global, writes The Times in an article titled, God is back: How Ned Flanders won the evangelical crusade
There are few more easily ridiculed characters in TV-land than Ned Flanders, the cartoon character who has the misfortune to live next door to Homer Simpson. He has a silly moustache! He wears jumpers! His first name is Nedward! No wonder we all smile with approval as Homer subjects him to one humiliation after another.
The most risible thing about Flanders, of course, is his bulletproof Christian faith. Equipped with a degree from Oral Roberts University, and a simple-minded optimism, Flanders is arguably America’s best-known Christian. Indeed, Christianity Today once suggested that he is more famous, on campuses and schools, than the Pope, Mother Teresa or Billy Graham.
But is Ned really such a loser? Look around the world and you find that risible old Nedward – or at least the phenomenon he epitomises – has won one of the great intellectual battles of the past two centuries. And now, far from being put down, Flanderism is spreading around the world, an American export with a potency at least the equal of the very Hollywood products that mock him.
The founders of modern sociology, Max Weber and E’mile Durkheim, predicted the secularisation of the world. Ned’s fellow moustache-wearer, Friedrich Nietzsche, loudly announced God’s death. Marx cursed the opium of the people. Freud saw religion as a mere neurosis. Ever since Darwin, educated European thought has viewed religion as a dying cult – the refuge of the ignorant, the superstitious and a few guilt-ridden Catholic novelists such as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
The land of Ned and Homer, of course, has always been different.
While Europe’s state-sponsored religions shrivelled, America’s free market kept faith alive.
That has not stopped most American intellectuals continuing to bet that eventually their country would give in to the same acids of modernity as Europe. In 1959, C.Wright Mills argued, in The Sociological Imagination, that “in due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether, except, possibly, in the private realm”. In its 1966 Easter issue, Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” on its cover. In the same year, Thomas Altizer, a theologian, published to much acclaim The Gospel of Christian Atheism. In 1968, Gallup found that 67 per cent of Americans believed that religion was losing its impact on society. In 1988 Tom Wolfe told students at Harvard, not entirely happily, that they lived in an era of “freedom from religion”.
But that picture is beginning to change – and the argument is beginning to swing from Nietzsche to Ned Flanders. At the grandest level, sociologists are wising up to having made “a category mistake”. That is the term used by Peter Berger, the dean of the subject. He points out that academics used to associate modernity with secularisation; in fact the really modern thing is pluralism. The ability to choose your religion lies at the heart of the American model. The latest figures show that one American in four has swapped faiths in his or her life. Pluralism can certainly mean that some people choose not to be religious: the number of atheists in America has jumped nearly 10 percentage points to 16 per cent in the past two decades (prompting a cover of Newsweek dedicated to “The Decline and Fall of Christian America”). On the other hand the same figures also show a rise in the number of committed evangelicals and of Pentecostals. Three quarters of Americans – the most advanced country on the planet – still describe themselves as Christians.
Look around the Christian world and the religious ecology is moving in an American direction.
Virtually everywhere in the developing world fiery preachers are preaching a faith that would appeal to Ned Flanders: live your life according to God’s law, read the Bible as the literal word of Truth, treat your neighbour as yourself. And everywhere they are thriving. In 1900, 80 per cent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and the United States; today, 60 per cent of them live in the developing world.
States that were once committed to enforcing secularism are now facing religious revivals. In Russia, 86 per cent of the population identify themselves as Christians; but the most remarkable example of Flanderism can be found in China’s house churches.
Even Europe is showing some signs of abandoning secularisation. The most obvious sign of this, of course, is the rise of European Islam, driven by one of the greatest mass migrations in history. But there is more to it than this. Some of the immigrants are Christians. Evangelical Christianity and charismatic Catholicism are both on the rise, albeit from small bases.
John Micklethwait is Editor-in-Chief of The Economist; Adrian Wooldridge is its Washington correspondent. They are the authors of God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World