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wSunday, May 30, 2004

KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR: I did this interview last summer -- I believe it was June -- for The Door but they a) never did anything with it and b) never contacted me about this. It's long and, at this point, it's probably too dated to place. On the other hand (drumroll please) it is a Philip Jenkins interview. Obviously, the style of the questions is a bit, well, Doorish, but we can't have everything.

JEREMY LOTT: You're one of the experts on the creepy subject of priestly pedophilia. How did you land that gig?

PHILIP JENKINS: It grew naturally out of a number of other things I'd been working on. In the early '90s, I was doing work on various kinds of what were technically called "moral panics" -- types of crime, including child abuse. I'd also been interested in the subject of dangerous outsiders in American history, and that meant studying things like anti-Catholicism.

In 1992-93, there was a big wave of concern of abuse by clergy -- something which al lot of people forget these days; they think it was all discovered last year. So that seemed to work on a number of interests that I already had and the book followed naturally. I wrote that in 1994.

JL: You're talking about Pedophiles and Priests?

PJ: Right.

JL: In The New Anti-Catholicism, you argue that that the press coverage of the recent priest sex scandal started out decent but then descended into vicious stereotyping. How so?

PJ: Some newspapers like the Boston Globe reported very honestly, very carefully, throughout; and some were bad from the beginning. There were a couple of things. One was, how were they reporting the issue, and how were they putting it into context. And one thing that the Globe tried very hard not to do was to use the phrase "pedophile priest" except where it was demanded.

What other papers did was very often to move to this idea of "pedophile priests," which did two things. First of all, it presented it as overwhelmingly or entirely a Catholic problem (i.e., "priests"). And also it focused on the idea of pedophiles, which meant molesting children. This happened in some cases but only in a minority of the total.

That was particularly obvious in cartoons. If you wanted to symbolize the issue, you'd usually have a very Catholic looking setting with a crucifix and a priest, and you'd have a small boy, partly because if you've got a 16- or 17-year-old then it doesn't look anything like so dramatic. What the coverage did was to emphasize the absolute worst elements of what was already a very bad crisis. Like I say, systematically, some papers tried very hard not to do that.

JL: Are Catholic priests more likely to molest people than Protestant ministers?

PJ: We don't know.

JL: What's our best guess?

PJ: The best guess is that we've got a very good idea of how many Catholic clergy are likely to be involved in sex with underage kids. Nobody has ever done a worthwhile study of any other religious group or secular group involved with children, so we have to rely on impressionistic evidence. What I can say is a negative, which is there is no evidence to suggest higher than lower [incidence of molestation] than for any other group.

JL: How pervasive is anti-Catholicism in the U.S.?

PJ: It depends on how you define anti-Catholicism. I suggest it is a very widespread phenomenon in different degrees. For example, people would say things about the Catholic Church and condemn a religion with much more ease than they would condemn other religions, other religious traditions. I think that's always been true to some extent, but I think that's really shifted its basis in the last 25 years. It's become much more of a left-liberal, as opposed to a right with prerogative.

JL: Thus, the new anti-Catholicism.

PJ: Right, that's the argument. For instance, 100 years ago, anti-Catholicism supported a mass political movement -- well, a few actually -- and it doesn't officially do that today, but you'll certainly find a lot of people for whom that's a powerful political idea.

JL: Why is that a big deal?

PJ: Because it makes anti-Catholicism different from other kinds of prejudice. It survives as what I call the last acceptable prejudice. In other words, if you say something that is insensitive or hostile about most religious or ethnic groups, then those words will come back to haunt you and in many cases destroy you. Just ask Trent Lott [no relation to the interviewer - ed.]. If you say something about Catholicism, or even something which is very hostile, really quite extreme, and in many people's idea, constitutes outrageous bigotry, it doesn't. Nobody really notices. You're expected to lighten up and not take this too seriously.

So I suggest that there is a serious kind of double standard. I'm not suggesting that this threatens to destroy the Catholic Church or bring America down in flames-

JL: That's a relief!

PJ: -but I think it's a very uncomfortable double standard that involves basically the central element, arguably, of American Christianity. Certainly the largest denomination by far.

JL: You also argued that cults get a bad rap.

PJ: Yeah and, in fact, in the same ways as Catholics. In fact, anti-cult rhetoric grows directly, I argue, out of anti-Catholicism. It grows out of the standard stereotypes that exist in the 18th and 19th centuries about the Catholic Church. They then get applied to cult groups later on. It tends to be part of one spectrum.

The difference with cult groups is that -- we know there's a Catholic Church; nobody denies that -- with cult groups the big issue is exactly what is a cult? How is it defined? Cults tend to grow towards the mainstreams. They start off as bizarre and cult like and end up more churchlike and respectable-

JL: Christian Science?

PJ: -Christian Science, Methodists, Baptists, Mormons, Quakers all begin as cults and end up being very concerned about their children being seduced away by cults.

JL: Last year you put away your historian of religion glove to try your hand at predicting the future. If I was born 50 years from today, would I more likely be Episcopalian, Southern Baptist, or a complete atheist?

PJ: I think the short answer is it would very much depend where you were born, what your ethnic tradition was, and so on. In other words, a whole lot of variables. I think some denominations will be much more numerous, much more in evidence than now. I think some of the big Pentecostal churches will be much bigger. Personally, I think that a group like the Vineyard has a good chance at becoming a very major denomination.

But one problem is that there's a dynamic cycle in the changes in churches and denominations. If you have a very enthusiastic and lively and active group now, it doesn't mean it's going to look like that in 50 years or 100 years. As groups become more established; they become more respectable; they send their young people off to seminaries that become more liberal, and those denominations become more liberal. They spawn more conservative fundamentalist denominations and that cycle will carry on as long as there is Christianity -- or Islam or Judaism, because it happens in all of those religions.

JL: What's the big picture? What will the mass of Christians look like 50 years from now?

PJ: My argument is that one of the big factors will be ethnic. In the United States, looking at the whole population, something like a third of Americans will have either Latino or Asian roots, and the vast majority of those come from backgrounds which are presently Christian. I think it's quite likely that those people will still continue to be Christian and they will certainly be very dominant voices in the Catholic Church and probably most of the mainstream churches.

Globally, Christianity will be much more of a black and brown religion. The figures I suggest, with all awareness of the queries about numbers, somewhere between four fifths and five sixths will be in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or from migrant communities in the West. Non-Latino white Christians will represent only about a fifth or a sixth of the whole, so Christianity will be much more a black and brown religion.

JL: Have any demographers mounted a serious challenge to your projections?

PJ: No, which either means one of two things. It either means my figures were impeccably right, or that demographers haven't bothered to look at my book. Don't forget, my book [The Next Christendom] certainly does not pretend to an original work of demography. I'm relying on standard sets of statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.N. and so on. So I'm not doing anything really radical or surprising.

JL: How does the faith of what you call the global south differ from the faith of the U.S. and, say, Europe?

PJ: It differs much more from Europe than it does from the U.S. First of all, faith in the global south, like the global north, is very diverse. Obviously, it has very liberal people, it has very conservative people. But, insofar as you can generalize, the religion of the global south tends to be more charismatic, evangelical or Pentecostal, and yes I know those two things are different. I've had people show to me that they are so different.

Put it like this, the Southern denominations have more in common now with each other than with their equivalents in the north. An African Lutheran is a lot more like an African Methodist than he or she would be like an American Lutheran. They tend to be more charismatic, they have more of a sense of the traditional interpretations of the Bible, and so on.

JL: Are their social mores more conservative?

PJ: Generally, yes. Certainly in Africa, and on sexual issues especially. They tend to be very conservative and that accounts right there for one of the big potential differences with northern churches.

By the way, there's a massive difference between Africa and Europe, but America is somewhere in between. In terms of its values, it may have as much to do with Africa as it does with Europe, which I think is a difference that explains a lot of the political divides between America and Europe. Americans take religious arguments more seriously.

JL: Why has religious observance been so much higher in the U.S. than in much of the so-called developed world?

PJ: I'm not trying to be flippant when I say I dearly wish I knew, because that seems to make nonsense of so many of the arguments about, for instance, secularism. The argument is that as society modernizes, becomes more sophisticated, more advanced, then religion declines, becomes more purely pro forma. Works beautifully for Europe; doesn't work for America. I honestly don't know [why].

People have tried different explanations for that. One they've tried is to say that, well, maybe America is a lot more secular than it appears to be. Maybe there's something wrong with the statistics, the church attendance and so on.

Or maybe there's something wrong with the secularization theory. I suspect that it's something to do with the very large, longstanding racial ethnic diversity of the United States -- its very high social mobility. Which means, for example, if people are moving constantly, they're always in need of communities they can move into fairly rapidly, and very often those are churches. So if you move every two years and you don't want to be alone -- you want to find communities -- it means that you are going to have flourishing churches. I don't pretend that that's any kind of major explanation but that might have something to do with it.

JL: What do you think of the argument that America's separation of church and state has caused religion here to be an organic extension of the people, while in Europe it's seen as part of the state, or something that came from the state?

PJ: The argument doesn't work very well if you compare [the U.S. to] Britain, because although the Anglican Church was an established church there, it's been a couple of hundred since there was any real enforcement. So there's no real reason why people shouldn't go off and become Methodists or Baptists, and many did. And they lived in those church set-ups and then the secularization thesis kicked in and those churches faded away to insignificance -- as they should have done in America but didn't.

So, I genuinely don't know. It's not a religious freedom argument or a separation of church and state argument, because separation of church and state, in most European countries, was always pretty much a formal thing. You were always pretty free to be a Methodist or a Baptist in Britain, so I think you've got a real problem there for sociologists of religion. Fortunately, I don't define myself as one so I can let them go fight.

JL: Hidden Gospels picked a fight with many historical Jesus scholars. Any bruises?

PJ: No. The topics that I deal with I honestly can't afford to show bruises. I still think that I was pointing out a lot of bad arguments that people were making and are still making about the origins of Christianity. I think some of the standard, oh, Jesus Seminar views loosely, just are insupportable and illogical, although they seem to have become a kind of media orthodoxy. Not too long ago, PBS did a show about Saints Peter and Paul. It had the major problem that it just used the standard Jesus Seminar view and you really had to be awake to notice it. It's almost become a kind of alternative orthodoxy.

JL: You argued that many scholars were using so-called "lost" or "hidden" gospels (e.g. the Nag Hamaddi, the Gospel of Thomas) as a way to re-imagine their own designer Jesuses.

PJ: There were two big things they were relying on there. One was Thomas and one was not just Q, which is like the reconstructed gospel background, behind Matthew and Luke-

JL: Yeah, I know, I read it the other day.

PJ: OK... Yeah, well you can do that. What a lot of people do is to go even beyond that and say not only can we reconstruct Q -- which we probably can -- but we can reconstruct a "core" Q, which is very much like Thomas. And this reflects the real Jesus and, hey, he sounds just like one of us.

JL: Fancy that...

PJ: Yeah, it makes him a very clever intellectual; a gadfly. You must remember Albert Schweitzer's remark that the quest for Jesus is like looking down a deep well, and you look in the water and you see a face staring up at you. And, guess what, it's your face.

JL: Why would they want to re-imagine Jesus?

PJ: You never know how far to get into psychologies here, but a very, very high proportion of the most active Jesus Seminar people come from very fundamentalist backgrounds. It suggests that they need to have a Jesus, but it has to be a compatible Jesus, and the elements that they're most anxious to get rid of are the ones which often predominate in some of those fundamentalist churches. For instance, the first thing that goes is always the idea of the apocalypse and the end of the world: Doomsday Jesus. Which, incidentally, is the Jesus who is the dominant figure in large parts of the global south, so get used to him -- he's back.

JL: Don't say it-

PJ: He's back and he's bad.

JL: -too late.

PJ: I think there's something of that but it's also a self-sustaining publishing phenomenon. People publish a book which presents a particular kind of view. Then other people recommend that book. Then other people who recommend it publish the next book and their friends recommend that, and it tends to become a cycle. The problem is not that those books are being published, but that if you go up to a Barnes & Noble or a Borders, those seem to represent the only books on the historical Jesus, so obviously that's what intelligent people believe.

JL: Except for your book.

PJ: Of course. You know, people like Harper will publish more-conservative books. They publish Luke Timothy Johnson, for example. You can actually get Tom Wright's books around. There's no conspiracy to exclude those books, but the ones that are most in evidence tend to be John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, and so on.

JL: You come down pretty hard on the idea of an early fallen church which veered away from the gospels as it gained power in the Roman Empire, and pretty much against fall motifs in general. Why?

PJ: Because there is really no evidence for that view. In fact, if you look at the statements that people make, they really need analyzing very carefully. Just in the last few months, Elaine Pagels' new book has come out, and that includes some amazing and I would say unsupportable statements, which say something like "You do not find the church making dogmatic statements before the Council of Nicea in 325."

JL: What about in Acts? "It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us."

PJ: Well, right. She's absolutely right in saying that the Council of Nicea does not make dogmatic statements about a particular group of things before 325, but they say hundreds and hundreds of things before that. So they're perfectly happy with being dogmatic. You mention the book of Acts, but all the way through the New Testament, you get statements like "So-and-so has gone off he's developed his own ideas. Let him be anathema and consigned to hell." They're really pretty determined about it. They have a definite idea of orthodoxy. It may not be exactly where it is going to be 300 years later, but there is orthodoxy, there is heresy -- even if the words themselves haven't been invented yet.

I would also say that much of the concern about reconstructing early Christianity reflects a deep Christian inheritance in America, in that people want to believe, want to put their own ideas, in an early church and scriptural context. And if scriptures won't let you do that then, damn it, you'll just find new ones or invent new ones.

JL: To switch gears, in another new book, you argue that everything we know about terrorism is wrong.

PJ: That's not exactly it.

JL: Why did you write Images of Terror?

PJ: I'd been interested in the topic for many years. I'd taught courses on it from the mid '80s to the mid '90s. I felt I had a good deal to say that really was not being said in the books that were pouring out. I signed the contract on that book on August 2001, which I thought was kind of interesting.

JL: A month later and you could have gotten a lot more money.

PJ: This is true. I also signed the contract on the anti-Catholicism book in mid 2001, long before Father Geoghan had ever been heard of. But anyway, I feel that a lot of the standard accounts of terrorism ignore certain things about groups and about how we can know about these. They always tend to present groups as being much more homogenous -- you know, there's something out there called al Qaeda and everyone has got an al Qaeda decoder ring and there's one group and you can wipe it out. But actually, the more you look at the groups, they're much more flexible. They're much more fluid. It really pays to take account of that.

JL: You're a fairly enthusiastic supporter of the war on terrorism. What do you think its odds of succeeding are?

PJ: Terrorism itself cannot be eliminated any more than war can be eliminated. As long as there is war, there will be terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a movement, and that's another core idea.

The reason that I'm an enthusiastic supporter of the current war on terrorism is I'm not even sure, still, a lot of people realize just how dangerous the situation we were in a year and a half ago actually was. I think if September 11 itself had gone a little bit differently, we could have been talking about a much, much vaster set of catastrophes. I think the war on terror has actually succeeded in preventing an awful lot more since then. One reason why people get a little dubious about the war on terror is that they haven't had a lot more incidents to remind them how dangerous it is. I seriously thought in late 2001 that unless very dramatic action was taken, this country probably had about 10 or 20 years more to survive.

JL: Right now you have a heavily lower case-c Christian America versus radical Islam. Are we looking at a capital-C Clash of Civilizations here?

PJ: In large measure, yes, I think we are. But, you know, civilizations have clashed before, and the clash can go into a freeze for years or centuries. Personally, I think the war in Iraq marked a major phase in that clash of civilizations, because whatever else happened with weapons of mass destruction, it sent a fundamental message to states not to support terrorist actions against the United States, which was a very important development. I'm less concerned with people hating the West, or hating America, provided they don't have the means to do anything about it.

JL: So, you're OK with rage as long as it's impotent rage.

PJ: I'm much more worried by potent rage than impotent rage. I'm much more worried by rage when it actually figures out how to destroy cities by filling container ships with explosives and detonating them in Charleston, Seattle, or Boston. That scares me. The danger from airlines is gone. The danger from ships is one we're just starting to wake up to, and that kind of rage does bother me.

posted by Jeremy at 5:03 PM