The dangerous demography of Christmas

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Every year during Christmas, I’m struck by how important demographic data have been in shaping the course of history, often for the worse. The Bible verses we hear during Advent lay out how King Herod was able to use public records to seek out and kill all the boys aged two and under in the Bethlehem area as he tried to find and eliminate Jesus (Matthew 2:16 NIV). That wouldn’t be the last time a bad guy used population records for evil. Key example: two thousand years later, Adolf Hitler’s 1939 “minority census” sought to identify every household member with at least one Jewish grandparent. That information, as we know, was used to systematically eliminate the Jews during the Holocaust.

The Gospels actually kick off with a lengthy description of Jesus’ geneaology (Matthew 1:1-17). That genealogy is important for establishing that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, and is essential for Christianity to eventually take hold. As with Jesus’ lineage, demographic data can be quite useful. Today, policy makers use such data to distribute resources, like schools and infrastructure, where the population actually needs them.

But as Herod and Hitler show, population data can also be a dangerous political tool. During Advent, we also learn about the great census undertaken by Caesar Augustus:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Luke 2:1-5 NIV)

I’m guessing that the census was just as controversial during Jesus’ time as now. In Lebanon, there has been no official census since 1943, when Christians were counted as the barest of majorities in the country. Seats in Lebanon’s Parliament are doled out according to religious sect and it is pretty common knowledge that over the last six decades the proportion of Christians in Lebanon has dramatically shrunk due to emigration and low fertility. But since they still hold power, the Christian-based political parties have no incentive to undertake a new census that would more accurately reflect Lebanon’s demographic reality. That’s a problem for the “minority” sects, who surely aren’t getting the resources or representation they need and has exacerbated resentment among this deeply divided country. Even if there were a new census, the resulting shift in political order would surely erupt into violence.

Most countries are multi-ethnic and census data can be used to manipulate and control the population in non-democratic countries. But absence of knowledge can sometimes make the fear even worse. The US and France, for example, don’t track residents’ religions and fear mongers have had free reign to invent wild statistics about the growth in those countries’ Muslim communities in order to suit their political purposes. It’s worked. A 2016 survey of French citizens showed that they estimated France’s Muslim population at nearly a third–31%–when in actuality it is more likely 7.5%, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

So, should you fill out that census form? Clearly, it depends. If you live in a democracy, thumbs up I say. If not, watch out.

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