Religion Resurrected

This book, by the editor and the Washington correspondent of the Economist, tells us “how the revival of religion is changing the world”. Its message is a great deal more nuanced than its title and subtitle imply. In some parts of the world, God is back with a vengeance. In others, He never went away. There are undoubtedly places where He appears to be on his way out (Britain being one of them). Nevertheless, there is no arguing with Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s central contention that the revival of religious ideology in the late 20th century has changed the world in ways that would have stunned and embarrassed the political scientists of 30 years ago. And it has also made the task of containing future international conflict infinitely more challenging: as the book points out, “three out of the four most likely flashpoints for nuclear conflict — Pakistan-India, Iran and Israel-Palestine — have a strong religious element. The only exception is North Korea.”

Much of God is Back carries the authoritative stamp of the Economist, not just the world’s best researched political magazine but also arguably the best written. The problem facing the American Founding Fathers, say the authors, was political rather than theological: “How can you prevent tyranny?” But this produced a paradox. “If the Founders were intent on grappling with a secular problem, their solution to that problem — the separation of church and state and the division of power — allowed the survival of religion in the modern world.” That is splendidly concise, and spot on. The pluralism of American society is manifested as much in its religious culture as in its shopping malls. Only in the United States would the phrase “storefront evangelist” trip off the tongue so easily. It’s true that American academics convinced themselves for many decades that modernity would smother religion. But now even they have recanted. 

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are specialists in US politics (they are the authors of a study of American conservatives) and their tour d’horizon of the country’s bustling religious landscape is full of well chosen details. One excellent point is that we tend to exaggerate the religiosity of Republican presidents while underestimating that of Democrats. George W. Bush has never lost his Ivy League mistrust of his Christian fundamentalist allies — “those wackos”, as he once described them. He is a devout Christian, but the idea that he believed in any sort of theocracy is nonsense, as is John Gray’s idiotic suggestion that American foreign policy during the Iraq War was inspired by Biblical millenarianism. Meanwhile, it was Bill Clinton who did more than any president since Eisenhower to lower the wall of separation between church and state. In 1997 he signed “the most sweeping sanction for the expression of religious views in the federal workplace ever issued”. And, Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding, he surrounded himself with born-again Christians and “maintained a degree of interest in religion that would have had him branded a dangerous Jesus freak in Europe”. One telling detail: the Democrat campaign in 2008 was significantly more Christian than that of 2004, when Howard Dean located the Book of Job in the New Testament.

In the US, capitalism and religion, or religiosity, are almost indivisible. The churches that thrive are those with a business model, while the corporate sector exudes its own plastic spirituality — positively cult-like in the case of Apple. One consequence of this fusion is that the globalisation of American culture carries with it American ways of “doing religion”. The evangelical Christianity of Brazil and Nigeria is heavily Americanised (and much more successful than neocolonial experiments in liberation theology or “inculturation”). But the Americanisation of religion extends beyond the Christian world. Across the Middle East and Asia, we learn, “a younger generation of religious innovators are looking to America not just for signs of the devil’s work but also for models of how to adapt a traditional religious message to modern audiences”. In Bangalore, a Hindu “megatemple” creates the sounds and smells of eternal India. Yet it was founded by software titans as recently as 1997. Islam, too, has its “pastorpreneurs”, who dress in blazers and whip up a mainly female audience with wireless mikes, a backing quartet and dry ice. But, like evangelical preachers, the trappings of showbusiness conceal a conservative message: these new Muslim preachers want women to wear the veil and favour sharia. Admittedly, this exuberant style of Islam has not spread to the Arab world. But then, as Micklethwait and Wooldridge remind us, only 20 per cent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs.

God is Back does not suggest that Islam is smoothly embarking on the road to modernisation. On the contrary, the religion’s concept of equality — equal submission to Allah — is radically unsuited to a dynamic religious marketplace, just as modern Christianity’s emphasis on the equal liberty of believers under God is suited to it. The revival of traditional Islam in the Middle East, Africa and south-east Asia is a ghastly omen, creating the way for unimaginable social collapse in countries whose rulers’ reaction to modernity is to try to blow it up. Micklethwait and Wooldridge rightly conclude that neocon prophecies of “Eurabia” are based on dodgy forecasts. They also suggest that conflict between Muslims may ultimately prove more disastrous than terrorist threats against the West, which is why the US government’s continuing ignorance of Islam is so alarming. But we are left with the strong impression that God’s “return” to developing societies will ensure that they never become developed.

The book avoids broad-brush conclusions. Partly, I suspect, this is a function of its dual authorship: there’s a definite sense of cut and paste about some chapters, and one of the pair (I don’t know which) is a much better writer than the other. But there is no shame in acknowledging a degree of confusion, because religion morphs faster than secular ideology and we have no idea where we will be in ten years’ time. There’s a strong case to be made, for example, that the commodification of American spirituality, its heavy reliance on the techniques of the entertainment industry, is actually leading religion out of the public square and into the realm of fashion. 

Yes, God is back, but then again, so are flared jeans. 

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