The Invisible Hand of God

In the beginning, preaches God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, God created Adam. No, not the dim-witted Adam with the nagging girlfriend and forbidden-fruit problem, but Adam Smith, the enterprising fellow with the thick burr, the invisible hand, and all those economic maxims drawn from an eighteenth-century pin factory. And God, it seems, saw that Adam Smith was very good indeed. Soon industrialists begat free traders, free traders begat robber barons, robber barons begat captains of industry, captains of industry begat high financiers, high financiers begat masters of the universe, and masters of the universe begat i-banking, securitized mortgages, and credit default swaps, and now only God and Tim Geithner know whats next. Along the way, God also created the Economist to proclaim the truth and efficacy of all this. Yes, the Economistwhere John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge ply their tradedutifully cautions that even free markets can be brought low by original sin. But that is to be expected in a world in which even God himself must cope with “market fluctuation.” Today, after having His stock shorted for a century or three, Gods business has revamped its marketing strategy and is repositioned with an eye for growth.

Or at least that is what God Is Back claims. Where once it was widely assumed that modernity and its handmaiden “secularization” would kill off religion, the reports of Gods death turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, Micklethwait and Wooldridge assure us, “the very things that were supposed to destroy religiondemocracy and markets, technology and reasonare apparently combining to make it stronger.” Europe was wrong, and America right. Irreligion in Europe is the anomaly, and the “hot religion” (namely Evangelical Protestantism) of the United States is the future. “American-style religion” is very much here to stay, and on the whole that is a good thingespecially for business.

God Is Back is an enormously ambitious book whose authors pound its argument home with the persistence of the proverbial used-car salesmen. Given their devotion to classical economics, it is no surprise to learn from them that Gods reemergence as a sound investment is due in large part to the Almightys embrace of eternal truths enunciated not in the Sermon on the Mount but in The Wealth of Nations. “Competition and choice,” not “hierarchy and tradition,” are what people want and what trade demands, in the soul-saving business as elsewhere. Despite its globetrotting subtitle, God Is Back focuses primarily (and worshipfully) on the United States. In separating church and state while protecting the free exercise of religion, the United States has established the ideal setting for religion, democracy, and capitalism to flourish. And nowpraise the Lord!”the world is moving in the American direction, where religion and modernity happily coexist, rather than in the European direction, where secularization marginalizes religion.” Micklethwait and Wooldridge use brief stops in China, South America, India, and across the Islamic world to demonstrate the influence and practicality of “American-style religion” for people struggling with the creative destruction brought on by economic globalization.

But what exactly is American-style religion? The whirlwind historical survey served up here gives cameo roles to the usual suspects: Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, the Founding Fathers, Tocqueville, William Jennings Bryan, Billy Graham, JFK, MLK, Mel Gibson, etc. But the story as told by Micklethwait and Wooldridge emphasizes a cultural dynamic and ideologynamely, competitive free enterpriseover any individual contribution. As the authors rightly note, because religion was divorced from the state in America, religious leaders and communities had to fend for themselves, building their own institutions while competing strenuously for believers with other religious groups. This separation of church and state is akin to the rules of the free market, which may explain why religion has flourished in America in contrast to other developed nations where the state has had a much heavier hand in the support of religion. This, in turn, demanded greater innovation and an emphasis on what might be called customer service.

God Is Back traces this church model to the revivals or “awakenings” of the nineteenth century as well as the pragmatic outreach and organization of the Methodist Church, once the nations largest Protestant denomination. We follow Evangelical Protestantisms ups and downs like a stock price, from Prohibition and the Scopes trial to George W. Bush and right up to the current moment. (The crestfallen reaction of conservative evangelicals and Catholics to Barack Obamas election gets little attention, however.) Faced with the challenge of marketing faith in a postindustrial society, contemporary American “pastorpreneurs” have turned to sophisticated business models for inspiration and instruction. As God Is Back notes, Willow Creek Community Church, the famed Illinois megachurch, boasts two MBAs on its large administrative staff, and an operation that caters to virtually all the needs of its members, from food courts to addiction counseling. “Willow Creek,” the authors write, “is based on the same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first.” It is a principle they see being followed by Evangelical, Pentecostal, and even some Catholic churches around the world.

Doubtless there is some truth in the observation that “competition and choice” are good for religion, as the growth of Evangelical Christianity in Latin America and Africa and Catholicism in Africa and Asia demonstrates. But religion is a dauntingly complex historical, social, and intellectual phenomenon, and, as lawyers say, Micklethwait and Wooldridges thesis proves too much. How, for example, to fit the success of the American Catholic Church into their model? Yes, the bishops, priests, and nuns who built the remarkable array of Catholic institutions, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, were entrepreneurial. But they hardly dispensed with “hierarchy and tradition” or committed themselves to competition and choice. Nor was there much real “competition for souls” between the Catholic Church and Protestantism: for the most part, you were born or married into the Catholic Church and stayed there. This was especially true for immigrants who found a refuge in the Church from an otherwise unfamiliar and often hostile environment. In a real sense, then, the Church operated a monopoly in one corner of the religious market. Contrary to Micklethwait and Wooldridges theory, it thrived without the goad of competition. Retreating into a subculture of schools, hospitals, orphanages, neighborhoods, and rigorous ritual observance, Catholics protected themselves from precisely the sort of free market God Is Back celebrates as the peculiar genius of American religiosity.

The books take on Catholicism and American political life seems confused. To describe John F. Kennedys famous 1960 speech to Protestant ministers in Houston as “the highpoint of bland civic religion” is anachronistic at best, and to say that Kennedy told his audience that “his Roman Catholicism was a strictly private affair” is downright misleading. What he really said was that he could not imagine a situation in which his Catholic faith or the teachings of his Church would prevent him from carrying out his responsibilities as president; and, if such a situation ever arose, Kennedy promised, he would resign from office. There was nothing “bland” about this effort to address the legitimate, if exaggerated, concerns Protestants had about the Catholic Church and democracy. In a similarly convoluted reading of history, God Is Back credits the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus with ending a Catholic “nervousness about involvement in the public square” that Kennedy allegedly epitomized. This is laughably off target, since the emergence of Neuhaus and other Catholic neocons came in direct response to the energetic involvement in the public square of the American bishops, with their influential statements on economic justice and nuclear disarmament during the 1980s.

God Is Back proves not much more convincing in its canned history of the 1960s. Singing from the neoconservative hymnal, Micklethwait and Wooldridge bemoan “liberal overreach,” including Supreme Court rulings banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools, as well as the lefts excesses regarding race, the Vietnam War protests, violent crime, the sexual revolution, and the legalization of abortion. But surely the crisis of authority was more basic and profound than this suggests. What truly almost tore the country apart was widespread violent resistance to desegregation; the assassinations of a president, his brother, and the most important religious figure in U.S. history; and a decade-long undeclared war that killed 55,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. In this context, the threat posed to religious Americans by hippies, feminists, protestors, or pornographers seems rather tame.

God Is Back offers nuanced observations about both the dangers and the opportunities the new global religious situation presents. But is it really new? Yes, in a sense God is back, at least on the radar screens of certain Western elites. For most people across the globe, of course, God never left. It is hardly surprising, then, that resolving the worlds most neuralgic conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the war in Iraq, and the threat posed by al-Qaeda, will require the participation of religious leaders. Ironically, given the significance of religion in American politics, this is something U.S. foreign policy has long neglected, and God Is Back rightly urges that this omission be corrected.

This is a difficult time to write an account of contemporary religion and politics. God Is Back was written before the full extent of the global financial crisis was evident, and its confident assertions about the inevitability and beneficence of American-led globalizationand the political and military hegemony of the United Statesnow seem cavalier. Its speculations about the “consolations” of religion are little more than tautologies. Religion is about meaning, therefore people find meaning in religion. But what that meaning is remains a mystery. To say that religion is about “the quest for community in an increasingly atomized world, the desire to counterbalance choice with a sense of moral certainty,” while true at some level, doesnt tell us what meaning people derive from community or moral certainty. Is it still meaningful if it is false?

To coin a phrase, such bromides are the height of bland civic religion. In the end, it is hard to imagine any serious religious believer, or any curious agnostic, for that matter, not being irked by a theory that requires a neologism as cringe-making as “pastorpreneur,” or by a book whose bottom line informs us that American-style Evangelical religion has
finally solved the age-old problem of whether one can serve both God and Mammon. Surely there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this philosophy.

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Paul Baumann

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.