MicGodi 09-11-165

God is Back

How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World


John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Penguin Press, 2009, 405 pp.  ISBN 978-1-59420-213-1



John Micklethwait is the editor in chief and Adrian Wooldridge is the management editor for The Economist and the authors of four books including one I really enjoyed, The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus.  The authors are an atheist and a Catholic, both perhaps representing 'cold' vs. 'hot' religion (using their categories).  This is a sociological look at the resurgence of religion (or perhaps awareness of religion) in the world.


The authors say a huge world of faith has been hidden from Western intellectuals, who assumed modernity would kill religion.  Twenty-first century faith is being fueled by a very American emphasis on choice and competition.  The global rise of faith is powerfully impacting and destabilizing our century.  [It seems ironic that the authors have discovered that politics is not just about economics, and yet they interpret religion in terms of politics and economics.  In their view democracy and free markets are major causes for the flourishing of religion. dlm]



In Europe religion meant war or oppression; in America it turned out to be a source of freedom. (Edmund Burke).  The European influence was felt around the world and it was expected that America would also "mature."  But religion is returning to public life everywhere and many older conflicts have acquired a religious edge.  Statistics indicate the global drift toward secularism has halted and religion is on the increase.  More combative religions are gaining.  But the upwardly mobile, educated middle classes are driving the explosion of faith.  Although religion has been there all along, the political groups of the West are awakening to it.  But also changes are occurring in religion.  As secular 'isms' collapsed and governments lost faith, a surge in religion was being driven by the forces of market capitalism: competition and choice.  The relationship is not between modernization and secularization but between modernization and pluralism.  From Moscow to Cairo to Beijing we are seeing God reinserted in public and intellectual life.  The world seems to be moving in the American rather than the European direction.


1.  The European Way: The Necessity of Atheism

Prophets have been predicting the death of God for generations.  It started with the Enlightenment confidence in human reason and human goodness.  The worship of God was replaced with the worship of man.  A succession of intellectual giants took sledgehammers to the foundations of faith.  Religion was attacked by science (Darwin), biblical criticism (doubts about miracles), and Sigmund Freud (Religion is a neurosis.).  


Secular ideologies provided substitutes.  The cult of science, social Darwinism, led to racism and flourishing eugenics societies.  Culture was considered superior to religion.  The nation-state provided the concept of a chosen people with a special destiny.  Public education began edging the church out of the education business.  The twentieth century brought together these ideologies in the "poisonous cocktail of communism" where religion was unacceptable.  "The second half of the twentieth century saw the almost complete secularization of the British white working class…." (51) 


2.  The American Way I: The Chosen Nation (1607-1900)

America was not born religious: it became religious.  Religion and modernity have never been enemies in America.  "From the very beginning America was an unusual mixture of the religious and the secular." (56)  The American Revolution was unique in that it was not a rebellion against clericalism.  Revolutionary America embraced religion alongside liberty, reason and popular government." (61) 


The First Amendment created tolerance in its fullest sense and it introduced competition.  It was up to churches to get people in the doors.  "The decision to get government out of the religion business did as much as almost anything else to establish America's role as the most religious county in the advanced world."   "…a free market in religion forces clergymen to compete for market share." (64)  The Evangelicals rejected hierarchy and tradition.  All you needed was a Bible and your conscience.  Religion grew from 2.5 million to 23 million between 1776 and 1850.  "In Europe, Christianity was a creature of the old establishment; in America, it was a child of the revolution." (71) 


In the Civil War "two of the most religious armies in the world rode into battle to slaughter each other, each believing God was on their side." (73) 


"Throughout the nineteenth century clergymen argued that 'the cause of America' had become 'the cause of Christ."  Christian nationalism.  Manifest Destiny. 


3.  The American Way II: Surviving the Acids of Modernity (1880 - 2000)

Protestantism was set back by the split between liberals compromising with secularism and fundamentalists resisting it.  Fundamentalism was promptly humiliated in its battles with drink and Darwin. And when the political establishment embraced "the Judeo-Christian tradition," religion was somewhat reduced to a symbol of American respectability.


The free market, charismatic preaching, application of technology, and the rise of Pentecostalism all worked to bolster evangelical religion.  But a revolution of the intelligentsia secularized campuses.  (The priests were driven from the temples.)  One intellectual reported "he had put his religious beliefs in a drawer one day, and twenty years later he opened the drawer only to find that his beliefs had gone." (86)  Social Darwinism became popular.  Literary figures, such as Mark Twain, poked fun at religion as an antiquated superstition.  Someone commented that a Christian is "one who follows the teachings of Christ so long as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin."  Mainline Protestants became more activistic, heavily influenced by the Social Gospel movement that directed Christians to help the poor. Evangelicals fought to preserve the fundamentals.  Traditionalists believed in personal responsibility rather than government welfare.


Evangelicals lost the war of Prohibition, "Much as their latter-day descendants are losing the war against drugs." (90)  The great rally against Darwinism became a public relations disaster for Evangelicals resulting in them being characterized as backward and bigoted.  "It created identification in the public mind between liberalism and secularism, and it drove Bible-believing Christians into the arms of people who were both culturally and economically conservative." (92)


Religious revival continued after the Second World War.  Church membership rose to 69% in 1959 and religion regained some intellectual prestige.  There were remarkable steps forward in religious toleration.  The Judeo-Christian nation was born.  But "Religion was reduced to a mere badge of commitment to the American creed of individualism, egalitarianism and upward mobility."  (96)  By 2000, the country was split between "people who were hot for religion, whether they were Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and people who were cooler, whether they were atheists, modernists or infrequent church attendees."  (97) 


"If the religious wars of the early twentieth century were ignited by the overreach of America's Evangelicals over alcohol and evolution, the religious wars of the second half were ignited by the overreach of those bent on driving religion to the margins of American society." (98)  The Supreme Court decision to remove prayer and Bible reading from public schools was followed shortly by a permissive decision on pornography and the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.  Evangelical America showed a resurgence led by Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and The Moral Majority.  The rise of the religious right bound Evangelical Protestants to conservatives of other religious traditions. Several presidents articulated their Christian commitments.


4.  Bush, Blair, Obama and The God Gap (2000 - 2008)

Bush, Blair, and Clinton are all sincere Christians.  Blair tried to keep it under wraps while in office because Brits think Christians are "nutters."  Bush wore it on his sleeve but it was partially politically motivated and the degree it affected his policies is exaggerated.  American politics will continue to be more faith driven than its allies. 


"These new [religious] activists are mixing familiar conservative concerns, such as abortion and gay marriage, with new worries about global warming, inequality, human trafficking and prison rape. … The pied piper of this group is Rick Warren." (127) 


Obama symbolizes the new religious left.  He beat Hillary Clinton by "out-Godding" her.  "Here was a man who had not recently remembered his faith, but talked at length about his religiosity in his two autobiographies…." (120) 


Europe is no longer Christian but there are glimmerings of faith reviving, largely through mass immigration of millions of Christians from the developing world.  Some religion is beginning to return to intellectual life.  The rise of Islam makes more religion in politics inevitable. 


5.  Pray, Rabbit, Pray: Soulcraft and the American Dream

Religion is thriving as a solution to many of modernity's problems. 


6.  The God Business: Capitalism and the Rise of Religion

Nashville is a place where God and Mammon happily coexist.  American religion has a competitive advantage.  Religious products make up a $6 billion business.  America leads in producing religious entrepreneurs and empires.  Mainstream media is getting in the business.  Faith based companies are pushing into the mainstream market as well.  Christians are increasingly media savvy.   The modern corporate model is working well for worship in the total service mega churches. Some preachers are worried they are producing a tribe of spectators who come only for the spectacle, the Disneyfication of religion.  "The megachurches are simply using the tools of American society to spread religion where it wouldn't otherwise exist…."  "The megachurches may be soft on the surface, but they are hard on the inside."  "You may start out in a Disney theme park but you end up in the heart of Evangelical America." (191)


7.  Empires of the Mind: God and the Intellectuals

There is a resurgence of interest in religion among America's intellectual elite.  A number are being caught up in the religious revival.  For most of human history the intellectual elite have been religious.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.  The return to religion was supercharged by 9/11. 


William F. Buckley was instrumental with his 1951 bombshell, God and Man in Yale followed by his founding of the National Review.  Evangelicals are starting to produce scholars again.  Abut 10% of undergraduates at Ivy League Colleges are regularly involved in Evangelical groups.  Harvard now has a chair in Evangelical Theological Studies. 


8.  Exporting America's God

Pentecostalism is the great religious success story of the 20th century.  It can be seen everywhere in the developing world.  Christianity in Latin America and Korea is being fueled by the embrace of the free market (competition) and individual choice.  


"Everywhere you look in religious America, Christians and churches are taking the Bible's 'great commission' to 'make disciples of all nations' to heart."  (225)  There is a vigorous 'Christian solidarity' movement in America.  The campaign against religious persecution quickly developed into a wide-ranging campaign against everything from sex trafficking to slavery."  (226)  Religious organizations provided $8.8 billon in foreign aid in 2006, 37% of all U.S. government foreign aid.


Missionary work is dangerous, so why is it growing?  1.  The success of 'hot' religion (growth of evangelicals), 2.  boom in short-term missions (which is having a big impact on the next generations), and 3. the growing sophistication of missionary activity.  At the same time immigrants are helping reshape American religion.  And developing countries are sending missionaries here.


American continues to have a huge influence on the shape of religion because of our wealth and because others look to us for how to organize and manage and how to adapt a traditional religious message to modern audiences.  "It is not clear how the world's religions will fare in a gradually more 'American' environment." (242)


9.  All that is Holy is Profaned: Exporting American Materialism

"People everywhere, but particularly in the developing world, are reacting to the hurricane of capitalism by taking cover under the canopy of religion." (244) Capitalism brings insecurities that increase the demand for religion as a place of certainty. 


The worldview projected by America is highly offensive to traditional societies, particularly depictions of female sexuality and raw violence.  The internet allows people to question everything their elders tell them.  "The assault on tradition is often an assault on religion."  (248)  It is most striking in the case of pornography.  American capitalism is so seductive.  "Jesus was a critic of avarice and greed." (250)  But opposition to capitalism is becoming rarer.  The greatest reaction is outside the Christian world and the most uncompromising opposition is in the Middle East where capitalism is seen as a Western tool.


Three of the most important innovations in radical Islam are 1) making a distinction between the 'faithful' and the 'unfaithful' Muslim rulers, 2) to reassert the power of Islam as the way to deal with modernity, and 3) to pronounce a death sentence on decadent Western civilization.  What they most resent is 'sexual and cultural promiscuity.'  For them, Islam is the ideal antithesis of the modern West.  Their way forward is to go backward. 


10.  The Bible versus the Koran: The Battle of the Books and the Future of the Two Faiths

Christians and Muslims are both people of a holy book and they have an obligation to spread the word.  The Koran is the backbone of Muslim education and, in many countries, the foundation of the constitution. 


Christians and Muslims are both very adept at using the tools of modernity -- globalization, the media and growing wealth to distribute their books although they approach the religious task differently. The average American home has 4 Bibles but biblical knowledge is abysmal.  Fewer than half of Americans can name the first book.  12% think Noah married Joan of Arc.  But the situation is worse with Islam. 


The Bible is a bottom up affair with hundreds of organizations contributing to getting the Word out.  The Koran is going global almost exclusively on the back of Saudi oil wealth.  It is one of the central pillars of Saudi foreign policy. 


"Christians, though models of tolerance by Saudi standards, fight no less fiercely for souls.  Many Evangelical Christians are fixated on what they call the 10/40 window…."  (272) 


Christians have several advantages.  They are much more enthusiastic about translations.  They are effective at turning the operation into a profitable commercial enterprise with an enormous variety of products.  The believers are quite wealthy as opposed to the heartland of the Koran, which is relatively poor.  Whereas the heartland of Islam is theocratic, the West believes in religious freedom.  The uneven playing field (Saudis can build mosques in the West but Bibles cannot be distributed there) in the long-run weakens the home players.  Christianity seems to be doing better at thriving in the face of modernity. 


At the same time religion saturates the culture of most Muslim countries.  Islam is doing a better job spreading to Christendom, largely by immigration, than Christianity into the Islamic world. Several European cities will become majority Muslim.  And Islam is developing its political muscle. 


But the Islamic world is a long way behind the Christian one in its engagement with modernity.  Islam has never experienced a Reformation or Enlightenment.  "Despite the blessings of oil, the Arab world…lags behind the West in most indices of economic success and political maturity…."  "There is depressingly little evidence of internal cultural creativity….  Most Gulf countries have an unhealthy reliance on a single windfall, oil, that owes everything to the twin accidents of geology and geography and nothing to the ingenuity and entrepreneurialism of the people." (283)  "Roughly two in three private-sector jobs in the Gulf are performed by foreigners." (284)  And the oil money is still be pocketed by governments and ruling families.  Many Europeans are also doing badly, undereducated, underemployed, embracing radicalism.  It is hard to ignore two facts.  A lot of radicalism is rooted in Islam.  A substantial minority of Muslims agree with all or some of Osama bin Laden's aims. 


"Muslims are much more likely than Christians to be riven by wars of religion…."  And many Islamic reformers would like to go backward rather than forward.  (289)  There is a central political battle within Islam between 'martyrs,' who are ready to die for change and the authoritarian 'traitors,' who now wield power and are too friendly with the West.


"Resistance to pluralism is thus a double disaster for Islam: it is holding back economic progress in general and undermining its ability to compete for souls in the long run." (292)  The fiercest opposition to pluralism is in Saudi Arabia.  Dubai allows freedom of worship but trying to convert a Muslim is a criminal offense.  Malaysia now has sharia courts that intervene to stop anyone from leaving Islam.  "This aversion to pluralism poisons everything that it touches in the Islamic world." (293)  If a free discussion of "first things" is prevented, there is no hope of producing world class universities.


11.  The New Wars of Religion

"The greatest change in foreign policy in the recent past has been the revival of religion.  It is impossible to understand international affairs today without taking faith into account." (299)  We are living in 'the age of sacred terror' (quoting a book title). Politicians are stirring up religious passion.  Outsiders are rushing into conflicts to defend their religions.  Terrorist outrages have religious connections.  Three out of four most likely flashpoints for nuclear conflict have a strong religious element (Pakistan-India, Iran, and Israel-Palestine). 


"A ring of instability lines Islam's southern frontiers, which runs roughly along the tenth parallel from West Africa to the Philippines.  Radical Islam has a huge influence over several countries--notably Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan." (304)  Saudi Arabia plays a double game of appeasement and repression.  Pakistan has long played a double role.  "The jihadis' most important war is not against the West but against apostate Muslim regimes, notably Saudi Arabia…."  "Muslims also slaughter each other in large numbers."  Perhaps the most dangerous power struggle is between Sunnis and Shias.  Most of the deaths in Iraq were the result of sectarian violence after the U.S. invasion upset the balance.  Quarrels within countries could do the most damage.  "The revival of religion is multiplying the number of people who are willing to kill and die for their faith." (308) 


There are plenty of reasons to kill without religion.  The 20th century was the most secular and the most bloody in our existence: Godless religions of Nazism and communism killed tens of millions according to George Weigel.


Killing is now much more bottom-up than top-down and the ability of governments to control religious politics has declined.  "The most immediate global threat comes from the ungoverned, undergoverned and ungovernable areas of the Muslim World…." (311)


12.  The Culture Wars Go Global

In a growing number of countries religion is being pushed into the public square.  Politics is being driven by values such as abortion and gay marriage, stems cells and cloning, headscarves and sharia law.  Abortion remains central.  "Ultrasound pictures have probably done more for the pro-life cause than any number of papal encyclicals." (328) 


"Europeans used to watch America's culture wars with a mixture of bemusement and contempt….  Now Europeans are also arguing about the expression of faith in the public square and the right of journalists to offend religious minorities. … The reason for this is Islam." (338)  Muslim immigrants are rediscovering a commitment that had begun to fade.  They are segregated in an all-embracing religious cocoon that reinforces cultural exclusiveness and produces an army of Europeans whose first loyalty is their religion.  Many young second-generation Muslims want to reconfigure European society to accommodate their preferences. 


The U.N. has long been a bastion of power for liberals but even there Christian right activists have arrived.  "The UN will no longer be able to treat issues of overpopulation and bioengineering as mere technical issues to be decided by committees of experts." (351)


Conclusion: Learning to Live with Religion

"The great forces of modernity--technology and democracy, choice and freedom--are all strengthening religion rather than undermining it."  "Democracy is giving the world's people their voice and they want to talk about God." (quoting timothy Shah and Monica Toft) (355)  The world is generally moving in the American direction - with three caveats.  1.  The relationship between religion and modernity is far from smooth for many believers.  2.  This does not mean that the alternatives disappear.  3.  The natural accompaniment of modernity is not religiosity but pluralism: religious beliefs become competitors in the marketplace. 


Religion can be dangerous in politics and the most striking danger is on the international level.  Western policy makers have alternated between underplaying and overplaying the role of religion in foreign affairs and the mistakes have been costly. A few power brokers are realizing that if religion can be dangerous, resolution must include religion and religious leaders.  Faith can be a source of tribalism and division or a source of strength and making sense of the world.  "Faith-based diplomacy is no panacea…but it is extremely difficult to imagine a lasting peace without their involvement." (367)    

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