Religion and modernity were never expected to go hand in hand, and for centuries they coexisted uncomfortably. But thanks to the entrepreneurial model of American evangelicals, argue two journalists at The Economist, God is back.
TIMOTHY SAMUEL SHAH is Senior Research Scholar at Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and a co-author, with Daniel Philpott and Monica Toft, of a forthcoming book on religion and global politics to be published by Norton in 2010.
In international politics, religion has been the elephant in the room for most of the modern age. And in recent years, it has only grown larger and louder. Policymakers and political theorists have adopted the mostly unpromising strategies of ignoring it in the hope that rationality and modernity will eventually push it out; using laws, coercion, or public opinion to remove it from the political sphere; or pretending that it is only a matter of culture and treating it accordingly.
The authors of God Is Back are an exception. They admit that religion is here to stay and seek to find out what it is really all about. John Micklethwait, editor in chief of The Economist, and Adrian Wooldridge, its Washington bureau chief, work for a publication that has been notably dubious about religion’s long-term viability in the face of modernization and economic globalization. The Economist boldly published God’s obituary in its millennium issue, declaring that „the Almighty recently passed into history.” Micklethwait and Wooldridge, for their part, were not so sure about God’s demise. To investigate God’s place in the world today, the two men traveled thousands of miles to talk to religious leaders and ordinary believers across the world and spent hundreds of hours visiting mosques and temples, attending religious services, sitting in on Bible-study groups, and picking the brains of theologians.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge entered dangerous territory. They faced the literal dangers of encountering real live religious radicals and investigating religion’s impact in all kinds of tough neighborhoods – from inner-city Philadelphia to the northern Nigerian city of Kano. And they faced literary dangers by walking into a field thick with theological crossfire between believers and nonbelievers, epitomized on one extreme by Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity and on the other by Christopher Hitchens’ atheist manifesto, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The confessionally diverse duo of Micklethwait and Wooldridge – the first is a Catholic and the second an atheist – steers clear of polemics and focuses instead on reading God’s vital signs rather than identifying his virtues or vices. What they find is that many of the forces that were supposed to consign the Almighty to the ash heap of history – or to a quiet corner of the living room – have only made him stronger.
Beyond discovering that God still has a pulse, Micklethwait and Wooldridge give a firsthand account of how religious groups all over the world – from family ministries in the United States and megachurches in South Korea to televangelists in Egypt – use modern methods to convert people. The result is more Robert Capa than Max Weber: arresting snapshots of bubbling religiosity rather than elaborate theories about the causes and consequences of the global religious revival. But the snapshots support an argument: that the United States’ increasingly competitive religious market has incubated a form of entrepreneurial faith – a religious style that is conservative at its doctrinal core but restlessly innovative in its techniques of organization and communication. Micklethwait and Wooldridge focus on this U.S. brand of religion partly because it has been the key to reconciling God and modernity. It also attracts their attention – and admiration – because it is contagious, increasingly winning practitioners and followers across the globalized world.
MUNDUS CONTRA DEUM
A happy marriage between God and modernity was never widely expected. In the eighteenth century, some members of modernity’s self-appointed vanguard – especially those writing in French – considered traditional faith a skunk at the Enlightenment party and made God persona non grata in their Parisian salons. The revolutionary Jacobins even turned on Robespierre when he pushed his Cult of the Supreme Being further than their Voltairean tastes permitted. These radicals endeavored to displace God, not accommodate him. The nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet expressed the hope that the French Republic would „take the place of the God who escapes us.”
God’s partisans returned the favor. In 1864, the Vatican pointedly condemned the idea that the pope should „reconcile himself with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization.” Even thinkers sympathetic to the church, such as the historians Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton, feared that an unbridgeable chasm was opening up between Christianity and modernity. By 1882, the anticlerical French philosopher Ernest Renan was exulting, „We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics.”
Across the world, the mutual hostility between divinity and modernity deepened further in the century between 1864, when the pope declared God antimodern, and 1966, when Time magazine asked whether he had died. In Europe, the cradle of Christendom, republican and socialist revolutionaries branded God and the church enemies of the people. God was hardly better off under conservative, monarchical, or royalist regimes – such as Bismarck’s Germany, Victorian England, and Franco’s Spain – where the church depended on government largess and kowtowed to those in power.
In the twentieth century, a worldwide march of the Jacobins’ heirs attempted to get rid of God once and for all. From the Bolsheviks in Russia to the Kemalists in Turkey, the monarchists in Iran, the Nazis in Germany, the Maoists in China, and the Nasserists in Egypt, secular regimes seized church-held land, destroyed monasteries, evicted missionaries, criminalized religious movements, banned religious symbols, proscribed religious political parties, and even attempted to exterminate entire religious communities.