Adrian Wooldridge on God is Back

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Adrian Wooldridge, Management Editor of The Economist and author of God is Back, discusses the global resurgence of evangelical religion.

Former Evangelical Christians are usually difficult to spot. Many of us have had years to adjust since we put our days of Christian rock and Bible study groups behind us, and aside from a few telltale signs like a weird over-enthusiasm for the Theory of Evolution, we manage to blend in with the secular world pretty well.

But every so often something puts Evangelicals in the headlines—a movie like Jesus Camp comes out, or Sarah Palin starts talking about, well, anything really—and suddenly there we are plain as day, wincing in recognition, smiling tightly at the inevitable jokes. As much as we try to ignore it, this part of our culture isn’t going anywhere; and lately it’s been demanding more and more of our attention.

As someone who recently joined the ranks of “spiritual-not-religious” critics of the church, I found God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World to be an eye-opening but uncomfortable read. Co-authors Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait, writers for The Economist, make the case that instead of fading out in the face of modernity, religion—the American Evangelical brand in particular—is flourishing.

The basic argument, made with historical context, balance, and a touch of wry amusement, is that religion falls into two main categories. There’s the European model, old-fashioned and dogmatic, in which religion is imposed on people by the government. Then there’s the American model based on the separation of church and state, in which churches have to compete with one another for followers. This new model gave rise to the aggressively commercial Evangelical movement, with its auditorium-sized mega-churches, charismatic celebrity preachers, huge media networks, and full-scale marketing campaigns like the Left Behind series. God is Back argues that the power of this spiritual free market is driving a massive revival of faith that is catching on around the world.

When I met Adrian Wooldridge for soft drinks in a hotel bar after his appearance at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, I wasn’t quite ready to accept this. As an American progressive, I cling wearily to the belief that times are changing and the Sarah Palins and Pat Robinsons of the world are on their way out. And after all, I was quick to mention, Wooldridge and Micklethwait made similar predictions about the dominance of the Republican Party that were (mostly) debunked by the 2008 election.

“Yes, the one we got wrong,” Wooldridge said with a laugh. He was jovial and relaxed that evening, loosening his tie as we talked. Admitting his mistake, he still insisted that President Obama’s narrow victory over McCain’s inept campaign during a recession proves his larger point. “America is a very conservative country in its soul, in its heart. Even the Democrats are much more conservative than most progressive parties in Europe or Australasia. I think that’s absolutely the truth.”

Still, his claims of a religious revival seemed surprising to me. Not long after the election, Newsweek magazine ran an ominous cover story called “The End of Christian America”. The article cites a recent American Religious Identification Survey showing that the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen from 86% to 76% since 1990, and a Pew Forum poll showing that the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased from 1 million in 1990 to 3.6 million in 2009.

On the other hand, Wooldridge remarked, a quarter of those self-proclaimed atheists say they believe in some kind of higher power—“an odd notion of atheism.” To him, those poll numbers actually reveal a growing intensity in the debate over organised religion and the role it plays in the world.

“What has happened in America is that the question of God has become a more serious and politicised question,” he said. “There was a long time in which people would identify themselves as religious almost in the same way they’d identify themselves as patriotic or pro-American. That was very much associated with the Cold War and the battle against atheistic Communism. Now they’ve become divided over this issue. The question of ‘Do you believe in God?’ became the question of ‘Do you believe in the Republican Party? Do you like or dislike George Bush?’”

I agreed with him there. Liberals around the world still have nightmares about President Bush “getting instructions from Jesus” in the Oval Office, and the recent headlines about Christian activists rewriting history books in Texas aren’t helping us sleep any easier. Many critics of the Republican Party, like American Theocracy author Kevin Phillips, are convinced that the Religious Right is trying to do away with the separation of church and state altogether.

According to Wooldridge, though, this fear is nonsense. “What did it actually produce under George Bush, when the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate and had a majority of publicly-appointed people on the Supreme Court?” he asked me. “They banned only publicly-funded experimentation on stem cells, and abortion remained legal.”

This comment touched on something I noticed while reading God is Back: a faith in the checks and balances of the United States government that is both gratifying and sometimes hard to believe. The book argues that our political system is neither as religious nor as agnostic as some make it out to be. The Founding Fathers designed a secular framework—“There were no references to biblical texts in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the new state charters, an astounding fact for the time”—but they didn’t intend for religion to be banned from public life either.

As Wooldridge put it, the real argument America is having is not whether there should be a line between church and state, but how sharply it should be drawn. “You can’t have the Ten Commandments carved in stone in a courthouse, but you can have people proselytising as much as they absolutely want to in the town square and trying to get converts,” he said. “You can’t have prayer enforced by schoolmasters, but you can allow students to pray in private and read their Bible.” His theory is that people on both sides tend to overreach on this issue, leading to cycles of public pushback, retreat, and resurgence.

Despite my frustration with the Religious Right, I had to admit that Wooldridge had a point: non-religious people, particularly those of the Hitchens and Dawkins variety, can be too quick to dismiss the important role religion plays in society. Without the influence of religion in politics, Wooldridge pointed out, we wouldn’t have had the Civil Rights Movement. (“Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t called Martin Luther by accident.”) Many leaders in the anti-Vietnam War movement were also believers, acting on their convictions that war is immoral in the eyes of God.

It also comes down to a question of basic human kindness. Reading God is Back, I was genuinely humbled and inspired by the chapter on churches in Philadelphia that feed the homeless, provide health services to poor families and set up support networks for young people—services that would cost the city millions of dollars to replace. It’s hard to deny that in an increasingly hostile world, churches can offer a refuge and a sense of community.

The thing that bothered me is that small inner-city churches don’t seem to be the ones being exported worldwide—it’s the large, wealthy, suburban mega-churches that are organised and run like multinational corporations, complete with political lobbyists and advertising experts. The book describes how these churches are investing huge amounts of money to gain power in developing countries, using missionary work and charity organisations like Pastor Rick Warren’s anti-AIDS initiative in Africa. Fresh from reading Naomi Klein (like a good liberal) I was alarmed at the idea of American religion becoming a kind of spiritual Wal-Mart, putting a brand name on philanthropy and undermining other forms of civil society.

As one might expect of the Management Editor of The Economist, Wooldridge wasn’t very concerned about this. (When I mentioned Klein he laughed, and the word “buffoon” might have come up.) “I think what you tend to find is societies that have a lot of civil society will also tend to be quite religious societies. You can go back to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on this. What really is destructive of civil associations, both in religious and non-religious forms, is the power of the state. I think the creation of the welfare state and the huge expansion of state power—the power to tax, to distribute income, to provide services—is really what has led to the withering of associations since the Second World War and even before that.”

With some enthusiasm, he explained that churches-as-corporations are a good thing, however commercial and tacky they may be, because they have to embrace modernity and individual choice to remain competitive. “It creates a religion that’s very differentiated, very consumer-oriented and concerned with different markets. So we talk in the book about these cowboy churches; you have churches oriented toward gays; there are churches that are oriented towards bikers. There’s this marvellous church in Colorado called the Scum of the Earth Church with people who regard themselves as rebels against society.”

Rigid, “customer-hostile” religions like traditional Islam, on the other hand, run the risk of being pushed out of the marketplace despite their strength in numbers. “All of these countries who are trying to impose religion on people are saying that if you’re born Muslim, you’ve got to stay Muslim,” he said. “If you’re born in Saudi Arabia, you’re ipso facto Muslim. In the short term that may work, but in the long term you’re in a collision course with modernity, and I think you’re backing the losing side.”

For Wooldridge, economics is both a handy metaphor for religion and a practical reality. God is Back has a number of anecdotes about upwardly mobile, educated middle-class people in places like China, India, and Indonesia who have a growing infatuation with American-style churches. The book suggests that there is a positive relationship between the rise of faith in these countries and an increase in prosperity.

Pointing me to the theories of Max Weber and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by R H Tawney, Wooldridge said that Protestantism was an agent of modernity that helped to create capitalism in the West. “Protestantism spread a faith in the power of the individual and spread scepticism about received authority in the form of the Catholic hierarchy,” he said. “It put an emphasis on thrift, hard work and saving.”

Now, he argued, we may see Weber and Tawney proved right in the developing world, Latin America in particular. “When you’ve got all these people arriving in these gigantic cities and the men go to brothels and gamble and drink, that creates huge social problems. But if they go to church they’re taught, ‘Be disciplined, wear a suit, work hard, aspire to better things, and God will help you.’” Latin-American women also have a lot to gain from escaping the old Catholic system. “The women are very powerful in these churches. They do a lot of the speaking and accept very important organisational roles. They learn to have faith in themselves, present themselves, and become agents of change in society.”

It all sounded very uplifting, but I was still sceptical. If Evangelical religion is all about thrift and humility, I argued, how do you explain Christian celebrities like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, who live in sprawling mansions and travel the world in private jets? Wooldridge agreed, with a dry smile, that Weber did not have them in mind. “These ministers—let’s put it like this—they’re not noticeably abstemious in their lifestyles. They will display their wealth in a very ostentatious and rather vulgar manner because they think this is proof of God’s favour and God’s blessing. The Gospel of Wealth is… problematic, I think.”

It was a bit more than problematic from my point of view. Osteen is one of the most well-known religious leaders in America, and he essentially preaches that if you pray hard enough and have the right amount of faith, God will magically bring wealth and power your way—a slightly more biblical version of The Secret or How to Win Friends and Influence People. I couldn’t help but wonder if people in developing countries are picking up Evangelical Christianity in the hopes that the God of the world’s wealthiest nation will decide to make them wealthy too.

But the question that worried me the most was this: In this booming global marketplace of religious ideas, how do secular-minded people compete? What about people who tend to be marginalised by organised religion—atheists, for example, or the LGBT community? In a world where an American presidential candidate has to attend the right kind of church to stand any chance of being elected, should non-religious people resign themselves to never having any real influence or political power?

Wooldridge, who himself is an atheist, admitted that this is a concern. “I think it’s unfortunate that deep in the American psyche, there is this notion that to be moral you have to be religious, and that it’s a sort of test that any potential President would have to pass.” But he pointed out that it’s less of a problem for public figures in large cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the major universities in America tend to be aggressively secular. “It cuts both ways. On the one hand it’s hard to become President if you’re not willing to at least profess Christianity. However, if you wanted to be on the Harvard faculty, it probably works to be a secular-minded person. And the Harvard faculty has a job for life. Not like the President—he’s only in there for a few years.”

The evening was wearing on by then, and the hotel bar was getting crowded.  We chatted about Wooldridge’s study of self-help gurus and the weirdly New Age tone of management seminars as I gathered my notes together, and I left with a somewhat less defensive attitude than when I’d arrived. At the very least, the case for the social and spiritual value of organised religion was worth reconsidering.

But my distrust of the American Evangelical movement was far from over.  Several days after my conversation with Wooldridge, a gay couple in Malawi made international news when they were convicted of “gross indecency and unnatural acts” and threatened with at least a decade in prison. It was the latest headline of a culture war over homosexuality and reproductive rights that has flared up in Africa over the last two years—a culture war that has been directly linked to Pastor Rick Warren and political activists from America’s far-right.  Perhaps Wooldridge is correct that America is protected from the extreme elements of religion by our freedom of choice. My concern is whether the people to whom we are exporting our religious ideas will have the same protection.