In his new book – Neoliberal Religion: Faith and Power in the Twenty-First Century – Mathew Guest interrogates the relationship between contemporary religions and neoliberal logic, and how the former have used the latter to build their movements.
In the 21st century, neoliberalism is unavoidable. While the term might appear to many as technical and arcane, its consequences are felt almost everywhere. The economic perspective that advocates a small state, unregulated markets, and individual enterprise exerts such a profound influence in western nations that it is rarely even recognised as a political choice. Even after the global economic crash in 2007-8, and the coronavirus pandemic, which highlighted our common humanity and dependency on international collaboration, the patent limitations of free market capitalism have not shaken its place as the world’s dominant ideology. Its influence, moreover, extends well beyond the economic sphere, and is now embedded in cultural life across nations shaped by free market interests. Given its pervasive influence, it should not surprise us that the assumptions of neoliberalism also shape the values and behaviour of religious movements across the globe. As I argue in my book Neoliberal Religion: Faith and Power in the 21st Century, this requires us to change how we understand religion and its status in contemporary life.
The observation that religious practices can resemble commercial markets is, to be fair, nothing new. Around 1905, German sociologist Max Weber famously identified a strong relationship between certain forms of Protestantism in the 17th century and the economic impulses that inspired the emergence of capitalism. While the argument of his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism remains contentious, there is an enduring affinity between particular strands of Christianity and private enterprise. A striking example is found among advocates of the Prosperity (or ‘Faith’) Movement, for whom material wealth is a sign of divine favour, and the acquisition of wealth a divinely endorsed ambition.
But what we are seeing in recent decades goes beyond Weber’s observations about the Protestant tendency to attach value to self-reliance and private enterprise. Recent affinities between religion and economics evoke the thinking of Friedrich von Hayek, the father of neoliberal economics. For Hayek, both economics and society more generally would be better organised according to the principles of the free market, unencumbered by state interference or the passing vanities of politicians or ideologues. Propelled to the status of economic orthodoxy decades later by American economist Milton Friedman and channelled into the political mainstream by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, neoliberalism championed economic deregulation, privatisation of state assets and the liberalisation of trade. Subsequently, social scientists have noted the increasing migration of neoliberal ideas into non-economic spheres of life. The pre-eminence of competition, marketisation, and commodification can be seen in the spheres of education and healthcare, for example, in school league tables and corporate governance of hospitals.
We are witnessing what political scientist Wendy Brown calls the ‘economisation’ of all realms of human life. It is becoming increasingly difficult to push back against ideas of value and efficiency that are framed in neoliberal terms. In one sense, in western capitalist nations, the free market has acquired the status that religion once enjoyed, treated as self-evident and inevitable, as if ‘market conditions’ were both a natural consequence of human progress and the most effective means of identifying what’s valuable. The logic of neoliberalism has a profound influence over our lives, sometimes via its absorption into religious movements themselves.
Some of the most striking examples can be found among the US Christian Right, who have successfully fused conservative Christianity with right wing social and economic agendas. In his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, historian Kevin Kruse traces the origins of this understanding to industrialists in the 1930s. Struggling to sustain a positive public image in the shadow of the financial crash and Great Depression, champions of private enterprise found themselves vilified by the political establishment, as President F.D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ founded a welfare state intended to curb the excesses of private finance. They saw an advantage in wedding their cause to that of the Christian leaders who were also sceptical of the Democratic administration and its apparent ‘collectivism’. It was this coalition – backed by significant corporate resources – that promoted a conflation of ‘faith, freedom and free enterprise’, as if each were synonymous with the others. As Kruse demonstrates, Christianity and capitalist enterprise were presented not only as compatible, but as natural bedfellows, united in their common concern for the betterment of the individual and common opposition to encroaching state power. In this confluence of ideas, Christian teachings were used to legitimise free market capitalism, while federal taxation was sometimes presented as a transgression of the Biblical commandment against stealing.
The banner of ‘faith, freedom and free enterprise’ remains highly visible in the 21st century, not least among the many US Christians who see in Donald Trump a fitting standard bearer. While Trump’s track record suggests a skin-deep attachment to matters of faith, he was, as President, no stranger to courting the Christian right for his own political ends. Perhaps it is no surprise that he claimed as his ‘mentor’ Norman Vincent Peale, the New York-based pastor and multi-million selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking, known to his critics as ‘God’s salesman’. In some circles, to exhibit the qualities of the capitalist entrepreneur is not just compatible with Christianity; it is a means of furthering God’s plan for the world.
But the relationship between religious movements and neoliberal norms is not simple, static or straightforward. Nor is it possible simply to collapse all religion into the logic of economic exchange, as with rational choice theory, which seeks to explain the fate of religious movements with reference to self-interested choices made by individuals. Religion does not function like economics, but it is always mediated by cultural contexts, and those contexts are, in the 21st century, increasingly governed by neoliberal assumptions. But this relationship is expressed in a variety of ways, includes counter-movements, and emerges in dialogue with religious traditions. In some cases, the religious legitimisation of free market capitalism is blatant. In others, the logic of neoliberalism emerges in more subtle ways.
Take the case of the populist politics that has emerged across the globe – from the USA to the Philippines, from Brazil to eastern Europe – and how it relates to religious identities. Populism is not necessarily pro-religion, but many of its expressions use religion strategically to advance a nationalist agenda. Whether the anti-Islamic sentiment mobilised in France or the Netherlands, or the co-option of Islamic interests within the Turkish populism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or the Christian nationalism of Trump supporters in the US, religion is mobilised as a symbolic resource in the service of populist causes. It is used to shore up nativist perspectives on identity, the ink with which those in power draw a line between those who belong and those who do not. And while populism’s tendency to celebrate nationalism sometimes pushes against the neoliberal support of global free markets, it also often echoes a key cultural facet of our neoliberal times, what William Davies calls a ‘strategic mindset’. The conventions of democratic politics are treated as negotiable and their transgression acceptable if this is more likely to bring about the desired outcome. Mirroring practices in free market economics, to be adversarial, combative, and ruthless is justified as it grants a competitive edge.
Other examples reflect the religious adoption of assumptions about self-development more commonly associated with popular consumerism. François Gauthier writes about the emergence of a ‘market Islam’ in the Middle East, citing the example of business-trained spiritual guru Amr Khaled, a popular speaker whose message emphasises the needs of the subjective self, emotional health, and happiness. The Egyptian born Khaled is more a coach than a religious teacher in the traditional sense, casting personal affluence as a sign of baraka (grace). His willingness to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace of ideas to appeal to younger generations reflects syncretistic movements within Israeli Judaism, social media-savvy megachurches in California, and the popularisation of Islam via commercial TV in Indonesia. We are witnessing the development of an existing trend whereby religions are detached from pre-existing traditions of belief and practice, what was labelled in the 1990s as detraditionalisation. But the patterns of change are not indiscriminate nor collapsible into an unfettered individualism. Rather, they exhibit affinities with cultural norms indebted to neoliberal economics. They internalise the freedom of the consumer over collective identities; take for granted the assumption that markets are the best measure of value; and tend to treat cultural objects as commodities. In an increasingly unstable and unpredictable global context, religious movements have adopted the logic of neoliberalism as a guarantor of meaning and cultural resonance. This is manifest in a variety of ways, and the future is far from clear, but in identifying how religious movements might seek and express power as the 21st century unfolds, we would do well to look to neoliberal economics as its template.