If you could only read one book on the role of religion in the world today, God is Back would be the one to read. John Micklethwait, editor in chief of the Economist and his colleague, Adrian Wooldridge, Washington Bureau chief for the magazine, have continued their many years of writing collaboration on this their fifth book, in which they lay out their purpose as an "attempt to explain. . . how and why God has fought His way back into the modern world." This explanation focuses on the intersection of politics and religion, but more than that, "its underlying theme is the battle for modernity" (24). They develop this theme by demonstrating in copious detail that religion has not been destroyed by modernity but has adapted and grown stronger with it, and they carry out their purpose magnificently through their even-handed historical approach and their thorough coverage.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge make their argument, not as pro-religionists, but as academics exploring challenging historical and cultural phenomena. They carefully examine the influence of enlightenment philosophers and scientists, many of whom believed that the rapid expansion of knowledge would drive out religion within the next few decades, both in Europe and America. The U.S. Constitution grew out of this age of reason, and its framers were careful to avoid making it a religious document. In fact, they were careful not to mention the name of God, and they used the first amendment to make sure that organized religion would be completely separate from government.
Rather than having a negative effect on religion, this constitutional separation made it possible for newer groups such as Baptists and Methodists as well as the formerly established churches to flourish. The authors argue that this is because churches had to learn the techniques of the market place. Churches learned to sell themselves to an ever-expanding population, and rather than dying out as had been predicted for the 19th century, they experienced astounding growth and revival. In Europe where religion maintained its closer ties to government, it did suffer setbacks during the 19th and 20th centuries, but Mickelthwaite and Wooldridge suggest that today Europe is experiencing its own growth in religious interest, partly as a result of the waves of immigrants bringing in their own religions. In Britain the Anglican Church retains its government ties and continues to lose membership, while the religions associated with immigrant groups are rapidly gaining ground.
Throughout the world the fastest-growing religions are Pentecostal and Evangelical. Huge churches run by "pastorpreneurs" (188), as the authors have labeled them, are able to draw tens of thousands of worshippers both in America and in other parts of the world, especially Africa. Mega churches are increasingly fashioned after large businesses, even to calling their senior officers CEOs (184). These churches work to meet social and spiritual needs and are often run as huge campuses with departments for virtually every personal interest or family need. Rather than being abashed by a modernist culture, they have embraced modern technologies, spreading their gospel through sophisticated media. Mickelthwaite and Wooldridge cite James Dobson's Focus on the Family enterprises, Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life with its many spinoffs, and Willow Creek Church as examples of groups that have huge success using modern technologies to appeal to a modern world.
Mickelthwaite and Wooldridge are careful not to either promote or denigrate these religious organizations or any others. They do, however, explore the efforts of conservative groups to use religion to influence or even control political outcomes. In America they see this effort as having begun in the 1970s (358), culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush. They disagree, however, with Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, in which he argues that the Republican Party has become "'the first American religious party'" (369). In reality, in spite of efforts by the religious right to impose its view of morality on America as a whole, American politics and culture have remained largely separated from religion, even during the Bush era. They argue that today's political scene is in part a result of overreach on the part of the religious right which has not succeeded in imposing its will on national politics. They conclude that America has mostly "struck the right balance between secularism and religion, allowing religious people to thrive but preventing them from imposing their view on other people" (371).
It may seem at this point that while the title of the book suggests a world focus, the authors have primarily focused on America. Indeed, though more than half the chapters are devoted to American religion and politics, Micklethwait and Wooldridge by no means neglect religious trends in other parts of the world. Their chapters on contemporary Islam clearly sort out the competing views within Islamic cultures as well as analyzing the reasons for Islamic hostility toward Western culture and religions. They deal succinctly and clearly with the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, explaining how the tensions between these groups affect the politics of the countries where Islam holds primary sway. They assert that Islam works best in places where the country manages to run a secular government within a largely Islamic culture, citing Turkey as the most successful. In their opinion the Islamic Republics need to separate church and state in order to achieve political and cultural goals.
Having made this argument for church-state separation in Islamic countries, Micklethwait and Wooldridge also admit that it's not likely to happen anytime soon; thus they also urge that it is tremendously important for Western politicians and diplomats the world over to drop their secularist bias, study the complexities of world religions, and learn how to deal with countries where religion is a central factor. One of the most egregious errors of the Bush administration was to go into Iraq with virtually no understanding of the Sunni/Shiite divide (360), and the "war on terror" is viewed as a war on all of Islam. "Sensible policy should be based on recognizing divisions within the Islamic world rather than turning all Muslims into enemies. Divide and defuse is a more sensible policy than unite and inflame" (362). This book was completed just as Barrack Obama was about to become president, but the authors see a possible move toward more enlightened dealing with religion and politics abroad.
While this book is not a hurrah for the growth of churches in a modern world where religion was long ago to have met its demise, it does make a strong case for the continued growth of religion in both numbers and influence. Therefore, "Secularists need to recognize that the enemy that 'poisons everything' is not religion but the union of religion and power — and believers need to recognize that religion flourishes best where it operates in a world of free choice. . ." (373). Mickelthwaite and Wooldridge give their highest praise to America for its success in separating religion and government at home. They call for "universalizing the American commitment to the separation between church and state" (371), and for both American and European politicos, this means becoming much more knowledgeable about religion throughout the world. God is Back provides a fine starting point for gaining such knowledge.
Marilyn Glaim is professor emeritus of English at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1766