God is Back, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, Penguin Press, 2009. $27.95, 416 pgs.
Our times are defined by rapid revolutions of technology and science; what room is there for religion? Predictions of faith’s demise were commonplace in the mid-20th century, but while secularism triumphed in Western Europe, for the rest of the globe, modernity has brought anything but atheism, as revealed in the new book God is Back. The authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of The Economist, argue that religion across the globe has adapted to modernity, and is thriving under the pressures globalization and modernization.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not decry this trend toward religious belief, as have some recent best sellers, including Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great. Nor do they celebrate it. Instead, the authors present a sober-minded account of the history of modern religion’s origins in America and its journey to the developing world, where mega-churches, the internet and other modern developments are being put to use in missionary activity. Whether the revival of faith will prove powerful in America is uncertain; but the developing world is certainly taking a turn for the devout.
Two Continents, Two Religions
To answer the big question of why religion did not, as pundits and philosophers predicted, fade into obsolescence, the authors first focus on a comparison of religion’s development in Europe and America. In Europe, the authors argue, religious power set itself in constant opposition to modernity, since the days of the Enlightenment — be it in the form of democracy, science or technology. As a result, Western Europeans, choosing modernity and its fruit turned towards godlessness throughout the twentieth century, resulting in a continent where politicians are chagrin to mention God at all. In contrast to Europe, the authors argue, in America religion did not oppose democracy but rather developed symbiotically with modernizing American culture.
How Many Divisions Has Rick Warren?
A comparison of European and American politics certainly reveals a sharp distinction in matters of faith. Even liberal politicians in America such as President Obama and Clinton speak of their faith in God. However, Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge overstate their case. The capitalistic growth of evangelicalism fueled by mega-churches, films such as Passion of the Christ, and book series such as the Left Behind novels reveals an undeniable cultural force. Yet, as the authors acknowledge, evangelical power is not as powerful as it seemed in the years of Bush and the “values voters;” in the 2008 election, the religious-right failed to mobilize against Barack Obama.
To circumvent this issue, the authors paint Democratic politicians such as Carter, Clinton and Obama as deeply religious men -but while each of these candidates espoused Christian faith, they had nothing to do with the evangelical social agenda, as one might assume from a quick glance over God is Back. The authors also use the example of Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, and his relationship with President Obama to predict a unification of evangelical fervor and liberal social agendas. Warren spoke at the President’s inauguration and is known for his concern for global warming and alleviating African poverty. But Warren alone does not convince that secular intellectuals and devout evangelicals in America – combatants in a never-ending culture war – will soon be working together out of a shared social conscience. More, likely, it seems, division and anger will continue to dominate the dialogue between these two groups.
Converting the World
More compelling are sections of the sections of the book that detail the rise of religion overseas using the model of the American tradition. The authors describe young professionals in China and South Korea holding Bible study, mega-churches forming in Latin America, and religious leaders in the Middle East writing popular books, appearing on TV shows, and using the rhetoric of American preachers to win converts. The authors provide ample evidence that the evangelical model is spreading globally, spawning legions of converts in the process. Moreover, they convincingly make the case that 21st century politics will undeniably be influenced by this growth of faith in Non-western countries – be it Asia, Africa, or Latin America – for good or for ill. God is Back makes one thing clear: religion, in one form or another, is here to stay.