Resurrecting Religion

God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Penguin Press, 416 pages, $27.95
It was a commonplace of the late 1960s that religion was obsolete and that modern 20th-century people had no need of faith. “Is God Dead?” Time asked in 1966, and books such as The Gospel of Christian Atheism seemed to prove that religion was something modern people could confidently ignore. In the 1990s, books such as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man explained to intellectuals that religion was as dead as Communism (or history). The Economist even decided to commemorate the millennium by publishing God’s obituary.
But in our century, religious news is, more often than not, the most important news of the day.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge both work for The Economist; Micklethwait is editor-in-chief and Wooldridge the Washington editor. They’ve previously collaborated on a history of corporations and, most recently, The Right Nation, an analysis of American conservatism (which I reviewed in Crisis in 2004). Like their magazine, the authors are, if not right wing, sympathetic to conservative principles.
The authors are adamant that their book is a survey and not, despite its title, an endorsement of religion. They explain that one author is a Catholic and the other an atheist, and that it is their hope that “whatever biases we may bring may have canceled each other out.”
The authors are often critical of the Catholic Church. For example, they disapprove of the efforts of the Church — allied with Mormons, “pro-family Muslims,” and such non-governmental organizations as the Heritage Foundation and the Concerned Women of America — to ensure that religious voices are heard in United Nations debates on feminism, abortion, and homosexuality.
But they are even less fond of pompous liberal feminists that had long dominated those same UN debates. These women, the authors write, “spoke a private language that was part UN-speak and part women’s studies patois.” They quote Presbyterian writer Jennifer Butler, who notes that these liberal feminists saw the presence of religious conservatives in the UN “with shocked disbelief — as if a bunch of rednecks had invaded Wellesley with cries of ‘Iron my shirt.’”
The authors combine analysis with extensive reporting. They visit such American megachurches as Houston’s Second Baptist Church, but they also go to a Hindu “megatemple” in Bangalore and the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, the world’s biggest megachurch with 830,000 parishioners. (Yoido is so big that its preachers address 32,000 people at a time.)
God Is Back has many themes, but above all it emphasizes that intellectuals need to take religion more seriously and that the world — and particularly the Muslim world — would be better if the American model of strong separation of church and state replaced state-subsidized religion.
They offer lots of examples of how international relations experts have long ignored religion. In 1994, Henry Kissinger published Diplomacy, a 900-page book where the word “religion” does not appear in the index. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes that, as an adult, she cannot remember “any leading American diplomat (even the born-again Jimmy Carter) speaking in depth about the role religion plays in shaping the world.”
Think tanks also ignored religion. When Michael Novak arrived at the American Enterprise Institute in the late 1970s, the authors write, “some of the economists and social policy people” didn’t know what to make of him. “Some thought he was there to say grace.” The authors note that AEI’s investment in Novak has paid off, as he’s written such important books there as The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.
As to their second point, the authors show that religious pluralism has largely been suppressed in much of the Muslim world, although they note that Muslim countries include both repressive ones such as Iran and more tolerant ones like Turkey and Indonesia. “The most important indicator of Islam’s failure in coming to terms with modernity is in ingrained hostility to pluralism,” they write. This leads to far too many cases where Muslims kill or persecute Christians, but also fellow Muslims whom they believe have committed theological heresy.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge call for Westerners to speak out and encourage religious freedom in the Muslim world. They support Pope Benedict XVI’s speeches (most notably his 2006 address in Regensburg) that encourage Islamic countries to increase religious freedom and begin the process of separating church and state. They also note that on Easter Sunday 2008, the pope “publicly (and provocatively)” baptized Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born journalist “who has described his liberation from Islam at length.”

Anyone interested in religion will get a good deal of pleasure out of this well-written, provocative, and well-reported book. 

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  • Martin Morse Wooster

    Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and a education book reviewer of The Washington Times.

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