God Makes a Comeback: An interview with The Economist's John Micklethwait

John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist, has about him the excited air of a man who has made a considerable discovery in a place people said he was crazy even to look. It turns out that religion, whose gradual disappearance has for a long time been an article of faith in European university circles, is making a major comeback, and in precisely the way that the experts have long insisted it could not—as an adjunct of modernity. The book Micklethwait co-authored with his colleague Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (Penguin, 2009), has come to bury the secularization thesis. According to the authors, it is not true that as the world becomes more modern it becomes less believing. It was never true of the United States—a rather large exception—but now it turns out not to be true almost everywhere.

When we meet at Micklethwait’s spacious house near London’s Victoria Station, we are both a little excited about this discovery. For when we were students at Benedictine boarding schools in the 1970s and 80s, it was commonly assumed that religion was in retreat and that the monks who taught us were doing something quaint and anachronistic, like the dance of a jungle tribe whose ancestral land was about to make way for a freeway.


“You now look back at the 1970s and you think, actually something happened,” says Micklethwait. “By the end of the decade, in retrospect—definitely in retrospect—something big had happened in terms of religion and politics. God was back in there.”

In retrospect, “the evidence for secularization not happening was in front of everyone’s eyes,” he says, citing the Iranian revolution, the rise of the moral majority in the United States and the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, and the global impact of Pope John Paul II. Yet the news took a long time to reach academe. In the late 1980s, about the time Micklethwait was beginning at The Economist after two years at Chase Manhattan Bank, the prevailing orthodoxy at Oxford, where I was doing my doctorate, was that that faith was epiphenomenal—a byproduct of something else. Therefore it did not merit proper study, except as a retrograde and authoritarian thing, a flight from modernity.

The academic error, Micklethwait thinks, was to have extrapolated a universal law from the retreat of the church from the public sphere in 19th-century Europe. Because the study of religion and the world fell between sociology and theology, academics missed the evidence. “What happened was that the sociology profession carried on writing books that took as their starting point that the world was becoming more secular,” Micklethwait says. “They set out to examine the consequences of that, rather than examine the premise.”

He and Wooldridge, Micklethwait said, “sort of stumbled upon” the untruth of the secularization thesis in 2004, when they were planning a follow-up to their successful book on America’s conservative culture, Right Nation: How Conservatism Won. (Micklethwait knows America well. He was U.S. editor of The Economist prior to his appointment as editor in chief in 2006 and ran its New York bureau for two years.) They planned a book on faith from the usual standpoint of American exceptionalism. But “when we came to look at religion we discovered that that America was not so exceptional,” he recalls. “We suddenly began to look at the rest of the world and ask why it wasn’t going the way that it should have been. We thought: there’s something big here.”

Faith Thrives in Modernity

God Is Back is a brilliant survey of how America’s model of Christianity—Protestant, elected, market-sensitive; the world of megachurches, “pastorpreneurs” and house churches—is booming at home and abroad. There are now 500 million renewalists (a category that includes both Pentecostals and charismatics), a quarter of the world’s Christians, and they are expanding twice as fast as Catholics. The authors are occasionally horrified, but mostly impressed by the renewalists’ energy, organizational genius and sensitivity to demand. But what most interests them is that behind this growth is modernity, evident in greater pluralism and individual choice—the very factors that the secularization thesis tells us should be undermining adherence to faith. The same forces vivifying American religion are bolstering it in the developing world, where 60 percent of all Christians now live.

That does not mean people of faith are at ease with modernity; religions reject much of what capitalism produces, even as they benefit from its fruits. Religion is both a critique and a counterbalance to global capitalism. People search for community in a world dislocated by the same forces that alienate them; they long for givens in a world where almost everything is reduced to choice; people yearn for God-given worth in a world where they are valued instead for what they produce and consume.

The key element connecting modernity and religious revival is pluralism. “A country can be modern and religious at the same time (or modern and irreligious),” write the authors. “But it is exceedingly difficult to be modern without being pluralistic.” Religion is increasingly crafted, not inherited; it is “a seeking rather than a dwelling,” the authors explain in a striking phrase. Take the United States, where an amazing 44 percent of people belong to a religion other than the one in which they were raised: Barack Obama, the rootless young man “choosing” his church in Chicago’s South Side, is paradigmatic. Where religion has adapted to that cultural shift, it does best.

Do Liberty and Pluralism Foster Faith?

Does Micklethwait see a connection between the prospering of religion in a climate of liberty and the nature of God? Is God such that, where society supports the freedom to choose him, faith thrives? This is too theological a question for the author of a socioeconomic survey of religion; but he is delighted, because only days before, a British newspaper review (by a Catholic) had asked what a theological version of God Is Back might look like. “I think what you’re suggesting is what it would say,” he ventures.

God Is Back is evangelical about pluralism. For the flourishing of faith, the authors advocate the same freedom from subsidies and state control that Adam Smith proposed for the economy in The Wealth of Nations. They think the separation of church and state in the United States, with encouragement of religion, has proved the most fertile field for faith; and they think American foreign policy should be more ambitious in promoting it. This may mean “a more customer-driven religion,” acknowledges Micklethwait, but he does not think it means that non-Protestant faiths fare poorly. American Catholicism—described in the book as “arguably the most striking Evangelical success story of the second half of the nineteenth century”—has competed quite happily, he points out, without losing any of its basic characteristics.

But where religion fails to adapt to this model, its decline is marked. This is especially true of churches bound up with culture even if not subsidized by the state, as with the Church of England or Scandinavian Lutheranism; or separate from the state but subsidized by it, as with the churches in Germany. Tradition and habit are no substitutes for choice and commitment.

Religion in The Economist

The Economist, one of the most successful global British brands, with weekly sales of 1.4 million copies around the world, famously eschews bylines. Its editors fly, if not under the radar, at the edge of the screen. So it feels like a treat to meet this tall, formidably clever man, who shares his insights in that hesitant, self-deprecating way that afflicts products of English boarding schools. Micklethwait, 46, has asked not to be quizzed on his Catholic faith, but he admits to it in the introduction to the book along with his co-author’s atheism.

Micklethwait is not responsible for appointing the magazine’s first religion correspondent in those heady days after 2001, when the media discovered religion. Around that time Reuters decided to do the same, and the BBC appointed a committed Catholic as its director general. But Micklethwait’s editorship since 2006 has coincided with The Economist’s taking a new interest in faith, introducing a new international section that is the natural home, he says, for reporting on the Catholic Church and Islam. The change was marked by the weekly’s “Religion Special Report” in November 2007, of which God Is Back is in many ways an expanded version. The report stepped forward to repent of the magazine’s former blind spot about religion, and with a convert’s zeal saw faith breaking out everywhere.

For those who like the magazine’s crisp, witty, effortlessly magisterial style, God Is Back is a treat. It surveys the ups and downs of the faith market, leading to big conclusions checked by frequent caveats. But the risk of this business-survey approach when applied to faith is obvious: Isn’t it better to be faithful than successful? Micklethwait agrees that it is but worries that this justifies man-made decline. He is amazed, for example, by the level of defeatism among Anglicans and thinks the Church of England is increasingly recognizing that establishment is a golden noose around its neck. Pope Benedict XVI recognizes the same of the German church tax, according to Micklethwait, which is an enormous funding engine that eviscerates churches as much as it keeps them afloat. “Igather that there’s one bit of Pope Benedict which wants to chuck that,” reckons Micklethwait, “but another group around him says you just can’t do that; this is worth billions of euros every year.”

Does Micklethwait conclude that faith is at its most vigorous (which must mean more than successful; we are talking here of its transformative, binding power) when it is planted in plurality and freedom? The short answer is yes. But “there are millions of holy people who have inherited a faith and kept at it,” he points out, adding that some evangelical churches unreasonably demand a past of addiction and promiscuity as proof of salvation. “But in general, in terms of fervency, on the whole the choice-based places, where people have made a choice and sought to direct their lives around it, those tend to be the places going best.”

Catholicism’s Competitive Edge

In all of these areas Micklethwait has surveyed, Catholicism “starts from an incredible advantage,” he says. Its brand, even if overworked and tarnished by recent scandals, is the strongest. It is the first multinational, “the General Electric of the religious world”; it is omnipresent. In conflict zones, Catholic missionaries are the constant ones who know everyone, he found.

So while Rome remains a reactive player rather than a market leader or innovator, brand loyalty and ubiquitousness remain vital comparative advantages. Megachurches might grow dizzily, but they are more consumer-dependent and vulnerable to market fluctuations. Catholicism has absorbed the “acids of modernity” best of all, Micklethwait says. “If modernity is something you have to come to terms with, Catholicism is at one end and Islam at the other.” Micklethwait thinks it is possible that as people “get used to religion being there,” some of the depth you get with Catholics “might count for things.”

But without forsaking what is best in the brand, Catholicism must respond to the consumer. That is something American Catholicism understands better than its European counterpart. “If you were a management consultant looking at Catholicism, looking at the church as a business,” says Micklethwait, “you could argue that it has sometimes or too often mistaken the means of delivery for theology, so it has inherently clung onto things which aren’t terribly useful.” You might have the best light bulbs in the world, he says, but if you choose to sell them only through corner shops, there is a risk people will prefer the supermarket versions.

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10 years 10 months ago
Good review on an interesting book - as an Economist fan, I look forward to it. However, I'm surprised at the lack of mention in this review of the work in the sociology of religion that some years ago made many of the same points about the fallacy of increasing secularism, the role of pluralism especially in the U.S., and the effects of "market forces." I hope the book is aware of it.
10 years 10 months ago
10 years 10 months ago

 I guess Pope Benedict blew it in Prague talking about a Christian culture. According to John Mickelthwait (10/5), he could just go with the flow toward American culture - "Protestant, elected, market-sensitive; the world of the megachurches." The late Raymond Brown saw that tendency in American Catholicism more than a decade ago and worried about it because it is biblically illiterate. Not to deny that Mickelthwait is on to something, but when he says Catholicism will do well with market theology because its brand is as good as General Electric's, I wonder a) why he didn't use the General Motors example and b) if anyone knows what, if anything, GE makes these days.

Jim Lein
10 years 10 months ago
A good, earlier book (2007) on this general subject is "Why Spitituality is Difficult for Westerners" by David Hay, a Scottish (and Catholic) zoologist, who points out it is western Europe, including the British isles, that is the exception.  Most everywhere else is quite religious thank you.  He also empirically examined the western European assumption that children are born little atheists and have to be taught or  conditioned to be spiritual.  In fact, it is the opposite.  "All children without exception were aware of a spiritual dimension to their experience."  It has to be conditioned out of them. 


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