A US counter-reformation?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: June 11, 2018 21:07:24 | Updated: June 14, 2018 20:37:32

Just as Saudi Arabia is beginning to reform religion religious bigotry, such as by easing centuries-old gender restrictions, opening beaches to promote tourism, and launching movie-halls for public viewing, the United States may be heading in the reverse direction: that is, elevating and mainstreaming religion. Excuse the slip: not elevating religion, but how religion had long been kept elevated. The April 21, 2018 The Atlantic magazine reported how the largest US industry, worth $1.2 trillion annually, is religion, or religious contributions. As it also observes, this amount is larger than the country's "ten biggest tech companies, combined" (www.the-atlantic.blogspot. ch/2018/04/us-religion-is-worth-12tyear-more-than.html?m=1).

Brian J. Grim and Melissa E. Grim, upon whose book, The Socio-Economic Contribution of Religion to American Society, those data are based, derived the amount from "the net value of healthcare facilities, schools, daycare, and charities; media; businesses with faith backgrounds; the kosher and halal food markets; social and philanthropic programmes [sic]; and staff and overheads for congregations." Though the $1.2 trillion is a conservative figure, which could be as high as $12 trillion, one must keep in mind it represents multiple faiths, not just Christianity, (especially the money raked in by 'televangelists'), but also Islam, Judaism, and so forth.

Given the recent global surge in promoting Muslim practices, often generally supported by Wahhabi fountainheads in Saudi Arabia, Islam would likely represent a key catalytic force in that surge. Yet, one must not diminish the disproportionate contributions from a sizable Bible Belt across south United States. Thickening the interpretation, the slow evangelical vote-shift from the Democrats to the Republican Party actually hastened with Donald J. Trump's election. Since recent polls indicate over 80 per cent of all evangelicals support Trump, this one-time 'pussy-grabbing' playboy might not only be the lightning rod of a US religious surge, but also increasingly formidable a 2020 presidential election candidate because of it.

That is quite a historical sweep, from the largest industry not being in Fortune 500 lists, to the growth of a force that the Founding Fathers wanted to keep outside the Constitution. At its climactic moment, the politics around Trump, who did not command the higher number of votes to win the 2016 election, stride towards making the most viable candidate for winning the next presidential election. To be sure, these cannot be Trump's doings, but his presence has elicited deeply-rooted emotions, as opposed to policy differences, that may actually rewrite scholarly treatises on US presidential politics. If so, it must rank as a revolutionary moment.

That revolution springs from the inter-meshing of several currents, one unfortunately reflecting more pessimistic than optimistic attitudes, while elevating negative over positive tones.

The first would have to be what the 'rust belt' represents, since that, alongside the Bible Belt, got Trump his victory: bluntly, the loss of US manufacturing competitiveness, evident in cheaper imports and growth of low-waged migrant workers. Therein lies the second equally salient feature: not just migrants, essentially from culturally far dissimilar countries, but also a large chunk being illegal. The high demand by business (especially agricultural) for low-waged foreign workers stems from there being few domestic takers available (or interested), yet the buck usually stops by nabbing them for heeding those calls (the migrant supply side), without looking at the demand side, that is, wherefrom those calls were made (the producer's demand side).

Given what Samuel P. Huntington had called 'a cultural clash' from the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time for this discontinuity to link with a domestic division as old as the country: race. Rubbing the wrong sentiments over race easily spilled over into an integrative experiment from the milestone 1964 Civil Rights Act, evident most blatantly in affirmative action that, over time, has begun to split down the seams itself. Ultimately, it revived Confederate sympathies, then flocked towards Trump who made it, not necessarily an election issue, but a very sine qua non election issue. As if to reward these Confederate sympathisers, he has kept quiet at critical moments during his administration when 21st Century US identity has been at stake, evident most blatantly in Charlottesville, 2017. The upshot is simply this: since mixing immigration with race and religion is so explosive that we may not be able to dampen this fire for a very, very long time. 

With the damage done, another catalyst again at the forefront also deserves mention: the slow growth of the reactionary forces to the 1960s pop culture, among other 'drifts' from mainstream lifestyles, including miscegenation, LGBT life choices, legalising marijuana and being more receptive to other drugs, 'four-letter' words, and the like. What began as the 'Moral Majority' eventually rallied around Ronald Reagan, but may be climaxing under Trump, not for representing the majority, but from fear that that majority status is fast evaporating.

With this panoply of forces on the ascendancy, one can better understand why the religious industry is the largest in the United States. That mainland United States was attacked, no less by 'Muslims' in September 2001, only fed those forces: outpouring support for US values and 'America First' strengthened patriotism, but also the religious anchor (and the twain need not always be the same). It has assumed the contours of a movement that can be self-perpetuating for as long as Trump, or a similarly oriented values-driven candidate replaces him.

One implication of this is reinventing 'fake news', this time as an instrument: anyone remembering Richard M. Nixon's Watergate relationship also knows how 'fake news' was prevalent, though in isolation. Today everyone uses that term as a synonym for finger-pointing an enemy, or 'the other side'. As real or blind religious allegiance strengthens within this context, another implication exposes itself: the gradual shift from low-waged producers and illegal migrants to any foreigner, even past friends. It is not that Canadians and Germans, for example, are not Christians, but though they happen to be more secular Christians than their US counterparts, they too feel the heat of the 'US counter-reformation', a term used for the lack of any more meaningful alternative.

Going back to Saudi Arabia's reformation that this piece began with, in the absence of a conversation across the divisions, it seems the international system cannot survive coherently. So much for the Kantian 'perpetual peace' that we thought the end of the Cold War spawned.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance

at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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