Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.
* Part 1 of this post can be found here.
Question: Capitalism, it has been argued, and “neoliberal” capitalism in particular, operates under a metaphysical idea that elevates individualism (e.g., personal success, fulfillment, achievement, etc.) as its highest ideal. Do you agree with this premise and if so, what might this suggest for how religion is imagined?
Randi Warne: It works in an interesting way in the United States. On the one hand, consumer choice is paramount (“which of these 5 bad hamburgers would you like?); on the other hand, purchasing is a social virtue, as well as good for the economy (George W. Bush “we can’t let the terrorists win”). This can then be read into individualism being a moral good (Spencer), and to bizarre conclusions like owning firearms is both a right and a moral good, and must be protected against any other concerns (e.g., children playing with loaded firearms; people asking for help being shot by the homeowners from which they sought it).
There’s a whole other discourse on modernism that would be interesting to pursue as well. A key element of modernity is the Myth of Progress (newer is always better, and positive forward movement is inevitable). Dealing with the detritus (aka consequences) is somebody else’s job (“differentiation and specialization of function”, “my job is to have the stuff, yours is to clean up after me”). It’s not a big leap to the Gospel of Progress, not as a necessary consequence, but as a congenial manifestation of these underlying values.
Charles McCrary: I agree with the above premise, though I would say that in some respects this phenomenon is quite old but in some specific ways it is recent. Thus, with the premise accepted, I’ll take up the question about the (re)imagination of religion. I write here specifically about American evangelicalism, though the transformations of religion I want to sketch are not exclusive to explicitly evangelical individuals and organizations; indeed, those of an airier spirituality, including corporations, live in the same frame.
What is old is the notion that individual, liberal, moral, choosing subjects ought to be trained up as such, albeit with the manipulative fingerprints on the system removed. We are taught to be this type of subject, yet we feel as though we arrived at this conclusion on our own. Thus, it feels natural, even objectively true (see, e.g., James Block’s recent book, The Crucible of Consent). What might be new, though, is the way these selves are inherently purchasers—and, following, the way that morality and capitalism have been folded into each other. Perhaps this collapsing was meant initially to dissuade evangelical fears of capitalism and its effects. But by a certain point, buying was integral to American selfhood, including American evangelical selfhood. This too had to feel natural, normal, even good.
But how does it feel? Can we name that aesthetic by which political beliefs, religious sensibilities, gender roles, and participation in global capitalism feels coherent—even constitutive of a whole self? Or, how does one imbue a chicken sandwich “with a spiritual aura”? This, I think, is part of what lies behind recent pushes for privatization and commercialization of those arenas most essential to the development and formation of character: prisons and schools.
Brad Stoddard: As I read this prompt, I recalled Bruce Lincoln’s thirteenth thesis on method, which reminds us that we are not beholden to the terms people use to describe themselves. As Craig Martin rightfully summarized in his response, we do encounter an emphasis on “individualism” in popular discourses of capitalism; however, when I look beyond the rhetoric itself, I notice that the so-called “capitalist individual” is the beneficiary of massive and systematic legal, political, social, cultural, and economic support. As Loīc Wacquant reminds us, capitalist “individualism” exists within the “vast infrastructure of social relations and a recognized juridical framework.” The “individual” operates in a world that was built by others, that is regulated by the state, and that is sustained by the labor that is largely produced by socialized education. This “individual” is anything but. How does this relate to religion?
The religious people that I study routinely invoke the rhetoric of free-market capitalism and individualism. They often argue that every man [sic] is responsible for himself, including his economic success and ultimately his salvation. Concurrently, they support various institutions (particularly the church and other “religious” organizations) that routinely support the “individual.” For them, the “individual” is the person who looks to non-governmental forms of support and sustenance. I agree that popular discourse about capitalism and certain forms of “religion” operate under a metaphysical idea that elevates the “individual,” but this idea ignores the extensive institutions and legal structures that support this “individual.”