Fast Chat: The Economist's John Micklethwait

The Economist's John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's new book, "God Is Back," argues that as the world grows more modern, it also becomes more religious. This is a good thing, the authors say: although religion can spawn bloodshed, the American ideals that have modernized faith can also channel the world away from violence. Micklethwait spoke to NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant.

This magazine's cover story last week detailed how the number of self-identified Christians is falling and how the religious right has failed as a political movement. Yet you say those who bet against the strength of American Christianity have invariably been proved wrong.
One of the things the article argued in NEWSWEEK was that religion would retreat a bit in American politics. We're not so sure about that, for two reasons. [First] you have perhaps an even bigger split than before—between a bigger number of people who are not keen on religion, and then a larger core of people who are. The other issue is that religion has stopped being just a Republican issue. The religious right has run into real problems. But the sort of religiosity that Obama typified—there's a way in which those religious elements could spread rather than go down.

You write that the developments many thought would destroy religion—such as democracy and markets—have made religion stronger. Might our economic crisis change that?
It could. But globalization has two kinds of effects in terms of encouraging people to be religious. In the Islamic world and in the poorer bits of India, or Arkansas, religion is a shield against the modern world. [Also,] there are a lot of people for whom religion is a way to get ahead. If you go around the megachurches you can discover self-help books on how to run your business better. The people who the old-style secularists expected not to be religious are actually religious in very large numbers.

You say boomers are drawn to megachurches in part because boomers apply a "consumerist mentality to spiritual life." How can that nourish Christianity?
Megachurches are open to the charge that they've "Disney-fied." But they are still pretty hardline on issues. There is still quite a degree of fire and brimstone.

In what you call the "secularist hymnbook," it is the ignorant and weak who embrace religion. How did the secularists get it so wrong?
The big mistake was that people assumed modernity was linked to secularization. People would shed religion the more modern they got. In fact, [modernity] is linked to pluralism. Our book is not a judgment call on whether religion is good or bad. It's a wake-up call. The elite assumed that religion would fade into the background. It has not. It's back. That has many unpleasant features: there is a lot of violence done in God's name. But the underlying idea of people choosing their own faith—not just taking something they've inherited—that is a very liberal idea.

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