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Review: Faith Based

Notice: The final version of this review is published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52(1):234-235, 2013, doi:10.1111/jssr.12004. The definitive version is available at www.blackwell-synergy.com. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

In recent decades, American political conservatives consistently have offered policy proposals grounded in arguments about individual responsibility, market solutions, and limited government. For academic critics, such arguments are characteristic of a more or less unified ideology called “neoliberalism.” Tracing the intellectual history of neoliberalism from classical liberalism through its reinterpretation by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand is easy. But accounting for the relative prominence of neoliberalism in a world of political alternatives is not so easy. Why has neoliberalism captured the American conservative imagination?

In Faith Based, geographer Jason Hackworth provides a simple answer. It hasn’t. At least, not by itself. The basic premise of the book is that the success of neoliberalism in American politics depends on its alignment with other powerful political ideas. Hackworth argues that American conservative politics are characterized by “religious neoliberalism,” an ideational fusion that sanctifies neoliberal arguments with religious justifications offered by evangelical Protestants. In Hackworth’s view, religious neoliberalism advances the agenda of neoliberalism in American politics by linking it to the political power of the Religious Right, while also unifying disparate elements of American evangelicalism in common political purpose.

The key argument of the book is that there is an ideational link between neoliberal thought and evangelical Protestantism in particular. Faith Based makes this case by showing how some evangelical Protestant justifications for social welfare policy in America productively align with neoliberalism. For example, one could justify caring for the poor and needy as fellow children of God, but one could also justify limiting such care as interference with God’s punishment of people for their sins. To demonstrate the connections underlying religious neoliberalism, Hackworth offers illustrative examples of the logic of neoliberalism in Dominion theology, Christian libertarianism, and prosperity theology. He also identifies, through systematic analysis of social welfare discussion in Christianity Today and official publications of the National Association of Evangelicals, a consistent “compassionate neoliberalism” in evangelical discourse that criticizes government welfare solutions while emphasizing the importance of private religious alternatives.

Yet Hackworth also argues that the ideas in religious neoliberalism are unsupported by reality. As his analysis of newspaper coverage of Habitat for Humanity reveals, the idea of private provision as a preferred substitute for government provision of welfare has become “common sense” in public discourse. But, as he discovers in surveys and interviews, actually existing organizations are realistically incapable of fulfilling neoliberal dreams of private welfare provision. Habitat for Humanity may build nicer homes than the government does, but it can never build enough of them. In fact, as he argues in a short but powerful chapter comparing rescue missions in New York City, Phoenix, and Nashville, replacing government with private providers would aggravate existing geographic inequalities in social welfare provision.

Given this basic disconnection between ideas and reality, what is the future of religious neoliberalism? Hackworth suggests that the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina offers an important clue. FEMA director Michael Brown testified before the US Congress that religious organizations are the “proper” first responders when disaster occurs. Yet Katrina wiped out even the most capable organizations in New Orleans, obviously making such response impossible. This episode, in which the government itself sought a neoliberal transfer of welfare provision to private organizations in order to avoid blame, exposed neoliberalism as contrary to many religious ideas about charity and responsibility. Hackworth concludes that such unresolvable tensions within religious neoliberalism make it unlikely to survive as a dominant political force.

Faith Based is a useful contribution to academic discussion about neoliberalism, much of which takes place in Hackworth’s own academic discipline of geography. Hackworth leaves no doubt that there are connections between ideas in neoliberalism and ideas in evangelical Protestantism, and that these connections are expressed by political actors seeking political gain. For those seeking to understand why the apparently incredible ideas of neoliberalism have become credible in American politics, the narrative linking these ideas to the political rise of the Religious Right seems compelling.

Scholars of religion likely will find the narrative less compelling. Partly this is because few scholars of religion are involved in scholarly debates about neoliberalism. But mainly this is because Faith Based is entirely focused on presenting evidence that supports its preferred explanation. It does not consider alternative explanations for its findings about evangelical Protestantism, such as the possibility that evangelical Protestants are unique in offering religious justifications in public discourse at all, rather than unique in sanctifying neoliberalism in particular. Nor is there any effort to test the explanation by expanding the analysis beyond evangelical Protestantism, whether to other variations of Protestantism, Christianity, or other religious traditions. As a result, at the exact moment when the Republican Party selected a Mormon private equity investor and an admittedly Ayn Rand-inspired conservative Catholic for its presidential ticket, Faith Based may have reached its explanatory limits as a study of American religion.

Michael S. Evans
University of California, San Diego

Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States. By Jason Hackworth. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012. xiii + 172pp. $59.95 cloth, $22.95 paper, $22.95 ebook.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017