Review by Emily Wojcik
September 25, 2012
Those of us who watched in mild confusion as the Tea Party became a significant political force in a matter of two years—despite its angry and, at times, incoherent blend of libertarian ethos and quasi-religious placards—will find in Faith Based a welcome guidebook to the wilderness of conservative politics. At once a critical history of the more conservative arm of the contemporary Right; a penetrating sociopolitical analysis of the party’s dismantling of social programs, particularly welfare; and a theoretical exploration of the ramifications thereof, Jason Hackworth’s study is a timely and welcome addition to the crowded field of political tomes.
Hackworth, a professor of geography and urban planning at the University of Toronto, tackles a subject that most of us know very little about—the intersection of neoliberalism and fundamentalist Christianity in the United States—and does so in a way that is clear and very readable despite the preponderance of research (this book is intended for other scholars). I don’t mean to imply that having done his work thoroughly is a problem; it’s refreshing to read a book that tackles a potentially explosive subject so comprehensively without falling back on bombast and snark. But Hackworth’s style is otherwise so engaging that the depth of research can feel a bit oppressive to the more casual reader—one hopes that he might one day write a book for a lay readership.
I confess that I had only a vague idea of what neoliberalism was before I read Faith Based. I understood that it was linked in some way to current philosophical trends in the Republican Party, and the Tea Party caucus specifically, and I suspected that shades of Ayn Rand penetrated deep into its particulars. Hackworth, however, has studied this ideology for nearly a decade, and his work reveals the root of ideas that many of us see as clichés of conservatism.
“First,” he writes, “neoliberalism involves an overwhelming emphasis on the individual. …Second, it consists of an almost religious belief that the market (and the vehicle of property) is the best way to promote an individual’s choice. And third, it consists of an almost equally religious belief that the state will inhibit both the market and individual choice.” These ideas, Hackworth makes clear, were not always bulwarks of the Republican Party. Instead they evolved over the past thirty years, in response to specific events that broadened access to civil rights and led to perceived over-regulation of business and the market.
Hackworth also follows the history of evangelical involvement in electoral politics back decades earlier, from the Scopes trial and the first attempts to bar teaching evolution in schools, to the current backlash to limiting prayer in schools, and expanding gay rights and abortion access. From this potent mix of energized religious anger and a new public discontentment with the “failure” of government programs during the Clinton and Bush presidencies, a powerful faction emerges: religious neoliberalism, an “uneasy alliance” of social conservatives who base their beliefs on Biblical literalism, economic conservatives, and military personnel invested in interventions abroad. This mode of coalition-building was (and is) powerful in terms of political influence, says Hackworth, but often leads to contradictory and incoherent policies. For example, “[s]trong-handed intervention to, say, limit abortions might appeal to social conservatives but not necessarily to neoliberals,” while government surveillance has fans in the military but raises hackles elsewhere.
Nowhere does this strain become more apparent than with welfare, Hackworth argues, and for readers concerned about social justice and poverty, the book really hits its stride when he begins to work through the complicated alliances between traditionally charitable religious organizations and economic policy-makers who oppose social welfare interventions. Hackworth argues that the “rationality of replacing secular welfare with religiously delivered welfare has helped bond together elements of the American Right” that might otherwise be at odds. By working together, religious neoliberalism has dealt harsh, though not fatal, blows to government welfare programs.
Culminating with a persuasive examination of the work (and shortcomings) of two faith-based charitable efforts—gospel rescue missions and Hurricane Katrina relief efforts—Hackworth demonstrates the ultimate necessity of the state as a central agent in providing social services, particularly when the markets fail to achieve their promised potential, as they did spectacularly at the height of neoliberal deregulation in 2008. Hackworth further suggests, however, that while religious neoliberalism may be on shakier ground now, post-Recession, than during the George W. Bush presidency, its threads still represent ideals within the “larger liberal project” that is the United States.
Faith Based is first a book of ideas that will likely appeal to readers who are already on board with its central thesis, and who are curious about how the current sociopolitical climate came to be. For policy wonks like myself, Hackworth’s attention to the minutiae of political history is particularly gratifying, though it does render the book slow going at times. More importantly, perhaps, Hackworth deftly proves that “the American Right is a great deal more complicated than many of its observers have characterized it to be,” and that grasping the ways these myriad complications merge and conflict is essential to any understanding of the current American political landscape. For those seeking to develop a more sophisticated engagement with an at times puzzling ideology, Faith Based is a necessary introduction.
Emily Wojcik teaches English at the University of Connecticut and Holyoke Community College, and is assistant editor at Paris Press in Massachusetts.
Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States
Publisher: University of Georgia Press