Faith Based: Book Review

Hackworth, Jason. 2012: Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

By: Amy E. Fisher (University of Toronto)

Jason Hackworth’s Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States seeks to unravel the “synergies and tensions” (vii) between neoliberals and evangelical conservatives who are ostensibly different and yet mutually engaged in the project of minimizing and opposing the American welfare state. He claims to follow in the steps of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by exploring the ways in which a “secular” economic project is actualized and invigorated by certain Christian ideas. He charts the course of neoliberalism’s relationship to the Christian Right across a range of FBO’s, including Habitat for Humanity and Gospel Rescue Missions; in speeches and articles written by certain conservative Christian “ideologues” (7) and theologians; in official policy statements from the National Association of Evangelicals and articles in Christianity Today; and he looks for signs of its demise in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans.

When Hackworth seemed aloof from his topic, another reviewer of this book mistakenly called him “Canadian” to account for his physical and ideological distance (Kennedy 2013). But Jason Hackworth is American, albeit one who researched this book almost entirely from a University of Toronto desk. Pouring mainly over print sources and media outputs, the closest he got to his subject matter was a series of phone interviews and online surveys he (and his research assistants) conducted with personnel at Gospel Rescue Missions in Phoenix, Nashville and New York City (Chapter 5). The overarching picture of each rescue mission is given in website information: mission statement snippets, lists of programs provided, the number of meals served, the number of beds. The mission workers’ individual written responses and their aggregate answers to his questions on SurveyMonkey are set against a reading of the social-safety-net-policy landscape in their respective cities, in order to show how faith-based organizations are the unlikely bearers of economic neoliberalism. Regrettably, for a chapter called “Practicing Religious Neoliberalism,” there’s very little actual practice involved.

Before he even gets going, Hackworth presupposes the book’s critics but admits he is bewildered by one type of critical response, in particular. His befuddlement bears quoting in its entirety – especially because it became the lens through which I was tempted to read the rest of the book:

As this work began to trickle out, the reactions to it began to trickle in. In general, I received two very different responses. From secular political economists (a group with whom I am most familiar as a scholar), I received a reaction that might best be paraphrased as ‘yes, this is obvious, the Religious Right hates welfare…why bother writing this.’ From scholars of religion, I generally got a very different, often defensive, reaction but one that could be paraphrased as “the story is much more complicated; you don’t give enough credit or focus to the social gospel, liberation theologians, evangelical compassion, the Black protestant church in the United States, or some other political or theological thread of the Christian experience[…]This reaction surprised me. When I began thinking and writing about religion, I naively assumed that most authors on the topic were basically like me: atheish [sic] personally but multicultural enough to find most incarnations of religion interesting in an anthropological sort of way. But I sensed a defensiveness among my religion-scholar colleagues that seemed to belie this. In private conversations where I was able to ask more follow-up questions, several admitted that they bristled at the way that I had, in their view, denigrated the work of faith-motivated antipoverty activists by spending so much time on the most judgmental, most conservative segments of the faith-based social services world. To be honest, I don’t know what to do with that sentiment. It is not my intent to alienate religious readers, and for the record, I do not think that religion is motivated only for regressive end. (x)

When one first reads his descriptors for the group of critics he identifies with, one might suppose that “political economists” is the most important distinction Hackworth assigns to that group. But as the paragraph plays out, it becomes clearer that Hackworth seeks to identify himself especially with so-called “secular” scholars who seem to occupy, in his estimation, a kind of intellectual high ground. “Religion scholars” are meanwhile relegated to some morally muddled underclass – a group of academics who must not see their cases with clarity because of their discoloring religious convictions; a group whose only logic in criticizing him for taking such a thin and negative slice of the religion-in-America pie must be that they themselves are devoutly religious. ‘Defensive’ is his word for whoever it is that asks him to dig deeper, try harder, say more. But these days, can he really suppose that scholars of religion might fit squarely in a box marked “religious readers,” and that their critique of sometimes simplistic and one-dimensional scholarship about the messy and multifarious object of their study necessarily conflates with their personal religious affiliations, whatever they may or may not be (often equally messy but also sometimes quite beside the point)?

Hackworth’s reproof of religion scholars is all the more ironic because in Faith Based he shows nothing like an “anthropological” interest in religion—which might require closer observation than he allows himself, even participation alongside those he seeks to know and understand; some depth and thickness in his telling, especially by tracking the genealogy of his most-used concepts; and, dare I say, some simple sincerity. I think Hackworth’s religion-scholar critics are asking these kinds of things from him but he can’t seem to hear what they are saying. Instead, Hackworth rarely misses an opportunity to offer a sideways dig at the Christian Right; to load his argument with criticisms before explanations; to breeze past layers of Christian thought and practice; to heavily rely upon disgruntled Republicans as sources; and to employ his own interpretation of scripture without much deference to those who have spent years figuring out how to do that hard task well.

I belong, obviously, to Hackworth’s second group and I find myself defensive, after all. I read Faith Based and cannot help but grow frustrated; not because I have any precious feelings about American evangelicalism but because the voices I readily recognize are so entirely left out of the conversation. Hackworth flings at us a barrage of geographers, political economists, and other cold and calculating (read: mathematical; not malignant) social scientists in order to make a dubiously neat and easy point about the relationship between neoliberalism and evangelical conservatism in the United States. There is a tonne of research in this book, to be sure, but barely a passing reference to work being done on startlingly similar themes in the anthropology of religion, for instance. Monographs like Omri Elisha’s Moral Ambition, Andrea Muehlebach’s The Moral Neoliberal and Daromir Rudnyckyj’s Spiritual Economies all give a rounder, more complicated view of neoliberalism’s seductive power and religion’s corroboration/collaboration with it. At the very least, work like theirs ought to be read alongside Faith Based.

It isn’t at all new to suggest that we need more than Hackworth’s chosen sources (numbers and charts and phone interviews and media databases and other people’s opinions) in order to understand how religion works and breathes and has its being in a given time and space. But so long as scholars with little training in the study of religion turn their attention to religion as the troubling, curious, or bemusing object of their interest and proceed to write books like this one, then someone (some pesky grad student like me, no doubt!) needs to keep saying it.

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