Capitalism, neoliberalism and Christian articulations of economic ethics: Pentecostals and Ecumenicals in Latin America
- Dr Joanildo A Burity
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Dr Joanildo A Burity, St Quinton Director of the Faith and Globalisation Programme, School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA) and Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, UK
The relationship between religion and neoliberalism is far from unidirectional. As the latter spread globally, it produced impacts on but also responses from religious identities and organisations. In the process it has become clear that a one sided ‘im-pact’ theories are insufficient to render intelligible the relational, a(nta)gonistic settings in which new forms of spirituality and religious organisation have emerged, changed and proactively faced the challenges posed by recent transformations of the social bond and the public sphere. It is only through contextual readings of the actual entan-glements and intimations of glocal dynamics that one can properly capture the com-plex configuration of the relationship of religion and neoliberalism in our time.
Given the hegemonic nature of neoliberal ideology, which has crystallised in various ways in terms of economic, political and cultural practices/policies wherever it spread, not relying on any single or centralised source but supported by powerful actors, the link between religion and neoliberalism is a question of hegemony. It spans across very different dimensions of the social, resonating and being sanctioned through state poli-cies, media and educational discourses, and relates to different social logics .
The following analysis will examine the proactive way in which religious positions relate to neoliberalism and its economic and political expressions. I will stress the com-prehensive, but decentred, multilayered and contested nature of global neoliberal he-gemony, and the importance for Northern contexts of ‘lessons’ learned in the South. I will also stress the salience of religious articulations of the economic ethos appropriate to the lived experience of the global capitalist condition.
Capitalism, neoliberalism and Christian articulations of economic ethos
The last few decades witnessed unforeseen and unstable relations between neolib-eralism and religious movements. New minority actors emerged who had long been confined to national and local boundaries. According to Connolly, minoritisation is a process whereby ‘numerous constituencies of multiple types cross old borders and en-ter into relations with a “majority” culture that often makes up an actual minority of the populace’. He links the intensification of this process to the prevalence of global capital, though he rejects claims that the latter only produces homogenisation.
Two particular Christian discursive formations stand out in the spaces where relig-ion meets neoliberalism: a) Pentecostalism and b) ecumenical organisations and net-works acting as mobilisers in the alterglobalist movement. Both discourses operate within a glocal nexus, as their articulatory character involves a non-territorial under-standing of mission and religious mobilisation, but is also firmly rooted on territorial experiences of community and individualisation. Pentecostalism and ecumenism also operate according to logics which seek to extend their reach and grasp over large spa-tio-temporal domains through practices of equivalence and difference, thus relating to wider clusters of social relations by activating (agonistic) aggregative or particularistic strategies and by engaging other social forces.
In Latin America, where neoliberalism emerged in the 1980s as both a locus and a medium of discourse, existing Pentecostal and ecumenical Christian discourses were soon activated, changed or rearticulated in responding to the new conditions. As a lo-cus, the neoliberal idiom presented itself as a solution to numerous grievances and needs against the immodest power of military dictatorships. It sort of crept into de-mocratising discourses as one of their emancipatory variants. In so doing neoliberals capitalised on a mounting association of state interventionism with authoritarianism and policy inefficiency. It is in this context that ‘market freedom’, competition, decen-tralisation, deregulation, consumerism, openness to foreign capitals and global markets appealed to emerging democratising elites as part of the project of overcoming military rule.
As a medium, the neoliberal idiom offered a grammar of discourse to express the uncertainties of the process of democratisation. Towards the end of the 1980s, it had become currency amongst those who wished to curb and avert expectations of radical democratisation and to accept globalisation and structural adjustment policies as irre-sistible. The idiom of neoliberalism sought to make headway in the new post-dictatorship scenario against more radical practices of democratisation ‘from below’ that had become credible political alternatives.
The articulation of neoliberalism to public religious discourse in post-dictatorship Latin America took place against this backdrop. As it coincided with the emergence of Pentecostals as a publicly mobilised religious minority, neoliberal hegemonisation led to something similar to what Connolly has called, in the US context, an ‘evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’, although we would need to qualify his description for Latin America. Thus, in a highly complex process of persuasion, resonance and delib-erate ‘weaving’, a religious discourse attuned to the neoliberal idiom, the prosperity gospel theology, became widely disseminated in churches.
Though mainly spreading among Pentecostals, the latter did not homogeneously endorse that resonance machine, and competing theologies inspired by the Evangelical and ecumenical movements further complicated the story. Thus, the idea of a full blown sway and grip on religious forms and discourses is inaccurate to characterise the context. Overlaps between the transformation of the political space through democra-tisation, the advance of neoliberalisation and the de-legitimising effects of persistent social inequalities and growing social and cultural pluralisation also need to be ac-knowledged.
The religious context: spirituality and the neoliberal challenge
Neoliberalism spread through a relentless subjective reworking to foster the image of a competition-driven agent, bent on disseminating both the logic of the market and its acquisitive, consumerist values. It was never a question of simply appealing to an existing subjectivity or state of affairs. The neoliberal creation of a subjectivity attuned to the ‘spirit of (global) capitalism’ encountered religious identities both on the side of compliance and contestation. This is why the diffusion of a neoliberal ethos needs to be understood as a process of hegemonisation. Accordingly, the conditions under which consent and compliance are forged come in hand with the various forms of resis-tance and defiance that confront the new hegemony. Combined with the massive en-ergies of mobilisation and rights-claiming set off by the process of democratic construc-tion, economic discourse and spiritual ethos became inextricably connected and no longer confined to the jurisdictions of organised religion and the state.
Two major trends contributed to this. The first trend is an increasing perception of the resilience of religion in the contemporary world and its organic links with ordinary people, leading to both instrumental and principled acceptance of its public role. Ac-ceptance came in various ways. To name a few: through electoral alliances, governmen-tal appeals for partnering in social policy delivery, and recognition of the importance of the language of values in dealing with the challenges of political leadership, policy effi-cacy, social cohesion and public morality. Even the controversies raised in the process furthered this acceptance in the long run.
The second trend is internal to religious discourse and refers to various attempts to reconstitute the link between faith and everyday social life (in all its intersubjective and structural dimensions) historically broken by liberalism’s privatisation of religion. Within Latin American Christianity, this was mostly done through the dissemination of two theological idioms: (Catholic and ecumenical Protestant) liberation theology and (Evangelical) holistic mission . In both cases, the articulation of an economic ethos was thought to be an irrefutable requirement of commitment to the Christian faith.
As a result of these trends, numerous experiments took place at different levels over the past few decades which have both reinforced the salience of public religion and the controversial (and clearly politicised) nature of its outcomes for the debates on neoliberalism. Through them a public sphere was constituted in which questions of global and local economic restructuring have been reframed along the lines of religious and ethical considerations. They linked spaces of conversation and debate to spaces of contestation, not only at the level of motivations but also at the level of collective ac-tion.
What is required, in the next and final section, is to flesh out a few of the ways in which Christian discourses and neoliberalism have engaged each other, leading to ap-proximations and confrontations.
Pentecostal and ecumenical spirituality and ethos: embracing, ne-gotiating, or refusing neoliberal discourse
There are two main patterns of relationship between Latin American Pentecostal-ism and neoliberalism. Only the more recent one, neo-Pentecostalism, can be seen as an organic expression of a spirituality and organisational framework in tune with neo-liberal ideology and governmentality.
Neo-Pentecostalism in Latin America describes a branch of the Pentecostal move-ment emerging in the mid-1970s and firmly associated to the prosperity gospel of health and wealth movement. Following the known Protestant fissiparous pattern, hundreds of local churches, ‘ministries’ and small denominations have emerged, most of their founders coming from participation in traditional Pentecostal churches or in other neo-Pentecostal ones.
Neo-Pentecostalism clearly embodies neoliberal ideas and values of entrepreneuri-alism, self-assertiveness and transactional spirituality. Calculating and bent on minimis-ing ‘suffering’ at all costs to attain unrestrained enjoyment of material blessings, neo-Pentecostal spirituality resembles speculative investment, aiming at high returns: God owns all riches and the extension of his blessings is unlimited; therefore, every believer may lay claim to this superabundant wealth through giving and putting God to the test as a faithful and expert broker of each offering (“sacrifice”) received. It is a case of a spirituality of acquisition and consumption by unencumbered selves.
The second pattern, which I will call traditional Pentecostalism, is actually older and majoritarian, though more diverse in its links to neoliberal discourse, and represents what is more commonly understood by Pentecostalism.
Traditional Pentecostalism’s version of entrepreneurialism of the poor is more at-tuned to the encouragement to fend for oneself, not waiting for or relying on state-sponsored social provision (but not rejecting it either). This is possible because the Spirit’s baptism fills the believer with divine power, regardless of gender, ethnicity or social standing, strengthening self-esteem and autonomy, and prompting that believer to take risks in faith. This is however more akin to an ‘ethics of providence’, in which ‘economic upward mobility does not have a strong religious value and material needs are never fully met, but provided for case by case as a “divine succour”, many times the result of face-to-face reciprocity ties that a more communitarian religiosity favours’ . This spirit-filled entrepreneurialism is thus supported and sanctioned within a commu-nity of reference, not a purely individualistic setting.
Ecumenical spirituality and organisational webs have developed largely in parallel, until recent years, to Pentecostal ones. And they have unambiguously positioned themselves against neoliberalism and its global project. Loosely or tightly connected to the transnational web of ecumenical agencies, comprising regional church representa-tive bodies, religious NGOs and secular ones funded by ecumenical development agen-cies, Latin American ecumenical networks also laid roots in the general emergence of ‘civil society’ as a nodal point for radical democratic aspirations.
A religious alterglobalism drawing on decades of grassroots church work organi-cally linked with place-based popular movements identified neoliberal globalisation as its main target and theological challenge. It has strenuously tried to put forward an op-positional alternative to the neoliberal project under the guise of a ‘globalisation of solidarity’, combining environmental and economic justice, cultural pluralism and net-worked forms of participation as a loose new paradigm. Through this another spiritual-ity is enacted which has been variously described as a ‘spirituality of resistance’ ; of ‘life and human dignity’ ; or of ‘life in dignity’ . Radical social activism is seen as part of both the mission and the personal faith to which these groups feel committed to.
The aim of this conference is avowedly to reclaim ‘the moral and spiritual roots of economics and capitalism’. Although I chose not to address the issue directly, I hope the discussion above, however succinct and lacking nuance, has showed some of the concrete ways in which religious actors have responded to the challenges raised by the global hegemony of neoliberalism. These responses have sometimes reinforced it or resisted the latter. Most started as emerging minority discourses which grew into cul-tural and social movements and merged with political ones in the process, taking full advantage of conditions granted by the “infrastructure” of globalisation in the areas of communication and travel.
Public religion is far from being a monolithic partner to be enlisted in any project of social transformation or engineering. Multiple and conflicting sources of practical ac-tion and ethical reasoning abound in every major religious tradition and this is certainly the case in Latin America, despite its reputation as a largely Christian region. From a descriptive perspective, different Christian movements have produced an enhanced acceptance of religious groups as public actors. In doing so, they brought the language of values and moral considerations (back) into the language of economic rationale, le-gal reasoning and policy implementation. They thus helped to highlight a fundamental fact of social interaction: that any discourse on human action, preferences and flourish-ing is bound by particular and contingent assumptions, figurations of the good life and representations of the place of humanity in a broader drama of history and cosmos. Such assumptions can be derived from various sources but none of them is beyond contestation, or command a full grasp of the meaning of human (and nonhuman) life.
From a normative perspective, the variety of ways in which religion can emerge as a source of ‘values, ideas and vision’ to offer (counter)narratives of ‘happiness, meaning-ful life, death and beyond, community life, virtues, and values’ cannot be brought to-gether through broadminded appeals to reason or conversation. If anything, the cases I have explored indicate that concerted action is required to bring about new readings and new practices within and across religious and nonreligious dimensions of individual and collective identities. In order to achieve such concerted action, the energy and guidance of values needs to be permanently translated into political forms of articula-tion and nurtured through patient formation and mobilisation. The destiny of such ef-forts is indeed uncertain and incomplete, but it seems that friction and contestation, as much as convergence and dialogue are indispensable modes of living through the ex-perience of refusing the apparent fact that neoliberalism tried to recall to minds and policies: that humans are self-centred and competitive animals whose connections will always be instrumental, when not outright exploitative, and that this is the way things are, naturally.
1- Presented to the panel “Economics, Justice and Spirituality”, during the 10th Conference of the Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative. Oxford, 2-5 September 2012.
3- See Ernesto Laclau, ‘Identity and Hegemony: the Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Lo-gics’, in J Butler, E Laclau and S Zizek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Debates on the Left (London, 2000), pp. 44-89.
4- William E. Connolly, “An Interview with William Connolly”, in S A Chambers and T Carver (eds.) William E. Connolly: Democracy, pluralism and political theory (London and New York, 2008), p. 323.
5- See Laclau, op. cit.
6- William E. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Durham, 2008)
7- See Daniel M. Bell Jr. After the End of History Latin American Liberation Theology in the Wake of Capi-talism’s Triumph, Journal of Religion & Society, 2 (2000), pp. 1-10; Paul C. Freston. Christians Organiz-ing for Political Service in Global Context. The Kuyper Lecture. Available at www.cpjustice.org/files/2002KLFreston.pdf
8- See Paul Freston, ‘The Transnationalisation of Brazilian Pentecostalism: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’, in A. Corten and R. Marshall-Fratani (eds), Between Babel and Pentecost: Transnational Pentecostalism in Africa and Latin America (London, 2000), pp. 196-215; David Martin, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish (Malden, 2003), pp. 71-118.
9- Mary Ruth Gomes Esperandio, ‘Subjetividade, religiosidade contemporânea e globalização: o caso da Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus’, Protestantismo em Revista, [online], 9 (2006), pp. 31-47. Available at http://www3.est.edu.br/nepp.
10- Ronaldo Rômulo M. de Almeida A expansão pentecostal: circulação e flexibilidade, Centro de Estudos da Metrópole, [online], 2006, pp. 11-12, my translation. Available at http://www.centrodametropole.org.br/v1/pdf/2007/ ronaldo_pentecostalismo.pdf
12- See World Council of Churches, The Ecumenical Presence at the 4th World Social Forum, World Coun-cil of Churches, [online], 21 January 2004. Available at http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/public-witness-addressing-power-affirming-peace/poverty-wealth-and-ecology/neoliberal-paradigm/the-ecumenical-presence-at-the-4th-world-social-forum.html. Accessed 25 November 2010.
13- A wealth of materials representing a broad definition of religious alterglobalism, particularly the World Social Forum, can be found in the World Council of Churches and Latin American Council of Churches websites. In the wake of the success achieved by the World Social Forum, a World Forum on Theology and Liberation has emerged in the mid-2000s, which brings another theological bearing onto ecumenical alterglobalism.
14- ‘Another World is Possible. The World Council of Churches and other ecumenical organizations at the third World Social Forum’, World Council of Churches, [online]. Available at http://wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/jpc/wsf-e.html. Accessed on 5 March 2011.
15- ‘Another World is Possible. The WCC and other ecumenical organizations at the fourth World Social Forum’, World Council of Churches, [online]. Available at http://wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/jpc/wsf-2004-e.html. Accessed on 5 March 2011.
16-‘‘An authentic, alternative voice’: The WCC and other ecumenical organizations at the fifth World Social Forum’, World Council of Churches, [online]. Available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/jpc/wsf-2005-e.html. Accessed on 5 March 2011