Religious Activism in the Global Economy

Promoting, Reforming, or Resisting Neoliberal Globalization?

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Sabine Dreher, Peter J. Smith
  • London, England: 
    Rowman & Littlefield International
    , June
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The worldwide surge of religious movements claiming public influence since the 1970s has prompted contemporary scholars of religion to analyze the effects of religious identity on public life. However, as Sabine Dreher, Peter J. Smith, and the contributors to their edited volume, Religious Activism in the Global Economy, note, a focus on religion’s interaction with politics in this body of work has left religion’s relationship to economics largely unexamined. To address this oversight, Dreher and Smith’s collection offers scholars of international political economy (IPE) an analytical framework that accounts for religious movements’ several responses to neoliberal economics and gathers a set of case studies that illustrates that framework’s use.

Dreher and Smith and the contributors to their volume find the connection between religious movements and neoliberal globalization interesting because, as Dreher explains in the book’s introduction, the persistence and popularity of neoliberal economics cannot be explained purely by its economic outcomes. While neoliberal globalization increases corporate profits and reduces inflation, it also increases economic instability, inequality, corruption, and debt. These negative outcomes, and the emergence of various forms of resistance, demand an explanation for the popularity and tenacity of neoliberal thinking and the policies it produces.

Dreher, Smith, and their contributors find this explanation in religion, arguing that “there is a form of religiosity that promotes neoliberalism,” as well as forms of religiosity that modify it or propose alternatives to it (3, 11–14). The authors of the essays in the volume locate religious groups in this typology of support for, reform of, or resistance to, neoliberal globalization. For example, Surya Prakash Upadhyay’s chapter examines “corporate Hinduism,” and its rendering of spirituality as a technology for better living rather than a comprehensive way of life. This change in religiosity lends support for neoliberal economics by creating a competitive marketplace for gurus, whose programs of spiritual formation can be evaluated by their efficiency and other market-focused metrics. Edward Webb identifies a reforming impulse in the political platform of the Egyptian Ennahda party, which aims to create a kind of modified neoliberalism by training individual Muslims to be more virtuous economic actors. This approach produces a group of workers and consumers who act according to religious principles, and change the workings of the market by means of their principled participation in it. Peter J. Smith and Elizabeth Smythe study the influence of religion on the World Social Forum and Occupy Wall Street movements, noting that Christianity emerged as a “counter-imperial liberation movement” within the Roman Empire (251) and suggesting that contemporary religious groups could take on that identity again in response to the hegemony of neoliberal economics. In this oppositional position, one function of religious communities is to make the possibility of alternative social and economic structures publicly visible. In building this typology of support, reform, or resistance, the book’s “constructivist” approach to religious traditions recognizes the internal debate that characterizes a religion’s efforts to articulate its own identity and actualize it. Thus, for example, both Christianity and Islam receive multiple analyses in the book, illustrating the possibilities of those groups to occupy any of the three positions within Dreher and Smith’s typology. Recognizing the dynamic and social process of religious identity construction allows the collection’s authors to avoid essentializing religious communities and to make sense of their varied responses to globalized neoliberal economics. Toward this same end, the book’s focus on “social movement activism” by religious groups illustrates efforts by religious groups to shape the global economy in which they participate.

The essays contained in Religious Activism in the Global Economy cover a reasonably wide range of religious traditions and identify the variety of responses made to neoliberal globalization within each tradition. The volume’s coverage of Islam—five essays, by Sabine Dreher, Edward Webb, Umut Bozkurt, Fouad Marei, and Aikande Kwayu—is especially extensive. Marcus Scauso’s essay on the Bolivian Indianista movement provides a welcome postcolonial analysis of the Central American indigenous Aymara religion and its strategies for resisting neoliberal globalization. And the three essays on interreligious activism on economic issues (Aikande Kwayu’s essay on the Tanzanian mining industry, Michael MacLeod’s on the Corporate Social Responsibility movement, and Peter Smith and Elizabeth Smythe’s on the World Social Forum and Occupy! Movements) helpfully explore the ways in which religious activism on economic matters highlights the common ground that can be found between religious communities and the divisions that exist within them. However, the volume lacks essays focused on Buddhism, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, or Judaism, noting only the presence of these groups among those involved in interreligious activism.

With Religious Activism in the Global Economy, Dreher and Smith and their contributors have addressed an oversight in the discipline of international political economy, and their constructivist approach to the study of religion defines and illustrates a way of generating nuanced understandings of the relationship between religious communities and neoliberal economics. While the book is directly addressed to scholars working in IPE, the analytical framework and case studies will be of interest to historians and theologians as well. Analyzing the relationship between religious identity and economics from a historical or theological perspective using the approach this book supplies will prove useful for understanding a religious community’s promotion of a favored form of economic practice. Additionally, for theologians and others interested in making recommendations about how religious communities and economic schools of thought ought to relate, this book helpfully illustrates processes by which explicitly religious commitments are deployed to articulate alternatives to existing economic arrangements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isaac Arten is a doctoral student in Historical Theology at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
January 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sabine Dreher is instructor in International Studies at Glendon College, York University, Canada 

Peter J. Smith is Professor of Political Science at Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada



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