This book, by the editor and the Washington correspondent of the Economist, tells us "how the revival of religion is changing the world". Its message is a great deal more nuanced than its title and subtitle imply. In some parts of the world, God is back with a vengeance. In others, He never went away. There are undoubtedly places where He appears to be on his way out (Britain being one of them). Nevertheless, there is no arguing with Micklethwait and Wooldridge's central contention that the revival of religious ideology in the late 20th century has changed the world in ways that would have stunned and embarrassed the political scientists of 30 years ago. And it has also made the task of containing future international conflict infinitely more challenging: as the book points out, "three out of the four most likely flashpoints for nuclear conflict — Pakistan-India, Iran and Israel-Palestine — have a strong religious element. The only exception is North Korea."
Much of God is Back carries the authoritative stamp of the Economist, not just the world's best researched political magazine but also arguably the best written. The problem facing the American Founding Fathers, say the authors, was political rather than theological: "How can you prevent tyranny?" But this produced a paradox. "If the Founders were intent on grappling with a secular problem, their solution to that problem — the separation of church and state and the division of power — allowed the survival of religion in the modern world." That is splendidly concise, and spot on. The pluralism of American society is manifested as much in its religious culture as in its shopping malls. Only in the United States would the phrase "storefront evangelist" trip off the tongue so easily. It's true that American academics convinced themselves for many decades that modernity would smother religion. But now even they have recanted.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge are specialists in US politics (they are the authors of a study of American conservatives) and their tour d'horizon of the country's bustling religious landscape is full of well chosen details. One excellent point is that we tend to exaggerate the religiosity of Republican presidents while underestimating that of Democrats. George W. Bush has never lost his Ivy League mistrust of his Christian fundamentalist allies — "those wackos", as he once described them. He is a devout Christian, but the idea that he believed in any sort of theocracy is nonsense, as is John Gray's idiotic suggestion that American foreign policy during the Iraq War was inspired by Biblical millenarianism. Meanwhile, it was Bill Clinton who did more than any president since Eisenhower to lower the wall of separation between church and state. In 1997 he signed "the most sweeping sanction for the expression of religious views in the federal workplace ever issued". And, Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding, he surrounded himself with born-again Christians and "maintained a degree of interest in religion that would have had him branded a dangerous Jesus freak in Europe". One telling detail: the Democrat campaign in 2008 was significantly more Christian than that of 2004, when Howard Dean located the Book of Job in the New Testament.