Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Perils and Promises of Economic Analysis of Religion

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

One of the distinctive aspects of my writing, both on this blog and elsewhere, has been a focus on the economic aspects of mission and church. Whether that's exploring the impact of different financial models of mission in the early 20th century, determining the relative significance of American vs. indigenous economic support of church work, giving an overview of the assets of The United Methodist Church, or detailing how Methodist mission in Malaysia handled shipping of goods and monetary remittances, attention to the business of mission and church has been a frequent focus of mine.

I am not alone in following this "business turn" in religious studies. While not nearly as significant as the "cultural turn" in the 70s, attention to the intersection of religion, business, and economics has become a noticeable focus for many scholars in the past 5-10 years.

I want to give an account of what I think is at stake in such an approach to the study of religion, at least for me as a scholar. I will do so through two pairs of perils and promises--or, in other words, potential pitfalls and potential payoffs.

One potential pitfall of taking an economic approach to the study of religion is that it become reductionist in nature. While saying that money matters, one must be careful not to imply that money is the only thing that matters when it comes to moving the levers of history or driving people's engagement with religion. Nor is it just Marxist approaches that can make such a mistake. The cultural logic of late stage capitalism can be just as reductionist by seeing events and people only in terms of their economic value or capacity. Such an approach erases people's fundamental humanity and ignores the power of ideas and other forces that shape history.

Yet, while focusing exclusively on economic understandings of religion prohibits a full understanding of religion and humans, so does ignoring the economics of religion. It is easy to assume that religion is all about ideas, or perhaps about ideas, culture, and power, while ignoring the very real economic considerations that go into the practice and propagation of religion. Thus, one promise of including an economic analysis of religion is that it gives us a fuller picture of how people are religious rather than an idealized or sanctified picture that ignores such "grubby" considerations as money. Money is a real consideration, even for the devout, and it must be acknowledged as such.

A second potential pitfall is related to the above remark about the cultural logic of late stage capitalism. There has been an increasing tendency over the past several decades for economic language and economic logic to take over all aspects of life. Even how we think about such things as friendship, citizenship, love, and art has become increasingly structured by a logic of quantified loss and gain articulated through a series of economic metaphors. I think such totalizing of economic reasoning is ultimately destructive of our full humanity. And when we use economic language figuratively in our analysis of religion, such as when I compared mission stations to franchises, we risk furthering this trend of being able to think only in economic terms.

The corresponding payoff, though, of highlighting the economic logic people bring to religion, even when that logic is used in figurative ways, is that by highlighting it, it makes that logic seem less inevitable. If we become aware of how capitalism has shaped our thinking, even about religion, then we are closer to being able to think about religion (and the rest of the world) in other terms. It is made clear that such language and logic is a choice, and we could choose to see the world differently.

Ultimately, my participation in the business turn in religious studies is motivated not by a high valuation or appreciation of what money can do but rather by a suspicion of the distorting and corrupting influences that money can have, whether on individuals, organizations, or cultures.

The cultural turn in religious studies did much to focus scholars' attention on the ways in which power was accumulated and deployed within the practice of religion. This style of analysis is at times a useful tool in understanding religion and highlights important moral and ethical questions. Yet, it tends to ignore the interaction between money and power by focusing instead on culture and politics.

The business turn has the potential to provide a similarly useful tool by raising similar questions about who benefits and why with regard to the economic practices associated with religion. It is not the only tool scholarship needs, but it is an important one to include in the scholarly toolkit.

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