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William Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style by William Connolly, 


Review by: David A. Krueger
The Journal of Religion, Vol. 89, No. 3 (July 2009), pp. 444-446
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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The Journal of Religion

justice as a historically conditioned set of institutional practices. The essays in


the second section place the idea in the context of thought about justice. The
principal figures who come into the discussion here are Kant, Weber, and
Charles Taylor. The essays in the third section deal with the ideal of justice in
the realm of practical, or regional, ethics; Ricoeur’s primary interests here are
legal and medical ethics and their similarities, differences, and relations. In
each of these proceeding sections, issues raised in the first section are taken
up and dealt with at a progressively less abstract level. There is then a discern-
ible trajectory that holds these essays together, one that might be character-
ized, without too much oversimplification, as a movement from abstract struc-
turing of the idea to an analysis of practices by way of configuration. Those
who have any previous experience of Ricoeur’s work will recognize this trajec-
tory.
This is not Ricoeur at his most accessible, and I would not recommend the
work as an entrance point for engaging his corpus. The essays are tough going,
and the essays in the second section are particularly difficult. The essays do
deal with important themes in Ricoeur’s work, ones especially visible in his
later writings. Many of the essays are introduced with footnotes that indicate
a debt to previous works, and nearly all the essays make some reference to the
“little ethics” of Oneself as Another but suggest that knowledge of these works
is not necessary. This is not completely true in my estimation; it is difficult to
discern where Ricoeur is headed in this volume if one knows little or nothing
of where he has been. Some understanding may be gained without previous
knowledge, but grounding in previous works is essential for a thorough un-
derstanding of this volume.
In providing clarification of previous works, Reflections on the Just is excep-
tionally helpful. Of particular interest in this volume is the paradoxical na-
ture of authority—What is authority? How is it legitimated? Is it claimed or
granted?—the existence of vulnerability and passivity within autonomy and ini-
tiative, and the relationship between moral ideals and historical manifestation,
questions that exist more on the margins of Oneself as Another. Those interested
in Ricoeur’s religious thought will find little of direct interest here. Those who
see a deep connection between his moral philosophy and his philosophy of
religion will find some confirmation, but there are other places where the
connections are more explicitly manifest. Reflections on the Just is best ap-
proached as a companion volume to earlier philosophical works, certainly The
Just but perhaps more importantly Oneself as Another. As such, it holds an im-
portant place in Ricoeur’s oeuvre.
W. DAVID HALL, Centre College.

CONNOLLY, WILLIAM. Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. Durham, NC:


Duke University Press, 2008. xvi⫹174 pp. $74.95 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

The title’s simplicity provides the reader with no clue to the book’s peril. The
complexity and denseness of its argument and language (unnecessarily so to
the mind of this reader) mask the clarity of its promise. James Gustafson, my
former teacher, often asserted his opinion that most good scholarship, at least
in nonscientific fields, ought to be clear to the layperson who stands outside
the academic discipline in which it is written. Such is not the case here. Rather,
this book embodies a highly literate academic’s attempt to reflect on the im-

444

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Book Reviews

pact of conservative Christianity on important recent trends in American po-


litical and economic life in a way that minimizes its possibility for much wide-
spread influence. The arguments are often couched in such specialized
academic jargon that most of those under negative critique (most notably com-
ponents of the Christian religious right) and most of those whom William
Connolly wishes to mobilize for an alternative future (virtually all others but
also some in the religious right) would be utterly “lost in translation.” Such is
the irony of a book surely without such intentions. An author who seeks social
transformation in opposition to harmful elitist hierarchies and in favor of val-
ues such as equality, ecological health and well-being, social democracy, open-
ness, and tolerance writes with highly specialized academic language accessible
to very few outside what might be construed as an elite intellectual subculture.
Furthermore, the reader is forced to work through extensive intellectual side-
bars on early church history and contemporary philosophy that, while inter-
esting to some, do not seem critical to the centrality of the topic implied in
the title of such a short book.
To oversimplify great complexity, the author provides a number of propo-
sitions. Translated into simple English, I would hazard they might be as follows:
(1) The policies of George W. Bush were harmful to our nation and to the
world. (2) Those policies are not arbitrary but are the result of a complex
confluence of factors, including particular religious beliefs and values. (3) To
be more effective, members of the formal academic community ought to be
less “dogmatic” and intolerant of competing methodologies for understanding
the world and ought to be more tolerant and pluralistic in the embrace of
other academic methods. They must avoid the same dangers of fanaticism and
intolerance in some religious believers. (4) Religious belief, Christian or oth-
erwise, is not inherently harmful but must be construed in a way that can be
constructively connected to a new social movement that can counteract the
powerful social trends embodied in the rise to power and the actions and
policies of the Bush administration in its management of the economy and
international affairs.
Connolly’s general argument, still simplified, is something like the following:
Each economic and political system has an ethos, an underlying set of values
and beliefs that give it coherence. By the early twenty-first century, American
capitalism (which the author dubs “cowboy capitalism”), electoral politics, and
the institutional powers of the state became decisively shaped, in part, by the
Christian evangelical right, whose own theological affirmations are embodied
in an ethos of entitlement and revenge. This ethos is represented in religious
popular culture by the fictional Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye. This ethos,
“the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine,” is a loose configuration of ideas
that creates coherence for a system in which those in power feel a sense of
entitlement for the privileges that capitalist institutions and rules bring, as well
as a sense of revenge on those perceived as hostile to this apparently divinely
sanctioned moral order. Thus, Connolly’s central argument about this “reso-
nance machine” turns on his characterization of its ethos or fundamental dis-
position toward the world “that encourages them to transfigure interest into
greed, greed into anti-market ideology, anti-market ideology into market ma-
nipulation, market manipulation into state institutionalization of those oper-
ations, and the entire complex into policies to pull the security net away from
ordinary workers, consumers, and retirees—some of whom are then set up to
translate new intensities of resentment and cynicism into participation in the

445

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The Journal of Religion

machine” (43). Revenge is purported to be part and parcel of this religiously


inspired ethos and includes political ruthlessness against any opposing individ-
ual, political party, point of view, or nation-state deemed an enemy. Such real-
life actions are argued to be consistent with “a vengeful vision of the Second
Coming, modeled upon one reading of Revelation and dramatized in the best-
selling series of novels Left Behind . . . [which] maintains the ethos of revenge
expressed . . . on behalf of American sovereignty and world hegemony” (45).
Thus, “cowboy and evangelical spiritualities are not the same. Rather they res-
onate together. The bellicosity and corresponding sense of extreme entitle-
ment of those consumed by economic greed reverberates with the transcen-
dental resentment of those visualizing the righteous violence of Christ” (48).
Connolly’s solution is a “counter-resonance machine” that coheres with a
new, multifaceted, multisectoral, “bottom-up” social movement consistent with
traditional aims of the Democratic Left. This “eco-egalitarian” (capitalist)
movement will embrace core values such as ecological well-being, care for fu-
ture generations, “the diversity of being,” cultural pluralism, lower levels of
material consumption (focusing on “inclusive” goods), and less income and
wealth inequality. While not a theist himself, the author welcomes a pluralism
of “spiritualities” that include appeal to “limited theists” such as William James
and to philosophers such as Nietzsche and Spinoza. Belief in God is permis-
sible, with notions of divine providence open to a God who “learns as the world
turns” and which embraces not only an active human agency that can hopefully
shape the future but also an attitude of humility and intellectual respect for
other world views.
Since this book was completed (summer 2006) and since this review was
written (December 2008), one might note two decisive U.S. events that beg to
serve as critical points of reflection on this book. First, one notes the emergent
U.S. financial crisis, whose tentacles move deeper and broader inside and out-
side our national borders. Surely Connolly would interpret this “event” as con-
firming evidence of his critique and strong sense of moral vices incipient upon
the “evangelical capitalist resonance machine” and also of his strong sense of
the tragic in history. Second is the rapid emergence and election of Barack
Obama. It is my sense that the author was likely caught off guard by this seem-
ing “counter-resonance machine,” with its capacity to engender a social move-
ment that embodies many of the values and goals that Connolly lifts up in his
“interim” agenda. Might it be that the “evangelical capitalist resonance ma-
chine” was not as strong and pervasive as imagined and that the capacity for
renewal and social redirection, both in terms of ethos and social agenda, is
more accessible than imagined? Obama’s movement might have benefited
from this provocative text if it had been offered in translation in publicly ac-
cessible language.
DAVID A. KRUEGER, Baldwin-Wallace College.

ASSMANN, JAN. Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism. George
L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History. Mad-
ison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. x⫹196 pp. $26.96 (paper).

In Of God and Gods, Egyptologist Jan Assmann tackles the subjects of polythe-
ism, monotheism, and the problem of religious violence. This is familiar ter-
ritory for the prolific pen of Assmann, and this volume is a rehearsal and

446

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