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Symposium on William E. Connolly’s ‘Capitalism and Christianity, American Style’

This essay is part of a collection of papers on William E. Connolly’s ‘Capitalism and Christianity, American Style’ published in Political Theology 12.2.

This essay is part of a collection of papers on William E. Connolly’s Capitalism and Christianity, American Style published in Political Theology 12.2.

By David Howarth

What William Connolly calls ‘the volatility of capitalism’ can often disrupt sedimented patterns of social relations and practices, thus provoking new social injustices, personal tragedies, and political possibilities. At the same time, it can engender fundamentalist drives which seek to resist change and freeze time, whilst turning cultural differences into threatening others who are deemed responsible for the dislocatory effects of the globalization of contingency. In Christianity and Capitalism, American Style, Connolly provides an exemplary diagnosis of these fundamentalist forces by focusing on the spiral of resonances between ‘evangelism’ and ‘cowboy capitalism’ in the US, as well as the growing set of inequalities and dangers it harbours.

Yet his critique goes beyond a mere rejection of what he calls the ‘evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’ to imagine interim futures that can serve as alternatives to the current physiognomy of American and global capitalism. Here he strives to articulate an eco-egalitarian capitalism that can effectively counter the bellicose ethos, growing inequality, and environmental degradation, associated with the peculiar alliance between religious fundamentalism and neoliberal capitalism. In order to help sow the seed of this counter-movement, Connolly’s initial focus is on reconstructing the social infrastructure of consumption. Drawing inter alia on the work of Fred Hirsch, as well as writings in critical political economy, he stresses the corrosive effects that result from the intertwining of positional and defensive goods, and he proposes to reform the established infrastructure of consumption by refashioning the current relationships between “inclusive” and “exclusive” goods. At the same time, he further develops his call for a deep and multidimensional pluralism, as well as an ethos of presumptive generosity towards the increasing minoritization of the world, which can respond positively to new demands and identities. In so doing, he outlines an innovative methodological approach to critical explanation that is consonant with his philosophy of immanent naturalism.


In developing these themes, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style brings together at least four ongoing concerns in his work: (1) the articulation of fundamentalist Christianity, neo-conservatism and neo-liberal capitalism in the United States; (2) the critical explanation and evaluation of different forms of capitalism; (3) the proposal of ‘interim futures’ that can serve as normative alternatives to the current configurations of ‘cowboy capitalism’ and ‘fundamentalist Christianity’; and (4) the methods of conducting critical political theory and analysis. But the analysis and engagement with these pressing political issues is informed by Connolly’s more long-standing endeavour to develop the explanatory and normative grounds for what he calls ‘deep multidimensional pluralism’, as well as his efforts to spell out a desirable and feasible project for radical democracy.

The key problems that Connolly explores centre on what he calls ‘the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’, which came to fruition in the US during the last ten years or so, though its roots have a much longer provenance. The problematization of this pressing political phenomenon is neatly encapsulated in Connolly’s short autobiographical reflections that preface his study. Here he reactivates certain experiences and memories of his early life growing up in Flint, Michigan, where he articulates his ambivalent boyhood feelings toward the ambiguous practices of the white, married, male, working class world into which he was thrown, and which partly underpinned the emergent welfare state at the time. The vibrant union meetings of automobile workers, their solidarity with one other, and with other ethnic and racial groups, are juxtaposed with their macho and sexist practices, and their somewhat hypocritical beliefs.

He also explores his ambivalent responses to the ambiguities of Christianity. The Christian message of equality and justice is set against the attitudes and dispositions of newly arrived ‘evangelical families’ in his neighbourhood, who were generally opposed to the Union and dedicated to their congregations; more susceptible, perhaps, to the pull of individualised advancement and the atomised family (p. ix). In retrospect, the fissures between the Union and the Church, the segregation of working class neighbourhoods into theists and atheists, the paradoxes of white migration, and so on, provide some of the raw materials for his efforts to explain the emergence of the contemporary evangelical-capitalist resonance machine.

Two dominant meanings of the welfare state project are thus identified and juxtaposed. In the social democratic vision it is ‘a symbol of economic programs for both citizens in general and those who had hit a bad spot’, whereas in the discourse of the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine it is ‘the sign of programs aimed at the permanently unemployed’ (p. viii). Yet the point of Connolly’s recollections is not to draw a simple contrast between a white working class neatly divided between social democracy and neo-Conservatism. On the contrary, the purpose is to highlight the indeterminate and floating character of this vital political constituency. It is to foreground the complexities of a pivotal political force and subjectivity enmeshed in the contradictory appeals of corporate capitalism, evangelical Christianity, the New Left, and social democracy. It is also to raise questions about the complicated relationship between new social movements and class politics (p. 30).

Indeed, one of the key political and strategic messages of Connolly’s book is the need to imagine, articulate, develop, and experiment with a new movement of the democratic left that ‘will be organized across religious, class, gender, ethnic, and generational lines without trying to pretend that citizens can leave their faiths entirely behind them when they enter public life’ (p. x). This new assemblage is envisaged to articulate ‘care for equality, the earth, and the future in public presentations of interests, fears, hopes, principles, obligations, and responsibilities’ (p. x). The proposed assemblage should thus connect diverse minorities and be infused with an ethos of radical pluralism, which is insinuated into capitalist practices of investment, work, consumption, and state action’ (xi).

Different aspects of this general problematization are explored in the contributions that make up this symposium on Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. The papers were originally written and presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in September 2009, which for the first time was convened outside the United States in Toronto, Canada. What proved to be a popular and lively discussion brought together professors of theology and political philosophy in an unusual, but productive mix. Connolly’s concluding contribution to the symposium responds to each of these commentaries, where he takes further the analyses and proposals put forward in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.

David Howarth is Reader in Political Theory at the Department of Government, University of Essex.

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