God edition: Faith, fear and the economy

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Margaret Atwood set a rule for herself when she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984.

“I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist,” she wrote in a 2018 article about the origin story of her most haunting novel.

All the atrocities depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale — the public executions, the forced childbearing, the indentured servitude — had precedents. “[And] many of these were to be found, not in other cultures and religions, but within Western society, and within the ‘Christian’ tradition itself.”

This adds to the eerie nature of the book, which at its heart is about how easily political economies are shaped by fear and faith. Every doctrine that underpins the dystopian world Atwood builds is already within reach, waiting to be wielded against its initially unsuspecting cast of characters.

Religion and the economy may seem like two very distinct systems, but they have often collided, sometimes with brutal effect.

In writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood drew from the idea that the United States, where the book is set, has not shaken off the puritanical ideals of its past, which helped forge the nation’s economy.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, originally published in 1904, German sociologist Max Weber tried to trace the psychological conditions that triggered the rise of the capitalist world order. In doing so he relied heavily on the writings of English Puritans, many of whom settled in North America in the early 17th century.

Weber argued that Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, played a significant role in shaping modern capitalism by linking one’s vocation to a sort of religious calling — a divine purpose. He also contended that asceticism, which was expressed through discipline and a strong work ethic under capitalism, was fundamental to fulfilling this duty, which would be rewarded in the form of worldly wealth and success.

“The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so,” Weber wrote, comparing the thinking back then to modern society.

“For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate world morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” he continued.

“The order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production, which today determines the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism … with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last tonne of fossilised coal is burnt.”

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a world in which low birth rates and ecological destruction — both viewed as symptoms of a society that has strayed too far from God — threaten the power of men. The story’s principal antagonists, the Commanders of the Faithful, reclaim this power by putting the women back to work, disciplining them. 

So strong is the novel’s cultural influence that when Roe v Wade was repealed two years ago, paving the way for individual US states to criminalise abortions, women protested dressed as handmaids. Atwood posted a picture of herself on Instagram holding a mug emblazoned with the words “I told you so.”

As I suspect many will point out, the atrocities in The Handmaid’s Tale and the everyday brutality of capitalism do not necessarily align with what most religious teachings hope to achieve. Instead they are a manifestation of the sort of broken-down, misshapen remnants of these doctrines, made more cruel by capitalism.

Economic historian RH Tawney alludes to this in the foreword of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: “There was action and reaction and, while Puritanism helped to mould the social order, it was, in its turn, moulded by it.”

In the wake of the Roe v Wade repeal, some pointed out that the US supreme court’s decision chipped away at the wall separating the church and state — which has been fundamental to the American system of governance since the late 18th century.

In an article for Politico, legal analyst Kimberly Wehle noted that the supreme court’s Justice Clarence Thomas, who supported the decision, previously delivered a lecture linking his study of America’s founding to his return to the church.

“Studying the founding, however, felt more like a return to familiar ground, the ground of my upbringing,” Thomas said during the September 2021 lecture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

“The Declaration captured what I had been taught to venerate as a child, but had cynically rejected as a young man: all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights … And, as I rediscovered the God-given principles of the Declaration and our founding, I eventually returned to the church, which had been teaching the same truths for millennia.”

Writing in support of the decision to reverse Roe v Wade, Thomas suggested that the court consider striking down other legal precedents, including those establishing the rights to contraception and same-sex marriage.

As the Roe v Wade repeal suggests, while governments have long adhered to the separation of church and state, the tight historical relationship between religious ideologies and economic and political institutions means the one can never be totally free of the other.

We have watched this strange dynamic between faith, politics and economics play out in the narrative around Israel’s most recent genocidal campaign in Gaza, which has coincided with the rise of the far right.

When Benjamin Netanyahu served as Israel’s finance minister under Ariel Sharon in the early 2000s, he initiated a number of free market reforms, cutting taxes and privatising state-owned entities. 

Netanyahu’s economic stance has seen him compared to Margaret Thatcher. In his autobiography, the longest-serving Israeli prime minister described the nation’s economy as having been “mired in an antiquated semi-socialist bog” prior to his intervention.

But Netanyahu has put Israel’s economy on the line for his unrelenting siege on Gaza, supported by the far-right coalition government he leads. More than 32  000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel.

Israel’s current finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich — who is also the leader of the Religious Zionist Party — recently declared 800 hectares in the occupied West Bank as state land, a decision that flies in the face of international opposition to the expansion of illegal settlements. 

According to an Al Jazeera report, Smotrich used the Biblical names for the area of the West Bank when making the declaration: “While there are those in Israel and in the world who seek to undermine our right to Judea and Samaria and the country in general, we promote settlement through hard work and in a strategic manner all over the country.”

For Israel’s religious far right, the war is about more than retribution against Hamas. It is about conquest. And, to borrow from a Russian president, Vladimir Lenin, what is imperialism if not the highest form of capitalism?

This is where the economy and something like religion commonly meet — on sites of contested power. And, as we witness the terror that Israel has meted out on Palestinians, there is little question that crossing this threshold poses a profound threat to our humanity.