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David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Yale University Press has finally released this translation I made of Tunisian Islamic scholar, activist and politician, Rached Ghannouchi's classic work, Public Freedoms in the Islamic State.


I rarely get so absorbed by a book I’m reading. But I could hardly put down Ronald F. Inglehart’s 2021 book (Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing it, and What Comes Next?). An emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Inglehart is the “Founding President of the World Values Survey Association, which since 1981 has repeatedly surveyed representative national samples of the publics of 108 countries containing over 90 percent of the world's population” (from the Amazon page). This means he has been doing this kind of research with a couple hundred of other international social scientists for 40 years and has closely followed the evolution of people’s values and ethical norms around the globe. He died last year and this memorial page notes that according to Google Scholar he is the most quoted political scientist.

Inglehart’s findings surprised me – I’ve long known that people from all the major religions got more “religious” starting in the 1970s. In fact, I delved into that phenomenon using the sociology of religion in 2011, asking, “Is ‘Fundamentalism’ Still Relevant?” I stand by that still today.

But the general resurgence of religion last century began to reverse itself in the new millennium. The key year is 2007. In his first book on this topic, co-authored with Harvard University’s Pippa Norris (Secular and Sacred: Religion and Politics Worldwide), he hadn’t seen this dramatic change yet (first edition, 2004, second in 2011). What they did find is that for the 49 countries “for which substantial time series data was then available . . . more than two-thirds of [these] countries . . . showed rising religiosity in response to the question ‘How important is God in your life?’” (14).

[Allow me to insert a brief parenthesis here. Noted Baylor University historian of religion Philip Jenkins offered some thoughts about Inglehart’s book on his blog (Anxious Bench/Patheos) in May 2021. It’s a book “that I have been devouring,” he wrote. Just a year before, Jenkins had published a book offering very similar conclusions, Fertility and Faith, but from a different angle:


“High-fertility societies, like most of contemporary Africa, tend to be fervent and devout. The lower a population’s fertility rates, the greater the tendency for people to detach from organized or institutional religion. Thus, fertility rates supply an effective gauge of secularization trends.”


Jenkins is also struck by the similarity of their findings: “In the US context, we both highlighted 2007 as the critical transition point. The gargantuan economic crash of that time is an obvious culprit.” I end here the parenthesis, but in highlighting again how significant this convergence of views is from two scholars coming from different perspectives and disciplines.]

Now back to Inglehart. He and Pippa had found that among 49 countries two-thirds had become more religious from 1981 to 2007. That said, respondents in most high-income countries exhibited a decline in religious belief and practice, while those that exhibited the most growth in religiosity were six former communist countries (13 out of 15 of those nations showed at least some growth).

Now writing in 2021, Inglehart explains his surprising new findings:


“The results show that dramatic changes have occurred since 2007 in the same countries analyzed earlier. In sharp contrast with earlier findings, which showed the dominant trend to be rising religiosity, the data since 2007 shows an overwhelming trend toward declining religiosity. The public of virtually every high-income country shifted toward lower levels of religiosity, and many other countries also became less religious. The contrast between ex-communist countries and the rest of the world was weakening, but still the eight countries showing the largest shifts toward increasing religiosity from 1981 to 2020 were ex-communist countries” (14, emphasis his).


The year 2007 also proved a watershed for the United States and its hitherto status as the only high-income country to be significantly religious. In fact, the US “once constituted the crucial case supporting the claim that modernization need not bring secularization.” Advocates of the “religious market secularization theory” could point to a very diverse and competitive religious landscape – the one factor which for them explains religious vitality. But that now seems irrelevant: “The U.S. still has plenty of diversity, but it recently has been on the same secularizing trajectory as other high-income countries; indeed, since 2007 it has been secularizing at a more rapid pace than any other country for which data is available” (83). My title above (using “precipitous” instead of Inglehart’s “sudden”) applies particularly to the United States.

Here are some of the indicators (emphasis mine):


    • According to the 1982 World Values Survey, “52 percent of the American public said that God was very important in their lives, choosing a ‘10’ on a 10-point scale”
    • In the 2017 survey only 23 percent said this
    • “In 1982, 83 percent of Americans described themselves as ‘a religious person.’ In 2017 only 55 percent did so”
    • In 1982, 16 percent of respondents said they “never or practically never” attended religious services; by 2017, 35 percent said so
    • In 1982, 46 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” of confidence in their religious institutions; by 2017, only 12 percent said so
    • Another important survey tool (The General Social Survey) indicates that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians went from 89 percent in 1972 to 71 percent; meanwhile, “the percentage who identified with no religion rose from 6 to 22 percent


Why does Inglehart (and Norris – this book builds on the same theory as his co-authored book) believe this is happening?


Inglehart’s “evolutionary modernization theory”

Inglehart is a social scientist, and as such, he is careful to note that the presence of contextual factors also help to explain why a nation (or block of nations) waxes or wanes in its religiosity – including historical, political, religious and social factors. One example he gives is the much faster growth of capitalism in northern Europe compared to its southern Catholic counterpart in the three centuries after the Reformation. Partially looking at Max Weber’s work on the Protestant ethic, Inglehart surmises that Martin Luther’s emphasis on individual Bible reading, and thereby literacy and scientific study, were determinative in providing Protestant nations with a “remarkable economic dynamism.” By 1940, “people in Protestant countries were on average 40 percent richer than the people of Catholic countries” (22).

Yet his main point here is that even with a sharp drop of religious belief and practice, religious ethical norms can still remain dominant within particular populations. This seems to be at least a part of the success of “the Nordic countries”: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland (he adds The Netherlands and Switzerland in most charts and calls this bloc “Protestant Europe”). These nations rate consistently highest as a group according to many indicators, such as life expectancy, years of schooling, GDP per capita, and life satisfaction. But it’s more complicated than that, he explains:


“The Nordic countries seem to be at the cutting edge of cultural change, and their distinctive character seems to reflect a synthesis between the Protestant ethic and the welfare state. As Chapter 2 demonstrated, Protestantism left an enduring imprint on the people who were shaped by it. But the Social Democratic welfare state that emerged in the Nordic countries in the 20th century modified this heritage by providing universal health coverage; high levels of state support for education, extensive welfare spending, child care, and pensions; and an ethos of social solidarity” (107-8).


He then adds, “These countries are also characterized by rapidly declining religiosity.” This brings up his central argument, which connects to Philip Jenkins’ linking of fertility and religious fervency. Two cultural shifts were underway in the 20th century, but converged early in the 21-century to form a “tipping point” – meaning that this cultural change changed directions and accelerated dramatically:


      • Rising existential security brings declining demand for religion because secure people have less need for the predictability and absolute rules of traditional religion and are far more open to new ideas. This has been happening for many years. But the second factor helps explain the recent acceleration of secularization.
      • All of the world’s major religions encourage pro-fertility norms, which help societies replace their populations when facing high infant mortality and low life expectancy. These norms require people to suppress strong drives, but with low infant mortality and high life expectancy, pro-fertility norms are no longer needed. After an intergenerational time lag, pro-fertility norms are giving away to individual-choice norms, eroding religious worldviews that had endured for centuries.


For an arresting case study, see this short piece by Philip Jenkins in The Christian Century: “How Quebec went from one of the most religious societies to one of the least.” In the 1950s, 90 percent of the population attended Mass. Today that percentage hovers around 4 percent. Inglehart would likely agree with Jenkins on some of the reasons the latter puts forward for this momentous shift: the confluence of cultural and political factors that were part of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” seeking independence from Canada, higher levels of education, and the spread of new media. But too, there was a shift by which the state “took over many of the functions claimed by the church.” People were more prosperous and open to new ideas, and the Catholic Church now seemed backwards and irrelevant to most, particularly its pro-nativity norms.

Inglehart’s research found that the social norms of wealthier countries in general are starkly different from what they were in 1945. This is especially noticeable with regard to fertility rates, which “have moved from the high of the baby boom era to falling below the replacement level in most developed countries.” He has this to say about the changing social norms:


“The World Values Survey and the European Values Survey have monitored norms concerning sexual behavior and gender equality in successive waves of surveys from 1981 to 2020. Although deep-seated norms limiting women’s roles and stigmatizing homosexuality have persisted from biblical times to the present, these surveys now show rapid changes from one wave to the next in developed countries, with growing acceptance of gender equality and of gays and lesbians and a rapid decline of religiosity” (47).


The evolutionary nature of Inglehart’s theory also ventures into theology. He avers that among traditional hunter-gatherers around the world, it is rare to find a belief in a creator God, but rather the belief that “local spirits inhabit and animate trees, rivers and mountains” – in other words, animism. This is actually misleading, because among many indigenous populations, from North America to Africa to the Aborigines of Australia, the belief in a high creator god is quite common, but he tends to be distant and therefore people turn to intermediaries, from lesser deities, to spirits of various sorts, and to ancestors. But be that as it may, his point that agrarian societies, which are dependent on rain and sun for abundant crops, also prayed to god(s) for protection from plagues of locusts and disease, is more plausible. So is this paragraph leading into more widespread ethical norms today:


“Changing concepts of God have continued to evolve since biblical times, from a fierce tribal God who required human sacrifice and demanded genocide against outsiders, to a benevolent God whose laws applied to everyone. Prevailing moral norms have changed gradually throughout history, but in recent decades the pace of change has accelerated. The decline of xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia is part of a long-term trend away from tribal norms that excluded most of humanity, toward universal moral norms in which formerly excluded groups, such as foreigners, women, and gays, have human rights” (48).


I’m certain Jews, Christians and Muslims, particularly those on the conservative end of the spectrum, would want to push back against such a generalization. But it would be equally difficult to argue with the facts supported by such rigorous and comprehensive (both in terms of longitudinal and geographical) research. These World Values Surveys from 1981 to the present provide Inglehart with nine “hypotheses to be tested” – and having read the book, I believe they stand up rather nicely (pp. 51-2):


    • The pro-fertility norms that evolved over time have mostly called for women to produce and raise as many children as possible and prohibit any sexual activity that would endanger this nativist mission of survival and are the “polar opposite” of the “individual-choice norms” that include “support for gender equality and tolerance for divorce and homosexuality. Countries today are found all along this spectrum, with a several on both ends.
    • “Pro-fertility norms are closely linked with religion.” They are “strongest in societies with strong religious beliefs; conversely, tolerance for gender equality, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality will be strongest in societies where religion is weakest.”
    • High religiosity, coupled with support for pro-fertility norms, correlate to “relatively insecure societies, especially those with high infant mortality rates, and weakest in relatively secure societies.”
    • There is “built-in tension” between pro-fertility norms that demand a high degree of self-control and individual-choice norms. Historically, societies weak in pro-fertility norms were societies that did not survive. “But in recent decades, a growing number of societies have attained high existential security, long life expectancy, and low infant mortality, making pro-fertility norms no longer necessary for societal survival – and opening the way for a shift from pro-fertility norms to individual-choice norms.”
    • Norms deeply anchored in a society’s culture are very slow to change in normal circumstances. Most changes come, and then incrementally, when a new generation takes over (change “through intergenerational replacement”). Any noticeable change, therefore, “reflects the level of existential security that prevailed during the pre-adult years of people who were born decades earlier.” That is why “the strongest predictor of a society’s level of support for new values among the adult population will not be its current level of life expectancy, infant mortality, and per capita GDP, but the levels that prevailed decades earlier.”
    • “Although intergenerational population replacement involves long time lags, cultural change can reach a tipping point at which new norms come to be seen as dominant. Social desirability affects then reverse polarity: instead of retarding the changes linked with intergenerational replacement, they accelerate them.” This kind of tipping point is occurring “in a growing number of settings, starting with the younger and more secure strata of high-income societies.”
    • “In societies where religion remains strong, little or no change in pro-fertility norms will take place.”
    • “In societies where religiosity is growing, we will find growing emphasis on pro-fertility norms and declining acceptance of individual-choice norms.”
    • “In societies where support for individual-choice norms is growing, we will find declining religiosity.”


The interesting variance amidst the general trend

Inglehart presents a series of graphs seeking to map the evolution of various countries along two axes (see the latest version above). As you can see, the horizontal axis goes from “survival” to “self-expression,” or from the pro-nativity norms on the left to the individual-choice norms on the right. The vertical axis moves up from “traditional values” to “secular values” on top. This is similar to the impact of the Enlightenment on Christian Europe starting in the 18th century.

What is fascinating here is that countries, by and large, fall into regional or religious groupings. I mentioned “Protestant Europe” (Nordic countries plus The Netherlands and Switzerland) and how as a group they have served as trend-setters since the late 1980s to the present: their standard of living and their top scores on the World Happiness Report (see this year’s). This score is based on “comprehensive Gallup polling data from 149 countries for the past three years,” and takes into account six categories: “gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make your own life choices, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.” Generosity here includes acceptance of foreigners and minorities, but this might not last. Inglehart’s ninth chapter, “At What Point Does Even Sweden Get a Xenophobic Party?”, begins with a look at the political backlash caused by Angela Merkel who in 2015 opened the doors of Germany to almost a million refugees, most of whom being Syrian Muslims.

Another discernible cluster regroups the “English-speaking” countries of Britain, the US, New Zealand and Australia, and in the latest version of the map (2017-2020), they are just below “Protestant Europe” (not as far on the secular-rational values end), and the US is behind its counterparts in terms of self-expression values. What is striking also, is that the “Confucian” cluster (China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong) are around the middle of the map but on top (high secular-rational values), with Japan farthest along the self-expression axis. These nations, explains Inglehart, have in common a Confucian-infused culture which was mostly secular to begin with, so while they have become less religious, they have relatively always been so.

As you might guess, Muslim countries are by far the most religious. The World Values Survey has enough data over ten years for ten of them. They “show the highest absolute levels of religiosity of any major cultural group … But they are not becoming more religious” (85). Another factor setting them apart is that “age-linked differences are very small in Muslim-majority countries.” Younger people are only slightly less religious than their elders. This provides strong support for his hypothesis 7: “In societies where religion remains strong, little or no change in pro-fertility norms will take place.” But let me add that though the average birthrate in Muslim nations is the highest (2.9 per woman – replacement rate is 2.1), it is “down from 4.3 in 1990–1995.”

I would also inject that future polling and research will show that religiosity is waning in many Muslim countries. The example of Turkey for which we have research is not unique.

Finally, as “the publics of most ex-communist countries [now labeled “Orthodox Europe”]j showed steeply rising support for religion from 1981 to 2007 and (although this then slowed down) are still considerably more religious than they were in 1981.” In conformity with hypothesis 8 above, “a majority of the ex-communist publics show rising support for pro-fertility norms over the long term." Russia has been particularly vocal about stigmatizing gays, for instance.


What is the take-away?

This impressively researched and crafted book documents in granular detail the global shift in values over the last few decades. Inglehart’s analysis of the causes truly provides an illuminating explanation for what we witness today. But is it the last word on the matter? No book can claim this. Inglehart throughout acknowledges that there are other factors at play and he quotes other scholars on this. But his contention is that growing security, the erosion of pro-nativity religious norms, and the pull of individual-choice or self-expression values are the primary causes for the precipitous drop in religiosity in most countries since 2007.

Certainly in the US, he avers, factors contributing to secularization must also include the religious right’s “embrace of xenophobic authoritarian politicians,” the scandal of the Roman Catholic Church’s failure to deal with its child abuse problem, and for millennials and Gen-Z’ers, the failure of most religious establishments to recognize the validity of people’s choices in their acceptance or even adoption of other religions, their sexual orientation, their use of abortion, and drugs.

Nevertheless, I finished this book and said to myself, “well, the story of religion in America isn’t finished, and especially that of Christianity.” American history and the figures behind Christianity’s breathtaking growth in the 19th and 20th centuries tell us there is more to religion than this. One of the textbooks I use for my Comparative Religion course is Boston University’s Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter. A New Times bestselling author, Prothero has nothing to prove religiously. After belonging for over a year to a Christian group as a college student (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), he left Christianity and religion behind because his questions were not getting answered. So, as he puts in this interview, he made it his profession to keep asking those questions.

I love Prothero’s chapter on Christianity. He calls the 19th century “the Evangelical century.” Building on historian David Bebbington’s four marks of evangelicalism (biblicism, crucicentrism or centrality of the cross, conversionism, and social activism). He then explains:


“In the early nineteenth century these characteristics coalesced into a movement. Thanks to great revivals in England and the United States, and to the heroic missionary efforts of Methodist circuit riders and Baptist farmer-preachers, Anglo-America was rapidly missionized, and evangelicalism became the dominant religious impulse in the Protestant world …

In the nineteenth century, Christianity made a similar advance among English speakers, expanding even more rapidly than it had in the first Christian centuries. In 1800, less than one-quarter of the world’s population was Christian. By 1900, that figure had jumped to more than one third (34 percent). The most extraordinary growth came in North America, which saw the total number of Christians jump tenfold between 1815 and 1915. In the process, the portion of Christians among the overall U.S. population expanded from about 25 percent to about 40 percent. In Canada, the advance of Christianity was even more dramatic – from roughly one-fifth of the overall population to roughly one-half” (84-85).


Meanwhile, that evangelical missionary fervor produced an explosion of church growth in Africa. Prothero puts it this way, “There is no way that Christianity can keep up the growth it posted in Africa in the twentieth century – from 9 million souls in 1900 to 355 in 2000 – but thanks to a combination of that old-time revivalism and old-fashioned population growth, Africa and Latin America alike should bypass Europe by 2025 in terms of professing Christians” (96). He adds that the percentage of Christians in South Korea went from 1 percent to 41 percent in that same period.

Here from the Encyclopedia Britannica is a short summary of the great religious revivals in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. If I take off my religious studies scholar’s hat and speak like the Christian that I am, I say that this is more than just cultural and socio-historical dynamics at play. I believe this is God sovereignly stirring up these populations at that time and calling people to himself. It has happened again and again in many different places around the world. From the 1906 Azusa St. revival in Los Angeles, the Pentecostal movement fanned out and exploded. Today there are more than 600 million Pentecostals (who usually also identify as “evangelicals”) in the world. That’s why Prothero calls last century “the Pentecostal century.” Why then, and why here and not there? Only God knows. But this could happen again in 21st-century USA, and it is happening elsewhere as I write.

Religion’s Sudden Decline is a great read, and I recommend it heartily. I would just caution the reader that there is always more to the story. And for people of faith, there is more going on here than that which meets the eye of a social scientist.

In the first half of this post, the economist delegated by the US to last year’s G7 meeting in Cornwall, Felicia Wong, told us that she and her colleagues from the other 6 nations have noticed a shift in economic thinking. Call it the Washington Consensus of the 1980s giving way to the Cornwall Consensus. Neoliberalism with its mantra of free trade, privatization and deregulation (business interests first) was judged and found wanting. The coronavirus pandemic had exposed the futility of a model that led to obscene inequality and healthcare systems that were woefully inadequate for such emergencies, and the American one clearly more so than other advanced economies.

How do humans flourish? The international consensus on this question today is summarized in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and as I tried to show, most of them cannot be reached without sustained, smartly targeted government investment. That is also what the “new economics” are saying. In order to achieve greater sustainable development on a global scale, we must prioritize common social goods above all. And they are all connected. Individual healthcare cannot be seen as detached from “environmental protections, affordable housing, living wages, and good public schools.” Science journalist Olivia Campbell quoted Sandro Galea, the dean of public health at Boston University, in her piece commenting on President Trump’s 2017 budget which called for reducing social welfare program funding by $272 billion:


“For the past 35 years, the U.S. has fallen further behind in health. This coincides with the Reagan policies of greater disinvestment in public good. We are now continuing along these lines — that’s what worries me.”


Trump’s healthcare policies followed the same reasoning that led to President Reagan’s drastic cuts to the programs initiated by President Johnson in the 1960s in order to create the “Great Society”: Medicare, Medicaid, substantial improvements to welfare, the National Endowment for the Arts, the national Endowment for the humanities, consumer protection measures, and a long list of environmental measures, including the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), and the Endangered Species Act (1966).

How did Reagan’s far-reaching cuts to these social programs affect Americans, asks Campbell?


“A million children lost reduced-price school lunches, 600,000 people lost Medicaid, and a million lost food stamps. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could only serve a third of those eligible. WIC provides low-income pregnant women and children with formula and healthy food staples. Nearly 500,000 lost eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (a less-stringent precursor to TANF). This caused a two-percent increase in the total poverty rate, and the number of children in poverty rose nearly three percent.”


As mentioned above, healthcare is affected by a host of other public policy domains. Campbell quotes Sandro Galea again: “although the public discourse around health focuses on medicine and health care, social, economic, cultural, and structural conditions have a far greater impact on overall health.”


Have we been bamboozled along the way?

Amy Laura Hall, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, wrote an OpEd piece for Religion News Service last week, entitled, “The ‘thousand points of light’ switcheroo: how conservatives made social welfare the province of private faith.” None of the recent Supreme Court decisions surprised her, she says, but she was taken off guard by how quickly and suddenly they had come. Women, in particular, were left “breathless.” In her words,


“The justices legitimated public funding for religious schools; relegated complaints about coercive public prayer to the churlish fringe; and tossed out half a century of rulings that keep old men from dictating how we use our private parts.”


But this chipping away at the dividing barrier between church and state has been going on for decades, she adds. Significantly, however, it’s not so much “pro-religion” as it is “anti-government spending on social services.” It was President George H.W. Bush who launched the euphemistic slogan “a thousand points of light” as a way to encourage faith leaders to step up and serve their communities in any way they could. President Clinton continued this trend, and it was President George W. Bush who formally set up the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, calling himself a “compassionate conservative.” But all of this was simply a more palatable way to cut government spending by urging religious leaders to help fill the gap in meeting the needs of the poor. It was an exercise in branding, and it very much lined up with the overall Washington Consensus about shrinking government and give wider berth to corporations.

Still, people of faith with a more liberal bent also fretted that Christian spirituality and values were becoming irrelevant in a society awash in secularism. She notes that the Lilly Foundation has funded research that seeks to connect human thriving with “community” and “faith.” Other major donors have supported a program in which she participated, “Project on Lived Theology,” at the University of Virginia. I also know first-hand that major funding has made possible a robust program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, where theologian Miroslav Volf remains the founding director (2003).

Yet these programs and the many wonderful charitable projects run by churches, synagogues and mosques around the country have made little progress in reducing the exorbitant rate of economic inequality and general indicators of dire poverty in this country. Hall leaves us with something important to think about in her conclusion:


“The whole shift from public to private, from material to spiritual, may appear not only normal, but part of a morally good, grand adventure.

In fact, it has been part of a grand strategy aimed at undoing the government’s involvement in what was once known as the Great Society. And it worked.”


Sadly, that strategy has also served to mask the real costs of structural racism. Why is it that, “According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers” (see here for more details)? So many indicators put the U.S. behind other high-income nations. That is why I am proposing to look at the SDGs – goals meant to enable poorer nations to catch up with richer ones and increase human flourishing all over the world.


Why democracy and sustainable development must go together

I promised I would bring up the topic of democracy in this second half. That word is absent from the 2015-2030 SDGs and their subgoals, or targets. But as I have been arguing so far, few, or perhaps none, of these goals can be accomplished without robust government intervention – yes, alongside business leaders and civil society. But what kind of government? Think about it: China and Russia and a host of other autocratic or autocratic-leaning states have signed on to these SDGs. The UN’s objective is always to “unite nations” around goals of peace and justice everywhere in the world, after all. So the UN’s job is always a delicate balancing act.

A British think tank started in 1983 as a foundation advocating environmental activism (“Environmental Foundation”). It was so successful (besides garnering the Queen’s Award for Industry and the EU’s Better Environmental Award) that it received funding for a series of high-level consultations at St. George’s House in the grounds of Windsor Castle in the 1990s and up to 2006. The result was an enlarged focus on “the challenges of sustainability in rapidly developing countries such as India and China.” By 2009, the foundation was renamed the “Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD).

Not surprisingly, FDSD turned its attention to the SDGs. Had the UN betrayed that necessary connection between democracy and sustainable development? Not at all, we read on a page devoted to this question. Besides expanding the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015), the SDGs “include universal goals of addressing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting environmental resources.” Further on we read,


“The Goals, particularly through SDG 16, tackle another omission of the MDGs, that of governance, inclusion, participation, rights and security. The Goal’s aim is to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.


Each of the SDGs has targets, or subgoals, if you will – usually between 10 and 20. SDG 16 has twelve. These two are particularly relevant to the democracy/sustainable development issue:


16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels


The most granular level of making sure each SDG is accomplished is that of “indicators.” For SDG 16, each of the twelve targets has two indicators. One of these for 16.6 clearly reaches for a democratic structure, while both of those for 16.7 make crystal clear that transparency and inclusion for all in decision-making is essential:


Indicator 16.6.2: Proportion of population satisfied with their last experience of public services

Indicator 16.7.1: Proportions of positions in national and local institutions, including (a) the legislatures; (b) the public service; and (c) the judiciary, compared to national distributions, by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups

Indicator 16.7.2: Proportion of population who believe decision-making is inclusive and responsive, by sex, age, disability and population group


A democratic system is one in which its institutions and the mechanisms that keep them functioning (including voting, which isn’t spelled out here) are actually considered “inclusive and responsive,” and one in which those serving in the legislatures, public service, and the judiciary, reflect the population as a whole (“by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups”). No wonder that in a world in which many countries are becoming more autocratic, this SDG is seen as most “highly controversial.”


When democracy is slowly slipping away

So much more on this could be said, naturally. But I want to illustrate this with some thoughts on the situation in my country in this election year. I was listening to National Public Radio (also started in the 1960s!) in the car yesterday. It was the show “Here and Now” and Robin Young, the journalist, was interviewing Tom Verdin, the “first ever democracy editor” for The Associated Press. I don’t know about the New York Times, but they mentioned that the Washington Post now has seven journalists whose only assignment is to cover issues of democracy in the US. This is a brand-new development in the last two to three years, for reasons you might guess.

Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington are all holding primary elections today. Fifteen other states will follow between now and early November. Many candidates for the Republican Party, including those for governor or top election official in the state are running on the platform that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Some are even saying that if elected, they will annul the results of 2020 electoral races they deem were falsified. Add that fact to the violent storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the slate of laws passed by nineteen states in 2021 to restrict people’s voting in one way or another, and you can see why American allies are worried that the US is beginning to lose its democracy.

Robin Young near the end of the audio clip asks Tom Verdin what he is most worried about in this erosion of democracy. He answers,


“I think the fire hose of disinformation. If you have a country where people cannot agree on the same set of facts, essentially you’re living in two separate worlds. They can’t trust – or won’t trust – the institutions; they won’t trust the vote; they won’t trust the outcome of elections. And a lot of that mistrust is not based on any facts or any evidence. That’s worrisome. It’s very difficult to hold together a democracy in a society where people don’t have trust in each other, don’t have trust in institutions, and are being bombarded with misinformation.”


Target 10 of SDG 16 touches on this: “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” This is partially about transparency in the way government institutions operate – which of course is essential. But it's much more than that. The UN explains that this target has four components: press freedom, transparency, safety of journalists (over 800 have been killed while doing their jobs in the last decade), and right to privacy (see the one-minute video on this). This amounts to a bold statement that without a democratic system of governance, several important components of sustainable development will be scuttled.

Regarding the worrisome polarization of the American population these days, I recommend this recent column by Paul Krugman, “The Dystopian Myths of Red America.” We know that increasingly as a nation we have become politically divided into two parallel universes, as Tom Verdin was saying above. Krugman mentions Dave Weigel of The Washington Post reporting on political campaigns around the country: “many Republican candidates are claiming that Democrats are deliberately undermining the nation and promoting violence against their opponents; some are even claiming that we’re already in a civil war.”

There is also the widely held belief that “a lax attitude toward law enforcement has turned America’s big cities into dangerous hellholes.” Yet this has no basis in fact, despite a rise in crime in 2020, though it was about the same in the cities as it was in rural areas:


“In New York City, homicides so far this year are running a bit below their 2021 level, and in 2021 they were 78 percent lower than they were in 1990 and a quarter lower than they were in 2001. As Bloomberg’s Justin Fox has documented, New York is actually a lot safer than small-town America. Los Angeles has also seen a big long-term drop in homicides, as has California as a whole. Some cities, notably Philadelphia and Chicago, are back to or above early 1990s murder rates, but they’re not representative of the broader picture.”


Last words

I admit that it’s hard to be optimistic about our American democracy at the moment. I agree with Krugman that since “a large segment of the U.S. electorate has bought into an apocalyptic vision of America that bears no relationship to the reality of how the other half thinks, behaves or lives,” and since armed militias like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are recruiting and arming themselves at will (left-wing militias exist, but they're fewer and smaller), some amount of violence is inescapable. We can only pray that enough leaders on both sides can to come together, truly work for the common good, and then recommit to the institutions that have kept this republic together for two and a half centuries.

At the same time, I find much comfort in the work of global governance spearheaded by the UN, many NGOs, and many multilateral organizations like the G7 and the G20, the World Bank, the EU or the African Union. I have been reading a book co-edited by two scholars, a Canadian (John J. Kirton) and a Russian (Marina Larionova), entitled, Accountability for Effectiveness in Global Governance (Routledge, 2017). John Kirton is “a professor of political science and the Co-director of the G20 Research Group, the Global Health Diplomacy Program and the BRICS Research Group, and Director of the G7 Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto” (please listen to his 9-minute clip on YouTube, from which the picture above is taken). As part of my research for this book, I interviewed him on Zoom a couple of weeks ago. I had heard he was a practicing Anglican and I wasn’t disappointed. He had just come back from the G7 meeting this year, which was hosted by Germany. When I asked him what was becoming of his close relationship with many Russian scholars (about a third of authors in this book were Russian), he answered,


“They’re fine. Of course, with the war in Ukraine they have to be careful, but look, we cannot solve this world’s problems unless we all work together. The war with Ukraine will be over at some point. We need the Russians to solve the climate crisis. We also need the Russians’ cooperation in order to manage the Arctic region that is melting so fast.”


Human flourishing, as rightly defined by the 2015-2030 SDGs, in the end is determined by political leaders working together with all other stakeholders both locally and globally. My book is seeking to encourage Christians, and people of faith in general, to get involved in global governance. Much more of this to come . . .

This is the fourth review of my 2020 book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love. The reviewer is Joshua Canzona, who teaches at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. The journal in which it appears (Interreligious Studies and Intercultural Theology) is related to my publisher, Equinox Publishing in Sheffield, UK. That issue came out in February 2021, about when the other three were published. Of all the reviews, this one emphasizes the most the case study approach I used and notes that it goes a long way in avoiding any temptation on the part of the reader to "essentialize" either Islam or Christianity (meaning, to paint either faith with a wide brush). There is so much diversity of schools and currents in both of these top two world religions! Generalizing is a pitfall that can lead to a lot more tensions between followers of both faiths.

Canzona also welcomes the contribution of this book in our present, often polarized, context, and widely recommends its reading: "In its clarity and emphasis on real-world implications, this volume will be useful to a wide audience of students, scholars, practitioners, and interested readers generally." That said, I wrote it as a textbook I wanted to use personally, and I hope that many colleagues will do the same, whether at the undergraduate or graduate levels. Still, if you exclude the sometimes technical legal/hermeneutical details of Chapter 5 relative to Yusuf al-Qaradawi's work, this is a book most people could easily pick up and read.

This two-part post/essay is my way of introducing (and articulating for myself) one of the main themes of my present book project – human flourishing as defined by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030). These 17 goals are breathtakingly comprehensive (see my 2018 post “Ending Hunger” on this). They range from those more traditional development goals like poverty and hunger eradication, improved healthcare and education, job creation and economic growth to more specific ones like “clean water and sanitation,” “affordable and clean energy,” “sustainable cities and communities,” “responsible consumption and production,” “life below water,” and “life on land.” But even beyond this, some of these goals target good governance, both within states and between states in the international arena. In the following bullets, I’ll quote some of the wording of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for the SDGs that require some form of government intervention:


    • Goal 5 - Gender equality: research in the last few decades has demonstrated that the best way to promote development is to empower women. Among other things, this entails giving “women equal rights [to] land and property, sexual and reproductive health, and to technology and the internet.” The section ends with the hopeful sign that more women are in public office, but much more remains to be done in that area.
    • Goal 9 - Industry, innovation and infrastructure: with still 90 percent of the developing world without access to the internet, states will have to invest a lot more in this kind of infrastructure. Additionally, “Technological progress is also key to finding lasting solutions to both economic and environmental challenges, such as providing new jobs and promoting energy efficiency. Promoting sustainable industries, and investing in scientific research and innovation, are all important ways to facilitate sustainable development.”
    • Goal 10 - Reduced inequalities: income inequality has increased everywhere, but it’s lowest in Europe and highest in the Middle East. Political action is needed within nations: “These widening disparities require sound policies to empower lower income earners, and promote economic inclusion of all regardless of sex, race or ethnicity.” And political action is needed on a global scale: “This involves improving the regulation and monitoring of financial markets and institutions, encouraging development assistance and foreign direct investment to regions where the need is greatest. Facilitating the safe migration and mobility of people is also key to bridging the widening divide.”
    • Goal 13 - Climate action: here again governance is key, with political leaders pushing back against the fossil fuel industry, setting bold goals for developing clean energy and finding ways to subsidize this transition in developing nations.
    • Goal 16 - Peace, justice and strong institutions: on a global scale, this is obviously just as necessary for human flourishing as it is difficult to actually achieve. Arguably, the UN, as a more neutral arbiter, has a better chance of achieving peace, and partly because it was designed to work on this in a comprehensive way: “The SDGs aim to significantly reduce all forms of violence, and work with governments and communities to end conflict and insecurity. Promoting the rule of law and human rights are key to this process, as is reducing the flow of illicit arms and strengthening the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance.”
    • Goal 17 - Partnerships for the goals: in my reading about international relations these days, I see the US leveraging its economic and military hegemony to further its national interests, sometimes in line with its stated ideals of extending the “international liberal order” (human rights, democracy, rule of law, etc.), and many times in contravention of these ideals (like when it sides with dictators like Egypt’s Sisi, or the Saudi crown prince MbS, while turning a blind eye to the continuing war in Yemen; or its tacit support of Israel’s ongoing and illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, etc.). On the other side, China and Russia are the two powers, which in different ways oppose this US hegemony and pursue their own expansionist policies in opposition to “the liberal order.” In light of all this, this last SDG makes perfect sense: it’s the United Nations saying it needs more support, both in funding and in cooperation, in its work to achieve these development goals: working to make international trade fairer, “promoting investment for the least developed,” enhancing “North-South and South-South cooperation in order to achieve all the targets.” I believe the UN does have a crucial role to play, today perhaps more than ever.


With these goals in mind, I will look at two related issues in this first installment. The first is about the “new economics” in the title, based on a November 2021 piece in Foreign Affairs by Felicia Wong, who is president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Then I point out some obvious parallels between the “new economics” and the SDGs.


What are “the new economics”?

In her piece, “The New Economics,” Felicia Wong describes this new convergence of economic thinking as the Cornwall consensus that could potentially replace the Washington consensus of the 1980s.

Let me unpack that statement. Felicia Wong was chosen as the economist representing the United States to join representatives of the other six G7 nations (UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and Italy) to draw up a report on “Global Economic Resilience” and thereby offer a series of proposals to the leaders assembling in Cornwall for the June 2021 G7 Summit. The UK, by virtue of holding the rotating presidency that year, indicated that on its agenda was “building back better” from the Covid-19 crisis, promoting “inclusive growth,” “supporting the transition to net zero carbon and supporting resilience to climate change and other environmental challenges.” Felicia Wong and her six co-authors of that report were rewarded by their reports enthusiastic reception at the Cornwall summit. She calls it the “Cornwall consensus.”

By contrast, the Washington consensus (see here the Encyclopedia Britannica article on this) refers to a set of common policies that in particular the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the US treasury adopted in the 1980s in order to manage the debt of developing nations, while helping them to “develop” economically. This was called the “neoliberal” approach, and it was the model adopted by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in their respective economies as well. Its three pillars were free trade, privatization, and deregulation. By prioritizing multinational corporations over workers, corporate profits over protection of the environment, economic neoliberalism exacerbated the gap between rich and poor globally (see my treatment of these issues in an excerpt from the first chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, pp. 1-13). An easy way to summarize the neoliberal approach is the adage: “A rising tide lifts all boats” – which might work for tides and boats, but much less for the poor when tax cuts and deregulation are seen as the panacea for growing the economy.

In the US, it wasn’t just Republicans who held on to these ideas, but Democrats as well, particularly in the area of trade: “international policymakers privileged trade openness and volume above all, seeking to deregulate markets and support the market-oriented rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).” President Obama, in his effort to “pivot toward Asia,” promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (TPP), which later presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed she no longer supported because it had caused too many businesses to either move to countries where labor was cheaper or simply shut down, as cheaper products were now flooding the American market. These were some of the issues candidate Trump was able to exploit on his way to the White House. Though his policies mostly did not help the working class, his turning US trade policies upside down did open the way for a fresh look at trade. Here is how Felicia Wong puts it:


“Trump’s victory and his administration’s hostility to trade deals broke the long-standing bipartisan consensus on trade, and the lesson was not lost on Biden. The new administration, although it has departed from many Trump-era policies, has continued to move away from trade expansion itself as a primary goal of economic policy. Biden’s economic advisers have made clear that the United States will not pursue the TPP or any other trade agreement, for that matter, until Congress passes major new domestic spending legislation and international negotiators rewrite trade rules to include protections for workers and the environment.”


The last G7 common statement had been in 2016, before the Trump presidency. It was all about breaking down trade barriers between countries (i.e., against “protectionism”) and a good deal of hemming and hawing about climate change. The Cornwall declaration was completely different in tone and content, and it wasn’t just the pandemic that played into it. Wong writes that it offered a different conceptual framework altogether. Here are the main points:


    • “Unrestricted international commerce” is no longer an objective. Put otherwise, “trade liberalization should no longer be seen as an end in itself.” Research has shown that past trade agreements have mostly hurt workers across the board. Rather, governments should seek to build regulations into their trade agreements that achieve more sustainable production. She gives an example: “the United States and the EU recently announced plans for the Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum, which will keep dirty metals out of their markets and produce common ways to measure the embedded emissions in these industries. Notably, the agreement makes no reference to WTO rules or processes. Rather, the two trading giants staked out a common vision and invited the rest of the world to join them. Japan and the United Kingdom reportedly are inclined to do just that.” Sustainability would also include lowering prices on medicines so that pandemics can be fought more effectively on a global scale. The same can be said about environmental sustainability.
    • The Cornwall consensus calls on governments to invest more heavily in “high-quality future growth,” like “supporting the energy transition, including public transportation infrastructure; high-quality education and training; and climate-focused research and development.” Instead of a focus on “immediate consumption,” states should increase the proportion of their budgets on this kind of public spending. The Washington consensus was always looking for ways to cut government spending, but economists see a direct causal line between those austerity measures and the breakdown of the supply chains that have sparked the current global inflationary crisis – exacerbated, no doubt, by the fallout of the pandemic.
    • Governments should also invest in new technologies that will allow industries to reduce their carbon emissions more rapidly. By helping to fund this kind of research and the launching of promising new technology, governments can not only speed up the needed technological innovation; they can “can work with communities in and around the new industrial facilities to ensure that they share in the gains.” Reducing inequality is a win-win for everybody, which leads to the last point.
    • The Cornwall approach calls for drastically overhauling “how top earners and corporations are taxed and regulated.” For too long, the superrich have had far too much influence on economic policy and, as a result, have found ways to almost completely avoid paying taxes. The same goes for quasi-monopolies like Amazon and Facebook, and European regulators have done a better job than American ones so far in holding them accountable. One of the economists that wrote this report, Thomas Philippon, “has found that decreased competition in many industries now costs the typical U.S. household more than $5,000 a year. This is at a time when nearly 40 percent of households struggle to pay for an unexpected $400 expense.”


A very encouraging development in October 2021 was when at the invitation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 126 countries came together to discuss the taxing of multinational corporations. An article on this gathering explain the backdrop:


“With budgets strained after the COVID-19 crisis, many governments want more than ever to discourage multinationals from shifting profits - and tax revenues - to low-tax countries regardless of where their sales are made.

Increasingly, income from intangible sources such as drug patents, software and royalties on intellectual property has migrated to these jurisdictions, allowing companies to avoid paying higher taxes in their traditional home countries.

The global minimum tax rate and other provisions aim to put an end to decades of tax competition between governments to attract foreign investment.”


The Biden administration wants to sign on to this, but so far, the relevant provision which is part of his “Build-Back-Better” bill is opposed by Republicans in Congress. What is ironic is that, as the Pandora Papers have demonstrated, “at least five U.S. states have become major offshore havens for international wealth, shielding the assets of national and global elites from public scrutiny and financial accountability.” Then Wong adds, “Biden, who spent 36 years as a senator from one such haven, Delaware, could take a strong stand by ending the practice.”


The challenges in applying this new economics

Felicia Wong isn’t naïve. Such policy changes threaten a myriad of entrenched corporate and private interests:


“In the United States and many other countries, the elements of a robust new political economic agenda are in place. Yet translating the new approach into new rules will require confronting the vestiges of corporate capture, when large private sector interests gain sway over government policy, a phenomenon that just in the last few months has impeded ambitious efforts to keep the cost of medicines down. In the United States, powerful interests in Washington have resisted the Biden administration’s effort to enable Medicare to negotiate drug prices to make them more affordable, and the German government has opposed relaxing WTO intellectual property rules to facilitate global vaccine access.”


What this means is that citizens who want to empower workers – or, level the playing field for disadvantaged classes, disproportionately black and brown – and factor climate change mitigation into the drive for economic growth, will have to become more active in local politics and do better in getting out the vote every two years in state and federal elections (see my two-part blog post on Heather McGee’s excellent book, The Sum of Us All). But, as Wong notes, another great obstacle for this truly democratic process to expand and make our economy more robust, resilient and fair for all, is the rise of populism. One of the “significant obstacles to putting the new ideas into practice” is “the threat of right-wing populism in the United States and elsewhere.” She explains:


“[This brand of populism] seeks to provide its own, inward-turning and often nativist alternative to the status quo. The appeal of a more nihilistic, less racially and religiously inclusive populism has only grown in the last five years and has gained ground in major political parties in many countries.”


In the American setting, this is what I was describing in my post about white supremacy. If you have been following the current hearings expertly researched and put together by the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, you have been given a front-row seat with a chilling view into what this kind of nationalist populism can lead to. An FBI mole planted among the Proud Boys, the most influential of the right-wing groups that led the assault on the Capitol, testified to the committee that they had every intention of killing Vice-President Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi that day. The vice president was whisked away just in time to a secure location in the basement of the Capitol for over four hours, just 40 feet from the rioters. The riot could have ended much worse that day.


The new economics and the SDGs

Though without stating it directly, Wong infers that the new economics’ emphasis on “an inclusive economic vision” is likely influenced by and certainly parallel to the UN’s SDGs. The question at the heart of this new direction is a simple one: how can we build economic growth that empowers the working class and the poor more generally, and how can it be tailored to mitigate the worst-case scenarios of our changing climate, both now and for the next generations? How can we foster an economy that will in fact remain resilient in the face of all these challenges? The answer is that governments will have to take a more energetic and pro-active role in guiding nations toward achieving these goals, while working in tandem with civil-society NGOs and business partners.

In the next installment, I want to focus more on the role democracy plays in human flourishing. The SDGs are very explicit about that as well.

Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old shooter who killed ten people in Buffalo last weekend, posted a 180-page manifesto two days before. In it, he said he would target the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, because Blacks seek to “ethnically replace my own people.” The code word here is “replace,” and refers to the “great replacement theory,” which targets equally Black and Brown peoples, immigrants and natives, Muslims, and especially Jews, who allegedly are behind an international conspiracy to whittle down and disempower the white race through immigration and lower birthrates.

In a New York Times Op-Ed this week, historian Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, explains it in a nutshell:


“The great replacement is the latest incarnation of an old idea: the belief that elites are attempting to destroy the white race by overwhelming it with nonwhite groups and thinning them out with interbreeding until white people no longer exist. This idea is not, at its core, about any single threat, be it immigrants or people of color, but rather about the white race that it purports to protect.”


This fear is the central theme of the wildly famous Tucker Carlson Show on Fox News and it has been picked up in many Republican circles – most famously in a series of Facebook ads in September 2021 by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. One version reads,


“Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION. Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”


Though Stefanik has tried to distance herself from these statements in the wake of the Buffalo shootings, there is no denying that this is a common sentiment among former President Trump’s base. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WYO), one of two lone Republicans on the Select Committee investigating the attack on the US Capitol (Jan. 6, 2021), boldly tweeted on Monday morning after the shooting: “The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. @GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”

Belew explains some of the interconnected political themes touching on this white supremacist anxiety:


“This belief transforms social issues into direct threats: Immigration is a problem because immigrants will outbreed the white population. Abortion is a problem because white babies will be aborted. L.G.B.T.Q. rights and feminism will take women from the home and decrease the white birthrate. Integration, intermarriage and even the presence of Black people distant from a white community — an issue apparently of keen interest in the Buffalo attack — are seen as a threat to the white birthrate through the threat of miscegenation.”


University of Oklahoma professor of sociology and religious studies Samuel Perry has also specialized in White Nationalism. He explains that the fear that because white people aren’t fertile enough, it is “everybody’s responsibility to outbreed the negative elements we don’t want in our society.” This belief is at the core of many authoritarian movements that go back to Nazi Germany, and “It’s wrapped up in ethno-cultural outsiders: immigrants, Jews and Muslims. They are a threat to white hegemony.”

Perry notes that after some years of silence, the ideology resurfaced in the manifestos of Anders Breivik (who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011) and Brenton H. Tarrant (who killed 51 people in two New Zealand mosques). The latter warned of an impending “white genocide.” Twenty percent of Gendron’s manifesto is said to be plagiarized from Tarrant’s text. Gendron also praised Dylann Roof, who killed nine African Americans after spending some time with them in Bible study. He “fought for me and had the same goals I did,” wrote the Buffalo shooter. It’s impossible not to connect the dots.

With regard to Jews, they “are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had,” Gendron’s manifesto reads. “They must be called out and killed, if they are lucky they will be exiled. We cannot show any sympathy towards them again.” This is not so far-fetched. After Robert Bowers gunned down eleven worshippers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, he admitted that one of the reasons was that they welcome immigrant “invaders” into the US.

White nationalism is not just an American phenomenon, reminds us Professor Belew, at least with regard to the immigrant component of this deep-seated fear. It first made its appearance in a 1973 in a dystopian futurist French novel, The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail (1925-2020). In this future vision, Europe is overwhelmed with immigrants from the Third World, as the Pope and the World Council of Churches, in concert with the liberal media and political elites, fan the flames of white guilt. As one enthusiastic reader from 2017 comments on the book’s Amazon page, “Horror comes at the end of the book as a motley group of 20 or so whites who are still defending the south coast of France are killed in a bombing raid by the new multi-racial government.” They defended themselves valiantly against the hordes of Barbarians, but Western civilization had lost the will to resist and the white race was driven to the edge of extinction. By contrast, another reader who hated Raspail’s book said these immigrants were “only portrayed as a dehumanized plague.” Clearly, to describe immigrants as vermin is likely the only way to craft an authentic horror novel. The obvious message is that these people are less than human – and they’re coming after us!

Raspail wrote over forty books, but this was his most famous one; and it caught the attention of a younger French writer, Renaud Camus (b. 1946). Also a prolific writer, Camus won several literary prizes in France as a gay poet and novelist. But starting in the mid-1990s, while writing a book on some of the villages in the Occitanie region of southern France (he still lives in a castle he bought there, built in 1340), he had an epiphany. Immigrants from North Africa and beyond were changing the populations of many of those villages. That’s when the “great replacement theory” came to him. His book, Le Grand Remplacement (“The Great Replacement”) only came out in 2011 and was never translated into English. Yet its impact has been felt on several continents. The Nation published an article on Camus in 2019 under that title, “How Gay Icon Renaud Camus Became the Ideologue of White Supremacy.” Credit for his great replacement theory appears in the manifestos of the last three white nationalist shootings: the Australian Brenton Tarrant (Christchurch mosques shootings); Patrick Crusius (El Paso Walmart shooting, killing 22 people); and Payton Gendron.


“The Year 2021 in Hate and Extremism”

The best organization tracking hate groups and violent militia is the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their 2021 report on far-right extremism is a meticulously researched and nicely illustrated 64-page magazine (“The Year in Hate and Extremism 2021”). The main article (bearing the title of the magazine, pp. 2-17), written by Cassie Miller and Rachel Carroll Rivas, begins by noting that the storming of the US capitol in January 2021 proves “that extremist leaders can mobilize large groups of Americans to use force and intimidation to impose their political will” and that these groups have “coalesced into a political movement that is now one of the most powerful forces shaping politics in the United States.” Then follows a summary of what they intend to communicate in this piece:


“In the year since the insurrection, this hard-right movement – made of hate and extremist groups, Trump loyalists, right-wing think-tanks, media organizations and committed activists with institutional power – has worked feverishly to undermine democracy, with real-world consequences for the people and groups they target. Within the GOP, a radical faction is attempting to rout the few remaining moderates unless there is a robust counter-effort from democracy supporters.”


At the heart of this anti-democratic campaign is the ”big lie,” that is, that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump. It’s part of the platform all of the candidates he endorsed for this week’s midterm elections enthusiastically and vocally supported. But the authors point out that a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that Republicans voters “are drifting toward a greater acceptance of political violence.” This research shows that almost a third of Republicans, and 39 percent of those who claim the 2020 election was rigged, believe that “true American patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country” (8).

One illustration of this is the acquittal of young Kyle Rittenhouse who shot and killed two protesters and maimed a third at the protests following the police killing of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The jury found that Rittenhouse had solely acted on self-defense. Upon hearing the verdict, Rep. Thomas Massie tweeted, “There is hope for this country.” From then on, he was feted as a hero in these circles:


“Others have made a show of vying to hire Rittenhouse as their intern, while the right-wing campus organization Turning Point USA treated him like a celebrity at their America Fest 2021 event. In a bizarre carnival-like atmosphere, Rittenhouse received a standing ovation as he strolled onstage for a panel discussion accompanied by pyrotechnics and his own theme song” (8).


Though the number of hate groups diminished from 2018 to 2021 (1,020 to 733) – the same for antigovernment groups (from 1360 in 2012 to 488 in 2021), you can see this multi-pronged movement strengthening as you peruse the next sections of the article: “Proud Boys membership spikes,” “White nationalist and neo-Nazi groups continue to adapt,” “The Antigovernment Movement takes a hit, but gets back up bruised and battered,” “Mainstream hate reorients without the White House in its pocket.” Miller and Rivas put it this way, “In the wake of [Jan. 6], the hard-right is reorganizing, re-strategizing and planning to emerge stronger” (16).


Antigovernment groups and hate groups

Under hate groups (total 488), the largest category is “general” (266), but three in particular bear mention. First, the 92 militia are obsessed with FTXs (field training exercises), guns and military-like uniforms, and “maintain internal hierarchical command structures” (56). Second, the 75 sovereign citizen groups claim “they are not under the jurisdiction of the federal government” and need not obey US laws. They buy into a variety of conspiracy theories. In fact, their rise in numbers lately “was largely due to their participation in the QAnon movement, which has cross-pollinated with sovereign and other conspiracy theories” (58). They can be violent, as it was reported on national news: “On July 3, sovereign group Rise of the Moors had an armed standoff with Massachussetts police on their way to Maine for training. Group members did not have firearm or vehicle licenses. The standoff shut down I-95 highway.” Arrested and charged, the group is suing the Massachussetts State Police and several media outlets for $70 million, requesting their case be litigated in some international arena.

Third, the 52 million conspiracy propagandist groups typically resort to theories that “include ideas about door-to-door gun confiscations, martial law, supposed takeover of the U.S. by the ‘New World Order’ and demonization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)” (59). During the pandemic, many of these groups were claiming that mask and vaccine mandates were infringements on citizens’ constitutional liberties. As most groups on the far-right have turned to “alt-tech” platforms such as Bitchute, Odyssee, Gab, and the new start-up Chthonic Software, they can peddle their ideas free of any kind of censorship.

Finally, among the hate groups, besides the largest category (“general hate,” 295 groups), one should note the largest, the White Nationalist category (98 groups), then the Anti-LGBTQ one (65), closely followed by the Antisemitic one (61). Not far behind, we find the Neo-Nazi groups (54) and the anti-Muslim ones (50). The Klu Klux Klan at 18 is tied with the Anti-Immigrant groups.

Here we come full circle to the anxieties that haunt all these groups. The antigovernment animus is closely related to that of a variety of hate groups, and all share to some extent the fear that the country is changing. America is fast becoming more diverse, as the 2020 Census showed in dramatic fashion. Only 58% self-identify as “White non-Hispanic” (63.5% in 2010); it was the only demographic that shrunk (about 5 million less). Notably, “white Americans now comprise less than half of the nation’s under-age-18 population.” This old fear that white American Christian identity is threatened likely represents the greatest common denominator in all these right-wing extremist groups.


Hopeful signs

It looks like Donald Trump’s endorsements were followed closely in Republican primary voting, and particularly here in Pennsylvania. Doug Mastriano, with Trump’s backing, won the Republican nomination for the governor’s race. Yet few believe a candidate who openly supported the effort to overturn the 2020 election of Joe Biden could win this race against a relatively popular Democratic candidate (Josh Shapiro) who won his party’s candidacy from the start. The same could be said for many other places. But there could be surprises, naturally.

What is more important is that we can see plenty of people and groups coming together, like the grassroots community group BTV Clean Up Crew formed in July 2019 in Burlington, Vermont. Their mission is to build community, help all their neighbors feel loved and welcomed, and specifically to “confront hate and extremism” by removing bigoted flyers, stickers, and posters by hate groups in their area. In Burlington, it’s the white nationalist group Patriot Front that got them started. Since their interventions, the number of hate incidents has gone down. They have found ways to use the cleaned-up material to crowdsource donations on Facebook and thereby support local organizations such as Outright Vermont, Migrant Justice, and Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington.

Another community coalition building effort that this SPLC issue highlights is an initiative by the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS). They are spearheading a campaign to welcome Afghan refugees. As of Dec. 31, 2021, only 52,000 of the 75,000 brought into the US had been resettled. Though the overall effort received bipartisan support in Congress, there has been a good deal of local pushback in many places. This campaign, dubbed AMEN (American Muslim Empowerment Network) seeks “to get ahead of the hate.” In the words of executive director Aneelah Afzali, “We’re likely going to see, and we’ve already seen, a spike in xenophobia and Islamophobia with a number of new Brown Muslims arriving in different parts of the state. So, what we created are these welcome signs that just say we welcome our Afghan neighbors.” Afzali has joined with Washington state’s governor Jay Islee, community leaders and corporate partners to welcome arriving Afghan refugees (October 2021, see above photo) and “is also partnering with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services to provide support to refugees” (30).


White Anxiety and Jesus, the Jew

Jesus was no white European male. He was a Middle Eastern Semite, born in a Jewish village of Galilee in Roman Palestine. In today’s parlance, he was “brown.” Pilate, the Roman governor, found a passive-aggressive way of spiting the Jewish leaders that cornered him into condemning an innocent man. He put up a sign over Jesus’s cross that read, “King of the Jews.”

Jesus consistently welcomed the poor, the lepers, women; and he even gathered the children around him once and said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matthew 19:14). Among other qualities, children don’t naturally hate others. They’re innocent until they’re taught to do so. They’re also extremely vulnerable. Anybody who abuses a child, Jesus said, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied to his neck. The same applies to the powerless and marginalized in our society.

The Apostle Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Galatians that the predominantly Jewish church needs to welcome the recent believers from other populations – the “Gentiles” who were mostly polytheists before embracing Jesus as their Redeemer and Lord. Don’t require them to be circumcised or to follow the Jewish laws, Paul writes. In fact, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

One of my favorite Bible passages is at the very end. In Revelation 21, we hear the Apostle John recounting his vision of the “new heaven and the new earth” (1). Then this, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (2). The city had no temple, “for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light” (23). Now comes the most eloquent divine rebuttal to the current ideology of White Christian Nationalism (the American version):


“The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of the day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city” (24-26).


God’s good creation, so long marred by human sin, will then be fully redeemed by the blood of God’s Lamb. And all of the wealth and beauty of human nations, tribes and cultures will sparkle and shine forevermore in God’s presence. Racism and prejudice of all kinds will have disappeared.

In this period of deep and painful polarization in the United States, this is a vision Christians must rally around, or they might lose their soul. Award-winning journalist and acclaimed writer Tim Alberta, now staff writer for The Atlantic, actually grew up in a small city in Metro Detroit called Brighton. His father was an evangelical pastor and he himself still identifies as one. His latest piece (just under 10,000 words) is entitled, “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church.” In it, he contrasts two churches and summarizes lengthy conversations with their two pastors, while tying these findings with others he gleaned through his year-long research tour around the country. I’ll just offer you two quotes that best sum up his main point:


“Substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing their churches, and most of them are moving to ones further to the right.”

[His concluding paragraph which expands on what he sees as “a steady trend”] “More people will leave churches that refuse to identify with a tribe and will find pastors who confirm their own partisan views. The erosion of confidence in the institution of American Christianity will accelerate. The caricature of evangelicals will get uglier. And the actual work of evangelizing will get much, much harder.”


Frightening and alarming, indeed. But as people of faith, along with BTV Clean Up Crew, MAPS-AMEN, and many other groups working for community-building and the healing of this nation’s social and political fabric, we just have more work to do. The Qur’an has God addressing humanity in these words, “People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware” (Q. 49:13, Abdel Haleem). We all have plenty of resources to work with in this call to work for human flourishing, and especially for “the least of these,” as Jesus put it. The best way to confront hate and bigotry is with love and solidarity. With God’s help, let’s do it.

This review by Martin Awaana Wullobayi, a Ghanaian scholar who teaches and writes at The Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI), was published in their journal in 2021: Islamochristiana 47. I take heart that an African scholar welcomes this work so enthusiastically. I hope with him that at a time when “hate speeches which divide and deprive humanity of all kinds of friendship and peace, the research topics discussed in Johnston’s book will be useful for reinforcing peaceful positive world view of coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”


[Over lunch in Washington in November 2021 I promised Mustafa Akyol that I would write a review of the book he wrote during the pandemic, which was published by the think tank where he works, the Cato Institute. I finally did write it, and it was published last month in the widely read Pakistani news outlet Global Village Space. As you will see, it dovetails nicely with what I am aiming for in my blog. I hope you will buy a copy of this excellent (and short) book. Read it and pass it around!]

I just finished reading Mustafa Akyol’s latest book, Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty, for the second time, and that is when this peacebuilding component struck me. But first, as an Islamicist and Christian theologian, I deeply appreciate his articulate defense of individual human rights and his advocacy for a polity in which rulers are accountable to the people, who themselves are empowered to freely express their religious and political views, and thereby contribute to a diverse, rich and dynamic society where all contribute to the common good. He rightly calls this a “liberal” political order, which also includes “a system of free markets, limited governments, and charitable civil society” (117).

So first allow me to comment on his demonstration that Islamic theology and law, if rightly understood, lead to such a view, and then I want to show that the tone and tenure of his last two chapters make this an admirable work of peacebuilding between Muslims and a general Western public, whether secular people, Christians, Jews or people of other faiths.


Classical Islam and modern liberalism

It is significant that Akyol turns to 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill for his definition of liberty. People should not be forced by the state or any other authority to adopt beliefs or behaviors against their own will. The only exception is when someone causes harm to others. That is because, along with other Enlightenment thinkers, Mill believed in the inherent dignity of the human person and therefore spoke of people’s “rights.” This Enlightenment conviction gave rise to the values enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and its Constitution, for example. Civil rights and freedom of religion are central to the “classical liberalism” of European states, among many others, including the United States of America.

That is the point: this liberal order arose in Europe in the 18th century, but when we think of “classical Islam,” we are referring to the period during which Muslim theologians and jurists hammered out the central doctrines of their faith and established the main Sunni and Shi’i schools of jurisprudence – roughly between the third and sixth centuries of Islam (ninth to twelfth century CE). As Akyol points out, this is also at a time when Islamic imperial power was at its zenith. “Religious practice,” therefore, was fused “with state power” (36).

Though classical Islam was in some ways ahead of what we call “the West” today (most notably by establishing rules of war and securing at least some rights for minorities), it was still a child of the medieval period. The Qur’an banned coercion in religion (Q. 2:256), but state coercion was the norm everywhere, so that “the Christian Byzantines and the Zoroastrian Sassanids … all imposed their official religion, with laws that criminalized apostasy, often with the death penalty. That was also the norm in Islamic jurisprudence, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. The apostasy law is not found in the Qur’an.

Since the Qur’an has so little legal content, Muslim jurists turned to Prophet Muhammad’s example. Early on, his words and deeds had been passed down and transmitted orally, but already in the second century of Islam, as they were beginning to be transcribed, it was clear that some of these hadiths (short quotes of the Prophet and short stories of what he did) had been fabricated to bolster one faction over another in the many debates that had arisen. So, for example, in several of the recognized collections of the third century, one finds the hadith that stipulates the death penalty for anyone leaving Islam. To this day, this command stands in all five of the remaining schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Medieval societies were not just oppressive; they were also patriarchal and openly demeaning for women. This is the main theme running through Akyol’s Chapter 2, “Why We Need to Rethink the Sharia.” The Quranic penalty for sex outside of marriage (zina) is 100 lashes (though you can find the death penalty in the Hadith). But one verse states that in order to be prosecuted, this crime has to be witnessed by four people. We know from its context that this verse was revealed to protect women from false accusations of zina, but the wording does not specify the person’s gender. Still, in some Muslim countries courts routinely use this verse to protect rapists and prosecute their victims. Traditional Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) consistently applied it to men, not women – a blatant injustice.

That is why most Muslim jurists today distinguish between Sharia and fiqh – that is, between the clear teachings of the Quran and the well-attested hadiths – which have divine authority – and the jurisprudence of Islam’s legal schools, which by definition has much human input and is, therefore, fallible. One area where this discrepancy shows is that fiqh confused crimes and sin. The Quran forbids a number of acts, like drinking wine, eating pork, gambling, lying, practicing usury, dressing immodestly, among others, but reserved punishment for these acts in the Hereafter. The Hadith, by contrast, assigned corporal punishment for those committing some of these sins – thereby turning them into crimes prosecuted by the state. Clearly the jurists’ fiqh was confusing two very different categories of acts that were kept separate in God’s Sharia. One reason for this confusion is the blending of religion with the state.


The authoritarian religious state

In the story of the Sultan who had just conquered Constantinople (now named Istanbul) in 1453 and who got so angry with his architect for building a mosque lower than the Hagia Sophia that he had his hands cut off, Akyol remarks that this only illustrates “the misery of the medieval world, where people’s precarious lives were at the arbitrary hands of capricious rulers” (42). Yet the story is not over. The architect sues the ruler, and the judge, upon hearing both sides in court, rules that the Sultan is guilty and must compensate the poor architect by paying ten silver coins a day out of his own salary for the rest of his life. Apocryphal or not, this story purports to show that God’s law is above all citizens, including their ruler.

Considering the authoritarian nature of so many Muslim-majority nations today, Akyol argues that the main takeaway from the Sharia, at least in its traditional interpretation, should be the rule of law, which must also include “the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches” of government. The reforms initiated by the New Ottomans in the 19th century were designed to do just this, but they knew that the Islamic jurists would not allow this, so they enacted a series of secular laws to sideline their opposition. Unfortunately, the constitutional regime of 1876 only lasted fourteen months. The new sultan, Abdulhamid II, suspended it and it wasn’t until 1909 that a “Second Constitutional Period” began, only to be scuttled by World War I.

Akyol rightly reasons that even though religion can easily become an instrument of political oppression (witness how religious rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran both excel in this domain), an emphasis on the Sharia’s intentions, or objectives, can turn religion into an instrument of liberation. Notably in Islamic Spain of the 14th century with the jurist Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi and running through the writings of the late Tunisian scholar Ibn Ashur, a minority tradition of Islamic legal theory has now become mainstream. The Sharia’s “overarching aim” is to promote human wellbeing by protecting five rights in particular: religion, life, property, intellect, and lineage. Ibn Ashur added liberty.

I had the privilege of translating from the Arabic original a twentieth century classic on this theme: the Tunisian politician Rached Ghannouchi’s The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State, mostly written while in prison in the 1980s (forthcoming, Yale University Press). Co-founder of the Islamist party Ennahda (or al-Nahda, “Renaissance”) and, until the current president’s coup in July 2021, speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, Ghannouchi uses these same arguments to demonstrate that a genuine “Islamic” government is one which is democratic by virtue of guaranteeing the separation of powers and the rotation of parties in power by means of free and fair elections. In fact, at the Tenth Congress of Ennahda in 2016 he was reelected president and said in his opening speech that Tunisia no longer needed an “Islamic” party. He also saluted Tunisia’s civil society “Quartet” that was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

For Ghannouchi, therefore, Ennahda is no longer an Islamist party; rather, it’s a party among others, some of which are secular, but one that is intentionally imbued with Islamic values, the central one being liberty, or the fight against all forms of despotism. Though the nation that gave us the “Arab Spring” owes much to Ghannouchi’s consistent leadership, it still teeters on the edge of despotism at the moment. Nonetheless, Tunisia stands as a model of a nation that managed for a decade to balance religious and secular forces and seek freedom for all.


Akyol’s commendable peacebuilding skills

Mustafa Akyol wrote this book with three audiences in mind. First, of course, is his publisher and employer, the Cato Institute. Both the theme of liberty and the way he weaves it in and out of his chapters demonstrate his loyalty to the libertarian cause and the certain freedom he enjoys in marking it with his own stamp.

Plainly, his second audience is his Muslim correligionists – who, a billion and a half strong, display a wide spectrum of views and practices, to be sure. Akyol deploys some of the arguments he has made before, and most notably in his substantial work, Reopening Muslim Minds. Yet he offers new ones too, and especially new anecdotes and new sources along the way. By highlighting Islam’s achievements of the past – like the Prophet’s Medinan Constitution, laws to protect minorities, giant leaps forward in the arts and sciences by Muslims working together with Jews and Christians in ninth-century Baghdad and beyond, to name a few – he is able to draw his readers into discovering some of the reasons for the decline in later centuries, of which all Muslims are painfully aware.

Akyol’s third audience may be the most important to him: non-Muslims in the West and elsewhere. As we should all acknowledge, Islamophobia is the only prejudice that seems fair game in the American and European public square these days. Blame it on politics, if you will, it nevertheless has roots that go back long before – likely to the early Muslim conquests, then the Christian Crusades over two centuries, and more recently to the Islamic-inspired terrorism of the Middle East and Central Asia. A 2015 poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans had unfavorable views of Islam (much more than for any other faith) and a September 2021 article from the Pew Research Center revealed that “Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say they believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions.”

This is where Akyol’s peacebuilding efforts and skills shine through the most. Throughout the book his tone is balanced and honest, and nowhere more so than in his last two chapters. In Chapter 7, for instance (“Islam’s Lost Heritage of Economic Liberty”), he quotes extensively from two Western scholars who give the Islamic civilization credit for sowing the seeds of capitalism in the West. At one point he quotes Gene W. Heck in his 2006 book, Charlemagne, Muhammad, and the Arab Roots of Capitalism: “the Arab Muslims . . . provided much of the economic stimulus, as well as the multiplicity of commercial instruments that helped pull Europe up from the Dark Ages’ stifling grip” (104). He also shows that the central institution of medieval Islam, its religious endowments (waqf, pl. awqaf), because they were private fortunes untaxed by the state and so numerous that they financed untold charitable causes, “such as hospitals, soup kitchens, orphanages, mosques, schools, libraries, or monuments” (108).

By contrast, he has little admiration for “Islamic socialism” spearheaded by Egypt’s Gamal Abd Al-Nasser in the 1960s and “Islamic banks” that took off in the late 1980s, many of which turned into shameful pyramid schemes. The other shame, borrowing the words of Iraqi intellectual Ali Allawi, is that despite the presence of a “Muslim super wealthy class,” “There are no major research foundations, universities, hospitals or educational trusts that are funded by large charitable foundations. The scale and scope of the philanthropic work of the modern West – especially the US’s – is inconceivable amongst the Muslim rich” (118).

In my own experience, it is Akyol’s last chapter (“Is Liberty a Western Conspiracy?”) that is most effective in getting both sides to rethink their assumptions and hopefully begin to listen to each other. Why? This is because the suspicion of many Muslim conservatives that Western promotion of their liberal order is a tactic to better subjugate them allows him to make a historical incursion into 19th-century Western colonialism. And here Akyol does not mince his words. Napoleon, who in 1798 invaded Egypt, told its people that he had come to “rescue” them “from the hands of the oppressors” (123). Thirty years later, the French invaded Algeria inaugurating a 132-year rule, marked by "appalling—say, uncivilized—brutality" (122).

Yet many Muslims seem not to know that a whole cadre of Muslim intellectuals (“the first Muslim liberals”) weaponized these concepts of freedom and rights to fight for their independence. These liberals like the Egyptian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (d. 1822), Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (d. 1873), the New Ottoman thinker, Namik Kemal (d. 1888), and the Tunisian statesman Khayr al-Din (d. 1890) and the Indian Syed Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) – all of these raised the banner of freedom and human rights in the name of Islam and their national identity. Sadly, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI and the dissolution of the Islamic caliphate, the mood among Muslim leaders and thinkers turned to conspiracy theories. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 “with no real justification” and the consistent support of Arab dictators has not helped the cause of freedom either.

Yet Akyol, ever desirous of speaking truth in a balanced way, immediately notes that Muslims cannot simply blame foreign powers for their authoritarian regimes. The responsibility lies with them in the end. Turkey in the 1990s, for example, was ruled by “authoritarian secularists” who “demonized the liberals [who were defending women demanding the right to wear a hijab to the university] as Western puppets, CIA agents, European Union mouthpieces, and payees of German foundations, which all supposedly had nefarious schemes against Turkey.” Meanwhile, “conservative Muslims respected those liberals, gave them a voice, and even began considering their views” (140). Fast forward to the 2010s, when these Muslim conservatives had been in power for a decade: “they also turned authoritarian – quite rapidly and unabashedly – and turned against these same liberals who were criticizing them. After all, they proclaimed, “liberals [are] the pawns of a heinous Western conspiracy against our embattled country – and its righteous, glorious, unquestionable leader” (140).

The same dynamic can be observed in Iran and elsewhere. Sadly, “liberalism” is the ideology of the enemy for many Muslims today. Yet liberalism is not a lifestyle, avers Akyol. It’s a “political philosophy” that defends both “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion.” It is simply “a framework that allows different religions, metaphysical worldviews, or lifestyles to coexist, without oppressing each other, and follow their own ways, in peace and dignity, and free of the yoke of all kinds of thugs and tyrants” (143). Ghannouchi would agree, and in fact, this is the sentiment you can see expressed throughout my own blog.

In the end, Akyol – very adroitly, I would add – is using this book as a tool to bring many sides closer together – staunch Muslim conservatives and Muslim liberals; Muslims and their neighbors in Western nations; and even non-Muslim Americans who strongly disagree among themselves about how to evaluate the growing presence and influence of Muslims in their nation. I hope this book circulates widely. Truth-telling is so important to healing our divides. And balanced truth-telling, like it is here, has even more of a chance to be heard and acted on. This is peacebuilding at its best.

The Apostle Paul, a diaspora Jew from Tarsus (today’s Turkey), was also a Roman citizen. Perhaps that is partially why he writes to the church in Corinth, Greece, “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Rom. 13:1). Jesus too, when faced with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome (Jews in Palestine were under Roman occupation), famously answered, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17). The apostle John, now an old man and an exile on the Island of Patmos, identifies Rome as Babylon, the quintessential evil city, because it persecutes God’s people and it has “made all the nations of the world drink the wine of her passionate immorality” (Rev. 14:8 NLT).

So human government is at the same time 1) a necessary consequence of our human calling to manage God’s creation – all aspects, including fellow humans – justly and compassionately (Gen. 1; Psalm 8); and 2) a power structure that is easily subverted into becoming a cruel instrument of oppression. That second aspect is likely behind Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, his protégé:


“I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity” (I Tim. 2:1-2, NLT).


Government must do its part

In this second half of my essay on Heather McGee’s book, The Sum of Us All, I will argue that the United States of America will never fulfill its founding pledge to provide liberty and justice for all unless its government redresses the longstanding injustices that have kept its poor from thriving, the most disadvantaged of whom are people of color. Heather McGee explains the role of government this way:


“A functioning society rests on a web of mutuality, a willingness among all involved to share enough with one another to accomplish what no one person can do alone . . . I can’t create my own electric grid, school system, internet, or healthcare system – and the most efficient way to ensure that those things are created and available to all on a fair and open basis is to fund and provide them publicly . . . For most of the twentieth century, leaders of both parties agreed on the wisdom of those investments, from Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era jobs programs to Republican president Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System to Republican Richard Nixon’s Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and people with disabilities” (21).


Yet as we saw in the first half of this post, "For most of our history, the beneficiaries of America’s free public investments were whites only." A few examples:


    • The Homestead Act of 1862 (gave 160 acres of land stolen from Indian nations to any citizen or soon-to-be citizen – people who after the 1790 Naturalization Act had to be white); an 1866 southern equivalent allowed less than 6,000 Black families to become landowners, but that’s compared to 1.6 million white familes;
    • During the Great Depression the government subsidized mortgages for millions of white Americans but circled all but a handful of Black neighborhoods in red, signaling that no loans should be made to them;
    • The New Deal raised the minimum wage and overtime pay for most American workers but with pressure from Southern Democrats excluded the jobs that employed most Blacks (domestic and agriculture);
    • The GI Bill of 1944 paid the college tuition of hundreds of thousands of veterans, catapulting a generation of men into professional careers – but few Black servicemen benefited, as local administrators funneled most Black servicemen to segregated vocational schools” (22). Result: homeownership for whites reached 3 out of 4 families; but only two out of 5 families for Blacks and Latinx families;
    • Suburbs were created by government investment in the federal highway system and subsidies for private developers; “but demanded racial covenants (‘white only’ clauses in housing contracts) to prevent Black people from buying into them”;
    • Social Security provided income to millions of elderly Americans, but by excluding certain jobs, ensured that few Blacks could benefit from it;
    • Even unions, which the New Deal favored, barred Blacks from joining them until the 1960s.


Plainly, the net effect of all this government investment in its people under the New Deal was “to ensure a large, secure, and white middle class” (22). Yet with the advent of desegregation and the Civil Rights laws, white people faced the prospect of sharing those benefits with their Black co-citizens. With such a long history of privilege, white Americans had grown accustomed to these advantages, and so much so that ‘the elevated status’ these now conferred upon them seemed 'natural and almost innate.” McGee explains,


“White society had repeatedly denied people of color economic benefits on the premise that they were inferior; those unequal benefits then reified the hierarchy, making whites actually economically superior. What would it mean to white people, both materially and psychologically, if the supposedly inferior people received the same treatment from the government? The period since integration has tested many whites’ commitment to the public, in ways big and small” (22-23).


One easy way to measure this white resentment is to follow the social science studies documenting the racist backlash in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election. Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler studied the connection between race and American attitudes toward the 2010 Affordable Care Act: “He concluded that whites with higher levels of racial resentment and more anti-Black stereotypes grew more opposed to healthcare reform after it became associated with President Obama” (52-53). Another study by Eric Knowles, Brian Lowery, and Rebecca Schaumberg at Stanford University found that the data “support the notions that racial prejudice is one factor driving opposition to Obama and his policies” (53). This is not surprising since people like Rush Limbaugh were calling the ACA “a civil rights bill … this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.”

Yet the people suffering the most from this resistance to the ACA were rural white people. McGhee points to the closure of 120 rural hospitals in the last ten years – and all of them in states that refused to expand Medicaid, as the ACA was calling for. The state leading in hospital closures is Texas (26 so far). At the beginning of the pandemic she talked to Don McBeath, who “does government relations for a Texas network of rural hospitals called TORCH” and asked him why the hospital system was in crisis mode. One big factor, he answered, is that “Texas has probably one of the narrowest Medicaid coverage programs in the country” (54). It turns out, a person making only $4,000 a year is still too rich to qualify for Medicaid! With so few people insured, it’s the state that has to pay all those unpaid medical bills. No wonder the system is failing and people are dying for lack of adequate care.

It’s the same story in other southern states like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. But that’s not how the Affordable Care Act was designed:


“When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it expanded qualification for Medicaid to 138 percent of the poverty level for all adults (about $30,000 for a family of three in 2020) and equalized eligibility rules across all states. But in 2012, a Supreme Court majority invoked states’ rights to strike down the Medicaid expansion and make it optional. Within the year, the lines were drawn in an all-too-familiar way: almost all the states of the former Confederacy refused to expand Medicaid, while most other states did. Without Medicaid expansion, people of color in those states struggle more – they are the ones most likely to be denied health benefits on the job – but white people are still the largest share of the 4.4 million working Americans who would have Medicaid if the law had been left intact. So, a states’ rights legal theory most often touted to defend segregation struck at the heart of the first Black president’s healthcare protections for working-class people of all races” (56).


The ironic fact is that Texas, with its majority of people of color (40% Latinx, 13% Black, 5% Asian) is represented by a state legislature with a two-thirds majority of whites and a three-quarters majority of males. Governor Greg Abbott intends to keep his GOP majority by means of crude voter suppression. In September 2021 he signed a bill with seven changes that make it harder for many to vote. And most of those will be people of color.

Voter suppression is also a theme McGee highlights in her book. Though it was a regular practice in southern states since the end of the Civil War, it wasn’t until the election of America’s first Black president that this movement, spearheaded and bankrolled by a group of right-wing billionaires, spread to all the swing states.


“These same billionaires funded the lawsuit, Shelby County v. Holder, to bring a challenge to the Voting Rights Act’s most powerful provision. Decided by a 5-4 majority at the beginning of President Obama’s second term, Shelby County v. Holder lifted the federal government’s protection from citizens and states and counties with long records of discriminatory voting procedures. Immediately across the country, Republican legislatures felt free to restrict voting rights … Between the 2013 Shelby decision and the 2018 election, twenty-three states raised new barriers to voting. Although about 11 percent of the population (disproportionately low-income people, seniors, and people of color) do not have access to photo IDs, by 2020, six states still demanded them in order for people to vote, and an additional twenty-six states made voting much easier if you had an ID” (149).


The Solidarity Dividend

Stanford economist Gavin Wright’s 2013 book, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, documents how “after the Voting Rights Act . . . southern . . . gubernatorial campaigns increasingly featured themes of economic development and education” (159). That is, they realized they couldn’t just get reelected via racist dog whistling. Increased numbers of ballots also meant that more poor folk had a chance to influence the powerful. This was a win for all the poor, Black and white, but it was mostly due to the Black leadership that all benefited from “investments in public infrastructure, including hospitals, roads, schools, and libraries that had been starved when one-party rule allowed only the southern aristocracy to set the rules” (159).

When democracy is unfettered and widened, allowing all citizens equal access to the polls and other means of political involvement, everyone wins. McGhee’s last chapter, “The Solidarity Dividend,” is the pièce de resistance, the whole point of the book. It begins with a long story of the transformation of Lewiston, Maine, from a booming and prosperous cotton mill city in the late 1800s to the dilapidated and economically depressed city it was until recently. It’s also the second largest city in a state “with the whitest and oldest population in the country,” one of the ten states ranking highest in opioid deaths. The governor, Paul LePage, “campaigned and governed on rhetoric about illegal immigrants on welfare and drug-dealing people of color” (255). He also “vetoed Medicaid expansion for the working class five times and delivered large tax cuts for the wealthy” (256). But that is not the end of the story, and certainly not for Lewiston.

McGhee spent several days walking the streets and talking to people, including the city’s deputy administrator and urban planner, Phil Nadeau, on the job there since the early 2000s. Manufacturing in Lewiston started losing in the 1970s, first to the American South where labor was cheaper, then in the 1980s to China and Southeast Asia. Young people were leaving with no one left to work the service jobs in town. As the population dwindled, Lewiston couldn’t attract new employers.

Then a miracle of sorts happened. In the early 1990s, the government gave a green light for thousands of Somali refugees to be resettled in the US. First, they were sent to the suburbs of Atlanta, Minneapolis, then to Portland, Maine, then to Lewiston. Many other African refugees came too – from Djibouti, Chad, Sudan and the Congo. With a sparkle in his eye, Nadeau told McGhee that these “new Mainers” were renting apartments that had long been empty and “filling storefronts on Lisbon Street that were vacant for a long time. They’re contributing to the economy” (258). Yes, it helped that there was “good regional planning and maintenance of the historic assets,” but a bipartisan think tank estimated that these recent African immigrants “contributed $194 million in state and local taxes in 2018” (259).

Phil Nadeau plans to retire soon and travel around the country to share his story “about how immigration can be a win-win for locals.” He was beaming, she writes. And just behind him, on the wall, was the portrait of a victorious Muhammad Ali looking down on Sonny Liston, whom he had just knocked out in Lewiston’s youth hockey rink in 1965. It was his career-defining fight. It was also when he made public his new Muslim name. Who would have guessed that so many Muslim immigrants would come to settle this city years later?

But Lewiston is far from alone in accepting refugees who then reverse the fortunes of the towns and cities that welcome them. McGhee notes, “for the past twenty years, Latinx, African, and Asian immigrants have been repopulating small towns across America” (259). The first place she mentions is 45 minutes from us, Kennett Square, PA. Arguably the mushroom capital of America, this sleepy town is now half Latinx, and these new immigrants have revitalized this traditional business (my wife’s grandfather co-owned a mushroom company in the vicinity).

This is happening across the country. One study of 2,600 rural towns since 1990 found that two-thirds of them lost population. But among those that gained population, “one in five owes the entirety of its growth to immigration” (260). By 2010, “people of color made up nearly 83 percent of the growth in rural population in America.” Though many of these longtime residents are surely tempted to feel threatened by the newcomers, “the growth and prosperity the new people bring give the lie to the zero-sum model.” As the local newspaper editor of Storm Lake, Iowa, wrote in 2018, if the local residents don’t put behind them their prejudice and work with the newly arrived to rebuild their hometowns, “there will be nobody left to turn out the lights by 2050. . . Asians and Africans and Latinos are our lifeline” (260).

But it’s not all about a growing economy. It’s also about new friendships budding and community being built. The first workers to come to Lewiston were French Canadians. One the stories that sticks with me (I did grow up in France), is that of Cécile Thornton (b. 1955) whose parents spoke French to her as a child. But like the second generation of many immigrants, she lost it over the years. While many others were offering ESL courses to help the immigrants learn English, Cécile, now retired and feeling alone because her whole family had migrated to other states, decided to visit the Franco Center downtown Lewiston to resurrect her French. But she only found a room full of elderly white people like herself who had given up trying to speak French.

But that visit was fruitful in another way. When she complained that she wasn’t going to learn any French there, one man told her, “You should go to the French Club at Hillview.” Hillview, she knew, was a “subsidized housing project.” Undeterred, she soon showed up at that French Club. To her shock, she was the only white person there. On that first visit, she hit it off with Edho who had recently come with his family from Congo. Greetings and small talk turned into the longest French conversation she had had since her childhood. She kept coming, and when she noticed that some of her new African friends were starting classes at the community college, she convinced them to attend the Franco Center, now a more convenient location for them. The result was a joy to behold: the two groups were now becoming friends – “the elderly white Mainers with halting vocabularies learning from new Black Mainers who spoke fluently” (262).

This life-changing experience gave Cécile a new lease on life. She now volunteers with asylum seekers, helping them navigate the social services and connecting them to other resources and people along the way.

Perhaps the most striking story is that of how Bruce Noddin and ZamZam became friends. Bruce, married with two kids, had owned a successful sports equipment store but then fell into drug and alcohol addiction and nearly lost everything, including his life. With his wife’s help and a good recovery program, he started to participate in a jail ministry. One day in the parking lot he met this lady who was bringing some hot food to the Muslim inmates to break their Ramadan fast. They started a conversation; she introduced herself as Zamzam and said he should “join the Maine People’s Alliance, a 32,000-member-strong grassroots group advocating for policies like Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, and support for home care” (263).

One thing led to another, and Bruce made a lot of new Muslim friends from Somalia and Djibouti. But he took initiative using his leadership skills, and he is today the main organizer of the yearly Community Unity Barbecue that draws hundreds of Lewiston residents. In speaking with McGhee, he expressed his deep gratitude for the turn his life had taken:


“The vision for me for this city, it’s [that we will] embrace our past, embrace our ethnicity . . . and then embrace the people that are here now that are just like those people who came here a hundred plus years ago. They’re exactly like that. But actually, they’re worse off. They didn’t always have a job. They were escaping atrocities in their country. They were escaping possibly dying or seeing their children die. And they need[ed] to work. There should be a massive amount of empathy from that next two, three, four generations down from those people that went through the same stuff as these people are going through, and saying, ‘We’re going to embrace you. You’re going to help us make this city great again’” (264).


McGhee then recounts how Ben Chin, the director of Maine People’s Alliance, helped to build a winning multiracial coalition which has begun to change the face of Maine politics. Ben, a millennial whose grandfather had emigrated from China and who himself had come to Lewiston for college and stayed, was also an Episcopalian lay minister. His community organizing over time paid off. Starting with the 2017 local elections, the Alliance won “a string of victories that begun to refill the pool of public services in Maine – and justify Ben’s faith.” McGhee explains: “Maine became the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid by ballot initiative over the governor’s repeated refusal” (269).

There was indeed a lot of race-baiting during that campaign, but Ben was adamant: what got them to the finish line was the multiracial coalition, “a broad-base of working-class people . . . not the muckety-mucks.” And for the first time, it was the immigrant-led political action committees that made the difference, including the “Somali taxi drivers who used their infrastructure of radios and vehicles to get elderly, homebound immigrant and poor Mainers to the polls safely” (269).

That is the “Solidarity Dividend,” she exclaims. The next year, these activists made possible the election of many new politicians who then “passed reforms to address the opioid epidemic and guarantee a generous paid-time-off for Maine workers.”


A transformational blueprint: TRHT

I want to end with a movement that was McGhee’s mother’s brain child (Dr. Gail Christopher). Her idea soon gained traction and in 2017 fourteen committees across the country adopted it as their project. The blueprint was called Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). By 2018, twenty-four universities had TRHT centers. Then came the George Floyd protests of 2020. In her words,


“Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a resolution urging the establishment of a U.S. TRHT Commission. The TRHT framework was developed in 2016 with input of over 175 experts convened by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The experts learned from the forty truth-and-reconciliation processes across the globe that had helped societies process traumas – from South Africa to Chile to Sri Lanka – but they explicitly left the word reconciliation out of the name for the U.S. effort. ‘To reconcile,’ notes the TRHT materials, ‘connotes restoration of friendly relations – “reuniting” or “bringing together again after conflict,” [whereas] the U.S. needs transformation. The nation was conceived . . . on this belief in racial hierarch’” (282).


In Dallas, it was Jerry Hawkins, a middle-aged Black man, who took up the TRHT challenge. At first, it was a stretch for him to even consider this, because a Black veteran had just killed five Dallas police officers and two civilians. But that too was why community leaders were urging Hawkins to take the job. Of the many suggestions offered in the TRHT manual, two of them immediately stuck out to him as urgent. Hawkins explains it to McGhee:


“One was a community racial history . . . this historical analysis of policy and place, of race, and the people from Indigenous times to present. And second was this community visioning process . . . this was of convening [a] multiracial, multifaceted group of people together, to come up with a shared community vision of how to end this hierarchy of human value?” (284)


Over three years, Hawkins and his committee dug deeply into the history of the Dallas area and interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life. They published a report. As McGhee puts it, “In the opening pages, bold orange words bleed to the edges of a two-page spread: DALLAS IS ON STOLEN LAND. And a few pages later, again: DALLAS WAS BUILT WITH STOLEN LABOR.” She then adds, “Jerry called stolen land and stolen labor the first two public policies in Dallas” (284).

Whereas some cities in America boast multiple organizations working on racial equity, this is the only one in this conservative stronghold of Dallas. Yet it has brought about some spectacular breakthroughs in the hearts of many civic leaders already. Both the city and the Dallas school district boast offices of racial equity. Attitudes have begun to change.


Parting words

I began this second part of this essay on McGhee’s book by citing the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “pray for all people,” and especially “for kings and all who are in authority.” Why? So that we could “live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.” The TRHT manual is right. When it comes to racial healing in America, it’s transformation we need. People of faith would add the word “repentance.” Just as white leaders (and Black ones too) confessed their crimes under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, so healing and true peace could take root. In the U.S. today, we need many more local TRHT initiatives, and we need a national one as well. Join me in praying for that!

Then, perhaps, we could find bipartisan ways to pass laws to “fill the pool” and together – whites, blacks, browns, people of all faiths and no faith, or “the sum of us all” – rebuild the physical, social, and economic infrastructure this nation needs so desperately. Government, hand in hand with business and civil society (including churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.), could help build a society “marked by godliness and dignity,” a beloved community “with liberty and justice for all.”

The three Abrahamic traditions picture a Creator God who will judge individuals and nations with perfect justice. After all, He masters all the facts of each case, and He knows the secrets of every human heart. In my last post, I pointed out the positive achievements of J. William Fulbright in sending out thousands of young Americans to create goodwill around the world, as well as his racist attitude in supporting racial segregation at home.

We read in the Qur’an, “Whoever does good does it for himself and whoever does evil does it against himself: your Lord is never unjust to His creatures” (Q. 41:46). In other words, a good God has written justice into the fabric of His universe. In the vernacular, you reap what you sow. The original saying is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:


Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. (Galatians 6:7-9, NLT)


Plainly, my country has a lot to atone for, from the near genocide of its native population to over three centuries of chattel slavery, from the Jim Crow laws and the terror of public lynchings to the red-lining and other laws designed to oppress and dispossess African Americans. But then came the civil rights era and more recently the thousands of whites flooding the streets in 2020 to protest racial injustice and call for an end to systemic racism. Repentance begins with taking stock of the evils we’ve committed. Then we decide to move in the opposite direction. I am hopeful we can change for the better … together.

This is the first of a two-part blog post on a book that came out this year, and none too soon. Heather McGhee, an African American woman (BA in American studies at Yale, JD from UC Berkeley) who has specialized in economic and social policy; additionally, she has “drafted legislation, testified before Congress, and contributed regularly to news shows including NBC’s Meet the Press.” She was president of Demos, a think tank focused on the issue of inequality and “now chairs the board of Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization” (from the book jacket).

The book title is straightforward: The Sum of Us All: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. There are no numbered footnotes but a running documentation based on a few short phrases on each page found in the Notes section (100 pages in all!). This is followed up by two full pages of interviews, with full names followed by month and year, and so the book is peppered with the stories of the people McGhee met during her three years of traveling for this project. This is a page turner, but the research that went into it is colossal (because of her many connections, it was a collaborative venture from the start, with grants from several foundations).


A three-year USA road trip

Heather McGhee began her work at Demos in the early 2000s researching household debt. But she discovered it wasn’t just credit card debt that was ensnaring Black and Latinx families in greater proportion to white ones; by then too, disproportionately minority households were being saddled with bankruptcies and foreclosures because of a new type of mortgage loans ominously draining the equity from their homes. These became infamous during the Great Recession: subprime loans that were “sold to investment banks who bundled them and sold shares in them to investors, creating mortgage-backed securities” (92).

At first, it was only poorer communities of color who were canvassed for this type of “refinancing scheme” (first-time owners were in the minority). These investments soon became very profitable for Wall Street firms, while at the same time the loan sharks had no vested interest in helping the homeowners manage to repay them. As she puts it, “The homeowner’s loss could be the investor’s gain.” But because these arrangements worked so well for the financial firms, the mortgage people spread their “unfair and risky practices” to the wider market, and it was white households – in greater numbers – that now fell victim to this predatory lending.

Demos had launched an ambitious study in 2003 on household debt, the most comprehensive ever done on the topic. It garnered them “newspaper editorials, meetings with banks, congressional hearings, and legislation to limit credit card rates and fees” (xiii). But two years later, Congress passed a bankruptcy bill that favored the credit industry and hammered vulnerable household owners even more than before. McGhee took note: research will only go so far in Washington. So when years later Donald Trump entered the White House, she decided to do something radical: step down as president and spend three years touring the country to find out why what she had been taught about economics did not explain the data.

Yes, she was told, race and inequality are related, but in a linear fashion: “structural racism accelerates inequality for communities of color” (xii). But again and again, since the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, white Americans dependably voted for politicians who would shrink taxes for the wealthy while cutting back government spending on education, healthcare, and infrastructure – all goods their lives depended on. And now they voted in droves for “a man whose agenda promised to wreak economic, social, and environmental havoc on them along with everyone else” (xvii)! It didn’t make any sense.

Her first clue came from a series of psychology studies:


Psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson presented white Americans with news articles about people of color becoming the majority of the population by 2042. The study authors then asked their subjects ‘to indicate their agreement with the idea that increases in racial minorities’ status will reduce white Americans’ status.’ The people who agreed most strongly that demographic change threatened whites’ status were most susceptible to shift their policy views because of it, even on ‘race-neutral policies’ like raising the minimum wage and expanding healthcare – even drilling in the Arctic. The authors concluded that ‘making the changing national racial demographics salient led white Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly’” (xviii).


She then realized that this idea of racial groups in competition with one another, and whites in particular feeling threatened by the progress non-whites could potentially make, was exactly the propaganda they had been fed over the last few decades by conservative media: beware, because there are “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders,” and the liberals lavish “handouts” on those too lazy to work, be they people of color or immigrants forcing their way in. But this racism is a self-defeating trap for the whites just as much as everyone else. This zero-sum paradigm is really a lie peddled by the wealthy one percent who know that fanning the flames of racism gives them the cover they need to exploit the masses – “hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with one another” (xxii).


An idea rooted in our history

That zero-sum idea goes all the way back to our history of chattel slavery. The story of the United States cannot be told “without the central character of race” (7). Racial taxonomies of the 17th century aimed not just at differentiating various groups of humans, but at assigning relative worth to each of them. The resulting hierarchy – with Europeans on top – gave the master race “moral permission to exploit and enslave.” [A 2019 article in Quaternary Science Reviews argues that the death of 56 million indigenous people in the Americas after the arrival of the Europeans resulted in the increase of carbon in the atmosphere!] From the beginning, the US economy was built “on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders.” The corollary only reinforced the status quo: “that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people” (7).

Slavery enriched both South and North. Slaveowners benefited from both free land and free labor. Think about it:


Under slavery’s formative capitalist logic, an enslaved man or woman was both a worker and an appreciating asset. Recounts economic historian Caitlin Rosenthal, “Thomas Jefferson described the appreciation of slaves as a ‘silent profit’ of between 5 and 10 percent annually, and he advised friends to invest accordingly” (8).


The ongoing costs incurred by the slaveowner were minimal, and he even had an incentive to use sexual violence to increase the number of his slaves. But the benefit accrued to Northerners as well. Northern insurance companies (including some still in business today, like New York Life and Aetna) profited from policies that insured the life of slaves. Such life insurance policies would pay back owners three quarters of a slave’s market value upon death. The fortunes of many other northern corporations were tied up with slavery, which “legally persisted in the North until 1846.” Slavery was feeding all parts of the US economy.

Another way race drilled the zero-sum mentality into the white psyche was in the way it defined who was an American and who was not. Most of the Europeans emigrating to the colonies in the early period were poor and certainly not “free” – overwhelmingly, they came from the servant class. But after several mixed racial rebellions in the late 1600s, colonial governments began to enact new laws that reveal “a deliberate effort to legislate a new hierarchy between poor whites and the ‘basically uncivil, unchristian, and above all, unwhite Native and African laborers’” (10). Here, the zero-sum reality begins to sink in: only whites are given the right to own property and slaves lost that right. One law even stipulated that the proceeds from the sale of a slave’s property would be given to “the poor of the parish,” who were, of course, white.

Hence, at the dawn of the eighteenth century, whites could experience a form of freedom they never dreamed of having in the old country – but it came at the cost of Black subjugation. As McGhee puts it,


“Eternal slavery provided a new caste that even the poorest white-skinned person could hover above and define himself against. . . . You can imagine how, whether or not you owned slaves yourself, you might willingly buy into a zero-sum model to gain the sense of freedom that rises with the subordination of others” (11).


Racism drained the pool

That is the title of McGhee’s second chapter. The public swimming pool is a prime example of white Americans choosing to deny themselves a public good they’re were very much enjoying, but the fact that Black Americans were using it was enough of a reason to shut it down and fill it with concrete. From the late 1940s on, this happened all over America. Sometimes, rather than share the municipal pool with African American children, city councils leased the pool for a song to a private, whites-only association, as happened in Warren, Ohio, and Montgomery, West Virginia. Montgomery, Alabama, had a sprawling public park with a zoo, community center, and the largest pool of the area, as well as a dozen other parks in the city. But when a federal court ruled that monopolizing it for whites was unconstitutional, the city council dissolved the entire park system. That was the rule almost everywhere.

“Draining the pool” is an apt, if sad, metaphor for the way American racism drained public spending for a variety of public goods over the next decades. That it hurt more whites than people of color did not seem to factor into white voting patterns. This is what she learned all over the country from talking to people of all walks of life over three years: anti-government animus was tied to that zero-sum worldview that equates progress for people of color with loss of status and wealth for whites (by the way, Black respondents never saw it that way).

What has that done for us as a nation? Though we are the wealthiest nation on earth, our per capita government spending “is near the bottom of the list of industrial countries, below Latvia and Estonia.” She explains, “Our roads, bridges, and water systems get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. With the exception of about forty years from the New Deal to the 1970s, the United States has had a weaker commitment to public goods, and to the public good, than every country that possess anywhere near our wealth” (17). We’ve been “draining our pool” for a good while now.

Historians and other social scientists have pinpointed exactly when white voters pulled their support for an activist government – one that, according to 65 percent of white people in 1956, “ought to guarantee a job to anyone who wanted one and to provide a minimum standard of living in the country.” Yet between 1960 when that figure was up to 70 percent and 1964 when it crashed to 35 percent, something momentous must have happened. And it did.


“In August 1963, white Americans tuned in to the March on Washington (which was for ‘Jobs and Freedom’). They saw the nation’s capital overtaken by a group of mostly Black activists demanding not just an end to discrimination, but some of the same economic ideas that had been overwhelmingly popular with whites: a jobs guarantee for all workers and a higher minimum wage” (29).


Race was clearly an issue, but not that old form of “biological racism” that put Europeans at the apex of a hierarchy of human racial groupings. No, white Americans had adapted to at least some of the narrative of the civil rights era. Instead of biological racism, it was “a new form of racial disdain” based “on perceived culture and behavior.” As professors Donald R. Kinder and Lynn Saunders’ 1996 book demonstrated (Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals, U. of Chicago Press), this new kind of anti-Black animus was more of a “racial resentment.” Their study of the American National Election Studies (ANES) survey data indicated that though whites seemed more comfortable with racial equality and integration, “their backing for policies designed to bring equality and integration about has scarcely increased at all. Indeed in some cases white support has actually declined” (30).

McGhee and a colleague dove into the 2016 ANES data and discovered that “there was a sixty-point difference in support of increased government spending based on whether you were a white person with high versus low racial resentment. Government, it turned out, had become a highly racialized character in the white story of our country” (30). She explains,


“When the people with power in a society see a portion of the populace as inferior and underserving, their definition of ‘the public’ becomes conditional. It’s often unconscious, but their perception of the Other as underserving is so important to their perception of themselves as deserving that they’ll tear apart the web that supports everyone, including them. Public goods, in other words, are only for the public we perceive to be good” (30).


This attitude, however, does not come out of thin air. McGhee shares how a 2014 book by one of her law school professors, Ian Haney López (Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class), helped her “connect the dots.” President Reagan followed his advisors’ advice by continuing “the fifty-state Southern Strategy that could focus on taxes and spending while still hitting the emotional notes of white resentment.” She then quotes him in a conversation they had about this:


“Plutocrats use dog-whistle politics to appeal to whites with a basic formula. First, fear people of color. Then, hate the government (which coddles people of color). Finally, trust the market and the 1 percent.”


Apparently, this strategy has worked very well, at least until 2020, and this discourse is not about to disappear, funded as it is by a coterie of conservative billionaires and millionaires. But it has “drained the pool” for all of us, as McGhee demonstrates throughout her book – in education (think of student debt, for instance), healthcare, the gutting of unions and workers’ rights, housing, infrastructure and environmental protection.


God’s judgment and grace

I started with the thought of dark clouds of judgment about to close in on us as a nation. The Hebrew Bible’s prophets certainly point to God’s swift judgment on nations that oppress others. Yes, he raised up Babylon, and before that, Assyria, to bring judgment upon several nations, including Israel. But they too in the end harvested destruction for the crimes against humanity they committed so wantonly.

Heather McGhee is not a religious person, she tells us. Nor was her mother, though their family included Christian and Muslim members. But she suspects that there is a transcendent being or force that somehow lies behind reality. But as you will see in the second part of this post, she is certainly hopeful. You don’t see anger or resentment as she tells the story of how racism has cursed our nation to this day. She is amazingly optimistic that a large enough interracial coalition can gather and turn this nation around.

I hope she’s right. As people of faith, as most of my readers are, I surmise, we pray that God himself will step in, lead us to repentance (I include myself, as this article makes clear), and then find ways to work together for the common good across all barriers of race, cultures of origin, and class.