John Micklethwait
Editor, The Economist

John Micklethwait Explores the Relationship Between Religion and the Economy

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Religions thrive in economic downturns.

John Micklethwait

John Micklethwait is Editor-in-Chief of The Economist. Before that he edited the US section of the newspaper (1999 - 2006) and ran the New York Bureau for two years, having edited the Business Section of the newspaper for the previous four years. His other roles have included setting up The Economist's office in Los Angeles, where he worked from 1990 - 1993 and being Media Correspondent. He has covered business and politics from the United States, Latin America, Continental Europe, Southern Africa and most of Asia. He is a frequent broadcaster and has appeared on CNN, ABC News, BBC and NPR. He is the co-author of "The Witch Doctors", "A Future Perfect: the Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalisation" and "The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea" and "The Right Nation", a study of conservatism in America, with Adrian Wooldridge, also an Economist journalist.

Question: How does a down economy affect religion?

Micklethwait:    I think there’s 2 bits of that, I think religion will… firstly, religion was doing pretty well before this crisis so you could argue, you know, maybe it’s going to unset it a bit, I suspect probably not, I think… I think, particularly perhaps in America, that element of suddenly kind of personal crisis, people losing their jobs, people being scared, that will, I think probably drive people back to churches a bit, as I said, these things come in waves and my suspicion is that one sort of big evangelical way may just be questing a bit, I don’t know if the economy in some ways will give it a bit more legs.  The other day, I went to Saddleback Church which is a Rick Warren’s church and he was… there was an event which they expected that a couple of 100 people to come to and instead of which a couple of thousand did and I suspect that there might be some element that we don’t know of depression of economics that worked there, people say that the recession is good for movie theaters and churches, that could yet be true.  In terms of religions role in causing the economic crash, I don’t think that even I can… even, like all authors, I’m always desperate to tie things into my subject matter but I can’t quite do that.

Question: How does religion affect the economy?

Micklethwait:    There’s a big argument which I think is very relevant to the modern sort of political situation which goes something like this, when people look at forces like globalization and economics, there has been a presumption particularly amongst the business community that the world of the past 100 years, that the debate of the past 25 years, the basic push of globalization because it’s got technology and it’s got economic logic behind it and because of this a billion people have been dragged out of poverty by this thing, if this will continue and yet, you know, there are less rational things at work and religion, I think is one of these.  That’s where it fits into me, it fits in the sense that people will not, in India at the moment, there is an election coming up, they say they will base on the economy but they will also vote on issues about how exactly you treat Islam, how exactly you deal with that.  There are a lot of irrational things at work within politics and that’s what makes it very difficult for people who are purely technocrats to solve and I think particularly in the business community, there is this presumption that if you have economic logic and technology on your side or piety, that in the end, everything is going to be okay and yes, that’s what… my suspicion is yes, it will be okay but that’s my sort of 60% bet, so to speak, but I think there is another… there is a 30% chance, actually something stupid, political, emotional, perhaps including something in religion will intervene, there are strange forces out there at the moment, if you want to particularly… you know, again, I’m not predicting that this is the same, look back at the lot of the literature of all the first World War, you know, people then… just assume even if there was a war, which most people totally assume there wouldn’t be, that it wouldn’t really affect this fantastic period of prosperity that they’ve had before and in fact, actually, they’ve been tumbled throughout of the war into eventually into the ‘20s but then you had the horrors of the Depression.  There are irrational things there, Peter Drucker, the management thinker, had a very nice line once said, you know, whenever economic logic is confronted, I think, it’s politics and nationalism and it hasn’t always been the form of this one and again, I think, that’s... in those cracks where things are appearing and what happens if Iran and America are at the moment.  There is a logical, sort of compromise, to make if you are the [moolims] in Iran.  You’ve gained a lot, you’ve… partly because of G.W. Bush, you have got a lot more power, what do you do with it?  You cash in your chips, that’d be the rational thing to do but how rational are they?