Acton Institute Powerblog

The Political Theology of Global Secularism, Part 1: Globalization and the ideology of global secularism

This is part one of our series, “The Political Theology of Global Secularism.” Check back frequently for forthcoming installments. – Ed.

Globalization is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that has many aspects: economic, military, political, and cultural.

We tend to think of globalization in its most obvious manifestation in the economic realm. This is even perhaps more the case during the current period of globalization, when we compare the restricted trade before the collapse of Communism with the economic integration, global capital markets, the rise of China and India, and rapid technological advances in the last three decades.

Economic globalization is not new. John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1920 of the “happy age” of global commerce before the outbreak of World War I, and in some areas like migration, the world was more open in Keynes’ day than it is today. Nevertheless, the technological advances that allow for instantaneous communication have made our period of globalization bigger, faster, and more widespread than ever before. The effects of the global shutdowns during the COVID-19 outbreak have highlighted both our interconnectedness and the fragility of the current system.

The trade-offs of globalization

Like all things in life, globalization comes with trade-offs. Global integration has brought about many benefits: We have not had a major European war in 70 years; trade and globalization have led to profound decreases in poverty and disease; and global interaction has enabled remarkable development, especially in the area of supply chain, communication and information. So many of the things we consume, even simple ones like coffee, require complex global supply chains.

At the same time, globalization has come with real negatives, some of which have sparked backlash – from worker and student protests to Brexit and the rise of economic nationalism on the Right and Left. On the economic side, not everyone has benefitted equally. As my colleague Alejandro Chafuen has noted, many countries in Africa have been left out. China has used globalization and markets to increase its power over its people and spread its influence throughout the world.

In Europe and the United States – despite more access to a variety of goods and services, technology, and specialty items – not everyone has participated in the bounty. Some areas that relied heavily on manufacturing have lost jobs and are suffering communal breakdown. In the U.S., life expectancy for white working-class males has actually decreased. Angus Deaton and Ann Case have argued that some poor people in the United States are as bad off as their counterparts in Africa and Latin America. A pressing question is how to respond to those who have suffered from globalization socially, politically, and culturally without losing the benefits of global interaction. Simply telling them that globalization makes everyone better off, or to get retrained, is not a serious response.

Political overreach

Beyond economics, there is real worry about political overreach of supranational organizations and the “democracy deficit” in the EU. Brexit, nationalist movements, debates about migration, and border control are just a few examples of the pushback against global political integration in favor of the national state. There are also real political and cultural concerns including imposing secular Enlightenment visions of the person and society on developing countries, something I will discuss in more detail.

All of these are important issues, and any serious analysis of globalization must take both the positives and negatives into account.

Beyond political economy

Beyond the political and economic elements, I would argue that there is also an increasing ethos or ideology of globalism – a way of seeing the world that extends beyond economic or political integration which, for lack of a better term, it is a type of technocratic, global secularism. It is more broadly a way of seeing the world – a set of political, cultural, and philosophical values that underlie the dominant view of globalization held by many who work in and lead global institutions.

To be sure, not everyone who supports economic and political integration holds to the ideas I will discuss. There are many disagreements over the right balance between global integration and national and local sovereignty. Nevertheless, these ideas and worldview hold a dominant and influential place in the debates over globalization. Though not primarily economic, the ideology of globalism does contain economic elements. Most prominent is the value placed on economic efficiency, which can often blend with the view that sees nation states and local attachments as archaic obstacles to global economic integration.

Ultimately, I will argue that the ideology of globalism is as much a religious vision as it is economic or political one. And it is important to consider its theological nature. This may sound surprising, because the dominant, contemporary vision of globalism is thoroughly secular. Yet I say there are theological elements in play, because much of the underlying vision is rooted in foundational questions about the nature of God’s existence and His role in the universe, of good and evil, of life and death, and the meaning of salvation. Current globalism contains ideological and religious components that any serious consideration of globalization must consider.

This worldview has its origin in a number of sources. The aspirations of global society are as old as mankind, but we find much of its inspiration in the Enlightenment. In his essay on Perpetual Peace, the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant foresaw a world with a federation of states, the abolition of armies, republican government, and world citizenship based on hospitality. For Kant the establishment of the kingdom of God on Earth was “the gradual transition from the ecclesiastical creed to the sovereignty of pure religious faith.” As Josef Pieper explains, the “Religion of Faith” would be supplanted by the “Religion of Reason” with a focus on man, empirical evidence, and technical solutions.

Thus, in order to understand contemporary globalism, we must not simply stop at the political and economic level but also view it theologically and as a religious movement, specifically an alternative to Christianity whereby the kingdom of Heaven is realized in the current age. Contemporary global secularism is the recurring motif of the Tower of Babel – an attempt to solve the problems of sin, evil, suffering, division, and death through political and technical means.

What I’d like to do in this series of short essays is briefly address the topic of secularism and several of what I see are some of the main characteristics and values that animate both the secular modern state, and this global secular vision. This is in no way exhaustive, and many are interconnected, but I think some of the dominant characteristics of the modern state and secular globalism include:

  • philosophical materialism;
  • plastic anthropology, a malleable view of the human person;
  • adherence to the sexual revolution;
  • the primacy of the technical;
  • humanitarianism;
  • social engineering; and
  • suspicion of local attachments

The topic of contemporary secular globalism is complex, and this can only be a broad, thematic overview. There is not a single source of our problems, nor a single solution to the problems we face. But I hope this series of essays will highlight some of the key characteristics of globalism and make some distinctions between its economic, political, and cultural aspects. I invite your engagement and look forward to spirited discussion and debate.

(Photo credit: Foundations World Economic Forum. CC BY 2.0.)

Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute