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Global Capitalism and Global Religion: A New Symbiosis

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Each era has its own representative characters. These characters are recognizable symbolic images, tied to specific social contexts and roles. They orient our lives in those contexts, shaping our aspirations, behaviors, and conceptions of worth and success.

Two new characters have appeared on the global scene.

The Mercenary

The for-profit corporation, in the 1950s, was the habitat of the “organization man,” bereft of individuality and loyal to the company. By the 1980s this character was replaced by “the manager,” devoid of autonomy, dedicated to bureaucratic rationalization and maximizing shareholder wealth.

Today’s global corporation is dominated by a new character bereft of loyalty altogether: the Mercenary. Not the sort who fights and kills for money. This is a new breed of economic mercenary in unabashed pursuit of money and mobility.

“In corporate industries, we’re all mercenaries,” as Ashwin (not his real name), a professional I interviewed in India, put it. “We work for the money. Honest—honest truth! I don’t work for loyalty, right? I’m not loyal to the company. I work for the cash!”

Ashwin’s quote exemplifies the logic of the Mercenary—apprehensive individualism. The company’s not going to be loyal to you, so you shouldn’t be loyal to the company. You cannot—and should not—trust anyone at work, since everyone is out to maximize their own mobility. No matter what perks or flexibility your company offers you, you still know you’re expendable. The Mercenary’s moral imperative is to maximize individual career mobility.

The Missionary

The Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is the fastest growing form of Christianity around the world, particularly in the Global South. It has also taken root within established churches like Roman Catholicism. This form of religion generates a different representative character: the Missionary.

Charismatic Christianity emphasizes not only a personal relationship with Jesus but also the power of the Holy Spirit. Miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, and prophesies characterize Charismatic groups. While the image of Christ as healer is pervasive in Christianity, what is unique to the Charismatic form is the priority given to individual healing. The logic of the Missionary is one of therapeutic individualism.

Executives like Ashwin, I was surprised to find, are leaders in such prayer groups. By day, they suffered (and sometimes perpetuated) gossip, sycophancy, sabotage in their cutthroat corporate workplaces. But their evenings and weekends were dedicated to their faith communities.

Here they saw themselves as a new kind of missionary, dedicated to preaching the healing power of Jesus—not by proselytizing, but rather by re-evangelizing their fellow believers who had not experienced this power in their lives. Indeed, they often claimed that their corporate jobs were just a means for them to sustain this primary mission. But the healing they most often sought was from the wounds inflicted on them in the Mercenary workplace.

The key paradox of the book is that the Mercenary and the Missionary are the same person. I try to explain why these elite professionals sustain starkly opposing commitments in the realms of work and religion. The answer, I find, is that the two characters are ultimately symbiotic.

While some argue that economic development fosters greater existential security and thus religious decline, I find that certain forms of capitalism create new existential insecurities that strengthen the appeal of religion. There is an elective affinity between the apprehensive individualism of the Mercenary and the therapeutic individualism of the Missionary.

Global characters in local contexts

Mercenaries and Missionaries: Capitalism and Catholicism in the Global South is based on twelve months of participant observation and more than 200 interviews I conducted in Bangalore, India, and Dubai, UAE, and reveals the effects of global as well as local forces.

On the one hand, the characters of the Mercenary and the Missionary emerge in settings that largely look similar in the West—global corporate workplaces and charismatic prayer groups. These professionals work in companies like IBM, HP, Dell, and so on; they even follow American Charismatic televangelists like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer.

On the other hand, they are embedded in and shaped by their local contexts.

Dubai, for instance, houses what is considered the world’s largest Catholic parish by membership. Nevertheless, all its members are expats, and there are considerable legal restrictions on Christianity as a foreign religion. Meanwhile, in Bangalore, even though the Church runs numerous elite educational and medical institutions and is composed of Indian citizens, it is still beset by numerous internal and external political tensions, which sometimes turn violent.

The book details how such local factors also contribute to the strange symbiosis between the Mercenary and the Missionary.


Brandon Vaidyanathan is Associate Professor and Department Chair of Sociology at the Catholic University of America. See all books by this author

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