Globalization, Social Justice and the Plight of the Poor

Globalization, Social Justice and the Plight of the Poor

by Radley Balko

As trade and globalization reach into new corners of the world and touch new cultures, many people of faith worry about what effect this new commerce will have on religion and spirituality.

Many practitioners of western faiths, particularly Christianity, worry that the pursuit of wealth across international borders will lead to a kind of society-wide pursuit of material gain in lieu of spiritual fulfillment.

Activists and free trade opponents, meanwhile, fear that the overpowering influence of western ideas and commercialization will dilute and ultimately corrupt non-western belief systems.

Are they right to be worried? What will happen to religion—both western and non-western—as commerce, ideas, culture, technology and people continue to spill across international borders?

Any discussion of trade and globalization’s influence on religion will share many characteristics of the debate over globalization and culture.

Trade opponents argue that developing cultures don’t have the means to compete with overpowering western influence, and so trade and globalization have led to a kind of “Coca-Cola-fication” of places like Africa and South and Central Asia. The west moves in and imposes its culture before the developing countries in those regions ever had an opportunity to forge a culture of their own.

Free traders counter that impoverished people can’t afford culture. When people are starving and dying of treatable diseases, when a luxury item might be a mosquito net a mother could use to keep her children from getting malaria, whether or not western investment might corrupt the native culture amounts to a pretty trivial concern.

Economists like Tyler Cowen have pointed out that once a developing country achieves a sustainable level of wealth and comfort, the people of that country begin to revel in their own culture, and tend to prefer the art, literature, and music that better relates to them, and speaks to their experiences. The best way to nurture native culture is to give native people the wealth and comfort to have culture, and the best way to create wealth is by allowing them to trade what they have that’s of value—be it simple textiles, agriculture, or cheap labor.

The debate over religion and trade, then, in many ways follows a similar tract as the debate over culture and trade. The scholar and journalist Gregg Easterbrook writes on the website

But equally important may be a much less noticed aspect of end-century society, that prosperity increases both the time available for spiritual reflection and the number of people who may avail themselves of it. Every year more Americans acquire the means to be materialistic, and discover that materialism does not satisfy the soul. Every year more Americans advance enough into the middle class that they have the time or money to read books on spiritual subjects or attend meetings or classes.

But the religious aspects of culture also present some unique challenges and conundrums with respect to trade. For example, those countries that embrace the most radical and devout strains of Islam also tend to be among the most isolated countries in the world, and are also among the poorest. That would preclude one to find religion and open trade at odds. And yet the United States is, all at once, a beacon for religious freedom, a world leader in free trade, and among the most faithful countries on earth. What exactly is the relationship between trade and religiosity?

It is these characteristics that make religion unique from other components of culture that we’ll focus on for this essay.

Trade and Wealth as a Corruptor of Religion

The most apparent argument that trade corrupts religion acknowledges that trade builds wealth. But with wealth comes self-sufficiency, materialism, and luxury. The poor, conventional wisdom says, tend to be more devout. Because the poor have little else of value, they entrust their lives to faith in a higher power. They’re also the beneficiaries of the charity inspired by religion—nearly all the world’s dominant faiths embrace giving to the poor. With education and wealth comes self-reliance, the argument goes, and the feeling that one doesn’t need the help of a higher being to achieve success and comfort in life. It is this self-reliance that puts a wedge between the wealthy and religion. It was Jesus Christ, after all, who said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain access to heaven.

But there’s increasing evidence that the conventional wisdom is off-base.

Benton Johnson, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon, recently published a study that found that while Ph.D.s tend to be disproportionately atheist, there’s no significant correlation between education and faith below the doctorate level. That is, those with masters and professional degrees are no more or less likely to be devout, casual worshippers or nonbelievers than the population at large.

And the story’s the same with wealth as it is with education.

Harvard economist Robert Barro and sociologist Rachel McCleary recently published an extensive study entitled “Religion and Economic Growth,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The two scholars looked at data from 59 countries over 20 years. Barro and McCleary found, surprisingly, that deeply held religious beliefs actually tend to boost economic development. There are a few caveats, of course. The societies that flourished were those that had deeply held beliefs, but were also hospitable divergent faiths. That is, societies that embrace religion tend to prosper, but societies that adopt one religion to the exclusion of all others (by means of the state) fare very poorly.

But what about the western commercialization’s affect on indigenous religion? Are the Golden Arches compatible with Hindu or Buddhist temples? Jennifer Hearn moved to China in 2002 to teach English in the city of Chonqing. She writes in the online journal Paralax:

While living and working in China and travelling throughout Asia, I saw how Western and modern visions have uprooted the ancient timbers of the country and have replaced them with “new and improved” Western ethos. The transition has advanced so rapidly that it has created a gorge of misunderstanding between the old and young. The old are salvaging their culture with incense and prayer while the young ask, why go to the temple at all when all of your blessings are available at The New Century Department Store?

Free traders would counter that until China began to open its borders to trade and markets in the last decade of so, most religion was prohibited in China. The Chinese still have a long way to go to religious freedom, of course. But globalization advocates would argue that commerce and economic liberalization have strengthened religion in the country, in that contact with businesses and entrepreneurs of different backgrounds and faiths can only help to loosen the Chinese government’s restriction on the practice of faith.

There’s also at least anecdotal evidence that those western corporations that have done well in the developing world have done so not by offending local sensibilities, but by catering to them. McDonalds franchises in Hindu regions, for example, don’t serve beef, and instead offer items like the Maharaja Mac, a sandwich made with vegetable patties. The few McDonalds franchises that have managed to infiltrate Arab-Islamic countries don’t serve pork, but do serve the “McFalafel.” These kinds of adaptations make sense. A business that tramples on the customs and beliefs of its community isn’t likely to do business in that community for long.

There are limits, of course. It would be difficult, for example, for corporations to respect religious traditions that take deep and pronounced exception to profit or commerce. But it’s difficult to see how or why a corporation would want to invest in a community that held fast to that kind of tradition to begin with.

Religion, History, and Trade

Barro and McCleary’s study holds up well to history. And free traders would argue that historically, civilizations open to commerce and the exchange of goods and ideas, while not always the most devout, have tended to be civilizations where divergent religions could coexist peacefully and without coercion. So while some may view trading societies as less religious than isolated societies, it is generally the trading societies that have allowed the most people the most freedom to worship in ways of their choosing.

Perhaps the religion that best embodies this point historically is Judaism. Throughout the Middle Ages, up to the Enlightenment era, European Jews were relegated to trade, commerce and banking—mainly because they weren’t permitted to do much else. Societies that isolated themselves to commerce and trade, then, also tended to be the most hostile and inhospitable to Jews. Starting in about the 15th century, in places such as England and Holland (and to a lesser extent, Venice), attitudes toward the Jews grew more tolerant (at least comparatively). England and Holland opened their doors to Jews fleeing persecution from other parts of Europe, and granted Jews some of the basic human dignities and freedoms they were denied elsewhere. Free traders would argue that it’s of no coincidence that Holland and England were the most outward-looking commerce-oriented societies of the time. They also quickly rose to become the most prosperous.

Another example of how trade breeds religious tolerance can be found in Indonesia. The multi-island nation is predominantly Muslim, but was settled and converted by Muslim traders, not Muslim warriors. Indonesia’s unique geography has made the country a center of trade for centuries. It sits at the cradle of two oceans. It’s made up of islands, meaning it has thousands of miles of shoreline, which makes it nearly impossible for the country to close off borders to merchants and travelers. Consequently, Indonesia has always been a hub for trade, and has been heavily influenced by merchants and traders of all faiths, including Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. Indonesia then fostered its own unique incarnation of Islam, an Islam tempered by the tolerance one might expect from a country rich with the history of commerce and exchange of ideas and influences.

But free traders would argue that the country best exemplifying the confluence of trade, piety and religious tolerance is certainly the United States. In no other country has religion in all its variances and incarnations been more free to flourish than it has in America over the last 230 years. In no other country has trade and commerce been more embraced and practiced. And yet while the United States neglects to embrace an official state religion, Americans are among the most religious people in the world, particularly in the developed world. A 20-year study by Robert Inglehart of the Institute for Social Research ranked the United States among the most religious nations in the world.

While it’s true that the introduction of trade may break state strangleholds on the most fundamentalist sects, free traders would argue that commerce introduces new ideas and influences into once-isolated societies. It puts people of divergent faiths in direct contact with one another, and establishes mutually beneficial relationships between them. It’s bad business to hate your customers, after all. And it’s terrible for business to kill them.

Free Trade and Islam

It’s tough to discuss religion and trade without discussing Islam. Proponents of globalization would argue that it’s of no coincidence that those predominantly Islamic countries that are least militant, least hostile to the west and most tolerant of human rights also happen to be the countries most hospitable to trade. In addition to Indonesia, one might add NATO member Turkey to this list, as well as the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which permitted the United States to establish central command for the second Iraq war within its borders.

By contrast, the Islamic countries hosting the most militant strains of Islam and those most historically prone to produce terrorism also happen to be among the most isolated, inward-looking countries on earth.

The United Nations Human Development Programme and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development published a study in 2002 that puts the isolation of these countries into perspective. The entire Arab world translates about 330 non-Arab books every year, about one-fifth the number of the country of Greece. In fact, since the ninth century, the Arab world has cumulatively translated about the same number of books the country of Spain translates every year. This hostility to new ideas is causing an Arab brain drain. Fifty-one percent of Arab scholars told the report’s authors they desire to emigrate to a country more hospitable to learning.

This isolation also causes poverty. In the period of 1960-2000—a period of unprecedented growth around the world—the Arab world actually saw a decline in economic productivity. While those parts of the developing world open to trade were catching up to the west in during that time, the Arab world fell further behind. Arab industrial output was 32% of the west’s output in 1960. That number dropped to 19% by 2000.

Free traders would argue that these numbers aren’t mere coincidence, and that there other benefits to any effect trade may have on “diluting” particularly fundamental strains of some religions, such as human rights for women, and greater political and social freedom.

While Barro and McCleary have presented evidence that societies with policies that respect, even encourage faith and piety seem more prone to prosperity than Godless societies, it’s also vitally important that those societies remain open and tolerant of all faiths—or no faith at all. And, free traders would point out, the evidence suggests that the relationships, interactions and exchange of ideas that come with liberalized trade are the best way to ensure a society develops and sustains that openness and tolerance. The Arab-Islamic example presents some pretty compelling evidence that isolation breeds hate, contempt, and violence. And the poverty wrought by anti-trade policies only compounds the problem.


So who’s right? Perhaps the answer is that both sides are right. Anti-globalists are
probably right when they say that the introduction of commercialization and capitalism change the nature of religion in areas where they didn’t exist before. But free traders are also probably correct when they point out that local custom and tradition also affects how western corporations do business.

And it’s certainly true that theocratic nations shut off to the outside world are more devout than free trading countries that don’t bless any particular religion with the imprimatur of the state. But free traders and anti-globalists need to ask themselves which is preferable: devout societies where religiosity is widespread and deep-rooted, or societies that are perhaps less pious, but where religion can be practiced freely, and without fear of persecution.

The evidence suggests that isolation goes hand in hand with the former, free trade with the latter.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The Acton Institute’s Globalization Resources

God and Globalization: Religion and the Powers of Common Life, by Max L. Stackhouse (contributor) and Peter Paris (editor).

Globalization, Religion and Gender: The Politics of Implementing Women’s Rights in Catholic and Muslim Countries, edited by Jane H. Bayes and Nayereh Esfahlani Tohidi.

“Religion and the Modern World Stage,” by Stanley Kober for The Globalist.

Religion and Globalization, by Peter F. Beyer.

Toward a Global Civilization? The Contribution of Religions, Patricia M. Mische and Melissa Merkling, editors.

Radley Balko is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Virginia. Balko publishes his own blog, The Agitator, and writes occassionally for Tech Central Station.

This article was originally published on A World Connected at and is reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.