The term “neoliberal” is notoriously tricky to work with because of both its varied use and the way it is now mired and often compromised in its polemical use in contemporary political debate (not unlike how the term “fascist” is thrown around perhaps a little too liberally to describe any kind of authoritarianism). Nevertheless, it is a term that we cannot avoid today, and there is a very general but cohesive phenomena of the modern life that we can describe with it.
In its fundamental essence, neoliberalism is the ideological vision and active ordering of the world as a universal market. Society is not seen as fundamentally being a polis, a civitas, or even an oikos (family in its broad sense), but rather a free market, and the individual in turn is fundamentally understood as an atom of production and a consumer. The neoliberal world has no real structure and in fact actively works to destroy robust forms of communal identity that makes moral and economic claims that supersedes the calculus of the free market. Its end goal is to have no structure but the neoliberal individual who seeks to construct their individual self-identity and self-actualization through the free market. The psychological and political engine, the genius of late capitalism, is its enshrining of consumer identity as the central marker of who and what we are as individuals. In the neoliberal world, identity is no longer constructed and achieved through family, class, trade, language, ancestry, geography, religion, etc., but rather through how and what we consume. All the classical points of identity have not disappeared completely, but they have been overwhelmingly sublimated into pieces for consumer identity, which now has hegemony over how the contemporary individual defines him or herself today.
It’s by understanding this that we can make sense of some strange phenomena like “gamergate” and the countless virulently obsessive webs of modern fandom. If our personal identity is overwhelmingly defined by what kind of entertainment we consume, it is the inevitable (and, for the neoliberal machine, desirable) outcome that vast swaths of modern individuals will in turn invest incredible amounts of personal capital into what they consume. Having undermined the traditional structures of society of their social purchase and legitimacy, neoliberalism traps us by having that which we consume in fact consume our personality. What products we consume become defining markers of our identity to the point that we even become free market consumers of ethical positions.
So what does this have to do with the Christian faith and its venerable liturgies? For the sake of space, lets look at the two particular examples that have been central to my concerns over the past few years.
I have long argued that modern Evangelicalism and the closely corresponding pseudo-denominational pretension of “non-denominationality” is neoliberal Christianity par excellence. “Non-denominational” Evangelicals are always theologically vacuous, and they never attempt to build upon past traditions but rather actively seek to erase them and replace them with a “non-denominational” vision of Christianity that is taken as self-evident despite coming from God-knows-where. Whatever notions of “openness” or “multiple points of view” within them operate as a purely liberal democratic artifice that in reality merely subsumes all difference. The signature gesture is always to downplay or even belittle whatever was distinctive in doctrine and practice in favor of some monolithic, “seeker-sensitive”, vacuity. So in its true operations “non-denominationality” and the corresponding American Evangelicalism cannibalizes upon other churches, particularly the various Reformed churches and Wesleyan Holiness movements. All that is left over from this is a pietism that amounts to little more than the shallow emotionalism of tearing up while you belt out a chorus (of a theologically banal song cooked up by Hillsong) for the umpteenth time.
A quick examination of this will reveal all the distinctive neoliberal touches on modernity. By its pretensions of being “non-denominational” (which is conspicuously identical to modern American Baptist culture), Evangelicalism seeks and perpetuates an ecclesiology that aspires to complete individual independence from any formal community of churches and is beholden to no common tradition, history, or beliefs. When its influence infiltrates churches it always seeks to delegitimize and destroy what makes these churches distinct in order to take its place. Once the robust structures have been hollowed out and the churches sapped of the beliefs and practices that built and upheld its moral integrity, the transformation into a wholly consumerist community is made complete, its worship and beliefs now defined entirely by what is pushed by the American Evangelical juggernauts that have effectively reduced the Christian faith into pathetic self-help mantras, feel-good hedonistic banalities, liberal capitalism, “freedom”, and healthy doses of jingoism. This Borgish nature of American Evangelicalism, which has been successfully exported to East Asia and Africa, reflects a peculiar inner colonial method.
But lest we high church folks think we have somehow been immune to this, Anglicans have been highly susceptible to neoliberal consumerist identity as well even if we bracket out those churches of ours that have been swallowed up completely by the Evangelical Borg (the Roman Catholics suffer from similar problems, but I’m not interested in throwing stones in a glass house). Just look at the predominance of the rhetoric of “churchmanship” and how it is used in modern Anglican dialogue. Many Anglicans now define themselves entirely by the kind of liturgical aesthetic they consume, with identities like “Anglo-Catholic” often superseding not only one’s own diocese but even the Church entire that they are joined to by common communion. Don’t like your local bishop? Nothing to fear, there are flying bishops to spare. These identities are defined more by the consumption patterns of individuals and particular parishes than the objective body of the Church Catholic. It is also not uncommon for all this devoted controversy of churchmanship to be under-girded with little theological substance and in fact followed by no substantive practice at all. And so we see Anglicans who hinge their identity entirely upon particular things they consume (the 1928 BCP, the 1979 BCP, the English Missal, incense, praise bands, vestments, cassocks, casual street wear) and argue so vociferously about these things and yet show themselves, again and again, to be largely ignorant about the actual theological content that gives meaning to these things, their history, and their practical use and ecclesial reality.
So for all the constant lip service we pay to social justice and Christian discipleship, we are now a Church where discipline has disintegrated catastrophically. We care more about the rightness of what we consume and the rightness of what we say than what we actually do, how we seriously reflect upon our own beliefs and practices, and what it really means to be a Christian historically and contemporaneously. Just earlier this morning I was at the opening of my diocesan synod where a pious litany of woke environmental concerns were being said while coffee was served in hundreds upon hundreds of single-use paper cups without a single mug in sight. We are a dangerously formalistic Church. We obsessively cling onto particular outer tokens while also, in an incredible paradox, actively try to sap these tokens of their inner meaning and sanctity, and issue moral banalities that are conspicuously indistinguishable from the popular cultured sentiments of the day, curated by the media and the latest political fashions; handing out communion to notorious and unrepentant sinners and the unbelievers like a mass-production sacrament factory, as if the salvation of the world will be achieved merely by making sure everyone consumes, damned what it actually means and damned what any of us actually believe and live out in this world (and effectively, how is this any better than the cheap Evangelical counterpart to this that believes the salvation of the world will be achieved merely by making everyone formally “believe in Jesus”?–no, it is worse, for we desecrate the Holy Sacrament).
And so we have become liturgical capitalists, another scourge to the world in these troubled times.