WE HAVE all heard of “the military-industrial complex”, a phrase made popular by Dwight D. Eisenhower, and referring to that most powerful alignment of interests in American business. But “religious-industrial complex” is a new coinage, and implies that there is a similarly monolithic, implacable organisation dictating current American politics.
The guests on Business Matters (World Service, Thursday of last week) seemed happy with the concept, and did not bat an eyelid when it was invoked in connection with the supposed $1.2 trillion that is generated by religious activities in the United States every year.
This sum includes the budgets of hospitals and educational institutions, and covers all religions and denominations. I imagine that we could cook up something similarly eye-watering if we considered, in the broadest terms possible, the number of British pounds passing in or out in our island’s religious-industrial complex.
What kind of leverage that money then buys you is, therefore, about more than numbers. We associate religion in the US with the right-wing, but that is not necessarily because they have all the money: it is because they are louder and better organised.
Listening to Radio 4’s Lent Talks (Wednesdays) can often feel like a penance: admirably downbeat, slow, and worthy. It was heartening, then, to hear Sharman Apt Russell open the new series with an admission that fasting was boring.
It is boring, but we cope, and our bodies cope. In clinical detail, she described the processes by which our anatomical chemistry adapts as it is starved, and the clarity of vision which it induces — at least temporarily. Then she rhymed this with the ways in which the global community has adapted to deal with the hunger of the world’s poorest citizens. Extreme hunger and poverty is in decline; this is no cause for complacency, but a refreshing message of hope as we hunker down.
In British Socialism: The Grand Tour (Radio 4, weekdays), Anne McElvoy tells the story of the Labour Movement, from 1800, when Robert Owen took a cotton mill in New Lanark and began a revolution in workers’ rights, to the election of Keir Hardie in 1892. More like scenes from a life than a continuous history, McElvoy’s account nevertheless gives us some sense of continuity between these daring expressions of communitarian empowerment — the Chartists and the Socialist League among them — and some vivid insights into the characters who led them.
We meet a wonderful succession of brilliant eccentrics: take Edward Carpenter, an environmentalist and pioneering campaigner for homosexual rights, and a passionate advocate on behalf of the open-toed sandal as liberation for the oppression of the foot. What the Mail Online would make of such views only my colleague writing at the top of this page can imagine.