It’s saying that economic distress does often in human history express itself in more rigid forms of religion, more reactionary cultural identification, less tolerance of “the other.” ~Sullivan
As historical analysis, this is basically a lot of bunk. Religious rigidity has not lessened in oil-rich countries, but has instead found a steady stream of funding; the rise of Hindu fundamentalism has coincided with the new wave of prosperity in India over the last 20 years; Sullivan’s own bogey of so-called “Christianism,” by which he means a very broadly defined Christian fundamentalism, has flourished in an era of vast economic expansion. These may be reactions against economic dislocation or rapid change to some extent, but if we want to make such sweeping generalisations (usually a bad idea) it is the prosperous, relatively stable periods that are the moments when great religious ferment and severe reformism appear. The argument that Obama is making, to the extent that it is an argument, is one that possesses the same fallacy as the thesis that modernising societies would gradually become thoroughly secularised and religion would waste away, and it is based in a crude materialist assumption, whether or not you want to call it Marxist, that economic conditions determine culture and religion, when, if anything, the reverse is the case. The idea that people turn to a more severe and strict religious code in bad economic times is one of the oddest claims I have ever seen, and I’m not sure why anyone has ever believed it. There are certainly enough counterexamples to make it a very poor example of a recurring pattern. Essentially all of the Crusades and the Fourth Lateran Council came during a time of tremendous economic growth in Latin Christendom. More examples could easily be found. Religious reform movements often arise, to the extent that there are direct relations between economic and religious history of this kind, in response to excesses of material prosperity and the moral corruption that reformers see as the result of excessive wealth. Savonarola, who does not deserve the bad reputation he has acquired among moderns, was a preacher of moral reform in a wealthy city-state; his calls for repentance did not draw audiences because they were poor and hungry, but because they felt pangs of conscience for being too rich and gluttonous. It is ironic, to put it mildly, that this part of the same prophetic tradition that Wright’s defenders invoked as justification for his statements seems to have escaped Obama’s notice.
But Obama wasn’t engaged in historical analysis. He was giving a fundraising speech to people in San Francisco and talking about voters in Pennsylvania today, and he was giving an explanation that referred to religion generally and combined it with a host of things that coastal and urban elites (of both parties) find distressing. This wasn’t an observation that in times of crisis people turn to the certainties and traditions that nourish them spiritually, but a claim that guns, religion, prejudice (the “antipathy to people who are not like them”) and what Obama’s audience would readily call xenophobia are all the expressions of economic anxiety and frustration, things to which people “cling” for lack of any other remedy. The most hilarious part of the original statement is the bit where he includes “anti-trade sentiment” as one of the forms of “clinging,” when anti-trade sentiment is the most obvious and understandable reaction to economic woes in the Rust Belt. People do not “cling” to anti-trade sentiment; anti-trade sentiment by itself does nothing. They think that current trade policy has been bad for industries in their state. Had he thrown in “isolationism” to the list of things to which people “cling,” he would have had both the Bush trifecta of supposedly dangerous “isms” and the core of the Thomas Frank analysis.