CFA Society Chicago Book Club:

The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State by Mark Juergensmeyer

The New Cold WarThe United States won the Cold War when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  Liberal democracy and capitalism reigned supreme; the primary ideological alternative, communism, had proved to be economically and politically unviable.  In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that, with the collapse of communism, humanity may have reached the endpoint of its cultural and political evolution.  But history didn’t end, and according to Paul Berman, the euphoria of the moment “led so many people – in the United States, nearly everyone – to underestimate the dangers of the moment.”

The dangers came from an ideology far older and more intractable than communism, and if most scholars underestimated it, Mark Juergensmeyer definitively did not.  In his book The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, published in 1993, Juergensmeyer identifies the continued dominance of religion in many parts of the world, and how many of these religious worldviews conflict with the secular values of liberal democracy.

Juergensmeyer starts in the Middle East, with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as his first recent example of religion overthrowing a secular government.  Religion has had influence in many other Middle Eastern countries as well, including Egypt.  Even Israel, essentially a secular state, has constituencies that have called for an explicitly religious state.  For example, the Kach Party has stated that non-Jews have no place in Israel, and have called for the country to be run according to Jewish law.  Some of the Kach Party’s statements about Arabs were eerily similar to Hitler’s statements about Jews.

Juergensmeyer also traces the strength of religion in politics in South and Central Asia, including Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and most notably India.  Running a secular government has been a challenge in India given the competing religious factions, including Hindu nationalists (such as the BJP) and Sikh nationalists.  In some instances, this competition has resulted in violence, perhaps reaching is apex in 1984 with Operation Blue Star and its aftermath, in which thousands were killed, including Indira Gandhi, the first female Prime Minister of the country.  Although Sikh and Hindu nationalists strongly disagree about many things, they are united in their opposition to secularism; according to Juergensmeyer, “the Sikh rhetoric is strikingly similar to the language of Hindu nationalists”.

The key question that Juergensmeyer asks at the end of the book is if secular western democracy can be compatible with religious nationalism.  He spotted many challenges in 1993, and the last 22 years have only highlighted the challenges in reconciling these two ideologies.  Perhaps surprisingly, religious nationalism can be very compatible with democracy in many countries, simply because many countries have a homogenous religious population.  If 95% of Iranians are Shi’a Muslims, democracy and theocracy may look very similar in that country.  Indeed, Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom, stressed that often Americans focus too much of promoting democracy, and not enough on promoting liberalism, and then are surprised when liberal values don’t automatically follow from democracy.

And thus the main tension between liberal democracy and religious nationalism comes from the tension between liberalism and theocracy.  Questions about human rights, protection of minorities, and freedom of expression may be answered very differently depending on how societies are structured.  This tension was much discussed in the aftermath of the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting, and highlighted that, however optimistic Juergensmeyer was about reconciling liberal democracy and religious nationalism, there may be intractable differences that continue to cause major problems in our world.


Upcoming Schedule:

October 20, 2015: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

November 17, 2015: No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends by Richard Dobbs, James Manyika, Jonathan Woetzel

December 15, 2015: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford

January 19, 2016: The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public Vs. Private Sector Myths by Mariana Mazzucato


To sign up for a future book club event, please click here:

Distinguished Speaker Series: Kurt Summers

KS Photo (new)On October 1, 2015, Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers took time out of his busy schedule to present the latest on city finances to a packed room in Hotel Allegro.  Summers became Chicago’s Treasurer less than a year ago. In this role, he acts as Chicago’s investor, banker, and advocate.  During his presentation Summers discussed financial challenges and opportunities that Chicago faces and outlined plans to make his office more efficient and cost-effective for taxpayers.  He recently presented his first budget for the Office of the City Treasurer, with a goal of reducing taxpayer expense by 30% while doubling revenue.

One source of savings is at the Department of Aviation at O’Hare airport.  The Treasurer’s Office currently manages the Department’s $1.8 billion portfolio and only charges O’Hare $76,000 a year in investment fees.  This low rate effectively means Chicago taxpayers are subsidizing O’Hare’s investment management fees to the tune of approximately $1 million per year.  Summers plans to better align costs by charging O’Hare directly instead of having this cost subsidized by taxpayers.  By implementing similar measures the Treasurer’s Office can be fully funded without incurring taxpayer expense. Summers also aims to eliminate subsides and generate more revenue across the board.

Another recent initiative that Summers undertook was revising the official benchmark for Chicago’s investment portfolio.  Previously, the benchmark was the 90 day Treasury bill, which Summers felt set the bar too low.  His office decided to changed this to a bespoke benchmark to better reflect the risk-return profile of the city’s investments.  His office also instituted minimum credit quality standards for its entire portfolio.  Previously, credit quality standards were only applied to individual securities.  Finally, his office saw that Chicago had been holding an excess of working capital in the operations portfolio; enough capital to last for 2 months, even though GFAO standards only call for holding enough capital to last for 45 days.  Summers’ office responded by creating an operations reserve portfolio with slightly longer duration, which should generate an extra $30 million in revenue per year for the city.

Summers identified pension reform as the biggest financial problem facing the city of Chicago, and he bemoaned the fact that politics and egos can often get in the way of progress.  Even when proposals for pension reform get agreement from all relevant parties, there are still legal challenges, as some of these proposals have been struck down by the courts.  Large pension liabilities pose many problems for the city including reduced funding for schools and potentially higher taxes, which could drive residents away.

Finally, Summers talked about Chicago’s financial education program.  Initially, there were 130 different organizations in Chicago providing financial education with little coordination and no common set of curriculum.  Summers’ office created a financial education network, and the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has referred to Chicago a “model city” for its approach.  Summers encouraged CFA members to volunteer their time and energy to assist in the program.