Moral Pressure for Responsible Globalization: Religious Diplomacy in the Age of the Anthropocene

Moral Pressure for Responsible Globalization:
Religious Diplomacy in the Age of the Anthropocene
Sherrie M. Steiner
Brill 2018

In Moral Pressure for Responsible Globalization, Sherrie M. Steiner offers an account of religious diplomacy with the G8, G7 and G20 to evoke new possibilities in an effort to influence globalization to become more equitable and sustainable. Commonly portrayed as ‘out of control’, globalization is considered here as a political process that can be redirected to avoid the tragedy of the global commons.

The secularization tradition of religion depicts faith-based public engagement as dangerous. Making use of historical materials from faith-based G-plus System shadow summits (2005-2017), Steiner provides ample information to arrive at an interpretation that significantly differs from traditional accounts. Using broader scope conditions, Steiner considers how human induced environmental changes contribute to religious resurgence under conditions of weakening nation states.

Sherrie M. Steiner, Ph.D. (1998), Washington State University, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Her publications on environment and religion include “Is Religious Soft Power of Consequence in the World Today?” in Jean-Guy A. Goulet (editor) Experiencing Religion in the Contemporary World, Religious Diversity Today, Volume 3:1-34 (Praeger).

Review (12 September 2018):

With clarity and an appreciation of the complexities wrought by globalization, Sherrie M. Steiner’s book Moral Pressure for Responsible Globalization: Religious Diplomacy in the Age of the Anthropocene offers a sobering yet optimistic account of the role of religion in global governance. The historically unprecedented emergence of a transnational religious summitry—the F8/F7/F20 Initiative—is analyzed within a broader framework of human ecology theory to aver religion’s return to the public sphere as a response to human-induced global environmental changes. Since its inception in 2005 the F8/F7/F20 Initiative has shadowed the G-plus System—an intergovernmental forum that addresses complex economic and political issues—with the intent of redressing accountability and ethical consideration in global governance. Though the G-plus System did not officially recognize the F8/F7/F20 Initiative until 2016, the religious sector has made its presence felt in the global governance process since 1998 with the formation of a non-profit organization, World Faiths Development Dialogue. Given the unstructured complexity of a post-Westphalian world in which “governance without government” is increasingly the norm, Steiner expertly analyzes the role of religious soft power in global governance in her comprehensive case study of the F8/F7/F20 Initiative.

Steiner accomplishes her twofold objective of reporting on the governance role of religion in transnational relations and of foregrounding the significance of religious diplomacy to interpolate ethical consideration and accountability in the G-plus System with a nuanced method of historical sociology. Rather than comport with conventional approaches in sociology or history, Steiner includes environmental factors (e.g., climate change) as a causal explanation for the public resurgence of religion and expounds on the oft occluded role of meso-level religious, human rights, and development organizations to “refine our understanding of different forms of agency exercised on behalf of collectives, as well as individuals” (60). Human-induced but non-human “agentic” forces such as pollution, climate change, and degrading ecosystems are jeopardizing sustainable living conditions, irrespective of national boundaries. State capabilities are being “hollowed out” as networks and partnerships between organizations become the norm, whether that be in the interests of transnational corporations or in the collaborative efforts of international and religious non-governmental organizations (INGOs and RNGOs) to redress the governance lacuna of accountability on the world stage. As Steiner herself explains, this causal relationship between societies and the environment is a complex, multi-dimensional, and non-linear process that weakens state power and renders the anthropocentrism of traditional ethics impotent. In detailing the organizational procedure of the F8/F7/F20 Initiative as it has evolved over the past twenty years Steiner not only remedies the neglect of religion in existing scholarship, she develops a “cosmopiety” theory of risk society throughout the bookusing the Initiative as an illustrative example of this “new historically emergent cosmopolitan governance stream in transnational relations” at work (9).

Coming from a neo-Weberian school of thought, Steiner articulates cosmopiety as an ideal type to identify “dimensions of governance associated with a new type of religious engagement in the public sphere” (292). In addition to using Weber’s critical appraisal of modernity, Steiner draws from and extends Peter Berger’s theory of religious institutionalization in the context of globalization, Joseph Nye’s conception of soft power, Ulrich Beck’s theory of risk society, and Habermas’s view of reflexive religious reasoning in the public sphere to develop a transnational theory of religion—cosmopiety—that is empirically informed.

Steiner’s documentation and assessment of the F8/F7/F20 Initiative demonstrates that the informality of the leadership rotation model and dialogical process of its organizational procedure is an effective soft power alternative to the weakening of state powers on the world stage. As an extension of civil society yet independent of any parent international organization, the Initiative “provides a forum for the sharing of best practices to develop international action that tends to be reflective of, and grounded in, a full respect for religious beliefs and domestic policy” (80). This informal leadership structure is modeled after the G-plus System and allows for reflexive governance strategies to be shaped by the local host context while retaining a persistent commitment to respecting religious differences. The Initiative has met annually since 2005 through its iterations as the F8, F7, and finally as the F20. The organization has discussed a variety of complex issues, including but not limited to the eradication of poverty, the importance of religious freedom, sustainable development, and the monitoring of corporate social and ecological accountability. Rather than dismissing this dialogical process as an impractical use of time, Steiner elucidates how religious diplomacy yields a cultural capital capable of putting moral and civic pressure on national leaders to redress these issues and more as conveyed by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and later by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In the spirit of reflexivity, Steiner’s book could have benefited from an explication of how neoliberal political rationality and governance techniques such as best practices, consensus building, and metrics for tracking progress reproduce national or corporate economic interests in tension with the emergence of a global, “eco-centric” ethics capable of affirming religious and cultural difference. Given the broader framework of human ecology theory and her vision of cosmopiety as a decentralized exercise of soft power that is dialogical, acknowledges religion on its own terms, and is oriented towards the common good (95), drawing from such scholars as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Karen Barad, Brian Massumi, and/or Erin Manning could moreover enrich cosmopiety as an interpretive lens for understanding transnational religious involvement in global governance. Seeing that there is no extraterritorial order or set of laws around which to command what ought to be done to avoid a tragedy of the global commons, the capacity for religious diplomacy and navigating the complexity of polysemic interpretations among and between religions with regard to right courses of action can be improved with intellectual resources from subfields in philosophy such as affect theory and new materialism. 

Rigorous, inclusive, and extensive, Moral Pressure for Responsible Globalization is an exemplary model of transdisciplinary scholarship that not only contributes new knowledge otherwise lost between the interstices of disciplines, but also addresses at its core the ethical imperative of globalized responsibility for the ecosystems upon which our lives depend. At a time when the era of globalization is characterized by “governance without government,” mounting uncertainties, and “wicked problems” such as the metastasizing of religiously motivated violence, Moral Pressure for Responsible Globalization is indispensable literature for religious studies scholars and political scientists alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Loch is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Denver/Illif School of Theology.