From The “Anxious Bench” to the Cereal Aisle: Chad E. Seales On How Bono, Revivalists and Neoliberal Capitalists Are One But Not The Same

I enjoyed listening to Chad E. Seales, author of Religion Around Bono: Evangelical Enchantment and Neoliberal Capitalism (Penn State University Press, 2019), in two recent interviews on the ways Bono is in the tradition of both religious revival preachers, such as early American Presbyterian minister Charles Grandison Finney, and neoliberal capitalists, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs, former U.S. President Barack Obama and current U.S. President Donald Trump.

Seems like an odd cohort to belong to, doesn’t it? And it sounds like maybe Seales has joined the tradition of treating Bono like an easy target for cheap shots. But not so fast. I appreciate Seales’ analysis and constructive criticism and I think he wants to be a part of a conversation worth having. In both interviews, Seales offers helpful context, especially in the second, longer interview, and I thought he fairly credited Bono with intending to do good things in his position of wealth and influence.

Seals describes himself as a U2 fan who grew up in the American Evangelical Christian tradition. He is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and also the author of The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town (Oxford University Press, 2013). His academic work here is, I think, a valuable addition to both U2 studies and studies of U2 fans. I wouldn’t mind talking with Seales myself, and while I might not reach all of the same conclusions he does, I’ve already learned from his explanation of how the processes work in a system channeling celebrity influence, religious appeals and capitalist principles.

I recommend listing to both interviews in full. One was with Western Michigan’s WGVU host Shelly Irwin (May 18, 2020, 8:10) and the other was with KPFK Pacifica’s Rising Up With Sonali” hosted by Sonali Kolhatkar (April 21, 2020, 19:18).

I pulled these quotes from the interviews just because they were the more interesting ones to me.

Seales explains to WGVU’s Shelly Irwin that he sees Bono as similar to early 1800’s American revivalist Charles Finney in his adaptation of Finney’s “anxious bench” technique in U2 concerts. He speaks to this point from the 5:00 – 6:40 mark, during which he says:

[Bono] comes from an Evangelical revival tradition. He takes the message of Evangelicalism into the world through secular means, and this is part of the tradition going back to the Second Great Awakening in American revival history. … And Bono does similar things in his concerts, not in a way to convert you to save your soul but to convert you to his cause, which are moral and social causes in Africa.

During the course of his conversation on “Rising Up With Sonali,” in which host Kolhatkar takes a more critical tone toward Bono than Irwin did, Seales said:

There’s a way in which Bono packages this evangelical spirituality such that it’s both non-offensive in the sense that it’s not being pushed on anybody, in the sense of someone not wanting to hear it, and it’s also sort of an open secret. Bono speaks of it as drawing fish in the sand. The messages are there for those who can see them, hear them, and want to find them, and it’s also kind of not there at all for fans who just wouldn’t catch onto the underlying religious themes. (starting at 3:36)

Bono is an icon of the ability of capitalism to absorb critique and restructure itself in such a way that it continues to maintain its both external status as intervening from the outside in and the ways in which multinational corporations are not in any way forced to revise their policies. (starting at 7:14)

Bono, like Oprah, sees no contradiction in making money, lots of money, but it’s a ‘good’ … if it’s in the service of a higher calling, a transcendent purpose. And in this case Bono’s transcendent purpose [are] the causes he champions in Africa. (starting at 13:58)

There’s a kind of scarcity that plays into these Evangelical models of [entrepreneurship] in that you have to earn it in the sense of economically, in the same way that you’re responsible for your own salvation as an Evangelical. (starting at 15:03)

Bono’s version of evangelicalism is closer to Barack Obama’s, or it’s closer to the Democratic Party’s in the United States, so one of the ironies is liberal progressives who are huge fans of U2 … are also sharing, in economic terms, the evangelicalism that undergirds the Religious Right. (starting at 16:11)

If you look and actually compare the economic practices of Trump versus Bono, they’re quite similar … but on the surface in terms of their progressive politics they are totally different brands. So one of the things to keep in mind in terms of religion is that there’s a kind of religious convergence underneath what appears to be separate economic brands. (starting at 16:33)

And lastly, after making a helpful analogy to how an aisle of cereal at the grocery looks like it has a plurality of difference even though all of the boxes contain mostly the same ingredients, Seales says:

The underlying ingredient that both Bono shares with Trump that shares with former President Obama is this notion of free markets. … The key signals of neoliberal policies are the privatization of public goods and services and a deregulation on a global sense of free markets.” (starting at 16:10)

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