Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The American church and capitalism....requiring real separation

 Anyone who thinks or believes that removing trump from office is going to solve the deeply embedded cancer that plagues the body politic in the United States is, in a word, delusional. That is a word aptly and justifiably glued to the current occupant of the Oval Office by observers as close a Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Less easily quantified, qualified and measured is the notion of the delusion that pervades the U.S. It is not only the Republican Senators, and well over a hundred Republican members of the House, whose blind, defiant, arrogant, stubborn and dangerous sycophancy to the chief executive, and nor is it only those who marauded insider the Capitol last Wednesday who are delusional. The American culture has been so manifestly and completely consumed by the exclusive, narrow and narcissistic definition of capitalism that it seems impossible to envision any transformation that divorces profits, personal wealth acquisition, religion and dominance from the culture. 


As a Canadian kid living in small-town Ontario, back in the fifties, I participated in penny-scrambles on the town dock, ‘blessed’ and patronized by affluent American tourists who came into our town on Great Lakes tour boats, licensed in Duluth Minnesota. While it was a few moments of childish play, innocent enough for both kids and ‘the rich,’ the experience also planted seeds of scepticism, doubt, wariness and detachment in this then pre-adolescent. The church I attended also lavished praise on the wealthy, especially the donor of a set of Carillon bells, (then at least costing $10K), whose presence in church services only began with the writing of the cheque. Of course, the then presiding clergy was eminently able, and presumably justified, to boast of his impact on the little congregation, by pointing to such symbolic gestures of both generosity and religiosity.’;’ The Billy Graham model of evangelism had arrived in our town, complete with revival meetings, conversions, guest revival preachers, summer-town-dock revival services, and the accompanying self-righteous preaching against the evils of the secular society such as movies, dances, make-up, wine, Sunday meal preparation and the ‘big one’ Roman Catholicism. Exclusive possession, worship, repetition, and the process of cultural embedding of a high degree of superiority based on an extremely narrow interpretation of scripture, necessarily includes, in fact depends upon, the complete and total rejection of ‘the enemy,’ the Devil, Satan, the all things unholy, depending on the specific conception of those words.

It is the marriage of capitalism and a form of Christianity that merits a much closer examination, especially on the heels of the insurrection on January 6th at the U.S. Capitol and the foreshadowing of violent insurgencies in all 50 state capitals and Washington D.C. starting on Sunday January 17 according to FBI reports and warnings. From the website, blog.p2pfoundation.net, there is a piece entitled Capitalism is religion. Two juxtaposed epithets attempt to frame the piece:

First, “The invisible hand of the free market governs everything and the hardworking get prosperous while the lazy suffer poverty”.

Second: “God of the creation governs everything and the faithful get in heaven while the heathen suffer hell.”

The piece continues: As you can easily notice, ‘invisible hand’ is a replacement for God, ‘free market’ is a replacement for ‘the creation,’ the ‘hardworking’ is a replacement for ‘the faithful’ and ‘the lazy’ is a replacement for ‘the heathen’. That’s because Capitalism is a Christianity replacement. So much that it even replicates the Church organization of Medieval Christianity. The economists (clergy) continually advocate (preach) free market economics (the faith) and interpret the economy (holy book) on behalf of the society (the believers). The critical economists, (heretic priests) are outcast by the establishment, not given airtime, ridiculed or censured. Whatever happens in the economy is interpreted and ‘somehow’ explained by the economists (clergy), and in those explanations, anything good that happens is due to the free market economics (the faith) and anything bad that happens is due to straying away from free market economics (having any other faith). According to the sermon , all that the hardworking (faithful) need to so is to work hard (have faith) and keep staying the course. Because ‘the invisible hand’ will fix all problems, crises, issues without them needing to do anything in particular. All they have to do is to have faith, and putting their trust in their religion by trusting the clergy of the church. Whose only solution to every single problem is more free market (more faith), and if a solution does not work at all, its because the society was not faithful to the free market enough. (blog.p2pfoubndation.net)

Obviously a stark and unyielding depiction of the enmeshment of the North American culture. In another work, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by R,H, Tawney written in 1926, from scholarlybooks.blogspot.com, we read a summary of the Tawney treatise: Medieval Europe was a serfdom and the church reinforced this by saying that everybody is part of the ‘body….(I)n the 16th century, with an explosion of European mining and more importantly, the importation of riches from the Americas and the Far East…all these expeditions required much more capital than individual feudal land owners or even states had, so people began to invest together, creating several financial markets throughout Europe, and creating great wealth for the financiers…Martin Luther ..criticises the church…especially its use of interest…and urges people to go back to a pre-medieval feudal system because true faith in God canot be shown through an institution, only through hard labor on the land…he is the first sign of the movement separating church from state…John Calvin, a Swiss merchant/capitalist, thinks interest and trade should be used though strictly regulated. In England, they outlaw interest and forbid capitalists from buying up land. But as the mercantile class gets larger, (it) gains clout in politics and the state starts paying less attention to its church’s criticisms of interest. They start citing the idea of ‘natural law,’ that man is born with certain rights to do whatever he wants…and by the end of the 1500’s the church is stripped of its judicial power and laws are enacted giving the mercantile class free reign.

In its review of Tawney’s The Radical Tradition edited by Rita Hinden, The New York Review (nybooks.com/articles/1, we find these words:

In The Acquisitive Society, (Tawney) criticized capitalism because it encouraged economic power without social responsibility. The right to property had become separated from any obligation to discharge a useful social function. In Equality, (Tawney) attacked the view that the natural inequality of man in respect of ability justified inequalities of wealth and status: rather, so he argued, it would be in an egalitarian society that diversity of abilities would flourish most for the common good. In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, (Tawney) studied the origins of acquisitive individualism. Quoting Tawney’s words, “It is this demon-the idolatry of money and success-with whom, not in one sphere alone but in all, including our own hearts and minds, Socialists have to grapple.” Tawney equated capitalism with private capitalism and private capitalism with the effective sovereignty of the functionless shareholder.

The New Republic, through writer Elizabeth Bruenig, April 20, 2015, also details the work of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America. Bruenig writes: Christianity was brought into the service of laissez-faire economic in Puritan devotion to work and thrift….(And) The Preoccupation with Christian doctrine that animated ardent pro-capitalists of yesteryear has subsided to a vaguely spiritual moralism We now live in the age of “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. And while ethe Christian right persists in the same old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, et cetera) its strength appears to eb waning: The once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering, and titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics no longer seem reliant upon it to bolster their project….Concerned that populist politics might endanger their wealth, America’s monied interests did what they do best: They bought a solution…A Congregationalist pastor who made his fortune in southern California by preaching to the fabulously wealthy and accepting their patronage. (James W. Fittfield) Kruse notes, was especially gifted at assuring wealthy Christians that their riches were evidence of virtue rather than vice…. (Mid twentieth century) Fitfield married Christian thought with a new era of economic development, and spread the gospel through his organization, Spiritual Mobilization. Its mission was simple: to stamp out Christian support for a generous welfare state, which paired naturally with New Deal concern for the poor, elderly and vulnerable—and to advance a new theory of Christian libertarianism. Spiritual Mobilization sought to influence ministers across the country, and with its bottomless monetary resources, it was doomed to success. (Kruses’s account shows it vulgarity) “Christianity was rented out, quite consciously, to buttress a shambling narrative about the continued dominance of the monied class in a performance that even Marx would have found blunt….Kruse names Billy Graham as a spiritual inheritor to the early efforts of Christian libertarians like Fitfield. Graham’s preaching was sensational, and won the support of tycoons like Texas oilman Sid Richardson, who helped launch Graham’s career in Washington D.C. Graham’s ascent opened the way for other pastors with political aspirations, like Jerry Falwell, and his Moral Majority cohort, to wax passionate about eh gospel while raking in cash from committed capitalists delighted by the arranged marriage of God and mammon.

Breunig also make reference to Kate Bowler’s 2013 book, Blessed: A history of the American Prosperity Gospel, linking people like Joel Osteen and Osteen and his overtly Christian ilk minister to their flocks, Oprah’s message is broad enough to be enjoyed by all: a better business decision at any rate. In other words, (Breunig writes) the prophets of capitalism have a way of using the workable parts of older pro-capitalist narratives to meet the needs of changing audiences, while shedding vestigial bits.

As one whose youth was tarnished by a kind of early prosperity gospel, including social status “halo’s” implicit around the heads of those new converts to the Bellymena bigot’s version of the faith, those carillon bells, those dock-side revival meetings, only to find myself “lead” by establishment church bishops whose “fill the coffers and the pews” horations helped to drive one clergy to his suicide, and then discovered another whose version of church leadership was captured in the marketing cry: “increase by 10% in people and 15% in revenue” to a diocesan convention in 1998, I remain committed to criticizing the capitalist tainting of the gospel, the prosperity gospel, the triumphalism of that version of holy writ and the impact it has on individual parishioners, as well as the wider community.

The very presence of the “cross” of the Cruficixion at the insurrection last Wednesday, and the over-weening passion of some of those insurgents in their abject fealty to an already disgraced president, evoking a passion and “rabies-like” frenzy akin to those evident in the Crusades, not to mention the over-riding power and influence of conspiracy theories that paint Democrats as child molesters, and disciplined voting officials as traitors combine to provoke serious questions about the viability of any proposal of “unity” returning to the American body politic any time soon.

It is not that stamping out capitalism is an immediate solution. It is also not that the Christian church, glaringly and disappointingly silent through the last four years of the triumph not only of the ‘will’ of a single man, but the triumph of lies over truth, sycophancy over responsibility, conspiracies over authentic debate, and chaos over law and order.

The U.S. is morphing demographically, and than transformation integrates, by necessity, a plurality of religious affiliations, including agnostics, atheists and, hopefully, some moderates in all faith communities. If a Black Senator and a Jewish Senator can now be elected (officially and legally and uncontestedly) in Georgia, then, while it is a mere spark of hope, nevertheless, such sparks can and will, if fanned, eventually break out into a chorus of truth, tolerance, justice and equality….all of them at the heart of not only the Christian faith, but also any other faith worthy of the name.

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