The Money Cult

The Money Cult; Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream by Chris Lehmann. Melville House, 2016.

The American founding story features Pilgrims in those funny hats and austere ways. Their religion was not yet entangled in their economic life. But the industrial revolution came along in the last half of the nineteenth century, and their “plain living” had to be reconciled with both the growing aggregate wealth of the community and widening disparities in the distribution of income. Their accommodation to this wealth also embraced the pursuit of profit and its rewards. The latter was surely a sign of God’s favor.

We are familiar with Chris Lehmann’s argument. Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class; An Economic Study of Institutions and even more relevant Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism described the relationship between the ethics of austere Protestantism and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism.

Lehmann tracks various religious “awakenings” in the British-American colonies beginning with the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s. This “new birth” or “new light” was preached by itinerant celebrity speakers at “revivals” or camp meetings. The Awakening also involved a huge output of tracts. Their preaching and writing borrowed heavily from a particular reading of Scripture. Mostly evangelical, these preachers were good at marketing themselves and their message.

This robust advocacy also resulted in numerous schisms and consequently new congregations and creeds. Even though most claimed to be imitating the creedless early church, Creeds came along nevertheless.

Then, as now, there were efforts to reconcile devout faith with good fortune. Benevolence toward the needy was held up as a Christian virtue. The title, Money Cult, suggests that often these various splinter groups were like cults. They worshipped God and were thankful for His largess, which He chose to reward differentially.

Historians have called western New York State the “burned-over district” because of the many denominations and movements that originated in this region during the “Second Great Awakening.” Western Kentucky was another site of religious fervor and preaching. The church that I grew up in, the Disciples of Christ (sometimes referred to as the Christian Church), originated on the Kentucky frontier. It grew out of the preaching of Thomas and Alexander Campbell. They hoped to keep their movement free of creeds by imitating the apostolic church. Ultimately the Disciples found their way into American mainstream Protestantism – Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopal and American Baptist.

The authors and preachers of this nineteenth-century “Awakening” talked about self-improvement through faith. This religious revivalism became closely associated with a parallel effort to recognize an entrepreneurial class. Often found at the popular Chautauqua assemblies peddling their self-help tracts, they began to use radio broadcasting in the 1920s and eventually television in the 1950s.

Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) is an example of this blending of capitalism and Christian outreach. He was for many years pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. He is best known for his book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) and for his monthly tracts, Guideposts. Peale was a friend of the politically powerful, including Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. J.C. Penny was a friend and supporter of Peale’s.

Tim LaHaye (1919-2015) is an example of another fusion of laissez-faire capitalism and the benefits bestowed on the prosperous by an admiring God. His ministry was mostly in California and involved a large congregation, intense public relations, and fund raising. He was also a successful writer, beginning his fictional Left Behind series in 1995. As his book titles suggest, he was into the notion of “end times” and rapture of the righteous few.

According to Lehmann, this new breed of evangelists continued to merge capitalist rhetoric and Christian evangelism. Many also absorbed right-wing political views from the business class they admired who supported them financially. Perhaps their pronouncements about end-times is a partial explanation for their complacency in the face of growing wealth inequality and indifference to our environmental future.

Billy Graham, 98, has just retired from his ministry. He began that ministry in 1949, reaching a constituency of affluent, moderately conservative Protestants. He continued to use the outdoor rally that previous Christian evangelists pioneered with great success. Who will succeed him on the religious circuit?

 

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