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?

 

Tim Tebow. Shaken.

Shaken; Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms by Tim Tebow & A.J. Gregory. WaterBrook, 2016. University of Florida’s Heisman trophy winner, Tebow joined the SEC network and contributes to their programming. He has a foundation which seeks to bring, faith, hope, and love to those needing a brighter day. Gregory is a collaborationist, hired to co-author books by people who have something to say but are not writers. I just learned that President Elect Donald Trump paid Tim $12,000 for an autographed helmet. Book authoring can’t compete with a good branding.

American Grace; How Religion Divides and Unites Us

American Grace; How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam & David Campbell. Simon & Schuster, paper 2012.

Robert Putnam wrote a famous book in 2000 that changed our way of thinking about volunteering in American life. Bowling Alone; The Collapses and Revival of American Community argued that while volunteerism has always been a feature of American life and particularly during the war years, it has, nevertheless, been waning as that generation has aged. The one exception to the general rule is volunteering within religious organizations. This new book looks at American religious life suggesting where there is surprising unanimity about religious matters amongst the differing religious traditions.

 

Putnam and co-author David Campbell distinguish eight religious traditions, and they are ranked in terms of their percent of the U.S. population: 1. White Evangelical Protestants (Most readers would know them as fundamentalists.), 2. Roman Catholic, 3. ‘Nones’ (There are a lot of us!), 4 .Mainline Protestants, 5. African-American Protestants, 6. Other Faiths (e.g. Moslems and Hindus), 7. Jews, and 8. Mormons.  (If you are dubious of categorizing, this is not the book for you.)

 

This is not a sorting out of congregations. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists would array themselves over several of Putnam’s traditions. Roman Catholics are divided (often by parish) between Latino and Anglo Catholics. The complexity increases as the authors keep sorting. So you also to have faith in sorting and sampling techniques.

 

The authors argue that the various political and social movements of the 1960s and 70s – sex, drugs, and rock‘N’roll – and the accompanying youthful disengagement from American postwar prosperity and assurances gave rise to “aftershocks.” These various social trends led to widespread disengagement with religious life. Think about the civil rights movement and how that variously effected religious traditions. Or changing gender roles. Remember that women have been the workhorses of congregations. Yet only belatedly have they risen to positions of authority within their churches. Roman Catholics and Mormons still bar them from the “priesthood.”

 

Court rulings have tended to reduce the power of church over civil society; some critics argued that this separation has left the public square ‘naked.’ (The metaphor ‘nakedness’ is ironic; much of the religious divide has been an aftershock to the ‘moral decadence and sexual permissiveness’ of the 1960s). This diminished influence explains, in part, the rise of revival evangelicalism in response.  Remember Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Earlier Dwight Moody.

The Roman Catholic Church has always been subject to dropouts –lapsed Catholics, more so than in other religious traditions. It received large numbers of immigrants in the late nineteenth century, Irish, Italians, and Poles – more recently Latinos. While ethnic identity was a strength in building Roman Catholicism, ethnicity couldn’t prevent and might even have facilitated the exit of their children and grandchildren. They could identify with your ethnicity, while shedding their religion.

 

Putnam and Campbell talk about religious innovators and entrepreneurs, for example the tent revival and traveling evangelists of bygone decades. These itinerant preachers led to “new faiths” such as Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists. For those who would argue that religion too often has been an “opiate’ which slowed reform, American Grace reminds us that evangelical preachers and their movements also prompted social reform and equality.

 

Churches are friendly places. They are well-structured to encourage friendships amongst their parishioners.  They also encourage generosity. The authors are able to show that the religiously active not only contribute to causes sponsored by their church, they are also more generous in civil involvement and giving. This is good because they are often hostile to the government ‘s social welfare net.

 

With the exception of Black Protestants and Jews, the religiously involved are more likely to vote Republican. This is particularly true of White Evangelical Protestants: 73% voted for George Bush in 2004 as opposed to 15% of Black Protestants. These voting differences are regional. The Southeastern U.S. is both more evangelical and more Republican.

 

Putnam and Campbell argue that racism is declining in all of religious traditions. But it is also true that religious affiliation is strongly associated with race and ethnicity. They remind us of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quip four decades ago that 11 a.m., Sunday morning is the nation’s most segregated hour.  And we are still largely living in that America. This reflects the continuing religious divides that the authors have described, but also our growing economic inequalities and physical segregation.

 

Who goes to heaven? Over 90% of those polled – Mormons, Mainline Protestant, Jews, Catholics, and Black Protestants – believed that individuals who have lived a moral life can go to heaven even if they are practitioners of another religious tradition. Only White Evangelical Protestants were lower and they were 83% assuring that such was possible.

When Robert Putnam revealed these percentages to a group Missouri Synod Lutheran theologians, an Evangelical Protestant Denomination, they were shocked to find that most of their congregants believed there are many paths to heaven. One of the theologians spoke up saying that their laity were wrong, and another suggested that as teachers of the Word, they had failed mightil