By Jim Vail
Special to Chicago News
|Author Chris Lehmann wrote The Money Cult.|
I first noticed this book on a Twitter feed and it grabbed my attention: a book that can explain how religion, which plays a very big role in this country, drove this once colonial outpost founded by Puritans into an economic empire, while feeding the deceptive dream that you too can become rich.
But it isn’t an ordinary book that can explain like the philosopher Max Weber in his brilliant book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” how religion played a key role in helping build up the economic engine and glorifying wealth despite worshipping a God who praised the poor.
“The Money Cult published this year by Melville House is written by Chris Lehmann, the editor of The Baffler. While the narrative is fascinating, the prose is eloquent, yet not easy. Sentences like “the jeremiad’s anguished litany of past covenantal sins” had me scratching my head, while words such as inchoate and experiential had me thanking my God for smart phone online dictionaries at hand. Ah, the Baffler and literary wisdom!
“Religion in America was never really secularized; instead, the market was sanctified.” Thus reads an introduction to The Money Cult.
The book presents a history of Protestantism in this country and the key celestial spokesmen who played major roles, such as John Winthrop, Charles Finney, George Whitfield, and Joseph Smith. It is a fascinating read throughout, as the author shows how the Puritan religion used mystical and divine intervention to explain the falling world around, from slavery and economic crises in the late 1800's and the Great Depression, to today’s subprime disaster and our extraordinary income gap. The self-made man that the Protestants preached from the very beginning can be resurrected today by focusing on the mystical and the divine, while ignoring the disasters all around.
“And by a process of compensation familiar to any student of psychoanalysis, this dream of market deliverance – in which the great divine arbiter of prosperity and ill fortune swoops down to bestow each individual believer with customized earthly rewards reflecting that worshipper’s fervid faith and higher spiritual worth – has taken firmer and firmer hold as our corporate economy has become ever more impersonal, corrupt, and impervious to public accountability.”
I disagree with the author’s criticism of our church fathers, whether they be Pentecostals or Evangelicals or whatever, who attack government spending, the New Deal, workers and socialists. Lehmann is upset our present star preachers had nothing to say when our neoliberal system started destroying the lives of their own flock by cutting Medicare, Medicaid and other public assistance programs. I would argue that that has been the Puritan’s calling all along, to hell with lazy bones whose poverty is a sign of the devil. God is made for our consumer culture. “But the incorrigibly individualist cast of the Money Cult has also betokened a far broader tilt toward a solitary, unencumbered vision of salvation, selfhood, and social order: the sort of faith tailor-made – paradoxically – for mass allegiance in the consumer marketplace.”
While Lehmann is strong on history, but short on the present day, one can never grow weary of reading the wonderful sermons of today’s spiritual wealth peddlers like Joel Osteen that appear in this book. My favorite is Osteen’s explanation to his people about the need to look and feel like a million bucks, because God wouldn’t want it any other way. He tells the story about how he wanted to run to the grocery store still in his workout clothes, hoping no one would notice; while there and then in the parking lot God spoke to him. “He said, ‘Don’t you dare go in there representing Me like that!’ He said, ‘Don’t you know that I’m the King of kings?’ … We need to remind ourselves that we represent Almighty God, and he does not appreciate laziness or sloppiness.”
However, I don’t entirely agree with Lehmann comparing Osteen to disgraced Ponzi-scheme investor Bernie Madoff, as “a con man in the strictest and most literal sense of the term.” Osteen says how you can get rich via the Lord, and of course kick back something to his ministry to keep preaching this. The verdict is still out in the after life, while Madoff lied to the people about the money they invested. Not to mention spiritual hucksters like Osteen are fun. They keep you smiling and singing and laughing, if not with them, than at them!
He calls the Mormons “a folk religion of American corporate capitalism.” The Church of Latter Day Saints – Mormon “instinctively grasped the significance of wealth as liberation of the spirit.” The Church was launched as a railroad concern, and was the first major religious movement in history to operate its own bank and circulate its own currency. He writes that the Book of Mormon, while castigating greed, pronounced worldly gain for the faithful. Believe and ye shall be rich!
No wonder the Mormons, who figure prominently in this book as the quintessential money cult, were giving sales training seminars in Russia in the 1990’s at $20,000 a pop to the heathen masses breaking out of the godless communist state to enter the ethos of capitalism.
Lehmann presents an interesting analysis of the children’s classic The Wizard of Oz, where the great Oz, who turns out to be a fake or “humbug,” is described as “a very bad Wizard” but “a very good man.” In other words, religious charlatans who cheat us are really good people, so goes the morale of the American children’s classic. The characters the Tin Woodsman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion are all representations of “self-transformations” that they had within their souls all along. Frank Baum’s book, while one could argue is a mere child’s fable, actually represents the New Thought movement that practices magical thinking in a rapidly secularizing industrial economy, Lehmann writes.
Lehmann also takes an interesting look at William Jennings Bryan, the 3-time presidential candidate who was characterized as the bumbling religious fool in the classic Inherit the Wind, a Broadway play and Hollywood film about putting a science teacher on trial for teaching evolution in school. Lehmann contends that Bryan was a victim of “a cunning historical genius at work.” He was a Populist 100 years ago who was a devotee of the Social Gospel, who campaigned to revamp our currency to favor the debtor class, to nationalize the railroads and telephone industries, to institute strict regulations on bank deposits and to purge corporate money from the American campaign system, but was instead ridiculed for opposing the teaching of Darwin in the schools. “It would be a far greater irony that anti-evolutionists who initially disowned Darwin’s theory in the spirit of Bryan – holding that it modeled unseemly self-seeking, greed and predation for the nation’s young – would in future decades be replaced by the country’s most ardent apologists for laissez-faire capitalism, ie., the very economic system that Social Darwinists aggressively championed as foreordained by human genetic destiny.”
But what about the subtitle of this book: “Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream”? Has religion conspired with corporate America to fool us as hedge fund managers and executives count their multiple million-dollar bonuses while throwing thousands of workers out on the streets? Has it really destroyed the American Dream?
He writes in his introduction that Old World welfare states such as Denmark and England now report greater upward socioeconomic mobility than the US.
“The successive Protestant assaults on the institutions of the church, the state, and the idea of social welfare would all henceforth be rendered in the telltale spirit of orgiastic individualism.”
In other words, we’re on the road to ruin as we sing “Hallelujah!”
Religion is the scourge of the working class, and hence an ardent supporter of its downfall, Lehmann notes. “Christianity dogmatically urges devotees on to greater feats of inward spiritual Gnosis and world achievement, while militantly preventing the formation of anything resembling solidarity in the ranks of the working class.”
Lehmann says religion became the first deregulated industry in American life.
Money and religion. They have always gone together. From the snazzy thousand-dollar suits you see on our enlightened TV evangelists, Mormon’s wearing secret underwear in outer space (and Mitt Romney to boot!), to the fire and brimstone sermons all along the AM radio dial, and holy pontificators sex scandals, you got to admit a lot of it is entertaining. Perhaps Karl Marx said it best, it’s the opium of the people, and what better drug to smoke and feel high with the Lord as the world around you crumbles fast!