Bourgeois and Beige Christianity: The Prosperity Gospel and the American Cult of Mammon
In January of 2018, Kenneth Copeland, the octogenarian prosperity Gospel televangelist, took possession of a fifty-million-dollar Gulf Stream jet aircraft, for the purpose of helping him “spread the Gospel”. He had come under some heavy criticism for this purchase, as some rightly wondered why a minister of the Gospel (sic) needed an airship of such magnificence when he could just fly coach like the rest of the plebeians who dutifully send him their tithes. His response was to lament the fact that as a minister of Jesus he is a constant target of demonic attacks and that this is especially the case on commercial airplanes, which he described as “demon infested tubes”. He is entirely correct, of course, that these days the experience of flying does indeed feel like being locked in a demon tube fresh out of Satan’s workshop (which I think is located inside of Disneyworld, probably Epcot, where everything is a manufactured counterfeit). But such are the indignities that all ordinary people must put up with in order to travel. Would that we all could have the skill to bilk millions of dollars out of desperate people in order to avoid the Baphomet of the skies, but as far as Copeland is concerned his anointed “specialness” justifies this, and indeed, many other such outrages. You can see the video of his unveiling of the new plane here.
This episode is instructive for reasons that go well beyond the peculiar perfidy of Kenneth Copeland, and we ignore the broader reality that he represents to our spiritual peril as Christians. It is all too easy for many in our culture to dismiss Copeland as just one more snake oil salesman in a long tradition of such pious miscreants, and to laugh, with NPR levels of snotty and condescending derision, at this bumpkin from Texas and his legions of dupes from the ranks of the snaggle-toothed deplorables. But this dismissive derision is largely a hypocritical exercise carried out by our coastal elites who fancy themselves, wrongly, to be far too sophisticated for such nonsense. Because the reality is that Copeland, with the other prosperity Gospel preachers, is merely a particular cultural and religious iteration of a much broader American conceit. A conceit that is embedded in every level of our culture. Namely, that the prosperity we have enjoyed as a people for a little over a century now is something of a birthright and, therefore, that the vast economic, political, technological, and military apparatus we have built up to sustain, secure, and impose this conceit is, in our eyes, altogether justified. Seen in this light, Copeland and the other prosperity Gospel preachers are merely the most vulgar representation of a much deeper spiritual rot. The chattering classes would never entertain the thought, even for a second, of joining up with the “Don’t tread on me or I will kill you with my assault rifle in the name of Jesus” crowd of Bible-toting moonshiners. But they would join the Episcopal Church, which is probably an even worse idolater of Moloch and Mammon. And if they aren’t religious at all in an “organized” way they can always have recourse to Poperah Winfrey’s spirituality of meditation, money, and massages (oh, and free cars, please don’t forget the cars.)
Eugene McCarraher points out in his magisterial new book “The Enchantments of Mammon” that somewhere along the line “Capitalism” became the religion of the modern world. It is a long book, approaching 700 pages, but well worth investing the ten months it will take to read and digest it. Of course, in a short blog post I cannot do the book justice. I merely cite it as evidence that a very smart fellow agrees with me, which is what we academics (or in my case, former academics) do. But all joking aside, the book really is a wonderful exposition of St. Augustine’s notion that the “worldly world” is animated by what he called the libido dominandi. In a nutshell, that term connotes far more than the “will to dominate” and locates the essence of our sinful inclinations in our deep lust for acquisition and possession, which in turn necessitates a social structure of power relationships characterized by the strong dominating the weak, and the weak, in their turn, desiring to be strong so they too can “acquire” things and dominate others.
But Christianity introduced a revolution of the soul that overturned this mythos of wealth and power, as the young Church warned its new converts that those two realities (wealth and power) are seldom far from each other. Indeed, the first Christians so valorized a materially simple life that repudiated the “natural” human eros for acquisition and the pleasures associated with it, that they were labeled by their contemporaries as anti-human. The well-off denizens of Rome viewed Christianity as the ultimate buzzkill, what with its constant finger-wagging at such wholesome pursuits as blood sport, child buggery, adultery, and infanticide. We forget, for example, that Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel is, among other things, a celebration of social upheaval where the strong are brought low and the weak are raised up. In fact, the entire biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, can be read as a tale of the ultimate vindication of life’s losers and the bringing to justice of the fat and the comfortable. And do I really need to go over again the steady stream of condemnations of wealth that come from the very lips of Jesus?
It is telling that every time I pen such words on social media about Jesus condemning wealth there is an immediate influx of harsh denunciations of what are perceived to be my unnuanced and scorched earth approaches to the topic. Denunciations I never receive when I pen words, even crazy words, about the Trinity or the Church or Joe Biden’s creepy, gropey, hands. No… the keyboard Grand Inquisitors of the high Church of Capitalism keep their powder dry in order to defend the legitimacy of owning lots of useless paraphernalia while half the world starves. After all, dogmas do need defending and heaven knows somebody needs to speak for the rich. The sad truth is, however, that the Catholic defenders of American style Capitalism view it in the abstract as coinciding, in theory, with the Catholic defense of private property and freedom of social relations, but ignore its actual concrete reality as a set of economic practices that encourage consumerism, rabid individualism, and the dissolution of human personhood in the corrosive acid of an artificially inflamed concupiscence. This is an economic system geared toward the imperial, therapeutic, self and its cacophony of competing desires. It is an entire collective of concupiscence that elevates the lowest kinds of eros to the highest pedestals of honor. And yet, there are Christians who view all of this as our God-given birthright, and that God has “blessed” America with its unparalleled wealth in order to highlight our messianic anointing as God’s chosen instrument for “the good” in the modern world.
Returning to McCarraher we see that this Christian revolution of the soul, always a precarious proposition, was blunted by the rise of modern capitalism, and finally eclipsed by it. But rather than merely abandoning the Christian faith, the modern world simply redefined it as a wonderful tool for fostering the kinds of moral virtues one needs in order to be “successful”. And of course, “successful” is defined in economic categories. The American founding domesticated Protestant Christianity by turning it into a virtue factory for the bettering of our economic prosperity and the creation of good citizens of the Republic. The theology of the churches, as theology usually does, then dutifully created the required set of ad hoc justifications for why Christians need not listen to Jesus. Well … except for sexual matters. We had to have “family values” in the midst of this fetishizing of work as “wealth creation” so sexual morality stood out as almost the whole point of the Christian enterprise. Thus did the Church’s sexual morality devolve into a white-knuckled puritanism, having nothing to do with the Kingdom ethic of Jesus’ sexual teachings (teachings which were quite stringent by the way in their own right), and everything to do instead with making sure that sexual license didn’t interfere with the engine of prosperity. No wonder then that once modern Americans figured out you could actually have wealth AND sexual license that the old-timey sexual ethic bit the dust. You just need to make sure you can kill your unplanned and unwanted offspring so that the wealth train keeps steaming down the tracks. And so we did that too, with the sock-puppet theologians not far behind with their dulcet tones of approval.
It took a little longer for Catholics to follow suit, mainly because most American Catholics were poor, relatively unassimilated, immigrants. But as soon as they mainstreamed into the well channelized path of “Jesus and Mammon” it wasn’t long before we too succumbed to the new Gospel of prosperity. I can’t remember who said it (Hauerwaus? Wendell Berry?) but there is a cheeky aphorism in this regard that has a large nugget of truth in it. Namely, that in America there are no Catholics, just Protestants who pray the rosary. And nowadays, not even that, since the rosary is tedious and boring requiring a spiritual attention span that lasts longer than a commercial. I am guilty of this. Ask my wife. The rosary is a chore for me, because I really do swim in the shallow end of the spiritual pool, which is warmer than the deep end – – and for reasons that go well beyond shallowness as a cause, I fear. The point being that I am not preaching in this Jeremiad at an unknown “other” who I have conjured up in my fever dreams as the great foil of the Christian utopian project. This entire essay is me talking to myself, since I have never been able to break free of the gravitational vortex of the Gospel of birthright wealth. All dramatic eschatologies of good vs. evil need a good bogeyman. And when I look in the mirror all I can say is: Ecce Homo. Say my prayers, then pass me the bourbon please. What does God expect of me anyway? Perfection?
The American Gospel of birthright wealth sits very easily with the Gospel of cheap grace, with the latter becoming a kind of therapeutic, parlor room of mercy that magically turns all of my vices into merit badges that scream to the world how “human” I am precisely in and through my very darkness. Thus do we invert the path to holiness and celebrate the “heroism” of the agonistic path of moral darkness and inner conflict. This is also why we love to expose the salacious failings of those who do strive for the traditional concept of holiness. We seek out the chinks in their armor of virtue – – any chink – – in order to legitimate the notion that moral chinks are more real than moral solidity. The path to holiness is thus held up as a fraudulent posturing filled with the bile of self-righteousness, all in the service of dumbing everyone down, spiritually, to the level of a Hobbesian world of fear and social control. “Who are you to judge?” Who do I have to be?
None of this is meant to imply that one cannot be both wealthy and virtuous. I have known many virtuous wealthy people in my life who are very generous with their money and are genuinely good people. Indeed, most of them are far better people, in terms of the natural virtues, than I am, and by a big, big stretch. Even Jesus seems to have had some wealthy friends (Joseph of Arimathea stands out) and he did not seem to demand anything more of them beyond the support that they gave him. But this latter point is an argument rooted in grand silences since we really do not know much about these individuals mentioned in the Gospels at all. What we do know, is that Jesus explicitly condemned the accumulation of wealth as something contrary to the Kingdom. But what is wealth? How much is too much? And is the fact that I live a materially comfortable life my ticket to Hell? These are questions I cannot answer but that should not be taken as a green light to speed on ahead in the spiritual party limo.
The key here is not to overthink the issue at hand and to blunt the force of Jesus’s words through a thousand paper cuts of caveats, distinctions, and casuistical, excuse making. What Jesus is saying is that in order to be fit for the Kingdom you have to place God in first place. You have to have a singleness of vision and purpose. You must be without guile or subterfuge, saying “yes” when you mean “yes” and “no” when you mean “no”. You must put your hand to the plow and not look back, wistfully, at what you are “missing out on” by focusing intently on the demands of his Kingdom. Your heart, as Jesus points out, follows your treasure, whatever that worldly treasure might be. And unless that treasure is the Kingdom you are guilty of an idolatry of some sort and in varying degrees of severity. The essence of all sin is just such idolatrous counterfeiting of the good with some drab and hideous imposters, all of which promise us happiness if we will but eschew the tears of the saints in favor of the laughter of the sinners. I mean, Billy Joel assures us of this as he flamboyantly and robustly declares that only the good die young. That is a lie of course, but hey, it sells cars and condoms, so it is a serviceable facsimile of wisdom for our culture of birthright wealth. Better living through chemicals. Sign me up…
But this is to speak in generalities, whereas Jesus was quite specific in his denunciation of wealth in particular. Why? My hunch is because he understood that the marriage of wealth and power is a particularly virulent opiate that infiltrates our soul with a spiritual dopamine rush that few can resist. I know I can’t, since the only reason I am not rich is that I am not rich. Circumstances just did not line up like that for me, but if they had, I highly doubt I would be penning these words. I would probably be in jail for insider trading and mail fraud, having attempted to hawk fake Viagra pills via the good folks at the postal service. And so, if someone as manifestly holy as I am could not resist the siren song of Wall Street, then, sweet Lord, who can be saved? The fact is, the possession of large amounts of wealth binds us to the “worldly world” in a most potent and pungent way – – potent because it opens up for us every worldly enjoyment our heart desires, and thus, every other idolatry we can imagine, and pungent because wealth attracts even the distracted with its odor of false sanctity, like passing a McDonalds fully sated, but once smelling those fries you just have to have some. (Ok, I will just confess it … I love McDonalds).
This path of the potent and the pungent dopamine rush of wealth is our path as American Christians whether we will admit it to ourselves or not. And it is not the path of Jesus. Yet, we have concocted a form of Christianity that has baptized this ordo of birthright wealth in very sophisticated ways. Let me illustrate by using an example from my former employer, DeSales University. At DeSales, there is the relatively new Gambet Center (a large, rectangular, soulless, brick building) that houses, among other things, our business department and a cadaver lab. I find that congruence most appropriate. And if you go to the second floor of that building you will see a room with glass walls that has in it a large stock ticker on the wall. And above that stock ticker hangs a crucifix. And the juxtaposition of those two things has always struck me as idolatrous and borderline blasphemous. Now, I am sure the people who thought it wise to do so had good intentions. And kudos to DeSales for wanting to foreground its Catholic identity. Truly, I mean that.
However, in juxtaposing those two things the question naturally arises concerning exactly what sort of Catholic identity we are promoting here? Because what this juxtaposition implies is that Catholicism is okay with Wall Street style, corporate-capitalism so long as it has some sort of orientation to the Gospel. But does it? I, as a Catholic Worker, say that it does not, and indeed represents a form of money-idolatry that is totally at odds with the Gospel. And if that is true, and it most certainly is, then the presence of the crucifix represents its cooptation and its complete inversion by an idolatrous, rival, god. At best, the presence of the crucifix is merely adding a superficial veneer of piety on top of corporate greed, like sprinkles on ice cream – – in this case, as my friend Dr. Bill Portier calls it – – Jesus sprinkles. (In Nebraska where I am from, we call sprinkles “Jimmies”. But I use the term sprinkles these days because it is more gender neutral.)
And that brings me back to McCarraher’s book. Because one of the governing ideas of the book, if not THE governing idea, is that our culture, though in many ways post Christian, is not for all that simply secular and lacking in any mystical enchantments. Prescinding from the standard academic histories these days that view our secular age as an era of disenchantment from what Peguy called mystiques, McCarraher gives us instead a detailed counter narrative of capitalist, pecuniary enchantment. This is, it seems to me, deeply in tune with a more sound anthropology that understands that human beings cannot live without gods, and so, if we kill the One God of our cultural tradition, the God of Jesus Christ, then it isn’t as if now we have no gods, it just means rather that now we will have different gods – – gods that are often attenuated simulacrums of our traditional God, parasitically feeding on that God as it invents new capitalist, technocratic, consumeristic counterfeit gods. For as Dr. McCarraher deftly demonstrates, money has now been invested with a whole range of mystifications and enchantments that is in every way a form of religion, complete with rituals, sacraments and dogmas. And the fact that these new gods do not, at a superficial glance, appear as gods, only underscores the fact that they are poor gods. In other words, they are gods insofar as they define our reality, provide our values and orient our entire civilization around a core set of dogmas, but they do not, for all that, give us contact with that Transcendence that is our only true immanence. In short, capitalism is an enchantment, but a very bad one.
Finally, I would like to highlight Dr. McCarraher’s conviction that, in light of the above, that our current politics, wedded as it is to this system, this “apparatus” as Simone Weil calls it, is moribund and terminal. We have reduced the classical notion of politics, which was a broad conception that included culture, religion, and the many intermediary institutions that were freighted with the task of preserving the cultural heritage, to the meager and paltry notion of “voting” and “parties” and legislative governing. The latter is, at the end of the day, useless at best and a dangerous fiction at worst, and lulls us into a false and mendacious sense that all we need to do to “fix things” is to tinker with this or that legislative policy. But insofar as we are not allowed to question the god of pecuniary interests, such an enterprise is doomed from the start.
I, as a Catholic Worker, am deeply convinced, therefore, that the only way forward is a grassroots revolution of the soul wherein we engage in the politics of resistance through a retrieval of localist, communitarian, culture – – or, as Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement put it – – the coming together of “cult, cultivation and culture”. This is indeed a Romanticism. But as Jesus implied in everything he said and did … the Romantics will inherit the earth someday.