Capitalism as Religion: How Money Became God

Regina Munch on Chris Lehmann’s The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream

Chris Lehmann, The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream, Melville House Publishing, 2016, 432pp. Hardcover $28.95, Paperback, $17.99
Chris Lehmann, The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream, Melville House Publishing, 2016, 432pp. Hardcover $28.95, Paperback, $17.99
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“Where’s the management section?” a man asked the nearest bookseller. My hometown Barnes and Noble’s business and management section is extensive, patronized by the employees in the numerous office parks nearby.

The man handed the bookseller a list of titles on a Post-It. She smiled and pointed across the store, but stopped him short.

“Actually, a few of these are in our New Age section.” She indicated the bookshelf next to me. “Or in Christian Life.”

Even a quick glance at the self-improvement, management, spirituality, and Christian guidance genres reveals their thematic similarities: exhortations to “discover your inner strength,” “call the good into your life,” and “live without limits.” How could such disparate categories become nearly identical in their message?

What unites these genres, more broadly called “success literature,” is their focus on individual attainment. The genre has elevated one very particular notion of success—health, wealth, career advancement, and spiritual fulfillment—to a quasi-religious quest for self-perfection. Readers are exhorted to achieve “more”: more happiness, more self-confidence, more success in one’s career or love life, more money. In all cases, what needs to be improved is the person’s habits or outlook; one must develop the mental, emotional, or spiritual strength to gain the “more” that they seek. External circumstances are irrelevant, or worse, an excuse for individual failure.

Rich or poor, conservative or liberal, religious or secular, Americans are in thrall of the promise of personal fulfillment that this amalgam of therapeutic self-help, financial counseling, and spiritual enlightenment offers. But when enlightenment is instrumentalized for individual advancement, ties between individuals suffer. Surrounded by the language of personal well-being, we are denied the vocabulary of community and solidarity.

Chris Lehmann addresses this uniquely American tendency in The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream. He analyzes the particularly American fusion of capitalism and evangelical Christianity—what he calls “the Money Cult”—and argues that American Protestant Christianity has not only adapted to the mandates of the market, but has sanctified them. Rather than critiquing wealth, power, and pursuit of profit, these qualities became the stuff of divinity. The traits necessary in the market—frugality, faith in the power of self-realization, and complete individualism—morphed into the tools of salvation in Christian churches. Today, he explains, “The Money Cult’s core dogmas are what feed many of America’s popular superstitions about economic life, from the belief that individual merit is the strict and undeviating guarantee of individual wealth, to the myth that Wall Street investment bankers are Promethean ‘job creators,’ to the mystical faith that digital commerce will upend all traditional limitations on human enterprise, and indeed, human existence.” Lehmann’s research catalogs the twists and turns of how this American union of religion and economics came to be.

Lehmann presents the Puritans, the earliest Americans to join religious injunction with economic concerns, not as the coldly rational caricatures with which we’re so familiar, but as communitarians whose policies were dictated by the New Testament ethic of caring for all in the community. In the world of the Puritans, wealth might demonstrate God’s favor, but that did not mean the poor could be neglected; indeed, famed Puritan John Winthrop insisted that “the care of the public must oversway all private respects.” How, Lehmann asks, did American life move from this communitarian approach to the radically individualist Money Cult of the twentieth century? The text dives into more than three hundred years of American religious history to explain this transformation.

Perhaps the most important factor in the development of the Money Cult was the turn towards privileging the individual’s experience of worship and relationship to God. During the First and Second Great Awakenings, open “revivals,” rather than traditional institutional services, became the most popular forms of worship. These events featured dramatic outward displays of encounter with the divine: spontaneous dancing, fainting, and speaking in tongues, to name a few. Revivals and the preachers that led them encouraged an individualist understanding of salvation and relationship to God; one’s spiritual experiences were unrelated to that one of one’s neighbors. The emotionality of these events became the standard by which a person could judge closeness to God, and indeed, this judgment “resided almost entirely within the solitary believer’s emotional experience of conversion.”

In the meantime, revivalists were also shaping connections between religious and economic spheres in American life. Dismayed by the timid nature of Presbyterian prayers, with their Puritanical assumption of the total and collective depravity of humanity, preachers such as Charles Finney encouraged “trust in the abundant capacity of God to bring their wishes to fulfillment.” Worshipers gradually came to believe that, with the proper mindset, one’s prayers to God would bring about material as well as spiritual well-being. Lehmann elaborates, “Individuals were coming into a powerful certainty that they had uncovered a new model of salvation, keyed to their eager pursuit of prosperity and well-being in the New World.” Revivals concentrated their energy on worldly spiritual and material manifestations of God’s blessings and began to preach “market-approved conduct,” like workplace discipline, as part of the God’s divine plan to bring about salvation and wealth on earth. According to Lehmann, this produced quintessentially American religions—Mormonism, Christian Science, and numerous small sects and offshoot churches—that adopted an acquisitive ethic of the newly-emerging middle-class that “cleaved to an elite model of respectable virtue that clearly favored the spiritual outlook and character traits already earmarked for worldly success.”

Although these attitudes began among the average believer, they became institutionalized during the mid-nineteenth century, when members of the ever-richer American elite invited these into their corporate cultures. John Wannamaker encouraged his employees and consumers to “infuse” their work lives “with spiritual purpose,” to pray harder and feel more deeply the sanctification that their individual material success could bring. The lineage of Channing, Finney, Wannamaker, and countless others “depicted the individual’s progress towards success and self-culture as a kind of mystic revelation of self-generating qualities already inherent in the secret recesses of one’s soul.” These could be discovered and unleashed by the right mindset toward God. Exhortations to “awaken the giant within” are familiar to us today in the success and self-help literature; this genre exploded into popularity during the Gilded Age and remains popular today. It is startling, Lehmann insists, that “we now reflexively accept the publishing market’s own packaging of business advice books and inspirational works about self-help as essentially the same genre.”

The Money Cult retreated somewhat during the less-prosperous era of the world wars, but emerged during the postwar era as the prosperity gospel of thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale. Especially as the prosperity of the 1950s began to erode, Lehmann explains that American Protestants embarked on a mission “to radically reconfigure the self so that divine deliverance and market prosperity were indistinguishable.” Confronted with flattening wages, joblessness, and an uncertain economy, evangelists for the new gospel of wealth encouraged Americans to “envision your best life now” and “become in tune with the Infinite.” If people would merely change their attitude, think positively, and work harder, the market would work wonders in their lives. Workers especially were the target of this message. By this time, business elites had fully adopted and harnessed the prosperity gospel within the workplace; businesses such as General Motors actively preached it to discourage union activity, the ultimate form of negative worker thinking. Indeed, Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, still a Christian self-help favorite today, was written at the behest of an organization attempting to quash union activity in California and Hawaii. Lehmann elaborates that workers, told repeatedly that any dissatisfaction with their lives was the result of a negative attitude, “responded with a renewed determination to master the elements of a successful life that they felt were still most firmly under their control—namely, their own psychic dispositions.” Inoculated against even the thought of collective well-being, workers would not demand institutional change.

For Lehmann, today’s prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen—who “remains the nation’s most popular, beloved, and successful pulpit orator”—is the apotheosis of the Money Cult. “Why put limits on God?” Osteen asks in his sermons and literature. According to Osteen, faithfulness to God will result in eternal salvation, but also the earthly salvation of unlimited wealth, if one only believes enough. In Osteen’s cosmology, being a good Christian and a good capitalist are identical; if one works and believes hard enough, God will deploy “the mechanisms of consumer capitalism to engineer their just battery of worldly, yet supernaturally delivered, rewards.” Limiting one’s worldly ambitions is tantamount to doubting that God can and will provide. Here the communitarian ethos of the seventeenth-century Puritans is turned on its head. According to Lehmann, “The social ethic of the New Testament—under which the poor were the true heirs to the planet, and early Christians held all property in common—has morphed into the prosperity gospel, which deems worldly success a direct sign of divine favor, and translates the ministry of Jesus into a battery of business stratagems and motivational slogans.” In today’s Money Cult, rather than looking around at the treatment of one’s neighbors to seek salvation, one must only look upward, which really only means inward.

The Money Cult  is refreshing because it insists that we take American Christians and their ideas seriously. Too often it is easy for secular elites to make doomsday-preaching, tongue-speaking preachers and worshipers the butt of their jokes; the preachers become clever con-artists, and the congregation just a group of credulous simpletons or loony fanatics. Lehmann argues that we lose something when we do this: “Deriding high-profile preachers as nothing more than hucksters who prey on popular fears and superstitions may satisfy the very broad dictates of left-leaning secular cultural superiority, but it tells us almost nothing about what the followers of the new gospels of wealth actually think and believe—let alone how the Money Cult’s distinctive gospel influences the culture at large.” If we treat these trends as an aberration of an otherwise sober secularism, rather than a symptom of a broader trend, we miss an opportunity to learn about the culture we live in and how it produces social and economic nostrums that we often take for granted.

Lehmann is more right than he knows. The Money Cult argues today’s iteration of this fusion of capitalism and American spirituality is conservative evangelicals, “megapastors,” and their Sunbelt flocks.

But quasi-religious success literature is not the exclusive domain of these preachers and their followers. Upper-class liberals, who have made a pastime of mocking evangelicals, have their own Osteens: advocates of “mindfulness,” New Age spirituality, and Americanized “Eastern” religion. Like Money Cult preachers, they encourage a reorientation of one’s own spiritual disposition to discover one’s “true nature” or “strengths,” which can then be harnessed for success in all personal, career, and financial matters – no structural or communal change required. These schools of thought have, wittingly or unwittingly, beatified the seeking of profit as a road to “living well,” defined so as to be compatible with an elite culture of capital. Though they present more palatably to a secular and educated audience, they too are heirs of the Money Cult.

Take, for instance, Oprah Winfrey and her feel-good media empire. With immense cultural influence, Oprah has promoted a number of New Age self-help methods.  For example, her endorsement of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which espouses the Law of Attraction (in which thinking positive thoughts creates positive vibrations, which elicit the universe’s help in inviting health and wealth into one’s life) popularized the Law of Attraction for an enormous audience. Another Oprah favorite is New-Age thinker Deepak Chopra, who encourages us to become in tune “with the subtle yet powerful, unseen forces that affect the flow of money in our lives.” Her you-can-change-your-life mantras are especially friendly to the most privileged Americans, but, as Leon Wiesletier charges, “cruel” to everyone else. “There is no such thing as failure,” Oprah preached to Harvard’s graduating class, “just life trying to move us in another direction.” Wiesletier points out the obvious: our country is “awash” in failure, but it’s the rich, not the poor, who might be immune to it. Osteen would ask why they won’t have faith in God’s productivity; Oprah and Chopra might wonder if they aren’t vibrating clearly enough.

Arianna Huffington and other members of the tech world might be less overtly associated with therapeutic pseudo-spirituality, but her advocacy of mindfulness techniques suggests otherwise. The New Republic’s Evgeny Morozov reports on Huffington’s projects to use technology to promote spiritual well-being. Using intentionally religious language, she proposes a “GPS for the Soul” and a “digital sabbath” to shut off distractions for a time to live in the present moment. “The speed of life has accelerated,” she laments. “The majority of people are depleted, distracted, unfulfilled.”

What is the solution? Change your habits to change your attitude—and leave everything else alone. “What’s good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America’s bottom line,” Huffington wrote, and so we must put “what at first might seem like abstract or esoteric concepts [mindfulness and meditation] to very productive use in the workplace.” The purpose of adopting mindful practices, it seems, is to return to work more productive than we would have been otherwise, confident that we’ve done what we can to change our lives for the better.

Cultural icons on both the right and the left, in the religious realm and the (purportedly) secular, offer remarkably similar advice. We are told, “Unleash you inner potential,” “Live your best life,” “Attract positive vibrations,” or even “Put your faith in God” to fix our joblessness and loneliness, our failing health, or our dwindling bank accounts. The onus for success – and the blame for failure – fall squarely on the individual, for not thinking or believing well enough. As Lehmann illustrates, we carry this individualism from the church to the marketplace, to produce “a solitary, unencumbered vision of salvation, selfhood, and social order.” We are all alone together.

This spiritual solipsism begs us to forget our collective problems. Conservative and liberal, un-educated and too-educated share the lineage that Lehmann lays out, and their ideologies have much more in common than we assume. Our obsession with perfecting our own dispositions hampers our ability to think or act collectively, for our own good or each other’s; religious and spiritual thinking becomes the ally of capital and power rather than their critic. Our progressive-minded media moguls, who beneficently offer escape, wittingly or unwittingly distract us from the issues—and solutions—that might unite us. Lehmann quips that rather than being concerned with the common good, American religiosity prioritizes “every man and his own divinity.” And if, as The Money Cultargues, Americans forsake community to deify individual wealth, we are a miserly culture indeed.

Regina Munch is editorial assistant at Commonweal. She lives in Manhattan.