Monday, November 26, 2012

Preaching Money

Preaching the goodness of money has roots deep in the Protestant tradition, roots that are well documented by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905, trans into English 1930). Weber is the man who coined the phrase "Protestant work ethic" and he described it as one of hard work, frugality, and responsibility. Those who work are righteous, no matter how lowly their position in life, and those few men possessed of great wealth are especially blessed by God. In Weber's day, according to the ethic, the wealthy were expected to contribute to the community according to their means. Check out Andrew Carnegie's 1889 Gospel of Wealth for a stunning example of the era's understanding of the Protestant work ethic.

Weber explained how the rise of Protestantism in Europe, Calvinism in particular, coincided with the rise of capitalism and provided it with theological support. Work, after all, turns the wheels of enterprise and in spite of its recent fall from favor, the Protestant work ethic has sustained the astronomic rise of the United States as an economic, social, and political superpower throughout the 18th and 19th and most of the 20th century. Ben Franklin's writings in the late 18th century contributed to the popularization of the work ethic among immigrants pouring into the country from all backgrounds and it has remained an important part of mainstream American culture until post-modernist times.

By the early 20th century, however, American society was well on its way to making the "great transformation" from a society with a marketplace to a marketplace society. Every institution was being sucked into the machinery of economics, subsumed within capitalist culture, and evaluated by the values of profit, efficiency, production, and the generation of wealth. Christianity was not immune from this transformation. In 1925, Bruce Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows, re-imagining the son of God as a manly man, hard-muscled and work roughened . . .  and the best salesman of all time. After the second World War, the prosperity gospel was preached in earnest, beginning with Oral Roberts from the pulpit in 1947, moving on to A. A. Allen's Secret to Scriptural Financial Success in 1953, and then exploding through the world of televangelism.

Today, this "prosperity theology" is well integrated into most Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and is espoused by the biggest names in Christian self-help, such as Joel Osteen and Bruce Wilkinson. Somewhere along the way from work ethic to prosperity theology, however, the gospel of wealth had changed. From an ethic steeped in the bourgeois values of hard work and frugality, it had morphed into a consumerist fantasy of wealth through faith. Simply put, God loves you so he'll give you whatever you want. Just ask.

No work necessary. No thinking to bother you. No messy Christian values to trip you up with getting your camel through the eye of a needle. "Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz . . ."

God approves of money. God wants you to prosper. Believe and be financially saved. It reminds me of the new and improved, no effort, easy, convenient way to salvation now sold like a drug by the pushers of religion-lite. God approves of you no matter what an asshole you are. Believe and be saved. No contribution to the poor necessary. No follow-me-to-the-cross nonsense. You don't even have to worry about climate change or genocide anymore. Just believe.

Meanwhile, the real American gospel is one of wealth and power, beauty, celebrity, ease and comfort and speed and technology. These are the things we're told will save us. In the words of Mammon: believe and be saved!

1 comment:

Jack Moss said...

I believe, I believe!!!
Uh, how long will it take till God makes me rich?