When Christianity Becomes a Money Cult

The Money Cult

Spiritual Sunday

Last week I listened to a fascinating Sam Seder interview (on The Majority Report) with Chris Lehmann, author of a new work entitled The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (2016). In his book Lehmann seeks to explain how it is that certain Christian denominations are embracing capitalism and singing the praises of wealthy people such as Donald Trump, despite Jesus’s admonitions about the money changers, the eye of the needle, the rich man in hell, “render unto Caesar,” “the last shall be first,” etc.

Among other things, Lehman has an explanation for the apparent hypocrisy that enrages Howard Nemerov in his poem “Boom!” It’s not hypocrisy, he says, but something more complicated, albeit still disturbing.

Lehmann sees himself building on the work on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which he says needs updating and revising in light of how “prosperity theology” has flourished in America. Weber believed that 17th century Calvinists, with their belief in predestination, strove for material success to reassure themselves that they were amongst the elect and not the damned. This isn’t logical—if one’s fate is already decided, one can’t alter it—but it makes psychological sense. It’s human nature to want to tilt the playing field.

In his groundbreaking Rise of the Novel (1957), Ian Watt made a powerful case that Puritan uncertainty led to the British novel. Figures like Daniel Defoe scrutinized their lives meticulously for signs that they were amongst the elect, and their detailed journals morphed into novels. Think of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, whose constant fears about damnation lead to intense self-examination and incessant work. The result is a transformed island.

The old view of the American Puritans—that their faith declined with the material success of the republic—is wrong, Lehman says. Instead of American religion becoming secularized, he asserts that “the market was sanctified.” This continues on today and America remains a very religious nation. Even though church attendance has declined in the mainline denominations, the pews are full in the giant megachurches that preach a “theology of abundance.”

In these churches, the “frank celebration of wealth” has become a spiritual virtue. Those who attend these churches are charged to envision their “materially striving selves” as “their better spiritual selves.”

Lehmann says that this tendency has always present in certain strains of American Christianity. He particularly singles out Mormonism and American Gnosticism. The latter, which Harold Bloom has described as America’s major contribution to Christianity, preaches “a highly distilled and militantly individualistic version of the solitary Puritan encounter with the divine.” Seeing the individual soul as “tragically marooned in an alien and fallen created world,” American Gnostics

elevate themselves above the grubby demands of merely social existence, preferring to project their cosmic identities into a drama of redemption beyond history, in which they are reunited with the true, transcendent, and hidden God who authored their heroic destiny.

Lehmann notes that such a vision leads easily to “the Narcissistic Personality” and self-infatuation and allows “all manner of cultural evasions of unpleasant facts, from the cult of the redeemer nation to the smiling assurances of the prosperity gospel.” He describes the results as a money cult:

What sets the Money Cult apart is how closely the content of this potent American offshoot of Protestant faith now mirrors so many of the baseline assumptions of consumer capitalism. In this curious vision of a world turned upside down, America’s long-standing quest for the purified and restored version of true primitive Christian worship has produced the hulking megachurch and the spectacle-driven piety of the televangelist age. 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.


Today’s meritocrats insist with their own religious fervor that material reward gravitates naturally, by dint of a self-evidently benign spiritual force, to the most deserving most talented, and best-educated class of achievers, who have stayed faithfully attuned to the market’s higher dictates.

So Nemerov was responding to something deep in the American psyche after reading an Associated Press article about President Eisenhower’s pastor linking wealth and spirituality. I love where the poet compares backyard barbecues to burnt offerings and wonder whether he has in mind Jeremiah 6:20: “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me” (6:20). After all, he sounds at times like he’s channeling the prophet:


By Howard Nemerov


Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) –President Eisenhower’s pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of “unprecedented religious activity” caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.”

These fruits of material progress,” said the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, “have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached.”

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it’s just one
religious activity after another: the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full, God’s great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
When Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week’s vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit, and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnak and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop’n’shop
‘n’pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name’s Sake, Amen.

Are you feeling as spiritually clogged as I am by this accumulation of material things and in need of some purifying fire. I turn again for aid to Dinah Morris, the preacher from George Eliot’s Adam Bede that I quoted last week. I didn’t get into the tough love part of her sermon in that post but, with Lehmann and Nemerov showing how we are twisting the Gospel, I feel the need for it now. Dinah, earnest soul that she is, has none of Nemerov’s cosmopolitan irony but gives the message to us straight:

“See!” she exclaimed, turning to the left, with her eyes fixed on a point above the heads of the people. “See where our blessed Lord stands and weeps and stretches out his arms towards you. Hear what he says: ‘How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’…and ye would not,” she repeated, in a tone of pleading reproach, turning her eyes on the people again. “See the print of the nails on his dear hands and feet. It is your sins that made them! Ah! How pale and worn he looks! He has gone through all that great agony in the garden, when his soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death, and the great drops of sweat fell like blood to the ground. They spat upon him and buffeted him, they scourged him, they mocked him, they laid the heavy cross on his bruised shoulders. Then they nailed him up. Ah, what pain! His lips are parched with thirst, and they mock him still in this great agony; yet with those parched lips he prays for them, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Then a horror of great darkness fell upon him, and he felt what sinners feel when they are for ever shut out from God. That was the last drop in the cup of bitterness. ‘My God, my God!’ he cries, ‘why hast Thou forsaken me?’

“All this he bore for you! For you—and you never think of him; for you—and you turn your backs on him; you don’t care what he has gone through for you. Yet he is not weary of toiling for you: he has risen from the dead, he is praying for you at the right hand of God—’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And he is upon this earth too; he is among us; he is there close to you now; I see his wounded body and his look of love.”

Then, focusing on the jewelry worn by one of her women listeners, she launches into an attack on vanity and consumption:

“Ah, poor blind child!” Dinah went on, “think if it should happen to you as it once happened to a servant of God in the days of her vanity. SHE thought of her lace caps and saved all her money to buy ’em; she thought nothing about how she might get a clean heart and a right spirit—she only wanted to have better lace than other girls. And one day when she put her new cap on and looked in the glass, she saw a bleeding Face crowned with thorns. That face is looking at you now”—here Dinah pointed to a spot close in front of Bessy—”Ah, tear off those follies! Cast them away from you, as if they were stinging adders. They ARE stinging you—they are poisoning your soul—they are dragging you down into a dark bottomless pit, where you will sink for ever, and for ever, and for ever, further away from light and God.”

Unlike the proponents of prosperity theology, Dinah does not see poverty as evidence that we are spiritual failures:

“Dear friends,” she said at last, “brothers and sisters, whom I love as those for whom my Lord has died, believe me, I know what this great blessedness is; and because I know it, I want you to have it too. I am poor, like you: I have to get my living with my hands; but no lord nor lady can be so happy as me, if they haven’t got the love of God in their souls. Think what it is—not to hate anything but sin; to be full of love to every creature; to be frightened at nothing; to be sure that all things will turn to good; not to mind pain, because it is our Father’s will; to know that nothing—no, not if the earth was to be burnt up, or the waters come and drown us—nothing could part us from God who loves us, and who fills our souls with peace and joy, because we are sure that whatever he wills is holy, just, and good.

“Dear friends, come and take this blessedness; it is offered to you; it is the good news that Jesus came to preach to the poor. It is not like the riches of this world, so that the more one gets the less the rest can have. God is without end; his love is without end—”

     Its streams the whole creation reach,
     So plenteous is the store;
     Enough for all, enough for each,
     Enough for evermore.

Riches are finite, God’s love in infinite. We need to remember that.

Further thought: I’ve written more positively about American Gnosticism in a previous post about Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, both of whom I see working within the tradition. As with most traditions, there is a light and a dark side.

I remember my dissertation advisor, J. Paul Hunter, warning about the dark side–the danger of solipsism–when he talked about Robinson Crusoe. When Crusoe thinks that earthquakes are sent from God to deliver a message to him, he is putting himself at the center of the universe. It’s interesting how Crusoe doesn’t seem to need other people whereas, in real life, a man stranded on a desert island by himself for 18 years would go mad. In America’s case, too much focus on the self  undermines the community.

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