The relationship between capitalism and religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, has been debated for a couple of centuries now. For example, anti-Marxist scholars embraced Max Weber and his contention that Protestantism actually caused capitalism, while the Marxists argued that religion always had been and always would be the “opiate of the masses,” and used by the ruling classes to help them maintain their power. I do not intend to join that debate here, but I do want to highlight the very real relationship between the two in the here and now.
First, I must define my terms so the reader has some idea of what the hell I am talking about. Capitalism is easy; it’s the economic system that has the sole goal of accumulating more profits soonest, by whatever means necessary. That’s it; it’s pretty simple, no matter how profound and often tragic its effects on both people and the planet.
Religion, OTOH, is much more difficult to pin down. For the purposes of this essay, I don’t have to define it, so I won’t try. I do have to define Christianity, and I define it thusly: A belief or faith that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, was the Son of God who was sacrificed so that the souls of all who believe in him as their lord and savior will live in paradise after their physical bodies perish, AND/OR that their physical bodies will somehow be resurrected in eternal perfect health when Jesus returns to rule the world forever. This is intended to be a very broad definition, for Christianity has many sects, but I think all of them fit into that one. Maybe someone out there has a better definition.
Anyway, Protestant Christianity has usually taught that each individual can have a personal relationship with God or Christ without benefit of interceding clergy or saints, which differentiates all Protestant denominations from traditional Roman Catholicism. As my dad, a Methodist turned Episcopalian, once explained to me: “Catholics believe that only the blessing of the Catholic Church can save them and that saints can intercede with God for them, while we Protestants pray straight to the Head Hog.”
My dad also said that there were more Protestant churches blowing around in the world than tumbleweeds, and that the more fundamentalist and more pentacostal and more evangelical the Protestant churches were, the more tumbleweedy they got. It is to these variations of Protestant Christianity that I now turn, for they are more susceptible to being exploited by capitalism than either the Catholics or some, not all, of the more established Protestant denominations.
The ripest for the picking have long been the Southern Baptists, the Pentecostals, and any other Protestant church which teaches that being “born again” by having a personal relationship with God and Jesus is the be all and end all of human existence. Salvation of the individual soul and of the other souls with whom one comes into contact are of paramount importance. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi: Salvation isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
If that’s your fundamental presupposition of how to live your life, then that becomes your primary focus. Other things, such as how the government can do things to make the lives of its people better, pale in comparison. In fact, if you really believe that God is active in human affairs in a protracted war with the Devil over souls, then it becomes really easy to believe that the banker or the boss or the business owner or the general has the right to run your material life because it is God’s Will; besides, your material life really isn’t all that important, but the salvation of your immortal soul IS. Anyway, if you have enough faith and work hard enough, then maybe God will intervene in your life and make you better off in the present before you go to your eternal reward. If not, well, that’s just God’s Will and you can’t really understand that anyway; you just have to have Faith and surrender yourself to the Will of God.
And, how do you know what the Will of God is? Well, there’s this Book called the Bible. All the truth you need to know can be found within its pages; your faith tells you so. Anything that comes from outside The Book is suspect; while it may not necessarily be the work of the Devil who ceaselessly strives to capture and confine your soul to the eternal torment of Hell, it MIGHT be. The Bible also gives multiple examples of people who were the instruments of God on Earth, and many of them were prophets, apostles, or preachers of one sort or the other. So it becomes very easy to see your preacher or pastor or television evangelist as just such a person, and you would be foolish indeed to ignore their advice and commands. And, if God reveals to you that this particular person has gone astray, well, there are plenty more where he came from; there’s that tumbleweedy thing my dad was talking about again.
In present day America, here’s where capitalism comes in. The opponents and critics of capitalism emphasize that it is not Just for a few people to get rich off the labor many; therefore the many who actually do the work should either be actually making the decisions in their workplace or at least get more of the rewards of the fruits of their labor than the capitalists want to give them. What is important to both believers in controlled capitalism and to those who want to see it utterly destroyed is Justice and the standard of living of every American. On this subject, whether or not they are concerned with the future of their immortal souls is irrelevant to them. It’s not part of the equation, you see. It’s about wealth and power here and now.
Both the opponents and critics of capitalism are a clear threat to the profit-making objectives of the capitalists. So, many of the latter cloak themselves in the robes of Protestant righteousness, and declare to the True Believers that THEIR individual salvation is threatened if they lose their focus on the same and instead start thinking about worldly justice which, in the larger scheme of things, is irrelevant at best and a tool of the Devil at worst. Have Faith! Praise the Lord! Pray! Donate! Fight the Evildoers who seek to distract you from following the Will of God and saving your immortal soul! Remember what is truly important! Turn your backs on those who seek to persuade you that anything outside of what we tell you is in the Bible has any relevance to the lives of you and yours! In fact, attack them! Here’s a line from the Bible telling you it is your sacred duty to do so! And, of course, God Bless America!
What the capitalists and their zealous religious followers never ask, however, is: What would Jesus do? One can read the New Testament and easily come to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth himself, Son of God or not, was a socialist if not a communist way ahead of his time. No, what they usually focus on is the Old Testament, with its fire-and-brimstone prophets and personal, in-your-face, jealous God. There’s a good reason for that–it suits their interests. If you want to see a good example of this, just read the speeches of President George W. Bush. His speechwriters were experts at appealing to the Protestants I have described.
The Gospels are problematic for them, however. When the capitalists bring up the New Testament at all, it’s usually the Book of Revelations, which is pretty weird if you’ve ever read it and feeds a belief in End Times which is also exploited for fun and power and profit and war, but this post is long enough already. Maybe later I’ll focus on that subject.
The bottom line is that those who believe that their own lives in the present are not nearly as important as that of their souls in the afterlife are often easy prey to those who want to enhance their own wealth and power in the here and now, no matter if the latter really believe in an afterlife or not. And there are a LOT of these believers in individual salvation through a personal relationship with God, at least a third of the American voting public, with another third at least somewhat influenced by them. And, while I think they are losing ground, they are still a powerful force. Those on the left who ignore or dismiss the power of belief in individual salvation through a personal relationship with God do so at their own peril, and mine, no matter how ridiculous they may find that belief.
Christianity is a double-edged sword, however. Those on the left should not forget that, either. More on that later.