Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Corporate Sponsored God


We stay together... pray together, we work together, and if the good Lord smiles kindly on our endeavor, we share in the wealth together.
There Will Be Blood (2007)

We’re very important. We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle...We're doing God's work.
Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO

HALF of America pays NO taxes. ZERO. So their happy for tax rates to be raised on the other half that DOES pay taxes.
Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, twitter feed

Princeton professor of history Kevin Kruse wrote a helpful piece published in the NY Times earlier this week in the aftermath of Mitt Romney's recent "class warfare" comments:

When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus 1 percent you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.

Kruse roots Romney's mindset within a very powerful 20th century dynamic: the attempted corporate takeover of Christianity. Although the concept of the United States being a "nation under God" was first introduced nobly by Lincoln in the heart of the Civil War, new corporate-financed interest groups like The American Liberty League re-introduced the phrase during Roosevelt's New Deal 1930s:

During the Great Depression, the prestige of big business sank along with stock prices. Corporate leaders worked frantically to restore their public image and simultaneously roll back the “creeping socialism” of the welfare state...Realizing that they needed to rely on others, these businessmen took a new tack: using generous financing to enlist sympathetic clergymen as their champions. After all, according to one tycoon, polls showed that, “of all the groups in America, ministers had more to do with molding public opinion” than any other.

Kruse focuses on James Fifield, the minister of the 1st Congregational Church of Los Angeles, as a leading proponent of this capitalist Christianity:

Christianity, in Mr. Fifield’s interpretation, closely resembled capitalism, as both were systems in which individuals rose or fell on their own. The welfare state, meanwhile, violated most of the Ten Commandments. It made a “false idol” of the federal government, encouraged Americans to covet their neighbors’ possessions, stole from the wealthy and, ultimately, bore false witness by promising what it could never deliver.

In the Cold War 1950s, this powerful coalition combining profits and pulpits led to the addition of "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance as well as the introduction of the almighty prayer breakfast to the President's agenda. And on to the 80s, 90s and 2000s, we have witnessed the corporate agenda hating on "big government" married to the personal piety (family values) and eternal salvation of conservative Evangelicalism.

Consider the millions of dollars that have funded conservative Evangelical summer camps, publishing houses, colleges and megachurches. Wealthy donors expect the constant messages coming from these highly influential and emotionally infused sources (pastors, authors, camp directors, professors, deans) to legitimate an American way-of-life that idolizes (or is completely silent about) the profit motive and self-interest.

Consider the 100-year story of BIOLA University (The Bible Institute of Los Angeles) and their founding father: oilman Lyman Stewart. Their website echoes the history Kruse recounts:

Oil millionaire Lyman Stewart had a history of Christian philanthropy all over the Los Angeles area. He promoted religious education at local colleges, started the Union Rescue Mission and helped numerous churches with their financial needs.

Lyman and his brother Milton also financed the publication of The Fundamentals, a 90-chapter series of books that put the best conservative scholarship into the hands of a wide audience.


The Fundamentals were pamphlets that put the self-named Christian "Fundamentalists" on the map, spreading their corporate-funded "biblical" worldview throughout America. Today, one can clearly and consistently hear these well-rehearsed fundamentals (anti-evolution, biblical inerrancy, anti-Catholic & anti-Mormon--painfully ironic for them, since they will have to choose between the thrice-married Catholic Gingrich and the Mormon Corporate Hero Romney) on the lips of contemporary adherents.

And consider this chapter from the Fundamentals (from Rev. Arthur Pierson's "Our Lord's Teachings About Money"):

The Church boards are God's bankers. They are composed of practical men, who study how and where to put money for the best results and largest returns, and when they are what they ought to be, they multiply money many-fold in glorious results.

Surely, the net result of biblical interpretation, for the Fundamentalists, is overwhelmingly to the benefit of the owner-class, the 1% who benefit from "wise investment" for God's Kingdom. And surely, these conservative churches claim that wealth "trickles down" to the masses from job creating corporations doing God's work.

To be fair, most of the conservative Evangelical leaders I know (and I know many) are sincere in their quest to "lead people to Christ" and "make disciples" who take the Bible seriously. They have a very humane desire to make the world a more generous and peaceful place. However, most of them conveniently overlook the sources of their own paycheck and the underpinnings of the theology they espouse. They do not have an honest understanding of the recent historical trends that have largely shaped the way the Bible is interpreted within American conservative Christian traditions (including the tremendously wealthy Evangelical and Mormon strands).

What makes this an even more nerve-wracking conversation is that many famous conservative Christian leaders (aka "fundamentalists") make a huge deal over other Christians ("liberals") who "read their own agendas into the Bible." I do not disagree with this allegation on its own, but instead, wholeheartedly proclaim that we all read Scripture (and everything else) through a biased lens (what Walter Brueggemann calls the "zone of imagination") shaped by peer pressure, financial/economic interest, family expectation, etc. This is something all Christians must admit to.

Indeed, this unacknowledged lens is a gigantic obstacle to having any sort of constructive biblical dialogue within the American Body of Christ on vital issues like (homo)sexuality and economic policy. In fact, conservative pastors must admit that they simply cannot change their minds (and in many cases, cannot even have a nuanced conversation about them) on these issues no matter how logical or biblical it would be to do so--they would lose their job because their financial backers largely do not allow for any nuance. This is what Cornel West calls "priestly" (or Constantinian) Christianity--baptizing the status quo to benefit their own social, economic and political power and privilege.

No doubt, I would graciously concede that former Notre Dame professor George Marsden's balanced assessment rings true: "Since the early 1960s, however, most interpreters have agreed that fundamentalists' deepest interests were more ideological and theological than political" (in Fundamentalism and American Culture, 1980). But socio-economic-political interests have greatly affected the game, leading to the massive rise of conservative Evangelicalism (a softer brand of fundamentalism) in the past century. It must be noted and taken seriously for the dangerous trend it is.

This political season, as Super PACs are unveiling just how much wealthy and powerful interests are pulling the strings behind every commercial and stump speech, we ought to be on guard ("stay awake!"--Mark 13:33) for every sermon and published book that somehow baptizes the corporate interest with Jesus' gospel of the least of these (Matthew 25) by claiming to be politically neutral. It's all about philanthropy, not tax policy, the fundamentalists say. It's all about non-profits, not transforming economic structures. This conservative Christian gospel message caters perfectly to banking & corporate interests who benefit from supply-side tax policy, consistent high unemployment (the millions of "replacements" on the sidelines keep wages low) and low inflation. Just follow the money. From your local megachurch to multi-national corporate boardroom.

--> We are eagerly anticipating Dr. Kevin Kruse's upcoming release One Nation Under God: Corporations, Christianity, and the Rise of the Religious Right

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