The Religion of Money

“The acts of consumption define the spirit of the age, and it would need a library of many volumes to catalogue the texts of extravagance.” Lewis Lapham, Money and Class in America

Nothing I could say about money will sound anything but resentful to the true worshiper of American capitalism. Such is our reverence for both money and the means of free market acquisition that we feel compelled to offer a weak disclaimer, “Now, I’ve got nothing against people making a profit for all their hard work. . .” before we go on to register our doubts. But money is the means of establishing value in American society to an extent that takes one’s breath away. Everything can be monetized, everything—and it seems—everybody, is for sale.

The takedown of Greg Mortenson, lately of Three Cups of Tea fame, is a case in point. Just when you thought you had a hero of significant proportions, he turns out to have jiggered the accounts in literary, philanthropic, and managerial ledgers. The ascension of Donald Trump to the Republican flavor-of-the- month club for the presidency in 2012 is yet another example of what money can buy. Buffoonery takes on a kind of burnished luster when accompanied by a gazillion dollars. It says something exceedingly tragicomic about the state of American democracy when a person is considered by many to be qualified for the highest office in the republic simply because he cuts the sharpest deals in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Don’t worry, this won’t be another screed about the barbarians at the gates and a rant against the philistines who populate the halls of Congress and Wall Street. After all, they paid dearly to be where they are. Who are we to deny them the fruits of their labors?

Money and the worship of it has been much on my mind these past months as I have prepared for and conducted a class entitled “Religion and Money.” To an extent I would not have thought possible while growing up in the 60s in California, I have immersed myself lately in the works of John Kenneth Galbraith, Adam Smith, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, R. H. Tawney, John Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, Andrew Carnegie and others. Advice has been taken from Jacob Needleman (Money and the Meaning of Life), Jim Wallis (Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street), Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, and The Next Next Thing), as well as Kevin Phillips (American Theocracy) and Craig Gay (Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society). The last two were the assigned textbooks for the course.

Early in the course I made a simple assignment—to keep a money monitor log, just for one day. The idea was that the students would track throughout the day every time they made a purchase, thought about making a purchase, or otherwise found themselves thinking about money. The results were surprising. Some came back with a short list of purchases, misunderstanding that I wanted them to reflect upon, not simply catalogue, their dealings with money. When they returned with a narrative it was clear that the exercise had opened their eyes. They spoke of realizing how much they spent on lunch at work, how much a tank of gas for the truck cost, or the prioritizing of bills at the end of the month. They marveled at how much it cost for a family lunch out or Easter outfits for the children. They worried about the bills for their education, rejoiced that they had money for tithes and offerings at church, and vowed to cut out the glass of wine at dinner. In ways both revealing and unsettling they found that in their own private state Money held all the offices, advertised all the goods, told the stories, and conjured up the language.

It’s not that we were surprised at how much things cost these days. As gas tops $5.00 a gallon in the District of Columbia you realize that the legislators don’t drive themselves to work, and even if they noticed the prices without being advised by their constituents, it wouldn’t be in their interests to fuss about it. No, what became clear to us is the pervasiveness of what theologian Craig Gay calls the ‘Money Metric’ system, that which is closer to us than the DNA in our cells. It objectifies everything, quantifies all values, reduces relationships to a cost/benefit analysis, and flattens the curve of experience to a line graph of projections. It is the pesticide devised to sabotage all unhappiness that travels up the food chain to accumulate in our guts. It was also clear that extracting religion from this pecuniary life-cycle might also kill the patient.

Mainline denominations are on the endangered species lists as their spiritual forests are being clear-cut by the evangelical megachurches. At this rate, one estimate shows the Presbyterians will be extinct by 2050, to be recalled only by those who compile the statistics on vanishing fauna. Where once vast herds of Methodists roamed out West, now there are the Willow Creeks, the Saddlebacks, and other purposefully driven spiritual centers catering to thousands of religious consumers. What makes the difference? The relentless marketing, advertising, and branding of the message of liberation from worry and the sweet reward of success the American way, blessed by Him from Whom all blessings flow.

In the midst of all this there are many, no doubt, who yet feel the stirrings of true godliness. Who would have the arrogance or hubris to claim that God’s spirit simply cannot be present in a gathering of 10,000 in a church with an annual budget in the millions? And while poverty is no ticket to transcendent spirituality neither is mass-produced religion a guarantee of spiritual success. American religion, by necessity in this country, is a business, its assets protected by the Constitution, but its daily bread provided by those under no obligation to stay, a voluntary association of consumers used to having their wants catered to in the marketplace.

More than one observer of the American culture has said that Money is the religion of America and the key to its deepest anxieties. Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1840s that Americans have a desperate fear of ‘sinking in the world’ that results in a kind of ADHD in which they “clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.”

Jesus said ‘the poor you have with you always.’ While not disputing that, we could add that ‘the monetizers you have with you always, even to the end of the world.’ There will always be those, the majority most probably, who see no value in that which cannot be reduced to utility, that which has value that cannot be calculated, projected, and sold. Craig Gay’s recommendation is to sidestep the Money Metric system by regarding life and everything in it as a gift. Lewis Lapham, slightly more irreverent but no less to the mark, notes that the most subversive doctrine in America today comes to us from the ancient Greeks and the early Christians as the virtue of temperance and says, ‘I’ve got enough, I don’t think I’ll buy anything more this week.’

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