God and Mammon

Years ago The Fabulous Wife and I were driving down an empty stretch of central California highway and fiddling with the tinny car radio when we found one of those basement-studio religious stations. Usually we skip those, but we lingered on this one long enough to hear an interviewee assert that of course God endorsed the concept of private property, because every man was promised his own fig tree and vine.

Although I’m not a religious believer, I’m grateful I was born and raised Jewish. It’s a belief system that tends to honor intelligence and scholarship, and even tolerate a degree of skepticism (less so lately, it seems). And everywhere except Israel, being Jewish makes you an outsider, which is dangerous, but also a gift in that it gives you a critical perspective on the culture around you. Watching my own society from the outside — most pronounced on days like Easter Sunday and Christmas — spurred my development as a writer.

It also allowed me to see the central contradiction of the American creed: the conjoining of Christianity and capitalism illustrated by the radio theologian’s reference to a fleeting passage in 1 Kings 4:25 echoed in Micah 4:4.

(Micah? Really?)

Jesus himself — not the Gospel writers, not Paul, and certainly not Micah — warned unambiguously during the Sermon on the Mount that “Ye cannot serve both God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Later on, he said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Then he ran the money changers out of the Temple with the words “Make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise” (John 2:16).

Yet here are all these vulgar free-market fundamentalists piously proclaiming themselves the ultimate Christians. (You don’t really need me to document that, do you? It’s like asking a fish to document water.)

I get how this melding of contradictions occurred. In college I read only as much of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as I could stand, so I may be mischaracterizing that masterwork’s thesis, but as I recall, Protestantism and capitalism rose at the same time, and of course both challenged Roman Catholic orthodoxy. So they became allies: the money and influence of early capitalists shielded fledgling Protestant churches from persecution, and Protestant theology transformed workaholism, speculative investing, and the accumulation of wealth into religious virtues. Descendants of that alliance crossed the ocean and founded America.

I also get how after four or five centuries, you stop noticing the contradiction. If you do notice, anti-intellectualism comes to your rescue. Richard Hofstadter’s landmark survey of the subject, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, devotes its first three chapters to the history of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Don’t think! Just believe and you’ll be saved! Intellectual rigor and integrity are for those college eggheads you’re supposed to bully.

But because I grew up in a different religious tradition, I do notice the contradiction. And even knowing the history, it still makes no sense. Why wouldn’t every single true-believing Christian favor, nay, demand, government programs that feed the hungry, heal the sick, and house the homeless? How can avowed Christians resent paying taxes for such services, and prefer instead that their money go to the development of an ever-more-lethal military?

I would gladly pay more taxes to help the poor and afflicted. I sometimes wonder whether that makes me a better Christian than most American Christians.