The Cash-In of the Christ
There is an article in the New York Times today linking a swell in enrollment seen by evangelical American churches in recent months to the current economic crisis. Among the snowballing congregations, Paul Vitello writes, is Seattle’s gay-baiting Mars Hill Church, which “grew to 7,000 members this fall, up 1,000 in a year.” Vitello adds,
At the Life Christian Church in West Orange, N.J., prayer requests have doubled — almost all of them aimed at getting or keeping jobs.
Add that to the kooky story from last week about a prayer service for an auto industry bailout at a Detroit megachurch that involved SUVs on the altar and you’ve got the makings of a genuine trend.
As a voracious enthusiast of human religious behaviors of all stripes—hailing from Wichita Falls, Texas of all unholy places!—I am as prepared as anyone in my liberal urban Shangri-La when it comes to the deeply idiosyncratic beliefs and cultural manifestations of evangelical American Christianity.* And yet I still manage to be shocked by the profound irony (and utter blasphemy?) inherent in directing such profane supplications to the unmoved creator of the universe—not to mention his ascetic son. I don’t know why. It’s certainly been ubiquitous for decades, in the Prosperity Gospel of guys like Bruce “Prayer of Jabez” Wilkenson and televangelist Robert “God Wants You to be Rich” Tilton—indeed, for countless American Christians, the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith and the Hand of God might as well be one and the same.
This paradigm is riddled with pathologies. As history has a way of painfully reminding us, nothing good has ever come of chaining “God”—a concept too big and ineffable to ever fit into any man-made conception of the cosmos—to the political ups and downs of an individual, a race, or a nation. Our current economic upheaval, in fact, may be traced in no small part to the fervent irrationality with which Americans have placed their faith in the institutions of unbridled capitalistic excess as though they were the divine mandate of God Himself. We have allowed the rapturous fumes of hegemony to cloud our senses and remained willfully oblivious to the plain fact that much of what we take for granted as the “American Way of Life“—cheap fuel, cheap foreign labor, endless credit and wanton environmental destruction—needs to die. And die it will, no doubt about it. It is up to us to resolve not to go down with the ship.
The question is not whether God will hear our prayers and postpone the end just a little longer. It is whether we as a culture are able to consciously construct a new mythical context for ourselves that allows us to live meaningfully and gracefully in the post-capitalist reality we have mortgaged for ourselves.
(America, I’ll be prayin’ for you.)
*For a thorough history of American Christianity, I recommend Richard Wright Fox’s Jesus In America. For a scholarly take on the intersection of Christianity and capitalism, I recommend R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture.