Sometimes you wake up and facebook dares you to write a blog post. I won’t reveal the name of the person who posted this quote, since facebook is, you know, that place where privacy is paramount. No really, I don’t share full names with the Internet at large without permission. The pointer, though:
Sometimes the asking of a question is meant to be a pointed rebuke, as it is here. And this particular rebuke certainly has a very important point: why do fundamentalist Christians worship “all-for-me, nothing-for-you,” greed-driven, planet trashing consumption-driven capital above just about any other kind of economic system?
It seems contradictory on the surface of it and it probably is just as hypocritical if one pokes at it a little more closely. When I see questions like this, though, they make me want to raise my hand and wave it around and say “Oh! Oh! I was one of them! I know a couple of answers to this question and you all aren’t going to believe what they consist of!”
So, allow me, if you don’t mind: what is it about a deeply exploitative and self-interested economic system that appeals to a religion supposedly founded on principles of generosity and selflessness?
There are a number of ways to look at this question. Among them are the history of Calvinism in the United States. Calvinism, generally–and I’m writing from memory so I might get some details not exactly perfect but that is what Wikipedia read with some critical thinking skills is for. If I go read about it right now I will get sidetracked by some issue that has little to do with this question and will never come back. So feel free to offer any correctives that you remember from your history classes or that you were able to glean from the internet before getting whisked off in an intellectual wild goose chase. It gets me every time.
As briefly as I can state it, the deal with Calvinism and self-interested capitalism goes something like this. The Calvinists believed that, although you could certainly agree with everything the Bible says, you could not be certain that you were among the elect who had achieved salvation and would thus spend eternity in heaven rather than hell/the lake of fire/eternal separation from god/whatever your version of “the other place” is. So if one is a Calvinist, one can be passionately Christian in one’s beliefs and practices, but still have no idea whether one is going to heaven or hell.
However, the Calvinists thought up a kind of neat twist to this lack of certainty: perhaps, just perhaps, if god were to smile on you in this life–with, you know, material goods, a nice job, a big family, etc–then it may well be a sign that you are indeed one of the blessed elect. And of course, in the US, if you want to become well-endowed with material success in this life, it is helpful if you are self-interested enough to exploit resources and labor for your own gain. It just works like that under capitalism: regardless of what one thinks about the capacity for self-interest to be “enlightened” or not, it is necessary to accumulate capital–or signs of grace, if you are a Calvinist.
The happy counterpart to this belief, if you happen to be well-off, is that the poor literally wear signs of their moral depravity: their very poverty is a sign that they are not of the elect and will not be going to heaven when they die. Maybe this sounds oddly familiar, like you have heard before from certain people that the poor are not deserving of anything like compassion or charity or kindness because they are obviously morally bereft? May not have started uniquely with Calvinism, but this attitude got a hefty boost in the US precisely from Calvinism.
You may have heard of the Prosperity Gospel; it borrows heavily from the Calvinist tradition, saying that if god cares for you he certainly won’t mind if you store up lots of material wealth for yourself in this world. It’s just part of his way of showing he loves you: rewarding whatever abilities you have to exploit your environment for profit.
This doctrine conveniently de-emphasizes such passages as the one stating that it is easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle then it is for a rich man to get into heaven. I am not sure how the apologists for Christian prosperity explain this one away, but I have no doubt that they have gone to great rhetorical lengths to do so. Apologists have a way of doing that.
Remnants of Calvinist belief may or may not account for the rabid pro-rapacious-capitalism of the religious right, though. I am not certain how much play Calvinism itself still gets in most fundamentalist churches. I never heard about it growing up, but I grew up in the Southern Baptist Convention before it was steeplejacked by Dominionists, whose ethic toward the earth and towards human and non-human resources may be just a tad scarier than any Calvinist laissez-faire attitudes toward capitalist profit.
This ethic is two-fold: on the one hand, it is little more than a hyper-literal reading of the old testament command to rule and subdue the earth. As though we were not far, far along that road already, the general consensus around that command is that god created the earth expressly for our exploitation. Other beings, beings capable of pain, fear, suffering, and even communication? All here for us to exploit. Ruthlessly, if it enables us to further our “dominion” over the earth, and especially conveniently if we can also make money at it. This may be where Calvinism gets the call to justify material gain as the result of subduing the earth, but in any case the simple consumption of natural resources is not only our god-given right. It is our god-given directive.
As a corollary, there is also more than a remnant of the White Man’s Burden underpinning the ethical practices of the religious right: where it becomes truly cruel is when, in addition to imposing Western Christian culture on people who already have religions and cultures of their own, it justifies exploiting people who refuse to convert. This is probably not something you will hear much about on TV, but having been the fly on the wall in more than one gathering of fundamentalist faithful, the very fact that some people are non-Christian has been stated, many times, as fair enough reason to work them to death for low wages, take their resources away from them, destroy their cultures–you know the general routine here. This sentiment did not die when the American Frontier was declared closed.
As frightening as all this might be, for me the clincher is that, among those in the Christian right who believe that the end times are upon us and that soon they will be raptured away while the rest of us unbelievers are left behind to face plague and war and strife on a scale as yet unseen, there is a belief that we–or rather, they, since we’ll be wherever hell is–are getting a new planet to play with. Yes. A brand new earth, replenished of all of the things we have managed to take from it in the last several thousand years (exactly six, if you are a young earth creationist).
Not only that, but environmental catastrophe is also preached as a sign of the end times! If capitalism can exploit the earth’s resources to the point of complete and utter destruction of whole ecosystems, so much the better! That just means the new earth is right around the corner. Nothing to worry about whatsoever.
Which is why the religious right, along with fomenting as much unrest in the Middle East as possible–with the side bennies of gaining control over all those petroleum resources to suck dry in the interim–do all they can to increase our likelihood of wrecking the planet. Nevermind that the Bible actually says that no one knows the hour of the return; we may yet be agents of the end of this world and the beginning of the next, if only we cheer on environmental destruction and ongoing war in the general vicinity of Israel/Palestine. Oh, and anywhere else that is convenient: “wars and rumors of wars” are supposed to increase before Jesus comes back, but since no war goes uncovered to at least some extent by the media, it is hard to define what a “rumor” of war would be these days.
So. That’s why.
In a couple more days I might write about why it is I am extremely fearful of a power vacuum being left by the disintegration of the GOP into moderates and the radical religious right, especially since nobody in the Democratic party seems particularly interested in stepping up to create some sort of viable alternative to the path of destruction left by the last GOP presidency. They seem perfectly happy to follow the money, but by doing so they play right into the hands of those who would like nothing better than to make the US a compulsory “Christian” nation–that many of them hold the pursestrings to corporate power is sobering; that the Democratic party seems not to care or even notice the strange alliance between corporate greed and religious fascism might well mean that we have literally no one left to vote for.
For now I’ll leave it at that. Maybe you can fill in the blanks on your own.