THE MONEY CULT
by Chris Lehmann
Melville House, 376 pages
reviewed by Melanie Erspamer
“The number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small […] let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of someone else. It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.”
If this sounds like something Ted Cruz would say, then perhaps the author Chris Lehmann is on to something: these are words spoken by Baptist minister Russell Conwell near the end of the nineteenth century Lehmann quotes in his history of America’s wealth gospel, The Money Cult. Conwell was speaking to a crowd of people come to witness his preaching and assured them that there were “acres of diamonds” literally within their reach, if only they were deserving of God’s grace. (Conwell is the founder of Temple University, named for his Baptist temple.)
It seems strange at first that a religion whose scripture teaches that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” should become—in its Evangelical, American version—one of the greatest defendants of wealth accumulation at the expense of the poor. In The Money Cult, Lehmann traces the history of Protestantism from its advent in the United States to its present day form. The transformation is not a pretty one: it begins with the arrival of the Puritans in New England and the first governor John Winthrop preaching that “he who gives to the poor, lends to the Lord” passes through Conwell’s acres of diamonds and ends at a megachurch in Texas, with Joel Osteen telling a story in which he criticises his father for donating divinely sanctioned money to a church instead of keeping it for himself.
How has this transformation happened? More to the point: how has Protestantism become so deeply enmeshed with American capitalism? These are the questions Lehmann sets out to answer in his book (all the more timely in the age of Trump—the most Evangelical and wealthy Protestant administration in modern history), catapulting the reader through the major events of American Protestantism: the Great Awakenings, the rise of Mormonism, the Businessman’s Revival, and televangelism. Lehmann is a journalist who began writing books of social criticism (this is his second) after the 2008 financial crisis. He is an informal, pleasant writer, and he’s done his research well.
By the end one sees the way Protestantism grew more and more into a form of Gnosticism, which Lehmann defines as the view that “the individual soul [is] a divine spark of cosmic truth,” or, in other words, “the venerable American faith in a heroic spiritual individualism.” The Gnosticism in the Protestant tradition ultimately led to a preoccupation with personal, and not worldly reform and to a focus on individual, not societal, redemption. However Protestant sects did not, therefore, bow out of the public realm: instead, they came to embrace capitalism, which would, by the twentieth century, come to dominate economic thinking in the United States.
The marriage of Protestantism to capitalism is apparent enough when one thinks of both the religiosity and fiscal conservatism of the Southern states of the U.S., and yet often times it is thought of as paradoxical, or a simple unexplainable fact. What Lehmann sets out to show in The Money Cult is that to the believers themselves, there is no paradox, but simply a reinterpretation of Scripture, of faith, that aligns God’s will with prosperity and singles out a certain class of people—Evangelical believers—as destined to be saved while the rest of the world burns in Armageddon.
Lehmann does a good job of explaining the various key distinctions within Protestantism without getting over pedantic. American Protestantism journeys from Calvinism or Congregationalism at the outset of American history, to Methodism, Baptism, and other “mainline” Protestant sects after the two Great Awakenings, to Evangelicalism and Pentecostal preaching in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the culmination of the Money Cult. Recently, the trend has been towards cross-denominational Protestant services (such as is the case for Osteen, Lehmann’s favorite example), which only goes to show how the prosperity gospel has become strong enough to unite all branches of Protestantism (and even Catholicism, I think, if one thinks of Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Jesus).
Although The Money Cult’s historical scope does not reach the Trump administration (the book came out before the campaign got into high gear), it speaks highly of the book that its conclusions can be extended to our current state of affairs. Unlike the Vice President, Mike Pence, Donald Trump is not the prototypical member of the Money Cult. The Trump administration, however, is a near perfect embodiment of the Money Cult. One need simply look at the two men on top: Trump, one of the embodiments of American capitalism, and Pence, a fervent evangelical. There is also open access in the administration for other ardent Christians, such as for the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, a surgeon who preaches self-activation. Lehmann argues that the United States began, essentially, during the seventeenth century colonial era of John Winthrop, as a kind of theocracy, a union between religion and politics; and now it has ended with a different union, one between religion and business. In the era of Trump, this union decisively includes politics once more.
Lehman is not the first to criticise this flourishing relationship between Protestantism and capitalism. Certainly, even in Conwell’s time, there were liberals who saw the acres of diamonds speech an unlikely and problematic manifestation of such a relationship. The difference between Conwell’s time and our own however is that we are not faced with Conwell, but with a powerful Evangelical establishment that has managed to infiltrate itself well into the world of politics. Thus, although this critique is not new, it is comprehensive and almost (but for Trump) up-to-date.
All this may seem like interesting, but perhaps not particularly useful, information for secular readers to come across. The truth is, however, that the intersection between Protestantism and capitalism is one all Americans should care about, for the simple fact that the United States is both arguably one of the most capitalist countries in the Western world, and the one with the highest percentage of adults who believe in God. The United States defies the statistic that as economies grow, religiosity decreases, and it defies it not only by having the largest economy and a striking percentage of believers (seventy percent of Americans call themselves Christian), but by having them both not in contradiction but by a sort of symbiosis, one which Lehmann tries to explain.
The prosperity gospel, after all, is not a manifest contradiction that certain members of society have chosen to ignore. To the scores of people filling Osteen’s church, there is no contradiction, but a coherent and ultimately triumphant ideology (after all, they will survive Armageddon), one that is the logical end result of forces developing in American society for centuries. This is one of the strengths of Lehmann’s history and analysis: the way he does not portray the union of Protestantism and capitalism as an alienated phenomenon on the fringe of American society. Indeed, Lehmann cautions against coastal liberal elitism. For instance, one way he makes a jab at elitist superiority over the millions of Osteen followers is by revealing the way their religion has influenced our lives: it’s not just that Protestantism has adapted in order to embrace capitalism, but capitalism itself, the economic system all Americans (with various degrees of willingness) take part in, has been “sanctified” according to Protestant beliefs.
Thus Lehmann points out that many secular proponents of capitalism maintain the same quasi-divine views of the market a members of the Money Cult. For instance, the pervading idea in American society that capitalism ensures a meritocracy—despite abundant evidence to the contrary—smacks of the Money Cult’s idea that prosperity is divinely granted, as does the myth that Wall Street bankers and other members of the financial class are powerful “job-creators,” divinely granted a power of creation. The conclusion is unsavory: even without the fiscal conservatism of America’s Bible belt, the U.S. remains one of the Western world’s most capitalism-infatuated countries, partly because of the sanctified view of market forces that even secular Americans hold.
Unfortunately, this interesting piece of criticism was found only in the introduction and conclusion of The Money Cult. Herein lies one of the problems I had with an otherwise entertaining book: the lack of key analysis. Lehmann writes a very complete history of American Protestantism, reminding the reader at various steps of how Gnosticism in the Protestant faith was increasing along with the sanctifying of prosperity; but he does not accompany this story with related theory or ideology. For instance, is a complete embracing of capitalism an inevitable conclusion of the individualist, Gnostic strain of Protestantism? It is one thing to be faced with the reality of current capitalist Protestantism and go backwards to trace its development through time, and it is another to analyze the factors present at the starting point and say not just what happened but why.
Of course, such generalized hindsight-ridden explanations can often be over-simplistic—criticism Lehmann levels at Max Weber, the sociologist who famously stipulated that the Protestant work ethic led to capitalism. Yet Lehmann could have given some tentative explanations while trying to avoid sweeping generalizations; after all, there is a sense in which one desires such books plotting out a specific historical development (of capitalism and Protestantism here) to be more than just stories, but rather explanations, steeped in theory and ideology, of why history turned out the way it did.
The most significant gap of analysis was, in my opinion, the unanswered issue of why America? Lehmann mentions often enough that the fervent, Evangelical, money-loving brand of Protestantism is uniquely American; yet this is so taken for granted that one never stops to wonder why it is so. Why did Europe not develop such prosperity-focused brands of Protestantism? What was the key difference? The book is full of interesting material and sources, and so one can try drawing the conclusion for oneself: perhaps the lack of a hierarchy strong enough to compete with the religious one in America (as opposed to the entrenched political and social institutions of Europe at the time of the Reformation) meant that the tendency in Protestantism of the individual to assert his or her own religious autonomy and power was ultimately able to triumph over the attempts of any ulterior hierarchy to put the individual in some kind of fixed place, leading in part to the myth of meritocracy and divinely granted success present in capitalism. This, however, is mere stipulation. The fact that Lehmann offers none of his own is unfortunate for a book whose subheading is “Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream” and yet hardly addresses the American dream, or what makes any of this so American at all.
That being said, although Lehmann may not give enough insight into why the United States ended up with the Money Cult while other countries did not, it does give a clear and jarring account of the realities of that Money Cult within the United States, and how well it continues to thrive on an economic system most Americans support.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.