Christianity and capitalism have always had a complex relationship in America. The national psyche is a tortured contradiction of ruthless individualism and munificent charity.
In the past century, the two philosophies have become even more intermingled with the rise of the gospel of materialism. It seems that God wants us to be rich, and the way to do that is to work hard, pray hard, and put lots of money in the plate when it passes. We have seen buffoonish divines such as Rev. Ike, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Robert Schuller, and Zig Ziglar preaching their gospel of positive thinking to all who would pony up the price of admission. And blazing the trail for them all was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, author of that epic of spiritual humbuggery, The Power of Positive Thinking.
In the 20th century, we witnessed mainstream Christianity transformed from a frightening theology of hellfire and appeasement of an angry god into a kind of feel-good religiosity designed to help believers cope, relate, and prosper. Prosperity is often portrayed as an entitlement of believers. If they don’t have it already, they will have it soon enough. It is the reward for faith.
It would be useless to explain to most modern Christians that Jesus gave very strict warnings against the pursuit of wealth (Matthew 6:24, 19:21-24; Mark 10:21-25; Luke 16:13, 18:22-25) and that the Old Testament admonishes against the accumulation of wealth (Leviticus 25).
In all the Gospels, Jesus expresses anger at only two groups, religious leaders (Matthew 15:1-10, 22:15-22, 23:13-36; Mark 7: 5-13, 12:13-17; Luke 13:14-17) and business leaders (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19: 45-46; John 2: 14-16).
For those already blessed with prosperity — through hard work or lucky genes — faith offers other amenities. In recent years — and especially in the South — we have seen a quiet proliferation of nondenominational prayer groups, usually for those of the Republican persuasion. Believers gather on a regular basis to share their stories of failures and triumphs in the faith, offer one another spiritual pep talks, and do a little friendly networking. Many such groups are composed of specific interests, such as golfers, realtors, or attorneys. They usually have a designated leader, though this person is not typically an ordained minister.
Their philosophy of self-help and positive thinking has always appealed to conservatives, because it assumes that almost all human problems are basically personal. If you are not happy, don’t blame society — get right with God! It’s the perfect philosophy for rich people.
I have observed several of these groups over the years and been invited to sit in on one (perhaps with the idea of saving my wayward soul). I found these groups to be a blend of smugness and creepiness, as members discussed “wonderful Christians” they recently encountered and talked about how they could become better Christians.
We learned of two such groups recently following Gov. Mark Sanford’s personal and political downfall in an extramarital affair. One was the “Christian dormitory” for male members of Congress on C Street in Washington, D.C., which Sanford counseled with during his time in the House of Representatives. The other was a prayer group in Columbia, headed by a twice-divorced realtor and process server named Warren “Cubby” Culbertson. Culbertson was the “incredibly dear friend” and “spiritual giant” Sanford apologized to during his nationally televised confession and meltdown on June 24.
Sanford said he had received counseling from Culbertson and members of the C Street group on how to get his life straightened out — all before he flew off to Buenos Aires to meet his mistress and wreck his marriage and career.
If Sanford wasn’t gaining strength or wisdom from his Christian support groups, what was he receiving?
I suspect he was getting a huge dose of hypocrisy — the kind of smugness that would allow him to vote for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over his act of adultery, while at the same time Sanford was having inappropriate relationships with women outside of his own marriage.
I think he was learning the kind of self-righteousness that would allow him to reject $700 million in federal stimulus money in the face of near-universal condemnation, with the confidence that he was in touch with a higher wisdom, not available to ordinary mortals.
Whatever his Christian support groups were supposed to do for him, they clearly failed, and they might have fed his arrogance and recklessness. I hope voters will remember this the next time some politician boasts of his Christian credentials as a qualification for public office.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.
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