A lively study of how the prim Puritans of old, “tireless strivers after divine favor and sticklers for political order,” became the mega-churchy materialists of today.
The timeworn American Protestant form of discourse is the jeremiad. Bookforum co-editor and Baffler senior editor Lehmann (Rich People Things: Real-Life Secrets of the Predator Class, 2011) avoids that approach in favor of a full among-the-money-changers attack. Those money-changers, sticklers for authority and hierarchy, turn out to be the real subject of his book, from John Winthrop’s apologies for inequality to his latter-day heirs. Although they profess to render unto Caesar, many of the leaders of the religious right are Caesar, and their Money Cult, as Lehmann dubs it, equates wealth with spiritual value. Joel Osteen and other dialing-for-dollars preachers have become ascendant in the metamorphosis of the “baser materials of competitive capitalist self-assertion into a kind of saving grace.” What’s more, by the author’s account, they’ve carried the mainstream with them in this transmutation; the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding, the dominant view now is that what matters is to come out with the most toys. Lehmann notes that the idea of prosperity promised by the First Awakening, with God providing all that one needs, is very different from the “transcendant abundance” of today, with God providing a shiny new car, a lovely home entertainment system, and enough fine clothes to make the fastidious Osteen, who “believes that God…has selected your car according to his will,” proud. Lehmann is careful to document his claims as progress, and though a supporter of the religious right might take issue with the general tenor of his argument, his observations are unimpeachable. One in particular concerns the rich irony attendant in an atheistic social Darwinism, the champion of laissez faire capitalism, becoming the governing creed of the ultrareligious, with no rival movement to contest it.
Lehmann makes an important and timely point, which is that American religion has always been about money.