The Religious Right: Abandon All Morality, Ye Who Enter Here
How Christians Replaced Their Ethics with Capitalism
Once upon a time, conservative American Christians followed a man named Jesus of Nazareth. Now they follow the irreligious Donald Trump of Queens. How in God’s name did we get here? Well, it turns out it’s been a long time in the making. Let’s turn back and explore a few flashpoints of how the Religious Right developed and then how it abandoned all sense of morality and even the very ethical core upon which Christianity is based.
Before I dive into this philosophical morass, I should share that this history and its consequences are deeply personal to me. I was raised Southern Baptist in the good old South. I no longer practice the religion, but I’m fascinated by it. More importantly, however, I’m incensed by its hypocrisy. We don’t have Christians in America anymore; we only have capitalists. What follows is my analysis, screed, and call to action for Christians to be better, to remember their God, to repent, and to change their ways. It’s the only way forward and the only way to avoid the hellfire that they have unleashed on our world with their wickedness. (Too biblical-sounding? I told y’all I was raised Southern Baptist, right? That stuff gets in you deep and never really gets back out.)
Our story begins in the early twentieth century with Max Weber’s publication of The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In that seminal work, Weber explains some key features of how Christianity sociologically developed and differentiated itself from Catholicism.
Under Catholicism in the way back times, only trained members of the clergy were permitted to even read the Bible. The Church didn’t trust the laypeople to comprehend, much less accurately interpret, the biblical message. It was too complex for them, and they would just end up developing weird heretical beliefs that would earn them and others eternal damnation. According to the early Catholics, this is exactly what happened with the rise of Protestantism.
Among other developments, Protestants believed that anyone could communicate directly with God. They believed they didn’t need the intercessor of a priest. As the Catholics predicted (and as had happened plenty in the past), myriad new versions of Christianity cropped up. This time, however, new Christians had the benefit of technologies like the printing press, so they could reproduce and spread their message more rapidly than before. The new Protestant heresies cropped up faster than Catholicism could quash them. So Protestantism took hold and spun off about a million different varieties.
Before Protestantism, Christians had a notion of a spiritual calling. In the heyday of Catholicism, this calling meant joining the clergy. That’s a rough life. Not everyone wants to take a vow of celibacy and give up worldly pleasures like gambling and loosening your tie every now and again. At least the Church let them drink and smoke, I guess.
Protestants, however, discovered that they couldn’t all be members of the clergy. People had jobs and families and lives. But they still wanted to let folks know that they were working in the service of the Lord. That desire necessitated a reinterpretation of the idea of a spiritual “calling.” Enter what Max Weber calls the Protestant work ethic.
The idea is simple: if you’re a godly baker or butcher or botanist (really any profession outside of the clergy), then the way to honor God is to be the best damn baker, butcher, or botanist that you can be. According to the Good Book, people will recognize your Christian nature according to your works, after all (James 2:14).
A natural consequence of being good at one’s job, especially in a capitalist economic system, is that one accumulates some money. For example, there’s a car mechanic who I and many others in my town trust implicitly; he’s an honest, hardworking guy. It’s difficult to get into his shop, though, because he’s always busy. His reputation precedes him. So if you’re really good at your job, you stand to accumulate a lot of money.
This accumulation of wealth presented a problem for good, God-fearing Christians. You see, Christianity and being rich are not natural bedfellows. Jesus famously once said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven (Mark 10:24-27; Luke 18:24-27; Matt 19:23-26). That’s some harsh wisdom, and Christians had to deal with it somehow.
The solution, befuddlingly, was that people with more money must be more holy. They worked to earn that money, right? And that good work honors God.
I’ll admit that solution leaves me scratching my head. I wasn’t around back then, and perhaps there used to be a stronger link between good work and great wealth, but that definitely isn’t where we are anymore. Now any idiot can be wealthy. It has more to do with luck and captivating an audience. I would hardly describe the Kardashians, for example, as godly people, but they certainly are wealthy. The same goes for “Two Corinthians” Trump. (At least, I assume; he won’t release his tax returns to verify anything having to do with his finances).
So now as wealth divorces itself from one’s actual good work (or really, the divorce is better publicized thanks to mass communication like television and the Internet), we’ve entered this weird limbo space. Previous cultural attachments to the Protestant work ethic haven’t disappeared, and capitalism has made it very simple to assess one’s wealth status: just look at how much capital you have, compare it others, and determine whether or not you’re wealthy. Neoliberalism then went even farther and managed to put a dollar figure on absolutely everything--every social interaction, one’s happiness, everything--it all has a price tag.
There’s a cultural transformation, even among Christians. It happens slowly at first, but then really revs up in the 1980s and onwards. We reached a point culturally in which greed is good.
It’s not an accident that the rise of the Religious Right coincided with the rise of neoliberalism in the United States.
The Religious Right entered the picture as a political force around the 1970s. They were angry at the direction that the US had been trending: legalized abortion, talk of gay rights, feminism advocating for non-traditional roles for women, etc. Well, you may rightly recognize that many of those issues are cultural and political. So what’s the solution for a good conservative Christian? Get involved in politics.
The model was Martin Luther King, Jr. He had done an amazing job at activating African Americans in politics, and he had done his work in and through the church. Christian values were indispensable to his message of justice and equality. For the Religious Right, the message was a bit different, but the tactics were the same.
They set to work installing in political offices people who agreed with them. And while it’s true that until recently church leaders were technically forbidden from advocating for political causes, I’m here to tell you it’s naive to believe they actually followed that. The messaging comes through. It’s not difficult for a congregation to connect the values its pastor is espousing with whatever political discourse is swirling culturally. Besides that, pastors can speak freely about politics outside of the pulpit. Heck, I once had a pastor say openly during his sermon, “Yes, I voted for George W. Bush because he is a godly man, and I would vote for him again.” You don’t get a much clearer endorsement than that. (This was in a black church, by the way, just in case you were under the false assumption that this is only a problem in white America.)
The thing about political power, though, is that it takes capital to fund it. A lot of capital. Once you have a riled up base, you need to find ways to convince them to hand over their hard-earned dollars to fund your vision. Well, church-goers were already in the habit of tithing, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to get money from them (often through church-adjacent activities or organizations like the 700 Club).
What’s even better than pulling small amounts of money from a lot of people? That’s right: pulling large amounts of money from a lot of people. For that, you need richer constituencies. Enter the Protestant work ethic and the American notion that greed is good.
We need wealthier Christians, richer believers, who gather together and pool their resources for the common greater conservative Christian good! We can’t organize slowly and painstakingly, small church by small church, like in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. We need to add some good old-fashioned neoliberal efficiency to this system. We need megachurches!
Megachurches started popping up all across the Southern US. They’re still largely (although not exclusively) a Southern phenomenon. They’re led by the likes of Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, etc. And what’s the messaging? If you are a godly Christian, the Lord is going to bless you tenfold. And how will you know if the Lord has blessed you? By the balance in your bank account. It’s the Protestant work ethic warped and on steroids. It’s neoliberal dollars-and-cents simplicity applied to Christian morality.
If you’re struggling financially with debt, that is a moral failing. You have failed to manage your finances, and God is punishing you for being so careless with the wealth he has given you (see Parable of the Talents, Matt 25:14-30). If you are poor, it’s because you aren’t working hard enough or smart enough, and the Lord is testing you to make you into a stronger, more successful, richer person. It’s your fault you’re poor because you’re not right with God. The money, the politics, and the religion become inseparably intertwined.
The politicians, meanwhile, recognizing the political power of this activated religious base, are happy to feed into these narratives of poor-shaming. They may strip away some of the theological elements, but often they keep them and just add to them. None of these politicians are afraid to tell you, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican--in that order” (Vice President Mike Pence). So the religion and the neoliberal politics become one and the same.
And that’s how we got here. That’s how the Religious Right became a political powerhouse. It can tap into the deep reserve of its motivated and wealthy base and push a rightward political vision.
The problem then transmogrified when Donald Trump took center stage. Let’s work through how we know he’s a good moral Christian and how he has earned our Christian votes.
First off, he’s wealthy (and he’ll let you know it, whether you ask or not), so check: he must be a good Christian according to the warped Protestant work ethic logic. Second, he says that he’ll protect conservative religious values by installing conservative Supreme Court justices. Good enough, the Christians say. He must be one of us. Plus, he says his favorite book is the Bible (his second-favorite book is his own, just in case you were curious).
This greedy, egomaniacal, duplicitous adulterer is the perfect conservative Christian, a staunch member of the Religious Right, a paragon of evangelicalism.
What has happened, you see, is that Christians have taken Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the very core of the Christian message, crumpled it up, and thrown it away. They have replaced Christian ethics with a capitalist ethics. Their morality is hollow. No longer do they measure the goodness of a man by the morality of his actions; now they measure goodness by the balance in his bank account.
Like I said: there are no Christians left in America; there are only capitalists.