A few days ago, in the post “The right to persecute” I made a follow-up comment regarding how at a Promise Keeper’s rally nearly every speaker (and comedian even…everyone except the musicians) exclaimed to enthusiastic approval that atheists are ruining the country and must be eradicated, likewise feminists and socialists. And, being a somewhat newly minted Marxist cultural critic, I had no choice but to think about this admonition to eliminate the Socialist Threat through a religious context.
- First, a very brief grounding in Marxist criticism and why I think it’s appropriate for this examination:
There’s a difference between political Marxism and Marxist cultural criticism. (The politics is simply an outgrowth of the criticism, and that’s not what I’m concerned with at the moment.) The cultural criticism is a purely objective (ideally) historical and material examination of a cultural product or development. Sometimes something “small” like a genre of film, and in this case something more significant like religious ideology. Religion, like politics and manufacturing and cultural morÃ©s, are part of what’s called “the superstructure.”
Imagine a skyscraper, if you will, as it’s being built. All the metal girders and beams, the framework that will house everything that will go inside and define the building. Religion, government, clothing and fashion, everything that makes up a culture is part of this building’s superstructure.
But, what ultimately holds up the superstructure, what the framework and everything that is this building, extends out of the foundation, or “the base.” The base, in this metaphor, is the economics of the culture–who owns the means of production and distribution. From this base, the the paradigm of the ownership of capital, all aspects of culture spring forth. And cultural ideology is what supports and benefits those owners of capital. This is the basis of Marxist criticism: examining the material base which creates and supports the cultural products and can be purified down to these two questions: Who uses it, and what is it for?
- Now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s take a look at this marriage of religious ideology with socio-economics.
This Christian hatred of evil socialism seems to have begun at the same time “under God” was inserted into the Pledge and the country went hog wild anti-Soviet Union. Before that time, during the 20s and 30s, socialism was not vilified among the American populace–in fact, there was quite a lot of support for it. There were even Communist politicians who were just as valid and accepted as Democrats and Republicans. But once the United States came out of an era of war and slight economic upturn since The Depression, those in power, the politicians and the ever-increasing industrial capitalists, found a way in which the country’s economy could be boosted and accelerated–the development of the military industrial complex. By the constant and perpetual preparation for war, manufacturing could grow and get stronger, more and more jobs can be created, and patriotism and capitalism could become inexorably intertwined benefiting both the political power and the corporate power.
(History lesson warning!) Note that before World War II, America was in general isolationist, non-interference, and avoided foreign conflicts as much as possible (as per George Washington’s sage advice). Also note this was mainly true for the general populace, as there were those in government who were slowly expanding empire, starting with the Spanish-American war, by taking over Central and South American and Philippine countries by both force and buying the help of local revolutionary forces.
In order to justify and maintain the burgeoning military industrial complex, an enemy was necessary. The United States, which was broke, despondent, basically a “developing nation,” in the course of less than ten years exploded into being a military and industrial super power. Who else was an emerging super power? The uneasy WWII ally, the Soviet Union. A growing empire that, while originally having more than a little early support in the U.S. and especially some in western Europe, was admittedly lead by a tyrannical and murderous dictator, Stalin. (Who started his rule founded on the socialism of Marx and Engels and the idealistic struggle of Lenin, with the help of Trotsky, but then banished both Trotsky and true socialism in favor of fascist dictatorship. Yet, the myth of communism stuck as part of USSR’s identity.)
(OK, here’s where the history lesson starts to give way to explanation of the Christian marriage with capitalism….) In order to be properly adversarial, in conflict, each side has to thoroughly identify with the antithesis of the other’s assumed beliefs and ideology. Even though the people of the United States was by and large non-religious before the late 40’s, most Americans identified as Christian. Stalin on the other hand, having been trained to be a priest in his young adult life, saw religion as a threat to his omnipotent dictatorship, and sought to abolish it (not, as today’s evangelicals would have you believe: because Stalin was a staunch atheist and wanted to create a secular rule–but simply because he wanted to rule absolutely; and being well educated in theology, knew he could utilize the symbolism and trappings of religion and apply them to his own image to encourage the people’s worship of him instead).
So, our enemy is the godless USSR, and after the Soviets detonated their first H-bomb (1953) a fiery movement begins to reinforce America as a Christian nation, by inserting “Under God” in the Pledge (1954), making “In God We Trust” the national motto (1956), a cultural push in the arts and entertainment begins to create an image of Americana as church-going, God-fearing people. And it’s at this point in the mid-20th century when American prosperity, thanks initially to the industrial military complex and the beginnings of modernist capitalism, becomes ideologically married to the idea of Christian religion.
- Now, some theological posers:
Prior to the 1950s and the merging of religious identity with capitalism, what socio-economic system do you think Christianity was more supportive of? I would posit socialism. Throughout the Christian Bible we find examples of both Hebrew prophets up to and including Jesus himself and the founder of the religion, Paul, teaching the values of socialism and admonishing the selfish “individualism” and greed that is the basis of modern capitalism. The Beatitudes point to worth and value and reward not in the strident individualist money making up-by-your-bootstraps robber baron. The rich man is told he’s likely not going to be blessed by Heaven. Followers are told to give and not horde. Taught to take care of “the least among you.” The poor and the sick are the responsibility of all.
I really think it’s a work of mental acrobatics to try to make Christianity out to be pro-capitalism and anti-socialism. Ergo, the fact that the fundamental and evangelical Christian movement in America is so heavily anti-socialism is both evidence of the ideological manipulation of the superstructure by the economic base, and evidence that people tend to believe the ideology they’re raised into without examining or critically thinking about it. Christianity in America, thanks to the hegemonic dominance of late capitalism, has become a material wealth religion. Turn on pretty much any televangelist or Christian “teacher” or leader, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Pat Robertson, and they’re preaching the message of wealth and supporting the capitalist ideology in ironic disagreement and conflict with the message evident in the Christian Bible.
And you can’t say they’re exceptions, or not “real Christians” (whatever that means), as the message of capitalism and wealth is evident down in the trenches of the every-day Christian no less. Coming back to that Promise Keeper’s rally, the message Belief + Faith = Material Wealth and Fortune, and Material Fortune = Proof of God’s Favor, ergo Capitalist Ideals = God’s Ideals was heavy throughout the weekend. In fact, the final speaker of the event was a fellow who spoke to us specifically about financial prosperity, doing business with and associating with primarily other Christian owned businesses, and gave an implied message that if your business isn’t doing well (interesting how he was speaking to thousands of men and spoke as if they all owned and operated their own small businesses) then you’re not “right with God.”
- Final thoughts
Well, I’d like to think that the conclusions are self-explanatory. Religion is a cultural product. The Russian Orthodox Christianity is virtually a different religion from American Catholicism and Protestantism, which are different religions from Medieval European Christianity (and Irish Christianity was a different religion from Roman Christianity), which are all different from 2nd century Christianity. They may all share the same faith on a few constant ideas, but otherwise the shape and form and belief and practice in these ideas are completely and entirely the result of the socio-economic base of a culture.
Religion is just one of many pieces of the superstructure which is used (here’s the big kicker) to control the masses and get them to support and benefit those in power. Whether it’s Stalinism, or The Church, or capitalist Christianity, the religion of the land is formed and manipulated to reflect the ideology that controls the 99% and gives control to the 1%.