American Jesus: A Brief Inquiry into Late-Stage Capitalism and Christianity in the United States
Christianity is a quintessential aspect of American culture. God is invoked in our official motto, on our currency, in the Pledge of Allegiance. “God bless America” is an incredibly common way for American presidents to end speeches. Christianity permeates countless aspects of life in America, oftentimes without us even realizing it.
About the only thing I can think of that’s equally as representative of America as Christianity is capitalism. And, coincidentally (or not?), America’s most ardent defenders of the free market are, more often than not, also its most devout Christians. Pew Research reports that, as of 2014, 64% of Southern Baptists are (or lean) Republican- the political party more concerned with preserving traditional American capitalism. For Presbyterians, it’s 60%. Mormons, a whopping 70%. And this isn’t simply due to Republicanism being particularly popular (because it’s not). 64% of Jews are/lean Democratic. 62% of Muslims. 69% of atheists. The political religious divide is pretty clear.
Here’s a couple of even more staggering statistics: 99% of our current Congressional Republicans identify as Christians. And 100% of them voted against President Joe Biden’s recent stimulus package that aimed to provide middle and lower class Americans with economic relief from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise lambasted it as promoting a “socialist agenda.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, also a Republican, dismissed it as “welfare.”
Was that very Christian of them? Well… yes and no.
Let’s go straight to the source- the absolute authority on what Christianity is and how one can live a Christian life: the Bible. While, of course, capitalism didn’t yet exist when the Bible was written, there’s an absolute wealth (pun fully intended) of verses implying that prioritizing one’s individual possessions over the wellbeing of humanity as a whole is antithetical to Christian values. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This particular phrase appears in the Bible three times: in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25. There’s some debate as to what exactly “for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” means, but the message is pretty clear — it’s damn near impossible for a rich man to go to heaven. And it’s far from the only verse expressing anti-rich sentiment in the Bible, either. Here’s a few other choice ones: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24), “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy” (Luke 12:33), “Do not toil to acquire wealth” (Proverbs 23:4–5). This next one almost wouldn’t sound out of place in The Communist Manifesto: “Whoever oppresses the poor in order to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16).
So why, then, are Christian conservatives so vehemently opposed to policies that would benefit the poor and working class, and such fervid defenders of policies that protect millionaires, billionaires, and corporations? It sounds rather hypocritical when the Bible so frequently disparages richness and promotes helping the needy, right? In his book Religious Literacy, scholar Stephen Prothero presents an idea that could explain it. In the book’s introduction, he dubs Americans “Biblical illiterates.” That is to say, Americans may call themselves Christians, but they don’t actually have a solid understanding of the Bible and its content.
I’m inclined to agree with him, personally. When I look at the Bible from my very detached perspective as a secular Jewish person, I see a pretty strong case for the argument that Jesus and the gospel writers would be socialists if they were alive today. I find it pretty hard to look at verses like the ones I provided earlier and not conclude that Jesus probably would have been pro-stimulus checks for those in need during a global pandemic.
But clearly, my interpretation is quite different from that of most American Christians. And as Christians, ultimately, they are the ones who define what Christianity is and means in 21st century America. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt posits that “[i]f you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it.” Essentially, religious identity goes beyond simple beliefs or practices — it’s a shared cultural identity, shaped by the country in which it resides, and vice versa. As such, in the United States — arguably the most capitalist nation in the world (I mean, we are the only developed country still clinging to our free market healthcare system rather than nationalizing it) — traditional American values have interwoven themselves with Christianity, leading to the emergence of a distinctly American Christian conservatism. As easy as it may be for me, or other critics of modern American Christianity, to point our fingers and shout “hypocrites!” as proudly Christian Republicans vote against social welfares programs, we are not the arbiters of what is or isn’t “true” or “real” Christianity. The Christians are. And the “American Jesus” they’ve created — the pro-capitalism, pro-individualism, pro-“pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” in the face of adversity Jesus — appears to be here to stay.