Defending the 1%, Evangelicals Ignore Greed

In 2014, discussions of inequality have moved to the fore in the United States, and appropriately so. The super rich are becoming increasingly super rich, following a trajectory that lifts them higher above their fellow citizens and threatens the health of American democracy. This reality is chronicled in Robert Reich’s recent documentary, and Thomas Piketty’s more recent book. A new study suggests that the United States is morphing into an oligarchy, a place where massive wealth and its attendant power are passed down like a hereditary title. The Roberts Court stands idly by. Reckless Wall Street practices continue, unchastened by the Great Recession. 

Though ostensibly secular in nature, the American inequality problem has a decidedly religious component. It provides a glaring example of unrestrained greed, a vicious sin with broad and destructive power. Given how often Jesus spoke out against the love of money and wealth, the stage is set for a compelling evangelical critique.  

But that critique has not yet arrived. In fact, evangelical social critics often appear defensive of the sinful forces that threaten our economy and prosperity, in addition to our souls.  

Writing for The Federalist, for instance, Nathan Duffy stands up for those “despised and marginalized” for their wealth, directing his ire instead at “self-righteous liberals who treat the rich with naked animus.” Duffy does not go as far as Thomas Perkins, who recently compared the super wealthy to victims of the holocaust. But his sympathies are clear enough. If inequality is a sin issue at all, the offense lies with critics of the super rich, not with the super rich themselves. 

Similarly, at Christianity Today, Amy Julia Becker dedicates a post to the proposition that “God loves rich people too,” a sentiment that is perhaps uncontroversial. The central thrust of Becker’s claim is less interesting than the exigency that prompted it – her apparent belief that rich people are beleaguered enough to need her support. Like Duffy, Becker dodges any substantive discussion of greed-as-sin, instead treating the massive consolidation of wealth like a personality trait, something people are rather than something that they do. God loves everyone, Becker asserts, and so should we – even those unfortunate enough to have extremely lucrative jobs, stock options, and trust funds. 

The observation that evangelicals reserve most of their outrage for sexual issues has been made before, and countered unpersuasively. One wonders if greed would achieve greater resonance if it were more explicitly aligned with sex. At the Desiring God blog, Jonathan Parnell argues that “homosexuality is not like other sins” because, unlike other sins, it is “celebrated by our larger society with pioneering excitement.” People see homosexuality “as a good thing,” Parnell writes, “as the new hallmark of progress.” 

Looking around at contemporary American life, Parnell sees no celebration of greed, no association between wealth and progress. Just gays. Everywhere gays.

The tacit endorsement of greed by evangelical public figures is probably traceable to many causes, including its alignment with political conservatism and its championing of American mythologies. In his book, Radical, David Platt encourages readers to “take back your faith from the American dream,” advice that appears especially timely in this environment.

A few months back, at the height of the Duck Dynasty martyrdom, I heard a friend refer to Phil Robertson as a “backwoods millionaire Jesus,” and it occurred to me that Millionaire Jesus would be a pretty good band name. It’s absurd enough to be funny, but relevant enough to cause needed discomfort. The cover art could feature Jesus shopping at Tiffany’s or writing an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal or something. Maybe some people would find that offensive. But maybe they should.

Eric C. Miller is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. He has a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in English from the University of Maine, and a PhD in Rhetorical Studies from Penn State University. A regular contributor at Religion Dispatches, his research area sits amid religious rhetoric and public advocacy.

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