This is not a Religion Column: Biblical Capitalism

Only months ago, what scant attention the press paid to fundamentalism in American life was dedicated to declaring the Christian Right deceased. Of course, those were the days when Lehman Brothers still looked like a good investment. Now, Christian Right leaders are feeling bullish for the first time in years, ready to bet the farm on Sarah Palin, while the rest of us blink in shock as the clock goes spinning back to the Great Depression. In more ways than one—it was in the 1930s that modern fundamentalism’s strange marriage of laissez-faire economics and heavily-regulated morals was first consummated, in reaction not to abortion or homosexuality, but to economic malaise—“spiritual depression,” as it was called by an early advocate of “biblical capitalism.”

In 1932, James A. Farrell, president of US Steel, tried to persuade then Governor Franklin Roosevelt that economic depression was “caused by disobedience to divine law,” and that the only cure was a mix of spiritual revival and unprecedented powers for corporate leaders. In 1936, Frank Buchman, the founder of the Moral Re-Armament movement—a network of upper crust Christian clubs—announced, “Human problems aren’t economic. They’re moral, and they can’t be solved by immoral measures.” He suggested instead “God-controlled democracy, or perhaps I should say a theocracy.” Bruce Barton, a founder of advertising giant BBDO and the author of one of the 20th century’s bestsellers, The Man Nobody Knows (it was Jesus, whom Barton proposed as the greatest CEO in history), won a seat in Congress in 1938 by proposing to a nation battered by unfettered capitalism that it “Repeal a Law a Day.”

The most influential of these businessmen for God was a Norwegian immigrant named Abraham Vereide, founder of an annual ritual of piety and politics that survives to this day, the National Prayer Breakfast. In 1935, Vereide created a “fellowship” of Christian businessmen bound together by the idea that God hates government regulation because it interferes with a believer’s ability to choose right or wrong. He found receptive audiences in private meetings with Henry Ford and the president of Chevrolet, Thomas Watson of IBM and representatives from J.C. Penney. By 1942, he’d moved to the capital, where the National Association of Manufacturers staked him to a meeting of congressmen who would become students of his spiritual politics, among them Virginia senator Absalom Willis Robertson—Pat Robertson’s father. Vereide returned the manufacturers’ favor by telling his new congressional followers that God wanted them to break the spine of organized labor. They did.

Vereide died in 1969, but his organization—known in his day as International Christian Leadership, in ours as the Fellowship Foundation or the Family—still prospers. In a recent survey of 360 evangelical leaders—not preachers but politicians and businesspeople—Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay found that a plurality named the Fellowship one of the most influential religious groups in Washington. “There is no other organization like the Fellowship, especially among religious groups, in terms of its access or clout among the country’s leadership,” wrote Lindsay. “The most powerful group in Washington that nobody knows,” as David Kuo, a special assistant to Bush in his first term, put it, praising the publicity-shy network of piety-brokers.

The Fellowship’s core creed is Christian fundamentalism filtered through the free market. In lieu of regulation, the Fellowship preaches reconciliation, a process they put into practice by bringing politicians and business leaders together to declare to one another their earnest desires to do right by God, and each other. “Self-interest by proxy” is how Will Wilkinson of the conservative Cato Institute describes the Fellowship’s brand of biblical capitalism.

“We are entering the age of minority control,” Vereide predicted back in 1942, prophesying the corporate consolidation that would come to be known as globalization. He welcomed it. “It is to a righteous ‘remnant’”—leaders whose economic success indicated God’s anointing—“that God has entrusted the salvation of nations in all ages of history.” That perspective allows the Fellowship’s biblical capitalism a certain flexibility. As Doug Coe, Vereide’s successor, puts it, “We work with power where we can, build new power where we can’t.”

The common denominator is power. The best way to help the middle class, the Fellowship believes, is to help the ruling class. The benefits will trickle down. “They’re so busy loving us,” one Fellowship brother once said of the elites to whom he ministered, “but who’s loving them?” The Fellowship is, and right now they’re loving Sarah Palin, a candidate who has excited the evangelical base like no other since William Jennings Bryan raged against the “cross of gold” at the 1896 Democratic convention, when fundamentalism and populism seemed like a match made in Heaven, not a bait and switch cooked up by the protégés of Karl Rove. Much has been made of Palin’s roots in Pentecostalism; not enough attention is being paid to her penchant for elite fundamentalism, a faith in which “a servant’s heart” is the power source for a politician’s perks and privileges.

Palin is an outsider moving in, rising up from the ranks of popular fundamentalism to join the movement’s leadership cadre. In Alaska, Palin has for the last two years presided over a “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast”—an offshoot of the Fellowship’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington—which declares that its “mission” “is to reaffirm and promote in a Christ-like manner the idea that God has a purpose for and authority over human events.” Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s far more militant son, has been the keynote speaker the last two years.

In McCain’s circles, Palin was a particular favorite of former senator Dan Coats of Indiana. A long-time associate of the Fellowship, Coats has never been much enamored of experience as a qualification; he used to name Dan Quayle as his mentor. In the 1990s, he joined with another Fellowship associate, John Ashcroft, to sow the seeds for Faith-Based Initiatives, “the privatization of welfare,” as faith-based theorist Marvin Olasky boasted. There’s an evangelical phrase for such transfers of authority into unregulated hands: “Let go, let God.”

Of course, the biggest Faith-Based Initiative of the Bush years was its management of the economy. Bush, at least, had the decency to dress up his deregulatory drive as a blessing, promising that it would unleash the “armies of compassion.” The McCain campaign instead whines about “a nation of whiners.” McCain tried to soften the charge by presenting us with Palin, who offered prayer as a palliative for economic woes: “God’s will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built,” she told her personal prayer warriors at Wasilla Assembly of God, “so pray for that.”

The biggest Faith-Based Initiative of the Bush years, of course, has been its management of the economy. From the Great Depression to what we hope will merely be our greatest recession, the doctrine of free market fundamentalism remains the alpha and the omega of American conservatism. That doesn’t prevent Christian conservatives from favoring government subsidies for the rich; they simply reframe it as God’s will, recruiting the creator as a crony. Biblical capitalism isn’t, ultimately, a supply-and-demand religion. Between business conservatism’s love of laissez-faire and religious conservatism’s love of an interventionist god—McCain’s tax cuts for the rich and Palin’s prayers for a new Alaskan pipe line—the only salvation to be found is in the form of bail-outs, indulgences, to borrow a pre-Protestant term. And those are reserved for “the new chosen,” as the Fellowship calls America’s elite, all those now preparing for cozy afterlives to their public lives in penthouses and beach houses and a ranch down in Crawford.

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