Gordon Gekko Gets God: The Heritage Foundation of Theology

Please remember Frederick Douglass.

That is to say, remember the Frederick Douglass of “power concedes nothing without a struggle.” And I’m not sure that the struggle with market fundamentalism has even been joined yet, at least not at the level of principle where it most needs friends.

Like old Simeon in Luke’s gospel, I am one who hopes to live long enough to see the consolation of Israel. Only in my case that consolation would take the form of deliverance from the malignant free-market madness that US conservatives have successfully promoted for four decades. Known (and much loathed) abroad as the “American model,” or the “Washington consensus,” this is the FriedmanGreenspan regime of total deregulation wherein the public, in effect, subsidizes big capital to work its high-growth wonders to the ostensible benefit of us all—that chimera known as the trickle-down effect.

Because Americans live in a kind of perceptual bubble—a bubble related to but not identical to financial bubbles of recent memory—we have never seen the full extent of the devastation wrought by the “Washington consensus” on the lives of others and on the life of the planet itself. We’ve never seen the effects of the global sweatshop up close; we’ve never seen what privatized water markets look like in places like Bolivia; we’ve never asked whether there might be a connection between NAFTA’s effects within Mexico and the urgent need of Mexicans to reach El Norte, even risking death by dehydration to get here.

Free market fundamentalism seemed to work out pretty well for us. To be sure, we could see the enormous wealth beginning to concentrate at the top of our own society. But as long as enough trickled down to us plebeians (and as long as we could get easy credit to keep up with those Joneses) we were okay with it. It is only now that the latest and largest financial bubble has burst that we are beginning to break through our perceptual bubble to wonder whether entrusting our fates to self-interested and unregulated moneymen was really such a great idea.

But I would not count on, say, the bad odor now adhering to the word “banker” to lead to our deliverance from the bankers’ grip. To imagine that we can escape their clutches automatically, as it were, is to pretend that they’ve not achieved a substantial ascendancy within the culture that goes well beyond mere financial ascendancy.

They still own the government, after all. Their image may be a bit tarnished, but just two weeks ago they scuttled a Senate bill that would have allowed busted homeowners to seek relief in bankruptcy court. As Sen. Dick Durbin told a hometown radio station apropos of this fight: “The banks—hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created—are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

The free marketeers are also heavily invested in think tanks and academic centers that perpetuate the hegemony of neoliberal doctrine, and these institutions aren’t going away any time soon. They likewise own the major news media—and we might note here that the accelerating collapse of old-fashioned newspapering is bound to lead to even less real investigative scrutiny of their endless conniving and insider dealing.

And, to get to the point of this essay, they also own a significant part of religious thought in this country. They always have, inasmuch as Anglo-American Protestants could never quite decide how much to follow Jesus Christ and how much to follow John Locke. But fealty to high finance has doubtless gained market share among the religious in recent decades. Recall how Alabama’s Republican governor, Bob Riley, a conservative Christian citing gospel principles, tried to bring some tax fairness to his state in 2003. Riley got smacked down hard by the Christian Coalition, which by that time had adopted “thou shalt not tax the rich” as its 11th Commandment.

Even as corporate villains taste a tiny bit of populist pushback today, it still remains the case that the free markets/deregulation/low taxation creed enjoys a sanctified status among millions of America’s twice-born. Jews and Roman Catholics still show some degree of theological/ethical resistance to market fundamentalism, whereas mainline Protestants are almost as split on economics as they are on LGBT justice claims. (One of the ongoing tragicomedies of the mainline world is what often happens to new ministers fresh out of seminary who think it’s safe to question Chamber of Commerce verities out there in Ponca City.)

The Heritage School of Theology

Only in America can one find significant numbers of serious Christian theologians who will still argue that unfettered capitalism represents God’s Plan for human thriving. Calvin College has made something of a specialty of defending entrepreneurship and acquisitive individualism in theological terms, but Calvin’s theological point-people are hardly alone in this.

And then there are the unserious theologians (or should I say unserious non-theologians?) who just can’t keep themselves from putting a godly gloss on Mammon’s ravenings. The latest shallow screed of this kind comes from one Jay W. Richards, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation (formerly of the Discovery Institute) whose just-published Money, Greed, and God has picked up purplish plaudits from the likes of George Gilder and Michael Novak (and just how 1980s is that?).

Richards’ association with the Discovery Institute in particular may provide a key insight. Writing in the introduction he paraphrases Forbes’ conservative Christian publisher Rich Karlgaard who quipped that listening to a pastor preach on business is like listening to a eunuch lecture on sex: neither has hands-on experience. The failure of the logic is obvious but the next section is revealing for an author who once worked at the world’s foremost anti-evolution “think tank,” devoted to the replacement of universally-accepted science with Christian beliefs:

No serious Christian writing about natural science would ignore the facts of chemistry or astronomy. But too many Christian leaders feel free to ignore the basic facts of economics.

Indeed. Or the Bible.

Richards uses the old false dichotomy technique to make his case that free-market capitalism is fully consistent with Jesus’ teachings and Christian tradition. He wants to save us from believing either that private accumulation is “bad” and causes much of the world’s suffering, or that “God wants you to prosper and be rich”—as though the prosperity gospel is in any way the counterpart or rival or obverse of the Social Gospel. No, Jay: the prosperity gospel may be mildly irritating and really dumb. But it’s your neoliberal economic ideology that is the much greater problem and that is, in fact, irreconcilable with the prophets’ vision or with Jesus’ vision of the Reign of God.

If only for the joy of the spectacle, I would love to see a theologically clueless apparatchik like Richards go up against a genuine heavyweight like Ulrich Duchrow, who has guided the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in developing a thoroughgoing critique of neoliberal doctrine. In his landmark book, Property, Duchrow makes a compelling case that concentrated economic power is, in fact, a form of theft from the world’s poor. He does this entirely on scriptural grounds: no warmed-over Marxism necessary for him, danken Sie bitte.

Meanwhile, Jay Richards might also wish to think about that 1980s thing I mentioned. He might allow these words from David Brooks’ May 5 column to give him pause:

The Republicans talk more about the market than about society, more about income than quality of life. They celebrate capitalism, which is a means, and are inarticulate about the good life, which is the end. They take things like tax cuts, which are tactics that are good in some circumstances, and elevate them to holy principle, to be pursued in all circumstances.

In Jay Richards’ worthless book and elsewhere there does seem to be a new note of desperation about keeping the Reagan Revolution going, long past its time. We heard it just last week in the pitiful corporate bleatings that followed Obama’s declaration that he intends to collect taxes on the overseas profits of US companies. Instantly the Business Roundtable folks plunged into sputtering, sky-is-falling hysterics. Their tone dripped with condescension, as in: This upstart president doesn’t know the FIRST THING about how the system works! But there was also some element of panic, as in: Uh-oh: the jig could be up for us at last.

As welcome as such signs of incipient panic might be, I would much prefer to hear the definitive death rattle of an anti-human market ideology that serious people of faith should have long since rejected completely; and opposed with all appropriate vigor.

I’m not hearing that death rattle yet. But, like Simeon, I’m not giving up hope.