RDPulpit: The Prophets of Neoliberalism

Wordsworth, of course, was not the first to observe how getting and spending lays waste our powers and clips the wings of our better angels. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus of Nazareth got there first, and in a big way. One has only to recall the Exodus lesson on hoarding manna, the centrality of Sabbath and Jubilee practice in maintaining a healthy and just community, and perhaps most famously, this sharp and non-negotiable teaching coming straight from the mouth of Jesus: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Mt. 5:24).

Even before the foundation of the American republic, however, getting and spending enjoyed pride of place among the preoccupations of the European émigrés to these shores. Tocqueville and every other visitor from abroad noticed it immediately: These Americans live to work, consume, and accumulate. The possession of great wealth has nearly always been idolized here, not deplored as anti-social. Bill McKibben has observed that the organizing principle in the private lives of most American Christians has never been Christianity but “Franklinity”: the belief that God helps those who help themselves. Jefferson’s tweaking of Locke’s “life, liberty, and property” formula for natural rights never really disguised the fact that the pursuit of property (including property in other human beings) remained our nation’s collective organizing principle.

There have been some powerful countercurrents at work as well, from Puritan jeremiads against social inequality (already quite ineffectual by the 1660s, as prosperity surged into New England’s maritime trading centers), to the radical republican emphasis on free labor that peaked between 1830 and 1850; an emphasis that reemerged in Prairie Populism three decades later. And always there were some religious communities (mainly rooted in Anabaptist traditions) that rejected private accumulation in favor of communal flourishing. It nevertheless remains very clear that the cult of Mammon always retained the upper hand in these United States; and never clearer than in the past 30 years when private wealth has been idolized as never before, even as the weakest and poorest have been demonized and ritually humiliated in every possible way.

My premise here is that the grip of Mammon over personal ideology and public policy represents a profound spiritual and social disorder. And further, that unless this grip can finally be broken decisively, none of the things religious and secular progressives say they want to accomplish will actually be accomplished. Barack Obama’s revolution of hope (should the senator actually ascend to the presidency) will be stillborn. Progressives will tear their hair out as they see all of their cherished dreams—quality and affordable universal health care, a transformed US foreign policy, decisive action to slow climate change, campaign finance reform, and decent jobs and income for the lower third of the U.S. workforce—evaporate one by one under the continued baleful influence of entrenched wealth. A telling clue these days is that those who actually run Washington (the corporate lobbyists) have not been bothered in the least by the idea of a Democratic tidal wave in November: they have simply added more plutocratically-minded Democrats to their letterheads and poured more of their contributions into Democratic campaign coffers. The rule of wealth is nothing if not bipartisan.

I should be more precise about what I mean by the grip of Mammon. A more neutral word would be economism: the conviction that what matters most—perhaps all that matters—is money in private hands, and not money fairly distributed but money flowing ever upward to the cleverest and most aggressive. This belief carries the sanctity of holy writ among its well-placed gurus and adherents within the economics establishment, within the Fortune 500, and within innumerable conservative think tanks and media shops.

The political ideology known as neoliberalism functions as the practical expression or engine of economism’s sacred truth that greed is actually good. Neoliberals in office invariably demand free trade, weak unions, low or no taxes, deregulation of industry (to the point, most recently, that Bush-infected agencies have allowed corporations to conduct federal-level health and safety testing of their own products), and/or the privatization or elimination of traditional government functions. Private for-profit prisons, once a bit of a scandal, are already old news; now even military operations in Iraq and elsewhere have been massively outsourced to private vendors.

Health care policy offers the supreme example of neoliberalism’s limits. Convinced that markets are always efficient even in cases where they plainly are not, today’s neoliberal ideologues have nothing useful to say about a bloated and dysfunctional privatized US health care system that increasingly makes this country a mockery within the developed world.

What will ultimately bring neoliberalism down, but at a horrendous and unthinkable cost to the non-rich and to the earth itself, is the looming environmental catastrophe. We cannot wait for that, of course, which is why spiritual progressives need right now to identify and name the deeper structure of oppression—wealth-worship and subservience to wealth—that underlies almost every other oppression we deplore. With the US labor movement fighting for its own survival, only visionary religious leadership will be able to start lifting the scales from people’s eyes and exposing Mammonism as the demonic and false religion it actually is.

Clergy in particular are ideally positioned to lead here because they are able to see at close range how the iron triangle of overwork, consumerism, and debt is destroying their congregants’ physical and psychological health, ruining families and relationships, even poisoning the high school and college years of American young people who already feel the corrosive effects of the competitive struggle for “that which is not bread and does not satisfy” (Isaiah 55:2).

It would be reckless and counterproductive for religious leaders to attack “the capitalist system” head-on. But clergy have the tools and training to break Mammon’s grip in all kinds of subtle but effective ways: reminding people from the pulpit and in private counseling sessions that what they really crave most is community and friendship; that concentrated wealth has already all but supplanted democratic self-governance; that all can have enough and Earth itself can be saved if out-of-control greed at the top is dialed down several notches, and that—historically speaking (and oldsters in congregations will remember this)—our economy actually worked best when the wealthy were taxed at much higher rates than they are now, and when government played a robust role in building infrastructure and providing for the public’s health and safety.

Mammonism is a very strong religion, and it has flourished here in part by colonizing a very significant part of American Christianity (I cannot speak for other faiths). What’s more, those who have gained the most under Mammonism’s most recent ascendance—t the people Bush once referred to as the “haves and have-mores: in other words, my base”—can be expected to fight like hell to maintain their lordship over the rest of us.

But I don’t think that Mammonism is invincible, nor do I think that its patrons and paladins are gods. It is up to us religious leaders to lift the curtain, tear off the mask, expose the pitiful idol, denounce the cult’s perpetrators, and begin to console and renew its many millions of victims.

Margaret Thatcher was simply wrong when she declared 30 years ago, in reference to the neoliberal project, that “there is no alternative.” The alternative is called just community or commonwealth. And it is still there, waiting for us to awaken and seize it as our proper birthright.

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