The Clash between Christian World Views and Capitalism in U.S. Politics
In recent years, especially after the start of the financial crisis, people all over the world have become more and more worried about the enormous influence of economic factors on their lives. On the level of politics, capitalistic interests seem to get out of control. In the ongoing presidential election campaign in the U.S., economic issues play a major role in the candidates’ canvassing. At the same time, religious beliefs and conflicts seem to become more important in political debates. Political leaders use expressions of their faith to gain votes from certain sections of the population. A March 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that in the U.S. “[a] plurality of the public (38%) says that there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders.” In general, the influence of economic as well as religious issues seems to have gained influence, especially in U.S. politics. Thus, the question arises in how far politics, capitalism and religion are interrelated.
In his essay “The Market as God,” Harvey Cox (1999) establishes a connection between these aspects by comparing capitalism to a religion. He argues that the principles of the free market are similar to certain religious concepts. Cox claims that the so called Market God has three typical divine attributes: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Arlie Russell Hochschild takes up this idea and contends that there is a “sense of the sacred” (2003: 147) in what she calls the religion of capitalism (146). Both Cox (1999) and Hochschild (2003: 148) agree that capitalism functions as a rival religion against the traditional religions like Christianity and Judaism.
As mentioned above, in the course of the ongoing global financial crisis, it has become clear that politicians in nearly all governments are deeply involved in economic affairs and processes. The New York Times article “Protestors Against Wall Street” (2011) refers to the “elected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street.” At the same time, a large number of U.S. politicians are outspoken and convinced Christians and even bring their religious points of view into political debates. If the so called Market God and Christianity are regarded as rival religions, this intermingling of economic and religious interests in politics seems highly illogical. In the following, I will use Cox’s and Hochschild’s concepts of the Market God and capitalism as a religion facetiously to describe a clash between religious and economic interests that manifests itself in U.S. politics. I will argue that U.S. politicians who claim to be Christians and participate in the practices of capitalism at the same time are untrustworthy as they act in an inconsequential way.
A major contradiction between Christianity and the “religion” of capitalism is the concept of sacrifice. Christians are not asked to make any material sacrifices as they believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s ultimate sacrifice to humankind. Among other Christian theologians, Martin Luther claimed that people have to spend time reading the Bible, contemplating God and living their faith in order to reach salvation in the afterlife. By contrast, the so called Market God asks for a completely different type of sacrifice. According to Hochschild (2003: 148), capitalism “calls for sacrifice through long hours of work, and offers its blessings through commodities.” People are expected to work in order to increase their standard of living. Material wealth is regarded as capitalism’s form of salvation (Hochschild 2003: 148).
This means that the “religion” of capitalism and Christianity are incompatible as they have conflicting ideas of how people should spend their time. In every day life, every person in the Western industrialized world is involved in the practices of capitalism and its demands (i.e. long working hours and consumer stress). Hochschild (2003: 147) points out that these demands often compete with the traditional rituals of community and family. Thus, the sacrifices demanded by the “religion” of capitalism interfere with the practices of the Christian religion. As people have to work all day and spend long hours in the mall, they do not have time to reflect on their faith. In the case of politicians, who are much more involved in economic affairs than the average citizen, e.g. through lobbyism or election campaigns, this leads to the conclusion that they do not have the time and potential to seriously pursue their religious virtues. With regard to politics, Cox (1999) creates the image of the Market God who “must be fed and kept happy under all circumstances.” In the financial crisis, the so called God of capitalism has been fed by politicians with enormous amounts of bailout money. Through bailouts politicians make material sacrifices to the Market God in order to calm and pacify him. This procedure absolutely contradicts the Christian concept of sacrifice and salvation mentioned above, so the politicians act in a hypocritical way.
In addition, Christianity and the “religion” of the Market God are rivalling forces because they have very different views of the world. According to the creation story in the Bible, God has created the earth, including plant, animal and human life. Human beings have been appointed as stewards who are supposed to conserve and protect God’s creation. In the biblical creation story, the creator asserts his claim to the earth he has created. At the same time, humans know that their life on earth is limited to a certain time and space. In contrast to God, who is an infinite force, humans have to die. In the religion of capitalism, however, there are no limits. In a world dominated by the market there can never be enough. Furthermore, rich and influential people “can dispose of anything as they choose” (Cox 1999). From this capitalistic point of view, profit is more important than nature, so the role of humans as stewards on earth is of no importance. Even the humans themselves are not safe from the profit- seeking Market God. Cox (1999) notes that the human body is being converted into a commodity, e.g. by making blood and organs purchasable goods.
Thus, politicians claiming to be Christians and getting involved in the “market religion” at the same time, have either not understood the contradictions between these two attitudes to life or do not intend to fulfil any religion’s demands. From a European Christian perspective, numerous actions of U.S. politicians seem very inconsistent and irrational. Ex-president George W. Bush, for example, claimed to be a born- again Christian and justified most of his political convictions with religious arguments. Many of his political actions, however, interfered with the Christian world view, e.g. his withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the triggering of partly unjustifiable wars. In the light of the Christian belief that humans are commissioned to protect God’s creation, the signing of the Kyoto Protocol appears as a logical consequence. However, Bush considered economic interests more important than environmental concerns.
The contradiction between Christianity and the “religion” of capitalism also finds its expression in the understanding of the omniscience and omnipotence of the respective gods. According to Cox (1999), the Market God is all-knowing as it seems to know the prices and values of everything. “The Market may work in mysterious ways […], but ultimately it knows best.” In the business world, there are experts who claim to know the will of this so called omniscient Market God.
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- Anna Poppen (Author), 2012, The Clash between Christian World Views and Capitalism in U.S. Politics, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/278567