Below is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Angry Black Girl.
Few things annoy me more than hearing a wealthy person call their fortune the result of being “blessed” or “highly favored”. First, it implies that God has an exclusive and mysterious category of favorites that poor people aren’t apart of. For the record, there are roughly 45 million Americans below the poverty line. Millions more of non-Americans are even poorer. Secondly, the language around wealth and blessings mistakenly claims that God bestows wealth on people as a reward for their faith- not because of privilege, circumstance, or back door bargaining. While people sell sex, deadly drugs, or scam to survive, somewhere a rich person sits, believing that God blessed them with obscene amounts of money that others weren’t worthy of. They kick back and believe that they are winners of capitalism because God willed it, ignoring the systematic restraints placed on the losers. A strong problem with this way of thinking? If you believe God the Almighty blesses people with money because they are good and faithful, you must also believe that all rich people are good, and deserve what they have. There is no sentence scathing enough to describe the bloodcurdling laugh that escapes from my throat at the thought of every rich person being righteous enough for God’s material blessings. I could easily fill a thick volume with the insidious crimes and corruption of the wealthy, but there is no need. I won’t torture you with statistics for the light penalties of white collar crimes or the impact of wealth on public perception. Instead, I’ll just ask you to think about who is currently in the White House (and who helped put him there). Too often the wealthy are allowed to escape punishment for deeds that poorer people would never be able to disentangle themselves from. The attachment of holiness and goodness to wealth creates a layer of protection around people whose money already affords them legal, financial, political, and social security. But this is no accident.
When the founding fathers developed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, they made it clear that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Despite how it may appear, America was founded without an official religion, making it secular. But is it really? On the back of your dollar bills are four words unbefitting of a secular nation. Those four words reveal an appalling truth about the relationship between Christianity and capitalism on American soil. Interestingly, this is the same soil where many people hold tightly to the notion that our founding fathers believed all citizens have a fundamental right to own guns. The nation’s secularism is conditional. Guns, however, are not. While both Jesus and greed are as American as the term thoughts and prayers in the wake of a mass shooting, the connection between worship and wealth was not made explicitly clear until the mid 1930s in response to Roosevelt’s New Deal. In fact, it was marketed as a mainstream ideology by America’s wealthiest.
Because the goals of the New Deal involved stabilizing the economy, providing employment, and reforming businesses so that the Great Depression would never happen again, you’d think that everyone would have loved the concept. Alas, big businesses and the people who owned them despised the New Deal. They weren’t happy with government meddling or regulating, nor were they pleased with newly flourishing labor unions. In addition to causing crippling hunger and widespread unemployment, the Great Depression also inspired animosity for the wealthy and their incessant greed. There were mumblings about communism, workers rights, and cutting out middle men. A revolution was brewing. To combat this, America’s wealthiest desired to change the narrative. They knew the best way was to infuse everything they stood for with religion. So behind closed doors they got crafty. It wasn’t long before Christian libertarianism was born.
Funded by leaders of some of America’s biggest corporations at the time, the message of Christian libertarianism was pushed in magazines, on radio, and in the pulpit. Socialism and communism were demonized as anti-Christian and anti-American. General Motors, Chrysler, DuPont, and other corporations first pioneered this movement with the creation of the American Liberty League in 1934, but the league itself was dead by 1940. An anti-semitic preacher named James A. Fifield picked up the slack when he launched the organization Spiritual Mobilization as a way to end Christian support for welfare and to promote libertarianism. In California, Fifield preached to his wealthy congregation that “their riches were evidence of virtue rather than vice.” The message that wealth was earned by blessings, not privilege or luck, was key to Christian libertarianism. Said writer and historian Kevin Kruse, “Both systems reflected a belief in the primacy of the individual: in Christianity, the saintly went to heaven and the sinners to hell, in capitalism, the worthy succeeded and the inept went broke.” Under this cozy ideology, the rich could not be blamed for (or bothered with) the circumstances of the poor. Ever wondered why charities and publicized acts of philanthropy, as helpful as they can be, often intentionally do not address how capitalism chews up the poor?
Spiritual Mobilization produced a lot of literature, and a well-liked mantra was “Freedom Under God.” It was often uttered by Fifield, who once said that reading the bible was “like eating fish- we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. Not all parts of are equal value.” In radio programs and newsletters, greed was pitched as a fundamental Christian right, while biblical lessons about generosity and abstaining from greed, hypocrisy, or ostentatious displays of wealth… were downplayed or abandoned altogether. In a time that communist hating was at a fever pitch, excessive hard work and capitalism were championed as American ideals thanks to the mythification of the “hardworking Christian” identity. The composition of fiery religious passion and materialistic greed would later trickle to every race, but this initially exclusive prosperity gospel was a hit with white people… especially those who were desperate for a patriotic and idealistic identity to cling to. But most catalytic of the success of Christian libertarianism was that the ideology coincided with the economic prosperity of the post-World War II era. The American Dream seemed more realistic than ever. To a generation raised during the Great Depression, the opportunities for wealth seemed endless for Americans who lived in the right region of the country with the right skin color.
The most popular Christian libertarian preacher of the mid-twentieth century was the Reverend Billy Graham, who attracted to his flock both Texas oil tycoons and poor farmers alike. His influence paved the way for other “get rich through prayer, tithing, and hard work” preachers who came after him, like Jim Bakker and Creflo Dollar. Graham’s influence was so great that in 1952 he convinced Congress to establish a national day of prayer. He hadn’t been the first to bring prayer to government, though. Ten years earlier Reverend Abraham Vereide successfully persuaded Congress to have weekly prayer meetings. America was quietly becoming a Christian nation; despite being established as a secular one. But not just a Christian nation. A Christian nation proud of greed, yet widely intolerant of things like racial progression, cultural diversity, homosexuality, and women’s rights. Steadily, the fusion of American patriotism and Christianity by way of capitalism took hold among anti-democrats (the same folks who evolved into right wing conservatives).Their influence, magnified by the wealthy, had teeth. In 1954, “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance. In 1955, “In God We Trust” was added to American money. It was accompanied by an increased interest in returning to “wholesome American values”, which not-so-mysteriously aligned with white Christian ones.
To read the rest of this essay (and more like it), pre-order Angry Black Girl for $10 beginning October 20th through November 20th 2017. Sign up here to be added to the mailing list.