The Invisible Hand

The Invisible Hand

Somewhere between the apostles and Joel Osteen, mainstream Christianity turned from a wellspring of egalitarian promise into yet another exponent of the market gospel. Two new books chart where things went wrong.

A Joel Osteen stage show, Glendale, Arizona, January 2014 (Kevin Schraer / Flickr)

The Market as God
by Harvey Cox
Harvard University Press, 2016, 320 pp.

The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream
by Chris Lehmann
Melville House Books, 2016, 368 pp.

In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul counts “forbearance” among his fruits of the spirit. Perhaps this can explain why my student-loan providers always offer it with a note of holy benevolence. Several times over the last decade, certain stretches of paucity have forced me to dial up Citibank or FedLoan or Discover with the hope of procuring an extended period of grace. I suppose it says something dark about our current economic climate that these loan providers are listed among my smartphone contacts. But once I’m patched through to customer service, something strange always happens. I’m soon greeted by a genial human voice—attentive, empathetic, almost always female—who assures me that, despite my abysmal credit, all will be forgiven. I thank this woman effusively, imagining her not as an underpaid operator in the catacombs of some corporate office, but as an envoy of providence in a gold-plated headset, saving one cash-strapped millennial at a time.

The administration of student-loan debt isn’t the only way the economy has become an ethereal presence. Because the fates of financial markets rely on arbitrage and shorting, corporate profits can soar while the condition of the real economy plummets or remains unchanged. The health of the market thus exists in an untouchable realm, and to endure the jolts and tremors of finance-dominated capitalism is to feel the erratic whims of an angry god, the logic of a supernatural being who defies human reason.

Granting such powers to the market has been denounced as idolatry by no less a spiritual authority than Pope Francis. In his apostolic exhortation of 2013, the pontiff inveighed against the guardians of “the deified market,” arguing that any defense of trickle-down economics “expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” More recently, this sentiment was interrogated by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, who joins the ranks of scholars who have been engrossed by the totem powers of faith and the market. But unlike someone like Max Weber—who argued that the austerity of mainline churches nurtured the origins of capitalism—Cox instead views the free market as its own autonomous religion, a bewildering system of codes and myths that steers the behaviors of its adherents. In his recent book, The Market as God, he sets out to demonstrate that this religion is as comprehensive as any major faith, complete with sacraments (advertisements), prophets (Adam Smith), and even eschatology (Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History). But the book also veers into a host of arcana that seems, at best, tangentially related to his thesis, including the ways in which the architecture of mega-churches has come to resemble the floor plans of suburban malls; the behavioral similarities between marquee pastors and industry CEOs; the special realm of hell that Dante reserved for usurers; and the extent to which religious holidays have been transformed into saturnalias of consumer spending.

In the end, Cox wants to desacralize the market, to take the ghost out of the machine. But as to how we might carry out such an exorcism, he offers only run-of-the-mill solutions. Democratizing the economy and decentralizing the central banks, while laudable goals, are reforms that legislators have proposed for decades. Such recommendations are especially dismaying in light of the book’s chapter on the biblical justification for wealth redistribution. The Jubilee Year, for instance, which is listed among the torrent of Mosaic laws enumerated in the Book of Deuteronomy (divine instructions for social conduct), requires Hebrews to forgive each other’s debts every seven years as an act of communal penance. And this injunction, unlike other passages of the Torah, isn’t some veiled metaphor for the abundance of God’s grace. Rather, it comes with detailed instructions. “At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts,” reads Deuteronomy 15. “This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they may have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.” It’s a passage to which even the most ferocious heathen can intone: thanks be to God.

Here, I perked up to the possibility that Cox might offer a valiant statement about the economic responsibilities of a Christian nation, using the spirit of the jubilee to call for the erasure of student-loan debt. But in the end Cox demurs. Instead, he explains that Rome’s stringent tax laws prevented the apostles from practicing such forgiveness and that when the holiday was finally instituted toward the end of the Middle Ages, it had become an orgiastic festival of “plenary indulgence,” devoid of any redistributive element. Whatever relevance this teaching might have for the modern reader is left resoundingly unsaid.


Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics. John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential. One need only maintain a cheerful outlook and a dapper appearance to become the apple of God’s eye. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life feeling like miserable failures,” Osteen warns. “God wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.”

How we got from Winthrop to Osteen is the subject of Chris Lehmann’s new book, The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream. Lehmann is interested in how the communitarian spirit of mainline Protestantism was eventually tarnished by the logic of private enterprise. But in the end what he discovers is that, far from being pious victims of a rapacious economic system, mainline churches were very much complicit in “the gradual sanctification of the market.” In fact, throughout the history of the United States, Christian theology was routinely contorted to fit within the narrow priorities of capitalism.

Several watersheds punctuate Lehmann’s history, and the trouble begins early. Soon after docking on the shores of New England, with the echo of Winthrop’s sermon still ringing in their ears, the Puritans fell prey to the caustic sermons of Anne Hutchinson. Perhaps the most subversive element of her teachings was the suggestion that Protestant believers no longer had to follow the laws of the Mosaic covenant. Adopting what would become the quintessential American posture, Hutchinson rejected communitarian ideals in favor of individual discretion.

The Puritans would atomize into a slew of dissenting factions, many defending the sanctity of the individual. Several denominations even incorporated aspects of Gnosticism, a pagan religion which argued that a human being was, in Lehmann’s words, “a divine spark of cosmic truth” who could achieve spiritual purity. By day, these churches paid lip service to the meek Protestant traditions, but at night they pursued witchcraft and other occult amusements, hoping to increase their fortunes through alchemy and divination. For Lehmann, this appetite for magic was hardly coincidental. “[T]he popular theories of alchemy and hermetic cosmology—which held that the raw stuff of matter could be refined into precious metals, and by extension, that the fallen human could proceed, via similar gradations of improvement, into a kind of divinity—took firm root among the dissenting prophets and seers of the New World.” Eventually, these “self-made gospels,” as Lehmann calls them, would fortify the myth of the self-made man.

The exaltation of the individual intensified throughout the First and Second Great Awakenings. For instance, Lehmann argues that the bug-eyed evangelism of George Whitefield, the English preacher who ignited Christian revivals across the American colonies during the middle of the eighteenth century, functioned, more than anything else, as “a message of personal liberation,” offering a type of redemption untethered from social commitments. The fate of one’s soul, by Whitefield’s estimation, was a bargain negotiated privately between the individual believer and God. “Bargain” here is not an accidental term, for, as Lehmann points out, Whitefield’s preachments were often glutted with market tropes, presenting Jesus as a warehouse of spiritual products and God as a venture capitalist (“He set Adam up, gave him a blessed stock, placed him in a paradise of love, and he soon became a bankrupt”). No longer would believers have to suffer the glum jeremiads of Calvinist preachers, with their pesky reminders of God’s covenants and their exhortations to be charitable and repent. Instead, Whitefield suggested, individuals could reap the benefits of their newfangled salvation in “the public thoroughfares and consumer bazaars of a new commercial society.”

With their burgeoning faith in Gnostic individualism, dissenting Protestant sects were united in presuming that humans were on an upward trajectory toward spiritual perfection. Such optimism dovetailed nicely with an emergent strain of Christian eschatology called “the postmillennial dispensation,” which held that Christ’s second coming would only occur once humanity had eradicated the world’s injustices and established a glinting Arcadia of righteousness and peace. In an effort to hasten Jesus’s arrival, then, Christians were charged with extirpating social ailments like poverty, slavery, and disease.

Yet Gnostic attitudes would ultimately clash with the postmillennial worldview. Both traditions were optimistic about the future, but within the Gnostic persuasion, hope lay not with political amelioration or social justice, but with individual enhancement. This torrid infatuation with self-betterment would find its greatest defender in Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose rhapsodies on self-liberation would so eloquently belittle the need for collective institutions. “All that Adam had,” Emerson bellowed, “all that Caesar could, you have and can do.” To put it another way: the Kingdom of God is within you. Why worry about social problems when you can access the glories of heaven through an Emersonian program of nonconformity and introspection?

This is the true achievement of Lehmann’s book: in analyzing the theological developments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he shows how Protestant mainline churches conflated Christian eschatology with Gnostic self-obsession. As a result, the postmillennial exhortation to go out into the world and redress social injustice was turned inward, toward the individual, transforming into a theology of mystical self-improvement, one that was to be carried out in private, hermetically sequestered from the realms of politics and commerce.

Naturally, this renovated form of Protestant piety operated in perfect sympathy with capitalism. One salient manifestation of this new alliance was the Businessman’s Revival of 1857. The movement was started by Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier, a young door-to-door evangelist who was having trouble capturing new converts in the gomorrah of New York City. After long days of canvassing in the unrepentant neighborhoods of the financial district, he would often use prayer as a kind of spiritual emollient, a tonic for professional fatigue. His Road to Damascus moment came when he realized that he could hawk prayer to other salesmen as a business-boosting practice. Ironically, it was this message of therapeutic renewal to which the merchants, clerks, and bankers of New York would soon flock in droves. But rather than posing an alternative to the soul-crushing dictates of capitalism, Christian prayer was merely an antidote to the drudgery of business, a catharsis for bookkeepers and financiers depleted by the industrial workweek. Spiritual practice, by this logic, was not a private ritual so much as it was a lubricant for the gears of capitalism.

Though Lehmann doesn’t mention them, it’s easy to draw parallels between the market’s enthusiasm for the analgesic power of Christian prayer and the tech industry’s current zeal for the restorative benefits of Eastern techniques. “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad,” a recent Wired headline says. “It Could Make Your Career.” On the verdant campuses of Facebook and Google, it’s not uncommon these days to see software programmers executing sun salutations or angel investors sitting in full-lotus. Of course, it would be naïve to think Silicon Valley executives care about the souls of their workers. As the same Wired article reported, “quiet contemplation is seen as the new caffeine, the fuel that allegedly unlocks productivity.”

The most damning conclusion to be drawn from The Money Cult is that, during the worst economic hardships of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most Protestant communities did not challenge the avaricious nature of the capitalist system. Nor did they seek to redress the mammoth inequalities it produced. Instead, Christian leaders conjured new fads of sanctified self-improvement, implying that personal inadequacy (rather than structural injustice) was the root cause of economic misfortune. Drawing from the “Mind Cure” movement of the late 1880s and Norman Vincent Peale’s “Positive Thinking” craze of the 1950s, Christians held that “distraught and suffering believers could be made medically whole by adopting the right verbal formulations.” Scarcely did Norman Vincent Peale allude to the burdens of Christian life or the political ramifications of Christ’s teachings. Instead, Christian piety was nothing more than an instrument of productive living—a prod to commercial success. One of the book’s more interesting nuggets of trivia is that L. Frank Baum, the creator of The Wizard of Oz, was himself a proponent of the Mind Cure. As someone who grew up obsessively watching Dorothy’s exploits in Oz, I was somewhat terrified to learn that every character’s “journey toward self-realization is its own complacent Mind Cure fable, with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion all coming into full possession of the latent powers of self-transformation that they had within their souls all along.”

These days, like the denizens of the Emerald City, we too are enjoined to “find ourselves.” While we know there’s no wizard behind the curtain, we moderns still place our faith in the promise of self-actualization, whether by the yellow brick roads of Vision Quests, SoulCycle, or the emancipatory powers of ayahuasca. And yet if we join Lehmann in sneering at the cheerful exhortations of Joel Osteen, it’s perhaps because we recognize that the essence of his sermons mirrors our own excessive celebration of individualism, which allows us to trade the project of social justice for the pilgrimage of self-discovery. As Lehmann has shown, the sanctity of the American individual—the talismanic power of the self-made man—has persisted across several centuries and even weathered the worst bouts of economic distress largely because it is bound up with the promise of Christian salvation. And yet it seems the only person who can save you now, in the twilight of financial capitalism, is yourself.


“If anyone would come after Me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever would save his own life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” While The Money Cult delivers a thunderous jeremiad about the capitalist underpinnings of modern Christianity, Lehmann doesn’t spend much time on the actual texture of the gospel. Nor does he acknowledge that it poses a revolutionary alternative to the market.

Christians, after all, are supposed to be “dead to themselves,” forsaking the temptations of the flesh and cultivating an outlook of self-repudiation. This radical prioritization of others is one reason why Kathryn Tanner, a professor of divinity at Yale University, has suggested that the true nature of Christian piety differs starkly from the orthodoxies of capitalism. During her recent Gifford Lecture series at the University of Edinburgh, Tanner delivered a set of talks, entitled “Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism,” in which she tried to characterize the pernicious arrangements of the neoliberal system. Like Cox, she believes the market has become a totalizing ideology, one that extracts from its participants a mindset of unswerving devotion. But Tanner focuses primarily on the ways in which the market encourages the accumulation of debt, which forces individuals to indenture themselves to the logic of finance. After all, when a person is beleaguered by a mortgage or student loans, everything from her consumer choices to her conduct outside work is affected by this burden. Routine shopping becomes an occasion for cost-benefit analysis, as does the choice of her leisure. Evenings, in particular, become junctures of grievous anxiety, since one is constantly weighing how to most profitably use one’s time. Without a clear demarcation between our personal and professional selves, every moment of our waking lives is colonized by the exigencies of the market. Currently, the financial system is even rigged in such a way that it benefits from acts of resistance. Tanner shrewdly points out that because corporations bet against borrowers through arbitrage, derivatives, and shorting, the most common forms of financial rebellion—claiming unemployment, defaulting on your loans, or declaring bankruptcy—can actually enhance the profits of one’s lenders.

Christianity, Tanner claims, offers a different way. For one thing, the Bible adumbrates a stark anti-work ethic, arguing in the fourth chapter of Hebrews that believers should “make every effort” to rest, “soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” This ethos of rest was particularly popular before the Reformation, when Christians privileged spiritual tasks like contemplative prayer over the activities of the market. In fact, early believers tended to regard profit-driven work with clucking and sidelong glances, especially since it was seen as draining one’s spiritual energies. In the end, Tanner deploys Christian theology to challenge neoliberalism in a way that even the most steadfast reprobate can find compelling. Capitalism teaches us to see the making of widgets as a form of self-expression, Tanner suggests. But God makes no such calls to productivity. Instead, we are meant to live in accordance with God’s nature.

It’s true that the project of liberal individualism has spawned rampant competition and petty comforts, attitudes that our financial markets are more than happy to accommodate. And it’s true that Christianity has become complicit in—to some extent even confused with—this project. But Tanner reminds us that the teachings of Christ can also offer a radical antidote to the religion of the self, can point out the extent to which we’ve been “laboring under a mistake,” as Thoreau once put it. Of course, as a method of protest, it is difficult to imagine our atheistic brethren trading the burdens of the market for the hosannas of church. But nonbelievers might yet gain from the teachings of the gospel. Perhaps we might reject the lonesome pleasures of neoliberal life and enter into communities of engagement, united by the ligament of shared responsibility, even if we can’t believe in faces in the clouds or angels at the pearly gates.

Barrett Swanson is the 2016–2017 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.