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Gods and Profits

How capitalism and Christianity aligned in modern America


Capitalism is a system braced by stories. Consider the rise of the liberal individual, a kind of atomistic personhood, distinct from all other persons. It seems the whole Enlightenment had a hand in creating this particular view of man—yet the concept was unknown to the people of the medieval and ancient worlds. The idea was not intentionally developed as a thread in capitalism’s web of self-justification, but it has been recruited for such purposes, where it underwrites much free-market discourse about the primacy of the individual over the collective. This is only one of the many accounts which have been absorbed into the vast narrative support structure of capitalism—that is, the series of stories that make life under capitalism seem plausible, positive, and even necessary. In the United States, Christianity might be capitalism’s most impressive conscription so far.

In Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the author lays out a deftly detailed history of Christianity’s service to capitalism in the United States. Christianity was brought into the service of laissez-faire economics in Puritan devotion to work and thrift, but the decisive moment at which Christianity fused with free enterprise in the American psyche occurred, Kruse argues, in the middle of the twentieth century. Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital, on the other hand, offers a series of case studies on the storytellers whose narratives about free enterprise and well-being are shouldering capitalism along today. Kruse’s investigation begins around the time of the New Deal and follows the emergence of our distinctly American capitalist Christianity through its zenith in the 1980s. Aschoff picks up this story with a close look at today’s charismatic capitalists: Sheryl Sandberg, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey, among others.

But in the gap between these two books—between the late ’70s and early ’80s, where the bulk of Kruse’s narrative leaves off, and the postmillennial world we know today—the ground has shifted. The preoccupation with Christian doctrine that animated the ardent pro-capitalists of yesteryear has subsided to a vaguely spiritual moralism. We now live in the age of “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. And while the Christian right persists in the same old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, et cetera), its strength appears to be waning: The once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering, and titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics no longer seem reliant upon it to bolster their project. Our most ardent pro-capitalists, as Aschoff demonstrates, don’t generally speak in terms of Christ and country any longer, but rather in modes of self-improvement and actualization.

Will the fates of Christianity and capitalism depart, or have they been too tightly interwoven in American thought to adopt diverging paths? What will become of Christianity in the United States once capitalism is done with it, and vice versa? This is where Kruse and Aschoff, with their careful surveys of the past, offer guidance to the future.

Kruse’s One Nation Under God opens with a moment of widespread anti-capitalist sentiment. Following the desolation of the Great Depression, Kruse reports, mistrust of financiers and their associates was at a perilous high. In the early years of the twentieth century, a large population of people depended not upon the abstract dealings of people and assets, but upon the tangible fluctuations of earth, weather, and disease. Famines, pestilences, and storms all had their own narratives, but the Great Depression was a new kind of plague, and it produced a new kind of story, with the greed and pride of the rich as the catalyst for destruction.

Concerned that populist politics might endanger their wealth, America’s monied interests did what they do best: They bought a solution. It came in the form of James W. Fifield Jr., a Congregationalist pastor who made his fortune in Southern California by preaching to the fabulously wealthy and accepting their patronage. Fifield, Kruse notes, was especially gifted at assuring wealthy Christians that their riches were evidence of virtue rather than vice. A philosophical descendant of Max Weber, Fifield married Christian thought with a new era of economic development, and spread the gospel through his organization, Spiritual Mobilization. Its mission was simple: to stamp out Christian support for a generous welfare state—which paired naturally with New Deal concern for the poor, elderly, and vulnerable—and to advance a new theory of Christian libertarianism.

Illustration by Tim Bower

Spiritual Mobilization sought to influence ministers across the country, and with its bottomless monetary resources, it was doomed to success. Kruse’s account is startling in part because of just how vulgar the whole affair was: Christianity was rented out, quite consciously, to buttress a shambling narrative about the continued dominance of the monied class in a performance that even Marx would have found blunt.

As the middle of the twentieth century approached, Spiritual Mobilization circulated literature touting the righteousness of the libertarian-Christian gospel, and, in 1951, decided to host a series of events celebrating the newly minted notion of “freedom under God.” A turn of phrase coined by Fifield himself, the rhetoric was a hit, and private companies voraciously reproduced it; the Utah Power & Light Company, among others, printed ads and funded festivities to advance the notion that Christian deference to industry is a vital part of the American Way. This stew of supply-side economics, small government, hard-core U.S. patriotism, and Christian rhetoric was entirely novel, and smashingly effective. When we look back now on the McCarthy era and find Christian verses interwoven with tirades against communism, this is the carefully engineered blend we are revisiting.

Proponents of this newly constructed ideology were manifold, powerful, and well funded: Kruse names Billy Graham as a spiritual inheritor to the early efforts of Christian libertarians like Fifield. Graham’s preaching was sensational, and won the support of tycoons like Texas oilman Sid Richardson, who helped launch Graham’s career in Washington, D.C. Graham’s ascent opened the way for other pastors with political aspirations, like Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority cohort, to wax passionate about the gospel while raking in cash from committed capitalists delighted by the arranged marriage of God and mammon. Kruse deftly outlines how the arteries of money and power that we now take for granted—between the progenitors of the Christian right on one side, and preachers, industrialists, and politicians on the other—were built.

If there is one underlying argument in Kruse’s book, it is that free-market economics and Christianity were not always the twin pillars of a uniquely American gospel. And yet here we are: Ted Cruz kicked off the long election season by spinning a free-market yarn to the student body of the world’s largest Christian college, also lamenting that most born-again Christians stay home on voting days, robbing him of votes and leaving the economy in the hands of wealthy financiers. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the pastors and politicians Kruse profiles, the disparity between the Christian ethos and the spirit of capitalism is now little more than a periodic left-Christian cri de coeur.

What happened to the anti-capitalist Christianity of yesteryear? Consider the robust Christian socialist movements of the late nineteenth century, which flourished under Victorians like John Ruskin and William Morris. It’s a question worth pursuing because, as Aschoff demonstrates in her new journalistic set of case studies, the narratives that prop up capitalism are not stable.

Aschoff opens with a somewhat startling revelation that helps place Kruse’s historical account in the context of capitalism’s broader story. Narratives, both critical and supportive, are necessary for capitalism, because criticism forces it “to evolve and temporarily resolve some of its contradictions ... thus preserving it as a system for the long haul.” “Indeed,” Aschoff notes, “capital’s ability to periodically present a new set of legitimating principles that facilitate the willing participation of society accounts for its remarkable longevity despite periodic bouts of deep crisis.” Capitalism, therefore, is a system that is in a constant state of re-explaining itself, producing stories that present it as necessary despite its failures and stories that cast it in a positive light despite shifts in popular sentiment.

By “prophets” of capital, Aschoff means the old-fashioned sociological sense of the term, as used by Max Weber and as distinct from “priests.” While priests, Weber argued, maintain old practices and enforce stable norms, prophets renew old stories or produce novel ones, building bases out of sheer charisma. Priests deal in the mundane problems of daily life, applying static premises to failing marriages, financial upsets, illness, anxiety, death; prophets, meanwhile, insist upon abstraction, detest minutiae, and push dizzyingly powerful narratives. Aschoff’s prophets of capital, which she considers in a series of wry and adroit case studies of people like Gates, Sandberg, and Mackey, have become famous for being rich and successful. Each of them, Aschoff argues, tells a different story with the same outcome: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. If in midcentury America it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is Oprah.

But in each of Aschoff’s careful considerations of capitalism’s storytellers, glimmers of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades shine through. She traces Mackey’s capitalist ethos of responsible entrepreneurship to the Physiocrats, for example, a set of eighteenth-century French philosophers including Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and François Quesnay, both Catholics and fathers of libertarian economics. Mackey, like his Catholic forebears, senses a natural order to the world; you can resolve all matters between men simply by leaving them alone. Just as Turgot and Quesnay co-opted pieces of Catholic natural-law theory to advance economic liberalism, Mackey borrows from Physiocratic commentary on natural order to press for a lifestyle of organic-therapeutic consumption that takes the place of a genuinely revolutionary politics. We will be healed, to hear Mackey tell it, by eating right and being kind to one another. No need for any intervention from states or unions.

Capitalism’s narratives, Aschoff implicitly reveals, always cannibalize their predecessors, repackaging old stories to shore up discontent. While Oprah’s lifestyle branding is mostly about how to achieve happiness through a vague mix of nondescript spirituality, bootstraps-hoisting, and endless therapeutic introspection, her schema is new only in its styling. Long before Oprah took to the airwaves and pages to proclaim her own story of self-invention, the prosperity gospel preachers of the ’70s and ’80s—folks like prolific televangelists Jim Bakker, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland—had brought self-improvement testimonials sprinkled with holy water to rapt middle Americans. The spiritual inheritors of these televangelists are, according to Kate Bowler’s 2013 book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, self-help ministers like Joel Osteen, who has unsurprisingly enjoyed plenty of time on Oprah’s stage. Oprah’s version of spirituality is similar enough to Osteen’s, but nonspecific. While Osteen and his overtly Christian ilk minister to their flocks, Oprah’s message is broad enough to be enjoyed by all: a better business decision, at any rate.

In other words, the prophets of capitalism have a way of using the workable parts of older pro-capitalist narratives to meet the needs of changing audiences, while shedding the vestigial bits. As religiosity drops off in the United States, replaced either by faithlessness or individual spirituality, capitalism will have to reformat its defenses to match those proclivities, rather than catering purely to committed Christians. And that may ultimately be the best possible thing for Christianity in the United States.

After all, if the Christian ethos has suffered any great harm from its recruitment in support of capitalism, it has been the tamping down of a uniquely anti-capitalist, revolutionary sentiment in the Gospel. Pope Francis, being from the global South, has repeatedly criticized trickle-down economics from a Christian perspective, an approach that registers as baffling to a certain segment of his American audience. But within the Catholic tradition, criticism of capitalism is perfectly common: It is only in the U.S. context, beset by a curious interlude of manufactured hypercapitalist Christianity, that the Pope’s economics seem jarring. Capital, Aschoff observes, is inclined to glide from one narrative to the next as its needs change. If the Christian story is the latest to be shucked aside by capital, then Christianity might find itself slipping the grip of a rather oppressive relationship.

American Christians would then be free to offer up a genuinely revolutionary Christian politics: one that neither seeks to bolster capitalism blatantly nor offer meager patches for its systemic problems. Having a historical perspective on the ways in which Christianity was co-opted in service of each of those purposes could help new Christian activists avoid the pitfalls of the recent past. Perhaps Christianity’s long rendezvous with capitalism has been a necessary crucible, and one that may be sputtering toward its end.