[Marxism] Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 19 10:24:38 MDT 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review, June 19 2016
‘The Money Cult,’ by Chris Lehmann

Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream
By Chris Lehmann
403 pp. Melville House. $28.95.

How can the most hedonistic consumer culture on the planet also be host 
to some of the most religious people in the world? Why hasn’t the 
bureaucratic rationality of corporate capitalism erased the last 
vestiges of faith in God, especially in the United States, still the 
farthest outpost of ­modern-industrial society? Chris Lehmann, a 
co-editor of Bookforum, has the answers in “The Money Cult.”

He’s up against Max Weber, who also had North America in mind when he 
wrote “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Weber argued 
that pious Puritans somehow became secular Yankees, who learned to lock 
themselves into an iron cage of a disenchanted world: “In the field of 
its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, 
stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become 
associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it 
the character of sport.”

Lehmann demonstrates, contra Weber, that Protestantism at its extreme, 
out there on the European frontier called America, was a way of 
re-enchanting the world, not draining it of transcendent meanings — and 
it still is, in the evangelical or Pentecostal forms of contemporary 
megachurches, where Joel Osteen, the “prophet of the new millennial 
prosperity gospel,” presides over an empire of God-blessed striving and 

Lehmann’s point is not that the ruthless rationality of the market never 
quite overruled magical thinking. It’s that the mysteries of the market 
itself have always solicited such thinking, and always will.

This is not exactly a new finding. Donald Meyer, Christopher Lasch, 
Jackson Lears and Thomas Frank have all reached similar conclusions. But 
the key insight of Lehmann’s book is that the Puritans and their 
theological heirs (including the Mormons) completed the logic of the New 
Testament by treating God as a man — by honoring the worldly economic 
activities of men on earth, in this life, not hoping for the exemptions 
from work that would come later, in the next life.

Lehmann shows that a specifically Protestant, vaguely gnostic 
materialism has always animated American life, saturating the lowly 
world of objects with the sanctity of higher, heavenly purpose, even 
unto our time. His book is a tour de force that illustrates the 
continuities of American cultural and economic history.

Still, I think he makes two mistakes that drive us back toward Weber. On 
the one hand, Lehmann claims that the Puritans sanctified the market as 
such. They didn’t. Instead, they feared it, and went to great lengths to 
contain it. In their view, money, property and wealth were the means to 
the end of a self-determining personality who could choose God’s path of 
his own free will — they weren’t ends in themselves. The inversion of 
these means and ends, what we now call the market revolution, terrified 
the Puritans. They were the first articulate anticapitalists.

On the other hand, Lehmann suggests, as Weber did, that the Puritans 
were the prophets of the self-made man, the tricky Yankee trader unbound 
by custom, ­family, tradition or community. They weren’t. John Winthrop, 
among others, preached a “yoak of government, both sacred and civil” to 
contain the “wild beast” that would be loosed by the embrace of every 
individual’s “natural liberty.” Like Shakespeare and Hobbes, he didn’t 
see how this animal could be tamed outside the iron cage of religious 
and political ­hierarchy.

Sometimes “The Money Cult” reads like something straight out of the 
1920s, when the Young Intellectuals who invented an American literary 
canon (Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, et al.) made Puritanism a 
metaphor for everything distasteful about American culture. More often, 
it sounds refreshingly new. For Chris Lehmann has shown us why religious 
history is the mainstream of American history — and how Protestant 
theologians became the court poets of capitalism.

James Livingston, who teaches history at Rutgers University-New 
Brunswick, is the author of the forthcoming “No More Work.”

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