On the shelf: Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, by William E. Connolly

November 25, 2008

What motivates so many evangelicals—with their preference for heavenly
treasure and their devotion to the Bible, a book full of diatribes
against wealth—to support an economic agenda of free-market
fundamentalism and less progressive tax policy? Most commentators answer
that the marriage between those who want to rescue the government from a
sea of ungodliness and those who want to drown it in a bathtub is one of convenience—they don't like so much as need each other.

According to William Connolly in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style
(Duke UP), it's not quite that simple. Connolly claims that an
"evangelical-capitalist resonance machine" provides mutual reinforcement
for the religious right and "cowboy capitalism":

The radical Christian right compensates
a series of class resentments and injustices...by promising solace in
the church and the family; it then cements (male) capitalist creativity
to the creativity of God himself, fomenting an aspirational politics
of identification by workers with men of prowess and
privilege...encourag[ing workers] to demonize selected minorities as
nomadic enemies of capitalism, God, morality, and civilizational

This isn't just a denser version of What's the Matter With Kansas? (or, for that matter, Bittergate);
Connolly isn't arguing that working-class evangelicals are easily
manipulated rubes. Instead, his "resonance machine" works in both
directions. He's saying that an assortment of parallel beliefs and
shared anxieties add up to a sum far greater than its parts, which
strengthens both economic and religious conservatism.

betrays the limits of his knowledge of the Christian landscape when he
characterizes right-leaning Christians as those who follow the Jesus of
Revelation and left-leaning Christians as those who follow the Jesus of
the Gospels. This leaves out Revelation readers focused on nonviolence
or liberation, not to mention John 3:16-thumping culture warriors. He
also seems to use the words "evangelical" and "evangelist"
interchangeably. But these are just distractions—Connolly does the real
work of his critique not as a dubious theologian but as an insightful
sociopolitical observer.

The critique is not socialist but
liberal—Connolly seeks to reform capitalism, not abolish it. (The
distinction may seem obvious, but then so did the fact that a slight
difference between two candidates' tax plans makes for a pretty lousy red scare.) Connolly stresses that capitalism is always wrapped up with other forces, and that a resonance with a different kind
of religion—one without the vindictive and absolutist tendencies of the
Christian right—could nurture a more egalitarian capitalism.

pursue this, he urges readers to organize across religious lines to
"consolidate a counter-resonance machine." He also calls on secular
people to welcome religious perspectives—a point that recalls a 2006 speech
by Barack Obama. According to Connolly, religion is not a constituency
that needs to be shored up or a private matter to leave at home.
Instead, it's a potential point of unique and significant resonance with
a fairer, more humane capitalism. With the economy in turmoil and the
White House changing hands, could this counter-resonance machine start
to flourish?