Republicans realized that to get fundamentalist religious groups buying into a free market and limited government, the party needed some kind of bridge between moral and economic life, since many religious groups considered the excess that American capitalism promotes as sinful. The GOP solution to keep their voters happy has been rhetoric that reinforces a moral superiority but keeps them perpetually poor and always wanting for more in the neoliberal market; the prosperity gospel.
Our history of glorifying constant individual pursuit runs deep, as even Benjamin Franklin gave life advice that “a sleeping fox can’t catch chickens.” The idea behind the early protestant colonies was that we must sacrifice personal pleasure or luxuries in order to be successful, and American culture has run with that mentality ever since. The Second Great Awakening created a bridge between that self empowerment type of economic mindset, as Christianity rejected the concept of Calvinist predetermination. Figures such as Charles Finney rose to prominence during this time, preaching that individual action is the way to fulfillment through personal responsibility and abstaining from excess. Notice how this lines up fairly well with the modern day personal responsibility rhetoric that conservatives love.
The other important religious movement which rose as a result of this idea was Pentecostalism led by Oral Roberts, emphasizing that the Holy Spirit is inside of everyone and needs to be brought out through physical participation in acts of faith. Beginning with large gatherings under mobile tents during the Great Depression era and then transitioning into radio and TV, millions of people were exposed to the likes of Roberts as they preached participation in acts of faith ranging from spontaneous healing to real time exorcisms. The most important of these, and the force that would bring together neoliberal individualism, personal responsibility, and active participation to combat disenfranchisement, was seed faith.
This was a form of religious devotion in which people believed giving a donation to someone would plant a “seed” of wealth that would blossom into individual wealth from God’s grace to your generosity. It was a down payment that promised future prosperity, which was very appealing to poor and POC populations who had no control over their lives during the Depression era and onward. This action quickly became a capitalist endeavor though, as paying it forward almost always entailed donating directly to the preacher or church. Listening to a sermon and feeling like a holy experience was drawn from it either prompted people to want to donate, or made them feel pressured to as their peers around them did.
Preachers and “megachurches” became increasingly wealthy as they would squeeze money out of every possible avenue, and emphasize the importance of seed size in correlation to outcome. For example, Roberts would cut up his tents once sermons were finished and sell squares of the holy tent to make a healthy hunk of cash. Sermons began to talk about how money was great, even Jesus was rich. Preachers began to sound more like businessmen than men of God as they made statements that claimed if their audience didn’t like money, then this wasn’t the church for them. Preachers like Roberts blasted across radio and television, telling their audience that a seed donation of $1000 would become life changing in a short time. Especially with the rise of psychological ties into faith and the rise of self help culture, individualistic, self reliant capitalism became Christian. His Thanksgiving special used to be viewed by up to 25 million people, and his audience at any given time was even larger than that because of the sheer volume of material he had out. Once someone was on the mailing list for a donation, they were hooked, line and sinker.
Reagan may perhaps be a conservative Jesus because he was able to fully solidify the connection between nationalism, neoliberal savage capitalism, and religious faith for the right to create modern day GOP values. He set the stage for what would become our modern GOP, from Gingrich’s Contract with America, to Bush declaring war in the name of God, to a population that views the market as some holy force.
America demands penance for God (at least many have grown to view it this way), and the harder you work, the stronger your faith and loyalty is, the more reward that you will reap within our system. These ideals were further emphasized during and after the Cold War, as rugged individualism and earning your own keep was seen as American while sharing resources was what dirty commies did. If our capitalist system seems unstable, it’s because the individual wasn’t flexible enough or adherent in their faith to it. What, you don’t want to work a 2 AM graveyard shift? It isn’t the unequal economy from rampant deregulation, it is your inability to adapt to a market that sees people working two jobs to survive.
This type of neoliberal thought has seeped into religion through the same direct appeals that if you’re struggling, it must be because you haven’t donated enough seeds or been adherent enough to your faith. This has led to the sanctification of the market, wherein followers of conservative and Christian ideology worship the idea of the individual absorbing responsibility of making their dreams come true. When a belief system is based on proving itself through results that each individual experiences, it not only shifts the rewards of success to be exclusively personal, but also applies the burden of failure onto the individual.
For every story of miraculous success from what people would attribute to a seed of faith, there are twice as many preachers or megachurches that have grifted their partitioners out of the last spare change they have. Besides, success from the prosperity gospel was most likely actually due to an encouragement that initiated one to get their life in order, network and create new opportunities that will uplift them. Or maybe Jesus, who knows.
While the pastors of megachurches fly in G6s above their followers who may have just lost their car, they coyly smile and say that God intended them to have this jet so they can spread His gospel worldwide. Conveniently their income is all tax free too, and any tiny portion of the millions that would go to help the lower class gets kept within their greedy paws. Weren’t Christians supposed to be about helping the poor, not taking their last few cents? This directly corresponds to the GOPs adherent faith in a neoliberal ‘free’ market.
Similar to how your religious faith is guided by a determination of worth in the eyes of some invisible force, we are forced to accept an invisible hand in the market that determines what the best outcome is. If we are poor it isn’t because of an economic structure that is meant to only empower a select few, it must be due to a lack of work ethic or personal responsibility. In this vein we have let entities like Wall Street consolidate power to reign over our financial and professional lives. They have successfully convinced millions to buy into the same kinds of hollow promises wealth gospel preachers and megachurches do, a one sided bargain that provides opportunity for them at the cost of their audience. This is the evil of zero sum thought at work.
To make it worse, in the 2000’s many religious leaders were paid by loan officers to meet with their constituents, with a pastor encouraging their audience to meet the officer so God could help guide them to a new home. Unwitting worshipers were led into the arms of predatory loans that would label them as subprime, assigning them with an unfair interest rate that would cause them to lose everything in 2008.
We are always looking for a figure to guide us, someone to show us the way in this confusing world. People search for gospels that will lead them to fall back on their own responsibility for creating success because we have such a lack of control in our lives. With how much inequality and disenfranchisement runs through America, we see our personal behaviors as the only thing we can change. Thus when a leader tells us it is our duty to show devotion to a cause that will bring us great wealth, we gladly agree. Correspondingly this also becomes the one and only way to live and find fulfillment, as people will reject anything that they don’t view as something that could bring them personal prosperity.
This has led to the rise of modern day movements like Christian nationalism and other far right ideologies that preach individual devotion to a specific ideology that is the only vision for a prosperous future. Figures like Trump, Manafort, Bannon, or Stone are grifting off of the same type of rabid faith that Oral Roberts did. Unfortunately the faith that they have convinced many of their followers to buy into entails violent action against the different ideologies that are holding theirs (fascism) back, so their followers must combat the insidious forces trying to make life worse.
In many ways the radicalism and anger we see out of the modern GOP is a reaction to voters being frustrated that no matter how hard they work, how faithful they are in ‘the plan,’ their vision of America isn’t reality. They still live paycheck to paycheck and are struggling to feed their families, yet maintain the faith in Republican policies because it is so heavily tied in with their religious faith and lifestyle that they have nowhere else to turn. Thus the choice they are faced with is becoming even more devoted to the cause, sacrificing increasingly to see a future pay off, and loss of rationality to justify their hopes that faith will pay off eventually. This is the insidious nature of modern GOP politics; they sell constituents a vision of America that only the ruling class can have, and that status quo can further only be maintained the more loyal and blind to reality their voter base is.
With these religious and cultural beliefs deeply ingrained in their communities, conservative voters have been working for years to achieve the party and God’s vision of an American dream. The problem is, they have been seeing no results due to a combination of all the inequalities I’ve discussed, but most notably white supremacy’s iron hold on our institutions that prices out anyone beyond the upper class. This frustration and feeling of fruitlessness from real life hardships is aided along by posturing from public figures and a GOP media storm, leading to membership in groups like Qanon, the Proud Boys or Patriot Prayer skyrocketing.
These groups give people in small communities some answers to their problems, such as feeling isolated, and an ideology that they can still follow as gospel. Those who have been held in oppression through addiction, debt, poverty, or other disenfranchisement turn to something tangible that they can control, looking for a belief that gives them meaningful action to take. Since the ideas of the wealth gospel and zero sum thought in a free market are influential to basically all conservatives, they apply the same logic to the forces that are ailing them; kill or be killed. Add a small community bubble that hasn’t exposed them to other cultures and entails a knowledge based purely on what right wing media tells them, and you have an audience primed to believe vile rhetoric and act upon it.
A group such as the Proud Boys appeals to already underlying biases, emphasizing binary viewpoints while saying that the right’s oppression won’t stop until the one specific group causing their suffering such as Anitfa, Islam, BLM, or Jews is destroyed. The biggest irony is that media figures, politicians, and even leaders of these groups usually live in comfort due to their status, and to keep their status they require the funding, support, and constant attention of the audience they appeal to. Thus we have seen a rise of hateful rhetoric from Alex Jones, Caitlyn Bennett, Ben Shapiro and co. because they are guaranteed a certain status from spewing it, but then they get into a tricky situation where their rhetoric has to constantly be accelerationist, always louder and more conspiratorial than the last point to keep their audience hooked.
Through their pursuit of individual status in the savage capitalist market, they funnel disenfranchised people into the arms of bad actors who lead groups that actually do want to kill Jews or African Americans from hate. If you recite something enough it will become fact to you, and unfortunately there is much ingrained racism and bias in our country due to its constant reinforcement that minority groups are the root of all issues. We are seeing a frightening rise in domestic terrorism as young men who live in small communities become more unsure of their futures and place in the world, turning to violence and a community of white nationalism as an outlet for their anger over these manufactured enemies. These people (mostly men in terms of violence,) feel isolated and in danger from outsider groups such as LGBTQ or immigrants, who they have been told are polluting society and endangering their children by these false idols and propaganda. Out of fear they turn to the solutions offered by the right wing rhetoric that they’ve been exposed to their whole lives; arming themselves to the teeth in anticipation of an impending liberal takeover or some other apocalyptic event that will cause mass violence and destruction. They are also likely to turn to the radical groups espousing those fears since these organizations probably include neighbors, friends, or other people they are acquainted with while offering shared values and a sense of protection against whatever threats come knocking.
We’ve seen the extremes of the religious like devotion that have been woven into right wing culture, especially with events like January 6th, and a lot of the viewpoint that preaches hard work until you see individual success is coming back to haunt the party as only those at the top are actually benefitting within our savage capitalism. Through my work I want to build solidarity, trying to help people see the underlying causes for the issues that plague our nation. While this discussion is by no means the end all be all of explaining our current reality it is a piece of the puzzle in explaining how economic inequality, stemming from a rabid devotion to deregulation which allows predatory behavior, comes full circle to prime a population for radicalism. When your seed faith hasn’t blossomed into anything fruitful and you’re struggling, watching groups around you seemingly succeed due to the conspiracies that are preached as a part of the right wing religious ecosystem, it is a dangerous mix of disenfranchisement and misdirected anger.