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These days "getting religion" is generally considered a rather quaint thing of the past. "Getting spirituality," on the other hand, is the hottest thing on the market. In fact, corporate-sponsored spiritual salve is becoming the most popular prescription for the overworked and soul-weary employees. But for many Christians, this antidote has become its own epidemic. How is this epidemic infecting the church? How should the church respond as a community of believers?According to authors Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow, the church must resist becoming the "chaplain to capitalism." Christianity Incorporated reminds us that Christ-centered discipleship is fundamentally at odds with consumer capitalist priorities. The church must have a mission and a voice in society that is distinct from, rather than in chorus with, watered-down corporate spirituality.Christianity Incorporated is a wake-up call for all Christians. Courageous, current, and accessible, this book will provide guidance and insight to anyone concerned with pursuing Christian discipleship in our consumer culture.
Being Useful in the Global Age
Glimpses of the future sometimes appear in pretty unpredictable places. We've seen the future of Christianity in the United States in a journal called the Armed Forces Comptroller.
Calling this periodical obscure is to commit criminal understatement. Its focus on accounting, budgeting, and resource management in the military ensures that most people will live and die never knowing of its existence—much less ever having read it. Yet in its winter 1997 issue, an article by James W. Daniels Jr. provides a realistic—and to us, troubling—picture of the present and future status of Christianity in our society.
In "The Command Master Religious Plan—A Cost Model for Chaplain Activities in the United States Army," Daniels describes a new resource management philosophy (with relevant software) designed to give army budgeting personnel precise information on the requirements, cost, and expenditures related to military chaplaincy. The article itself is steeped in an unholy marriage of military bureaucrat-ese, management jargon, and auditor-speak. What comes through loud and clear, however, is an utterly pragmatic, what's-in-it-for-me view of religion.
Forget churches and synagogues as autonomous communities with their own sense of purpose and mission—in the army, they are just another part of the infrastructure, necessary for smooth and efficient operations. The army now manages religion under a Command Master Religious Plan (CMRP), with eleven"Religious Support Areas" (RSA), including pastoral care, religious education, and religious services, comprising the "business area" of military chaplaincy. Under the CMRP, a base commander will be able to identify the "cost" of every "unit" of "religious service"—every worship, prayer service, Catholic Mass—provided to "customers" using that RSA. A commander can then look for areas of potential cost savings via activities that can be "simplified" or "performed more efficiently." While Daniels's article does not directly deal with questions of "outcomes assessment" or "quality of output," other parts of the military's managerial process have methods for ensuring that "military religious support" pays acceptable dividends in terms of troop morale, efficiency, enthusiasm, and peace of mind.
Beneath the comptroller's jargon, one can see a set of assumptions regarding the proper role of the church in capitalist democracies such as the United States. These assumptions, we suggest, are shared by nearly all powerful political and economic institutions, labels of political "liberal" and "conservative" notwithstanding. Foremost among them is the notion that Christianity must be "useful" in order to be a legitimate player in our contemporary world. It must help people perform their duties as defined by the secular status quo, not from within ecclesial traditions unless the two are identical. In addition to enabling people to work within the existing order more efficiently, Christianity must also boost people emotionally and psychologically during stressful times, and must enable them to be good citizens, employees, consumers, patriots, and family members. Indeed, for Christianity to be relevant today, it must do for the whole of society what chaplains do in the armed forces—meet spiritual needs and personal crises, provide legitimation and explanation for the way things are, and generate loyalties to the collective and its purposes.
Chaplaincy has a long and rich legacy in Christian history. While we think that military chaplaincies are indefensible compromises of Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God, we nonetheless respect the comfort and assistance chaplains have provided to soldiers and their families. In other institutional contexts such as hospitals and colleges, chaplains pray with and for patients, families, and students in crisis; they provide an array of important services and supports to persons in stressful situations. As one manifestation of the Christian imperative to serve one's fellows, the activities that chaplains perform have been an important part of the ministry of the churches.
Chaplaincy—in the military or the capitalist firm, for example—requires churches to situate themselves within the belly of such powerful institutions while still attempting to preserve their ecclesial independence. For chaplaincy to be a defensible Christian practice, churches must be able to operate within rules, structures, norms, and practices created by non-Christian powers in ways that do not compromise the churches' fidelity to the gospel or a christocentric view of reality (a near-impossible move in most cases, we suggest). Unless the churches retain their distinctiveness and autonomy in such contexts, most forms of chaplaincy risk becoming absorbed and co-opted for ends other than seeking and witnessing to the kingdom of God.
Yet it is this distinctiveness, autonomy, and gospel-centered orientation that the church's agents all too often sacrifice when entering chaplaincy relations with structures of economic and political power. In order for chaplains to understand, serve, and empathize with persons who lead and serve such powerful institutions, chaplains must themselves submit to the formative processes (physical, emotional, affective, and spiritual) of the institutions. Hence business chaplains must have corporate training or education, and must internalize a capitalist worldview; military chaplains must experience military formation ("basic training" and more advanced processes) and adopt the worldview of peace through strength, service through death-dealing, and national self-preservation as the ultimate goal.
The assumption that such intensive formation leaves the gospel untouched seems entirely insupportable. Instead, in deciding to serve the "principalities and powers" (Eph. 3:10 RSV) on their own turf, the gospel becomes trimmed to conform to the requisites of these principalities and powers. The mere appearance of ecclesial independence, as in military chaplaincy, substitutes for substantive independence. For example, within the U.S. military, chaplains are unarmed in accord with an old Christian intuition that representatives of Christ should not be killers (an intuition ignored during the Crusades and other ignoble eras in church history). The chaplain's aide, however, must be armed and perform all the duties (including killing) of a combat participant; furthermore, chaplains themselves may assume a combatant's role in extremis. Additionally, the chaplains assigned to specialized units (like Rangers, psychological operations, and elite invasion forces) must undergo much of the same advanced training and indoctrination required of the soldiers they serve. Enabling persons to perform the tasks required of some special forces units—including assassinations, killing of unarmed civilians, torture, and the like (see Klare and Kornbluh, 1987) involves moral and psychological condition drastically at odds with Christian imperatives to love one's enemies and repay evil with good. One cannot accept such military norms and practices without simultaneously eviscerating, diluting, or redefining into inoffensiveness the life and message of Jesus as a source of Christian life and ethics (on the intensive conditioning required to turn people into killers, see for example Grossman, 1995). What is obvious in the case of military chaplaincy—that the gospel is compromised in becoming useful to a powerful institution—is also true via different processes when discussing other sorts of chaplaincy arrangements in capitalist democracies.
In this book, we give evidence of a broader blanket of chaplaincy descending over the church, one that reaches far beyond the blessing of military and state that has haunted the church since its formal accommodation to the Roman Empire in the fourth century. And while the subordination of the gospel to political power is at least capable of generating debate within the church—even after these centuries of compromised Christianity—the more recent captivity is not even recognized as such by most sectors of the Christian community. Whatever the merits of chaplaincy in specific or limited contexts, as an overall framework for Christians in society it is a theological monstrosity. It prostitutes the gospel, castrates the concept of discipleship, and reduces the church to the level of the Rotary Club or the Moose Lodge. It is unscriptural, contrary to the life and practice of Jesus, and a betrayal of the subversive nature of Christianity.
In suggesting that chaplaincy is an important category through which to examine contemporary questions of church and society, one must inevitably confront the near-total embrace of capitalism by the mainstream of Christianity in the United States and many other countries. While the theological legitimation of capitalism has a long history in most expressions of American Protestantism, it is a relatively new development of some importance in the Catholic Church. After centuries of opposition, arms-length relations, and suspicion between the Catholic Church and capitalism, the papacy of John Paul II has made its peace with capitalism—much to the delight of the middle-class churches in the United States and elsewhere. While Catholic leadership maintains that theirs is a "conditional" endorsement of capitalism—contingent upon a variety of social protections and policies—in practice that endorsement has been anything but conditional. No matter what outrages are perpetrated in the name of neoliberal reform or deregulation, neither the pope nor the American leaders of the Catholic Church will question the fundamentals of the economic order. Rather, they have accepted the roles of providing care for capitalism's casualties, moral support for its functionaries, spiritual solace to its rulers, and in-house whispers for "compassion"—chaplaincy, in other words.
As chaplain to capitalism, the church is besieged by needs on all sides. The current era of capitalism means greater emphasis on productivity, which translates into more demands made on fewer employees, who in turn must become more, not less, devoted to "their" firm. Firms must cultivate bonds of affection, common purpose, and mutual support between themselves and employees—no easy task, given the alienation and distrust among employees produced by wave after wave of corporate downsizing, layoffs, and movement toward temporary, part-time (and underpaid) employees. All of which inclines toward corporations seeking to provide a sense of "vocation" and "spiritual fulfillment" among the ranks of their employees, thus making secularized religious concepts (and some church programs) part of the corporate human resources arsenal.
This "meaning deficit" (a lack of internalized belief in the transcendent nature of one's life or vocation) affects people not simply as producers in capitalist society but also as consumers. A consequence of the relentless bombardment of marketing appeals, logos, and pitches (the average American experiences nearly sixteen thousand such encounters per day) is a dissatisfaction with materialism and consumerism. This discontentment is real but shallow—most people recognize the need to fill the emptiness produced by the search for the perfect basketball shoe, but they shy away from anything that might require sacrifice, self-denial, or a break with the basic premises of consumerist/capitalist ideology.
Churches help people with this disaffection by offering moralistic criticisms of consumerism (the speeches and documents of the pope are full of such attacks). If people would be less materialistic, say many church leaders, they would be happier and society would be better off. Thus, we receive annual Christmas messages from church leaders pleading that people focus on the "true meaning of Christmas" without any consideration of how utterly essential consumerism is to the functioning of contemporary capitalism. Without the willingness of people to buy, spend, and borrow for an unceasing supply of goods, novelties, and services, the modern market economy would grind to a halt. Consumerism and capitalism are so inseparable that society would be better off, according to business columnist Leonard Peikoff, if Americans were to "take the Christ out of Christmas, and turn the holiday into a guiltlessly egoistic, pro-reason, this-worldly, commercial celebration" (Peikoff, 1997).
Being a caretaker for capitalism requires that Christianity concern itself with more than economic questions, for capitalism has always been more than just a means of organizing economic processes. For example, the profound social and economic dislocation that capitalism causes worldwide also produces political fragmentation, diminished state capacities, and a rise of ethnic, separatist, and localist groups attacking the prerogatives and primacy of the nation-state. While these trends are more violently visible in other parts of the world (think of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Mexico, and elsewhere), they produce anxiety among elites in the wealthy countries as well. With capitalism rendering whole segments of American society economically unnecessary—African-American men, for example—politicians and opinion leaders worry about the "dis-uniting of America," the collapse of "public spiritedness," and the decline of civic virtue as manifested in voting and support for elected officials. Religious communities in general—and Catholics in particular, under the banner of the "Catholic Moment," a 1980s call for Catholics to revitalize the moral underpinnings of the "American experiment"—are called to rejuvenate the categories of citizenship and patriotism. The old religious nationalism of white Protestantism is dead; a new expression, which merges civic duties and religious loyalties, is needed if the United States is to avoid the descent into anarchy visible in other parts of the world.
Civil Religion and Transnational Capitalism
How to understand patriotism, civic virtue, and religiosity in global capitalism invites an examination of the usefulness (or lack thereof) of a category in social analysis whose fortunes have risen and fallen over the last half-century. That concept is civil religion, and we believe that it remains a useful tool in exploring what it might mean to be "church" in our time and place.
While civil religion has admitted of many competing definitions and descriptions, the explanation offered by historian Robert Linder (1996) is an adequate general formula:
The widely but informally held set of fundamental principles concerning the history and destiny of a state or nation that help to bind that state or nation together. It is a collection of beliefs, values, ceremonies, and symbols that gives sacred meaning to the political life of the community, provides the nation with an overarching sense of unity that transcends all internal conflicts and differences, and relates the society to the realm of ultimate meaning.
Standard narratives of mainstream civil religion in the United States are flavored with distinctively Protestant republican and biblical symbols and stories (the city on the hill, the New Jerusalem, the new chosen people). This sort of civil religion ran aground during the 1960s, according to standard accounts, as its inability to account for the experiences of society's excluded—minority groups, women, dissenters, and the like—overwhelmed its ability to provide a vaguely Christian gloss to love of country and worship of what Will Herberg in 1955 described as the true object of mainstream American religion—namely, the "American Way of Life." It became incapable of providing the sort of religiously grounded legitimation most useful to powerholders—sufficient, in the words of Voltaire, to keep the servants from stealing the silver, but not the type likely to encourage religious practices and norms at odds with capitalism, patriotism, or the essentials of the system as presently constituted.
A little-explored facet of the decline of so-called traditional or mainline civil religion concerns the inability of churches to "deliver the goods" in terms of what has been called religious formation—that is, the capacity to shape people's attitudes, desires, and dispositions with the stories, symbols, and songs of the Christian tradition. Indeed, having stressed the continuities between being a good Christian and a good American for so long, many churches deemphasized those ecclesial practices that marked and constructed the distinctiveness of being Christian.
With a lag, such a crisis of formation describes the situation of contemporary U.S. Catholicism as well. Whatever uneven and selective formation was delivered by the system of Catholic enclaves and institutions of the pre-Vatican II era was in large measure neglected as most white Catholics moved firmly into the American middle class.
Another set of concerns omitted from standard sociological discussions of civil religion relate more directly to the concept of globalization. The late 1960s and early 70s marked the beginning, according to many economists, of the intensified transnationalization of production, finance, and commerce that comprise economic globalization: this emerged, in part, from the creation of a system of floating currency exchange rates and a worldwide move by business leaders toward economic deregulation and privatization. Changes in the flow and direction of human migration, enhanced cultural interaction, the changing patterns of engagement between sovereign states and transnational firms, and other factors recast many of the traditional problems faced by political and economic elites (and added a few new ones) that together have impelled a search for a new sort of functional civil religion in the early twenty-first century.
For example, we are persuaded that however it has varied, the modern state as an institutional form requires people in sufficient numbers willing to do three basic things: kill for it, die for it, and pay for it. From Costa Rica to Colombia, the United States to China, all modern states presuppose lethality on their behalf as a minimal requisite for statehood. How to secure loyalty, allegiance, and commitment sufficient to produce enough people willing to do these things—kill, die, and pay—is an unchanging challenge to state actors: it is the problem for which civil religion, among other things, has been part of the solution.
But consider the context of a globalized world in which political and economic decision makers must secure that sort of primary allegiance. Traditional norms of nationalism, in which the welfare of the individual, family, and community are tied to the health of the state, are subverted by neoliberal state and corporate action that encourages firms to shift production and employment to wherever will optimize net profits—leaving whole communities and regions to wither and disintegrate. In fact, older versions of nationalism—for example, those in which "buy American" was a popular rally cry—must be overturned in the interest of global competitiveness and lean-and-mean management systems, even if it means economic suicide for entire regions, industries, and sectors. To be replaced by what? Cheering for "our" firm? "Our" global capitalism? "Our" speculation-fueled stock market? Clearly the need exists for a stronger bond than the thin and dubious enthusiasms generated by the global economy itself.
Similarly, given the negative consequences of domestic neoliberal philosophy—abandonment of the poor, stagnant real wages for the majority, rapidly increased levels of economic and political inequality—the need to reaffirm that there is an "us" in the United States is stronger than ever. In the face of cultural diversity, economic stratification, and the like, some way to make real a sense of community—however much "imagined" in might be, in Benedict Anderson's sense of the term—is an explicit need voiced by pundits and policy makers alike.
Finally, the extent to which external military threats must be exaggerated, stage-managed, and sold to domestic consumers itself testifies to the erosion of stronger forms of patriotic energy available to state actors in previous eras. In a world where Grenada, Panama, and Iraq must be inflated to the level of grave security threats, in which proxy wars and low-intensity conflicts become first choice due to the less-than-stable public support for full-fledged invasion, some renewed sources of public unity and identity must be constructed or exploited. And make no mistake about it—a globalized world requires liberal use of the sword, Kantian notions of perpetual peace notwithstanding. As noted by one of our least favorite commentators, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times (1999):
The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist—McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
What globalization has done, among other things, is to increase the need for new or renewed sources of social legitimation and cohesion. U.S. political discourse, scholarly and popular, gorges itself with worries about low voter turnout, declining civic involvement, alienation, and individualism. (See Robert Putnam's popular "bowling alone" metaphor to describe the rise of privatized culture over communal forms like "bowling on a team." We once attended a conference at which Putnam's "bowling alone" metaphor was invoked so often that we decided to skip an afternoon of lectures to go bowling—together.) In light of these and related problems of "civic virtue," religion now appears in a newer, more positive light. While the cruder forms of American civil religion are clearly inadequate, newer forms—under different names—are being constructed, and the public participation of religious communities is courted, albeit under rather restricted terms of offer.
The terms of contemporary discussion, however, hardly ever use the term "civil religion"—for some, it is an unseemly term, low on authentic religion and long on a crass sort of nation-worship. Instead, across the disciplines and in church circles, we are witnessing a flowering of debate on how "religion in general"—a telling term in many ways—and Christianity in particular can contribute to revitalizing "civil society," even "global civil society," to the upbuilding of "social capital," to the enhancement of the public square, to new sorts of communitarianism, to a new "social covenant," and more. Any and all of these sound much more noble, much more positive, and much more theologically substantive than the package of connotations carried by the term "civil religion."
Join the Party—If You Don't Cause Trouble
This invitation for an enhanced public role for religious groups and institutions comes from groups and scholars that span the ideological mainstream. It finds expression in the increased role of so-called faith-based organizations (FBO) in matters of social service provision after 1996, in the presidential campaign platforms of both George W. Bush and Al Gore, and in other contexts. Oldline Catholic liberals like Andrew Greeley extol the utility of religion as a source of much-needed social capital, which he defines as the "stock of social relations and shared values that enable people to cooperate." Religious practice builds social capital in many ways, according to Greeley, and it contributes to high levels of volunteerism, generosity, civic responsibility, and ethical concern. As he writes, "This generous religiously driven 'habit of the heart' makes a major contribution to the economy and to the general welfare of the country" (1997).
Many other names could be mentioned here—Michael Perry, Stephen Carter, Francis Fukuyama, James Coleman, and Richard Neuhaus—in a similar fashion. For most of them, the hope is that religion in general and Christianity in particular—under certain circumstances, anyway—might provide the civic virtue, the bonds of common purpose, the remedies for the political, economic, and cultural fragmentation associated with the brave new globalized world.
No doubt many people, especially in the churches, will be offended by our claim that late-imperial America welcomes Christianity only in a highly subordinated and instrumental posture. While we will examine many manifestations of compromised Christianity in later chapters, we find many of our claims illustrated and vindicated by a rather unlikely source that deserves mention here.
Excerpted from CHRISTIANITY INCORPORATED by Michael L. Budde & Robert W. Brimlow. Copyright © 2002 by Michael L. Budde and Robert W. Brimlow. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.