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Three-fourths of evangelicals support Donald Trump. Blame the "prosperity gospel."

Donald Trump, speaking in a large campus center at Liberty University, with a large screen behind him projecting his image.
Donald Trump delivers the convocation at Liberty University, in January.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Of all the many deranging spectacles in our national politics this year, one of the most flummoxing is the ready evangelical embrace of GOP nominee Donald Trump. Here, after all, is twice-divorced former casino baron who resembles nothing so much as a poolside Roman emperor, wowing crowds of true Protestant believers everywhere from South Carolina to New York.

Recent polls show the louche GOP nominee with a commanding lead among white evangelicals, beating his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by a whopping 65 percentage points, according to a recent CNN poll. That’s an impressive showing for a Planned Parenthood-backing, money-worshiping avatar of what Ted Cruz called "New York values."

Even Trump has seemed puzzled by the support, remarking, in a bizarre aside in his convention speech last week, "I’m not sure I deserve it." Various explanations have been floated for this odd alliance. So-called values voters share an authoritarian character structure, some commentators have suggested, and so find a strong-man figure like Trump reassuring, no matter how unchristian his temperament and moral make-up may otherwise be.

Or, pundits suggest, the traditional culture-war crusades that have unified the Christian right in past election cycles, such as gay marriage and the defense of the traditional family, don’t cut as deeply as they used to. This makes Trump’s slippery profile on such issues far less objectionable than they would have been in past elections. Some even argue that Trump, in psychological terms, offers the same basic appeal as the God of the Bible to believers — he’s imperious, driven by whim, and demanding of fierce, unquestioning loyalty.

But really, the deeper changes afoot in the American evangelical world have almost nothing to do with Donald Trump’s outsized personality or his alleged family resemblance to the author of Creation. Since the colonial founding of this country, Protestant divines have been singularly obsessed with how to rationalize, justify — and ultimately sanctify — the accumulation of American wealth.

Since the American founding, religion has been entwined with the "spirit of capitalism"

To understand how deeply this ambitious spiritual project goes back in our religious past, it’s crucial to revisit the landmark theoretical explication of how the founding generation of American believers set themselves on the path of plenty— Max Weber’s early 20th-century essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The "Weber thesis," as it’s known in scholarly shorthand, presented a key insight into the spiritual logic of capitalist accumulation in early America: By overthrowing — and demonizing — the vast religious bureaucracy by which Old World Catholicism had organized the worldly system of reward and punishment to uphold upright moral conduct, the Puritans who founded the colonies put the spiritual power to remake the world directly in the hands of ardent Calvinist believers.

The entire religious work of reward and punishment as it concerned individual worshipers shifted inward. It moved from the elaborate Catholic rites of penance and official forgiveness to a regime of rigorously monitored, unceasing self-interrogation. This devolution of power made American Puritans uniquely prone to anxious introspection. And that, in turn, helped transform the heretofore profane sphere of worldly enterprise into a key testing ground of personal salvation.

Calvinism translated Martin Luther’s famous slogan for the Reformation, "a priesthood of all believers" into a prescription for round-the-clock productivity. Business became a crucial outlet for all the many Puritanical anxieties arising from the stubborn opacity of one’s standing in the Kingdom of God.

From dour Calvinism to the "prosperity gospel"

To a striking degree, the manic activity that arose from the formulation of the original Protestant ethic resembles the strange and obsessively wealth-worshipping world of latter-day evangelical faith — from the "positive thinking" gospel of Norman Vincent Peale (far and away Donald Trump’s favorite religious thinker) to the self-hymning splendor of today’s prosperity gospel — a vision of boundless divinely sanctioned individual success now identified with its best-known apostle, megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. But American believers have come an awfully long way from their formative Puritan roots, and the Protestant ethic only goes so far in explaining the strange new frontiers they’ve traversed and settled.

Take, for example, the central paradox lurking at the heart of Weber’s argument: the genius of American Puritans in inventing a new moral code of "worldly asceticism." Ascetics in the Catholic tradition were self-denying monks, who diligently sought to dramatize their devotion by mortifying their flesh and submitting meekly to churchly authority. (For a pop-culture caricature of this outlook, see the deranged Opus Dei monk in Dan Brown’s anti-Catholic potboiler The Da Vinci Code.) The Calvinists cannily redirected such ascetic impulses into the vision of a divinely ordained worldly calling — which, in turn, spiritualized the accumulation of wealth as a means of winning and holding divine favor.

So presto: worldly asceticism. Under this new dispensation, Weber writes, "those passionately spiritual natures which had formerly supplied the highest type of monk were now forced to pursue their ascetic ideals within mundane occupations." Whereas Catholics had seen the working life as the human lot since humanity was expelled from Eden and incurred the "curse of Adam," the ever-enterprising Calvinists upgraded their jobs into a divine heavenly calling.

All the anxiety that Calvinists felt about their unknowable eternal destiny in the hands of an all-powerful, impetuous God worked itself out into the one feature of their spiritual makeup they could control: their work. And combined with the abundant material riches of the New World, and the Calvinist repeal of Catholic strictures on usury and excessive individual money-making, you had all the basic ingredients of the spirit of American capitalism.

But as powerful as the Weber thesis is in explaining the origins of America’s spiritual romance with capitalist accumulation, it has severe limitations as a theory of change. For one thing, Puritanism’s reign in the emerging marketplace of American religious thought proved short lived. Rival sectarian religious movements such as antinomianism and Baptism challenged the Puritans’ spiritual rule almost from the moment of New England’s colonial settlement in the 17th century.

And southern colonies gravitated toward forms of worship well outside the covenantal, anxiety-ridden brand of Calvinist faith — either via the deference-minded high-church Anglicanism favored by the slaveholding squirerarchy, or more universalist brands of evangelism. And a surprising number of early colonial settlers were either unbaptized or unchurched, as historians such as Jon Butler have shown.

Moving toward the "money cult"

By the time that the last state-established church was dissolved in 1820 — in the great Puritan mother colony of Massachusetts — American believers had decisively overthrown the glum spiritual dictates of the old Calvinist order. And throughout the 19th century, the country embarked on its ambitious settlement of the Western frontier, launching a series of critical internal improvements — canals, turnpikes, and railroads — that created a sprawling national market for American goods.

The spiritual expression of this "market revolution," as historians have since dubbed it, was a land rush in free-will denominations all professing universalist schemes of divine salvation — and openly deriding the dour, predestinarian dogmas of Calvinism. The revolt against Calvinist fatalism coincided with the rise of exuberant money-minded faiths such as Mormonism — a fiercely entrepreneurial new religion that operated its own bank during its first Western sojourn in Kirtland, Ohio, and that preached a gospel of personal enrichment as a direct dispensation of divine favor, in this world and the next. (Indeed, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith hymned an afterlife in which the saved Mormon faithful would continue to work and procreate, transforming the historic curse of Adam into a glorious, eternal divine blessing.)

As American markets and belief systems evolved to new levels of complexity and social power, the outlines of a self-administered spiritual regime I call the money cult took firmer and firmer hold. Its early intellectual prophets, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Unitarian divine William Ellery Channing, pronounced a new individualist gospel of personal transcendence, and profound distrust of conventional forms of social obligation. Jeremiah Lanphier — the lead evangelist in the 1858 "Businessman’s Revival" centered in New York’s financial district —preached a scheme of just-in-time salvation for on-the-go Wall Street workers. Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker sought to secure his own vision of pietist consumer repose while instilling a stringent regime of worker self-discipline via his financing of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

At the Liberty University convocation, Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. presents Donald Trump with a sports jersey.
Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. presents Donald Trump with a Liberty sports jersey.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

From these diverse tributaries of influence, today’s money cult now flows powerfully within the mainstream of American religion and politics. The great megachurch faith known as the prosperity gospel commands legions of believers who openly court personal enrichment as a badge of divine favor. Osteen, today’s most influential prosperity preacher, presides over the largest congregation in the country at Houston’s Lakewood Church, housed in the former arena where the NBA’s Houston Rockets played.

Osteen discerns the Lord’s anything-but-invisible hand in every imaginable facet of economic life, from nabbing an optimal parking space and airline upgrade to the exquisite market timing that permitted Osteen and his wife Victoria to flip a pair of overvalued homes in rapid succession at the height of the early-aughts housing bubble.

And the Osteen brand of prosperity faith has long since parted company with the receding specter of the Protestant ethic. Instead of hailing stubborn, purposeful work and accumulation as the path to worldly and otherworldly achievement, Osteen preaches a gospel of endlessly replenished divine abundance, while warning his followers off the baleful snare of "a poverty mentality."

By intoning abundance-themed scripture and personal-success maxims, Osteen’s followers learn to comport themselves as capitalist heroes — "more than conquerors" as Osteen preaches, citing a typical decontextualized snatch of scripture in which the apostle Paul was urging early Christians to embrace their fate as martyrs. "Why put limits on God?" is a frequent refrain of the Osteen gospel — which translates in economic terms to, Why put limits on your own dreams of luxury, repose, and comfort? Little wonder that Osteen has delivered what has been described as a "soft endorsement" of the luxury-obsessed Trump, calling him "an incredible communicator," "a friend of our ministry," and "a good man."

Max Weber: right about American acquisitiveness, wrong about secularization

In the famous closing pages of The Protestant Ethic, Weber speculates about the totalizing triumph of the pleasure-hating Puritan worldview in the modern age. As he saw it, the rigors of Puritan belief had long since succumbed to the scientific, secularized worldview that underwrote the eventual triumph of modern capitalism So in the Protestant ethic’s most accomplished homeland, the United States, "the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions," which opens out onto the dismal prospect of a "mechanized petrification, embellished with a convulsive sort of self-importance." This is the specter of life pointlessly squandered in Weber’s fabled "iron cage" of capitalist bureaucracy — and the effective death-by-inanition of the believing spirit of modern Protestant humanity.

But the money cult’s ascendance plainly contradicts this prophecy. Rather than creating a windswept spiritual landscape of secularized "disenchantment," as Weber speculated, American Protestant faith has exuberantly imbued the rites of market capitalism with boundless religious significance. We are no longer living out the legacy of Weber’s edifying tale of Puritan spiritual entrepreneurship, harnessing the ascetic labors of the Old World to conquer a fledgling colonial-mercantile economy. No, we are now well into a consumer economy’s vision of grace abounding: all individual redemption and zero self-denial. This is, unto its innermost parts, a vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth, consecrated in the holy conviction of imperial American prophecy. Is it really any wonder that its latest avatar should be the indifferent Presbyterian but all-purpose success brand—and reborn political culture warrior — Donald Trump?

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream.