God Goes Corporate

Re-published from Winter 2005

God and the free market, the dual fundamentalisms of U.S. popular culture, have come to resonate spiritually and emotionally with large numbers of people whose economic security has been undermined by the corporate order. A quarter century of right-wing organizing and concerted media manipulation has “re-enchanted” the corporate economy, reconnected it to deep-rooted American mythologies about the West, about manhood, and about the heroic, self-reliant individual.

For many, the “common sense” that bolsters these fundamentalisms coexists, in very confusing ways for many people, with an opposite narrative—a critical one that also has the economy at its core but which analyzes the story of the United States as empire, tracing its violence, its institutions, and its utopian, democratic impulses that have been betrayed. The narrative that is the subject of this essay, however, is that of radical conservatism, which draws on the passionate emotional intensity available by way of religion and media, to retell that story of empire, a story that finds its coherence in an America that is the shining, innocent city on a hill, its Constitution divinely inspired, and its institutions, in particular property and the market, unquestionable because they are integral parts of God’s natural law.  For both market and religious fundamentalisms,[1] this latter story depends on a belief in literalism that has long been a characteristic of American culture—the claim that such meanings are self-evident, “pure” in their truths, and do not require interpretation, contextualization, or “nuance.” And as claims of complexity and critical analysis are coded as forms of elitist contempt for the common man, literalism all too quickly turns into absolutism.

Since the idea of a divine sanction for the market appeals so strongly to many whose security has been decimated by the corporate economy, I want to trace some aspects of its rhetoric and images to show how radical conservatism constructs this notion by appealing to deep emotion and spirituality. The hidden paradox here is that the Right, while claiming that Judeo-Christianity is inherent in the very nature of the cosmos and of human nature, in fact spends inordinate time, money, and grassroots work to construct that naturalness and to make sure it is thought, felt, and as real in the daily lives of people. Their success in doing so has eliminated the space of critical analysis for many Americans.[2]

Just as the Enlightenment is said to have disenchanted a world that was until then explained in terms of religion, the contemporary alliance between market and God has, for many, re-enchanted the world, especially through its powerful use of media resources to spiritualize the economy. I return to this point later.

As a result, for many Americans, the invented image of George W.—brought to life through the media—is interpreted as a true representation of an authentic man of morality and character.  And while living in Midland, Texas, Bush learned this mythology well: the man of the earth performing physical work amid the Western iconography of the ranch; the good ol’ boy drinking companion; the decisive, unflinching Texan from the only state that was ever a separate country; the small town man disgusted with urban perversion and crime; the Gary Cooper man of morality who stands up alone against the outlaws in High Noon, and resents Easterners.

To assess this staging of authenticity, it is useful to look at the concept of absences or “holes” offered by the African-American dramatist, Suzan-Lori Parks. These holes, or gaps in our history, make possible a certain story of American history as a “whole” that represses the violent traumas that cannot be articulated.[3]  Consequently, as this conservative narrative seethes with latent violence and requires increasing force to keep it coherent, that coherence cannot do without an increasing linkage between religion and economy.  It is important to see that it is not only the votes of the Religious Right that the corporate economy needs; it is their production of passionate belief in a spiritualized market economy.

The “Divine Origins” of the Market

Other than in indigenous form, there has never been a “rooted” identity for this nation of immigrants, right from its Puritan beginnings. Hence, Americanness has always had to be staged.[4] Yet interwoven with this theatricality is a deep Puritan hatred of theatricality, followed by a full-bore insistence on authenticity, a contempt for pretense and sham even a powerfully defended right to ignorance as a protest against elitism.

As the corporate transcendence of national boundaries threatens national identity, it is resisted by protectionist stances on trade, on the one hand.  But on the other, hyper-patriotic belief becomes essential to protecting the global corporate economy not only from the obvious truth that the nation is a fiction, but from the very effects globalization has caused.  One finds it in the booming business in flag sales that coexists with the celebration of corporate heroes such as the late Sam Walton, whose “small town” patriotism is a key element of Wal-Mart’s appeal, in spite of its dependence on outsourcing, and attacks on a living wage.[5]

The development of what could be called market theocracy, where passionate belief about our economy displaces knowledge, serves as a further protection of capitalism against its would-be critics. In his book of advice to conservative and neoconservative economists, Economics as Religion, Robert Nelson explains the need for the construction of belief in order to reconcile capitalism’s inherent contradiction, the market paradox.  That is, because economic self-interest is held to be the primary form of reason of economic man, the very existence of society and nation are threatened.  But if society is built on a sensual and spiritual support of the market, that threat is displaced. Nelson, a secular academic, goes further, “If trust is a great economic asset…investments in religion may be a more effective means than achieving higher levels of physical and human capital in advancing economic growth and development.”[6]

Historically, Nelson argues, economic theory never actually rested on science but on the inspiring notion of efficiency that gave it legitimacy. In the face of rapid economic change, he describes the new rhetoric, in which free market economics actually reveal “God’s new plan, one never revealed in the old Christian bible”—the divine plan of an economically oriented God . . . who would operate through the economy.”[7] Thus shifting the economy into the realm of belief rather than knowledge, Nelson advises conservative and neoconservative economists that it might be “necessary for some elements of ‘faith’ to construct ‘social capital,’” or the values that will guarantee the market. It is not so much that everyone must be religious; it is rather that the culture must be religious: “Getting the religious aspects of an economy in working order may be too important to leave to the existing leaders of institutional churches.”[8]

Here Nelson advises economists to disseminate a passionate, even spiritual defense of free market capitalism in a form that appeals to those at its mercy. As George Gilder argued in the textbook for Newt Gingrich’s course, Renewing American Civilization, which laid the groundwork for the Contract With America, corporate entrepreneurs “more than any other class of men, [  ] embody and fulfill the sweet and mysterious consolations of the Sermon on the Mount and the most farfetched affirmations of the democratic dream.”[9] Or in a book that is used extensively in Christian schools and homeschooling to teach history, America’s Providential History, the Sixteenth Amendment is characterized as an attack on God’s divine plan for America: “This amendment also gave us the progressive income tax, which is an [sic] nonbiblical means of taxation that destroys personal property rights.”[10]

The Threat to Masculinity

Another aspect of this appeal is the conservative origin in, and exploitation of, the central void at the heart of the national narrative—the relative absence of power for many white, working-class men within the economy.  Whether it’s support for what George Lakoff calls the Strong Father State as opposed to the Maternal Welfare State, or the culture of militarism after 9/11, unashamed male privilege uses conservative rhetoric to redress the cataclysmic assaults on white male identity in the 1960’s.  These assaults emerged from the loss in Vietnam, feminism, the beginnings of queer activism, the Civil Rights movement, and the transformation from a manufacturing to a service economy. Evangelical religion and the media provide two examples of this logic.

When Southern religion emerged onto the national stage, connected to the growing influence of the Sun Belt economy over that of the Rust Belt, and when evangelical and fundamentalist religion also emerged from below the radar in the Midwest, in Southern California, and in suburbs across the country, its resurgence took the form of remasculinizing religion itself.  There had, of course, been a similar movement of Muscular Christianity in the era of Theodore Roosevelt. But the post-Vietnam period saw a new kind of masculinity whose rhetoric had to take feminism into account, even as it battled it.

Stu Weber, a former Green Beret and presently a pastor in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, makes a very clear case in his book Tender Warrior,[11] where he formulates a model of the remasculinized Christian male:  lessons in how to be a responsible father; images of the warrior and the frontier hero; nostalgic reminders of military and sports experiences; and the glorification of male bonding over relations with women, while making these masculine relations safe through their immersion in homophobia. Weber’s narrative is driven by the increasing ambivalence regarding men’s roles and status, which threatens  the traditional definition of Man.  Just as traditional women felt compelled to provide a definition of Woman that would resist feminism’s plural redefinitions, Weber argues that traditional men, without an image of responsible manhood, have become objects of criticism and ridicule: ‘Without [this image] we are hollow men.  We are men without chests.”[12]

To rebuild this image, Weber turns to the realm of the virtual: Ward Bond and Flint McCullough of Wagon Train, the frontier men who represent the pure, unpolluted roots of masculinity originating in the Genesis Spring, a metaphor for the Book of Genesis where Man’s pure state originated. Here, in this literalist absolutism, by now part of the mainstream American discourse, there can be no ambiguity or complexity, just as there can be none in the Bible, which men must think of “as the owner’s manual for [their] masculinity.”[13] That manual lists the Four Pillars of Masculinity: King (God), Warrior (Christian Man, Jesus), mentor (to his wife and children; a Promise Keeper), and friend (to other men in deeply emotional male bonding within a homophobic structure, with the military as the exemplary model).

Christ as a model for Christian Man is now no longer meek and mild but “a warrior equipped to battle mighty enemies and shatter satanic strongholds.”[14] Though called a Peacemaker, Jesus “will establish that peace from the back of a great white horse as the head of the armies of heaven.” Because of the Apocalyptic narrative, a Christian always knows he is a Victor on the winning side. But, conveniently, he also occupies the role of Victim, persecuted by nonbelievers, with the result that today the victims are not the poor, but conservatives beset by liberals, feminists, and terrorists. In fact, one could argue that Mel Gibson’s Jesus is the latest and most passionate, if brutal, reinforcement of this claim that this Jesus and His white Christian men are the true victims of society, thereby eliminating from the picture the poor, women, workers, people of color, non-Christians, the Third World.[15]

Another example from secular popular culture is Men and Marriage, written in 1973 and republished in 1993.  This foundational text set the stage for George Gilder’s later characterizations of entrepreneurial activity in the field of digital technology in the breathless, testosterone-saturated terms of the frontier hero. For Gilder, gender ambiguity has endangered the free market economy, and here again Man as Victim is the theme. Because Woman’s natural identity is that of Mother, Gilder finds that they are amply rewarded by civilization for acting out that true identity.  Men, on the other hand, are, in their deepest and most original essence, warriors, yet civilization requires that, unlike women, they must sacrifice their true nature. Thus traditional marriage is necessary not only because it meets the Biblical requirements Weber cites, but because it socializes warrior males.  Because marriage is deeply oppressive to Man’s warrior nature, it is women’s duty to guarantee male socialization, to affirm his always vulnerable sexuality, to give him offspring, and to provide domestic comfort to compensate him for the fact this his role in society goes against the grain of his warrior essence. It helps keep him working at that job and helps avoid social rebellion.  Gay marriage obviously strikes at the very heart of this arrangement.

Thus, if the free market economy—the natural God-given state of civilization—is to succeed, traditional gender arrangements must be enforced, and men must be offered a cultural bribe. In spite of the fact that gender roles are clearly in flux, Gilder is concerned with the socialization of warrior males who will otherwise disrupt the national social base which needs to be kept stable in order to enable free market activity at the top. Traditional marriage here works rather like the prison industrial complex to siphon off rebellion. Here Gilder strikingly admits of the absence, the hole, at the base of masculinity: “Conventional male power . . . might be considered more the ideological myth.  It is designed to induce the majority of men to accept a bondage to the machine and the marketplace, to a large extent in the service of women and in the interest of civilization.”[16]

This is a myth that takes an even greater hit in postindustrial capitalism not only because the economy further erodes male privilege, but because the infinite increase of profit by the media requires constant new images and possibilities for gender identities. Gilder argues here that because birth control and biotechnology have freed women from their essential nature as mothers, a shift of cataclysmic proportions resulted: “Few males have come to psychological terms with the existing birth control technology; few recognize the extent to which it shifts the balance of sexual power further in favor of women.  A man quite simply cannot now father a baby unless his wife is fully and deliberately agreeable. . . male procreativity is now dependent, to a degree unprecedented in history, on the active pleasure of women.”[17] Abortion obviously lies squarely in this terrain.

And here one finds the most crucial void of all: “A man’s penis becomes an empty plaything unless a woman deliberately decides to admit a man’s paternity.”[18] This is a threat whose redress takes many forms: “The obstinate refusal of many males to support gun control is not chiefly a product of conditioning by the weapons industry.  Rather millions of men fear gun control because they are losing life-control; they are losing the sense of a defined male identity and role in the family.”  As men hang on to guns as “totems of masculinity,” guns have taken on “a virtually religious import.”[19]Ultimately, in this constructed belief, Gilder, like Nelson, makes an argument that is far less about theology than it is about the culture necessary to enable corporate capitalism. 

The “Emptiness” of Whiteness

Another aspect of this radical conservative narrative responds to an angst among whites regarding a sense of the fragility of “whiteness.”  Many in the Bush administration hail from Texas,  a state whose white population has been marked by two cultural tendencies, one the populist progressivism of LBJ, who supported federal projects to bring rural Texans into the economy, and later, Civil Rights.[20]  The other is the neo-Confederate culture that is strongest in Eastern Texas but permeates other parts of the state as well. Bush’s politics more closely resemble the second of these strains.

The rhetorical terrain of contemporary conservatism looks very familiar to readers of the classic study by W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South, published in 1941.  Cash identifies a number of features of the South that have come to mark the U.S. national narrative: remnants of an agrarian sense of rootedness, an alliance between the white working class and paternalistic owners allied against people of color, a form of patriotism dependent on Victimization in opposition to Northern elites, an image of masculinity wounded by military loss. Cash notes the intense “fear, rage, indignation and resentment, self-consciousness and patriotic passion” of the culture of the defeated South, rage felt most strongly by working-class and poor whites after the abolition of slavery, who were “left naked, [men] without status.”[21] And this lack of status displaced the concept of class “in the broad sense, the like of which has probably not been seen in any other developed society of modern times.”

This void, combined with a determined, albeit fragile, sense of self-reliant individualism, coexisted with a comprador economy and a belief in the rights of masters arising out of the cooperation of commoners and owners against the North. Foreshadowing contemporary working-class identification with corporate America as in the millionaire populism that makes heroes out of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, Cash argues that without a discourse of class, the Southerner reinforced his own ego by reinforcing that of the masters: “Like every other good Southerner, he so absolutely identified his ego with the thing called the South as to become, so to say, a perambulating South in [miniature].” His identification with the masters was not considered to be a “diminution of his own ego,” but rather his own domination was redefined in positive terms as giving strength to his own ego, modeled on theirs, with the power context erased.[22] The post-Reconstruction South further reinforced paternalism as a resistance to Northern industrialists’ ravages of the Southern economy, leading to support, by working-class whites, of the Southern masters’ resistance to unions.

During this period, state universities were decimated by lack of funding, which led not only to heightened illiteracy but to a nostalgic turn back to earlier cultural forms, bolstering pride by a turn back to a definition of the victimized Chosen People. Out of this history came a culture saturated with a religion whose rhetoric (if not its adherents)[23] was “as simple, as completely supernatural and Apocalyptic, as it had been in the earliest decades of the nineteenth, and far more rigidly held, far more pugnacious and assertive, far more impervious to change.”  Not only were preachers seen as political advisors, God also became a more distinctly tribal god and, “in His broadest aspect, he remained the Calvinist Jehovah, master of all the living and the dead.”[24] And Cash notes what he calls “the savage ideal” of the South that “extinguished” tolerance as it enforced conformity: “Criticism, analysis, detachment, all those activities and attitudes so necessary to the healthy development of any civilization, every one of them took on the aspect of high and aggravated treason.”[25]

However, as Richard Dyer argues, even though whiteness is considered to be the sign of superiority, its symbolic privilege contains a number of deep contradictions.[26] As white supremacists often point out, every one else has a discourse of identity—blacks, Latinos, etc. it is only whites who are left without one because theirs is the nonspecific “norm.” Thus, Dyer argues, white superiority in the face of ethnic diversity all around begins to look like white emptiness and elicits the fear of an annihilation that will be the realization” of that emptiness, a “feeling that deep down, whites have had their day.”[27]  Thus the passionate cooperation of many white, working-class parents with Grover Nordquist’s anti-tax rebellion allows their resentment at affirmative action to lead them to vote against public funding for their own children’s university educations, just as their resentment of non-white immigrants, Latinos, and blacks—perhaps fear of their own disappearance—causes them to deny themselves publicly funded healthcare.

The Spiritual Rituals that Make Illusion Real

By spiritualizing the market economy, radical conservatism has thus turned political discourse into a terrain of an intolerant form of religious argument in secular clothes, one that covers the biggest vacuum of all—the elimination of critical analysis, of difference, negotiation, ambiguity, and doubt. And it has done so by creating a real illusion through its brilliant use of alternative and cable media and think tanks, to disseminate the logic of market theocracy. It has built a movement that links together energetic grassroots alliances, all of which have caused corporate media monopolies to find that their profit margins now depend on this worldview, both politically and demographically.

The staged image of authenticity has now become the image of of reality. These mediated images of G. W. Bush are, in fact, literally, transparently, the site of Spirit—the Spirit of enterprise joined to the traditional Christian Spirit.  And they are believed and celebrated because they resonate emotionally with the American mythology, and are settled so deeply into the minds and flesh of their adherents that they are passionately experienced in terms of intimacy, innocence, and sincerity, not as forms of artificial ideology.

The medium here really is the message. Nothing about the truths of globalization is hidden, nothing is invisible in the radical conservative construction of reality. Its terms are clear. Globalization has no use for the poor, for a politics of equality, for people of color, for working people, for injured and dead soldiers and Iraqis, and they need not appear. Just as the hole beneath the Twin Towers is displaced by rituals of remembrance and patriotism, so too are greed, the effects of globalization, and the holes in its logic given transparent clarity in the authentic image of G.W. Bush, whose image is the literal performance of Spirit.

[1] In this short essay, it has been necessary to overgeneralize.  Obviously religious fundamentalists and evangelicals are not the same, and from here on out, I use the term “literalist” to avoid conflating different religious beliefs.  A similar disclaimer needs to be made about conservatism.  It, too, is far more complex than I  can acknowledge here and is riven by its own deep disagreements, for example, Patrick Buchanan’ Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.   My object here, however, is to convey a sense of the various ways in which a structure of traditional religion has entered the mainstream cultural and political discourse.

[2] Abstract representations cannot, of course, achieve power unless they are dialectically related to material conditions.  The Right knows this perhaps better than the Left.  Discussions of the extensive understanding of the need to build institutions to disseminate these representations can be found in America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard Viguerie and David Franke, Veering Right: How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes, by Charles Tiefer, and The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy, by David Brock.

[3] Suzan-Lori Parks, The American Play and Other Works.

[4] Anthony Kubiak, Agitated States: Performance in the American Theater of Cruelty.

[5] Such a belief system, argues the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida, works like an auto-immune reaction—the corporate economy must protect itself from itself by a theatricality that hates theatricality. A similar reaction can be seen in terms of a resurgent conservative religion that attacks what has made its very resurgence possible; in this sense, religion “allies itself with tele-technoscience [the post-industrial, digital economy dominated by the technologies of science and information], to which it reacts with all its forces.” Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion, 46.

[6] Robert Nelson, Economics as Religion, 262.

[7] Nelson, 260.

[8] Nelson, 262.

[9] George Gilder, Renewing American Civilization, 77

[10] Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, America’s Providential History, 214.  The implications for democracy are made evident in another part of the book:

                “For most Americans, to neglect consistent involvement in local politics is to neglect a great privilege.  But for Christians to do so is far worse.  It is a failure to keep a Biblical command.  Scripture makes it clear that Christians who fail to use what God has given them will not only suffer in this life, but also give an account in the one to come (Matthew 25: 14-30). (264)

                They continue: “Even if Christians manage to outnumber others on an issue and we sway our Congressman by sheer numbers, we end up in the dangerous promotion of democracy.  We really do not want representatives who are swayed by majorities, but rather by correct principles.” (265)

[11] Stu Weber, Tender Warrior: God’s Intention for a Man.

[12] Weber, 48.

[13] Weber, 37.

[14] Weber, 41.

[15] In this discussion of Christianity, I focus only on the Religious Right, though there are obviously  many differences there.  For a challenging discussion of a different Jesus, see Elaine Pagels’ brilliant Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, which might provide a cultural and political way to engage a far more tolerant version of Christianity.

[16] George Gilder, Men and Marriage, 17-18.

[17] Gilder, 107.

[18] Gilder, 107.

[19] Gilder, 106.

[20] Michael Lind, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.

[21] W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South, 112.

[22] Cash, 115.

[23] Southerners are not homogeneous, of course, and Southern culture has its own powerful political thinkers and organizers. Again, I am trying here to convey a kind of Symbolic sense of generalized beliefs.

[24] Cash,135.

[25] Cash, 139.

[26] Richard Dyer, White.

[27]Dyer, 222.

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