Do Liberal Christians Worship God or Capitalism?

This weekend I wanted to buy a few simple tank tops for the summer heat. I’m a big fan of our local thrift shop, Savers, here in the South Bay and absolutely love the more eclectic ones up in the Haight – but sometimes it can be hard to find the simplest of items. Silky retro button downs and bohemian styled yoga pants filled the racks but there was not a tank top to be found (or at least not one without corporate logos).

My friend Jason and I were staying in a crummy hotel (that’s a hairy story for another post lol) in San Francisco; with H&M nearby, we thought we’d look for a tank top or two. I was not prepared for what happened next.

The streets were flooded with eager shoppers and tourists of all kinds. It never made sense to me why someone would travel to another city and then go shopping at stores they have in their own town. What’s so special about that?

Nevertheless, we found our way into the H&M two story mega shop. The lights were blinding, the clothes endless, and the shoppers militant. As a scholar-activist of radical politics these types of spaces are deeply troubling: they represent the worship of capital, commodity fetishism, and rampant consumerism that destroy people and the planet.

It isn’t a new idea that capitalism acts much like a religion, a fundamentalist religion to be sure. Capital/Money is worshiped, consumerism is the incarnation of that worship, and plastering yourself with name brands is the way in which you show your religio-capitalist loyalty.

I’m no fashionista but the moment I walked into the store I was overwhelmed by greed, I wanted everything in the store, I wanted women’s clothes, men’s clothes, and everything in between. I wanted the sunglasses, fancy gym clothes, business dress clothes, tropical summer clothes, and all the basic essentials. I wanted it all. I went in needing a few basic tank tops, and the moment I walked in was the moment I wanted everything in sight. I felt overcome by the Spirit of Capitalism, I felt overcome by the Spirit of Greed, and I had a mini panic attack as I watched others gleefully accepting this evil possession.

I spend most my days thinking about activism, community organizing, social movements, and social change. With a critique of capitalism, consumerism, and greed I still find myself overwhelmed by the powers and principalities of the world. I can feel the ways my likes and my dislikes are defined by large brands, by the capitalist superstores that litter the world with big shops, bad paying jobs, and cheap clothing that negatively effects international workers and the environment. For having such a ruthless critique of these illogical systems that is meditated upon daily, I was shocked at how powerful the lure of greed, shiny sunglasses, and fashionable jeans had over my mind. I also felt inadequate, I felt like I would never amount to the capitalist dream and felt left like an outsider in a room full of people not questioning this strange Capitalist Temple.

Scholar Arhtur Thoby says it this way, “We sacrifice our time, our families, our children, our forests, our seas and our land on the altar of the market, the god to whom we owe our deepest allegiance. Forsaking the consumer paradise for a life of poverty, wandering with an empty begging bowl or devoting one’s life to alleviating the plight of others is scarcely an option for most faith-community members.”

The Free Market becomes the God figure within the capitalist religion; both are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. The Invisible Hand, working by the absolute laws of nature, justifies and produces society. Economics reproduces the theologies of capitalism, and thus the theologies of value. The impoverished are demoralized as lazy, immoral, and value-less bodies. Encouraging and promoting the Free Market and it’s Invisible Hand is thus understand as being good and morally just; fair markets that restrict and limit the powers of the Invisible Hand are considered evil and amoral.

Thoby concludes, “In sum, one may consider capitalism as a religion in the sense that it is a system of beliefs and rites in which economics plays a theological role. It is a hegemonic system that combines norms, values, divinities and laws. The content of its faith is directly derived from the progressive movement that celebrates the salvation of humanity through science and democracy.”

These insights are not exactly new and are not exactly radical. But what these ideas and metaphors offer us are a fierce challenge to liberal religious people. As much as liberals have co-opted the language of resistance, they do not mean the re-organizing and re-shaping of social values and economic relationships, rather they mean capitalism and capitalist leaders should be nicer to the multiplicity of emerging identities: PoC, queer, Latinx etc.

We do not need resistance, we need revolution. Capitalist logics and social organizing is the problem, not the nice-ness of capitalism. Capitalism cannot be nice, that’s impossible. It’s fundamentally based on the exploitation of people, animals, and Earth through the centralization of property, capital, and the means of production into the hands of a tiny select few.

Oddly enough the mainline church has an extremely weak critique of capitalism, they do not seem to understand the ways their idolatry to capitalism, economics, and free markets are destroying our minds, our bodies, and our world. They reap the benefits of these exploitative relations and find no value in critiquing them. If they do critique them, they end up wallowing in a “there are not alternatives” mode of thought they got from MSNBC or CNN – but not from actual study, research or engagement with non-capitalist news, books, theory, or action.

It is a sham for liberals to suggest that there are not thousands upon thousands of alternative logics to capitalism that have existed well before Marx and others had critiques written in dense scholarly books.

Indigenous cultures have, for thousands of years, existing with entirely different counter-capitalist logics that value all people: river people, plant people, and animal people. Their ways of being have never led to planetary apocalypse and species extinction – that all came from the logics of capitalism.

How could anyone think capitalism “works” when “90% of large fish in oceans are gone, 97% of native forests are destroyed, 98% of native grasslands are destroyed, amphibian populations are collapsing, migratory songbird populations are collapsing, and so on” (DGR). We live on a finite planet with finite resources and finite life. We have an economic system based on infinite planetary resource extraction, infinite profit production, and infinite consumption. None of this is sustainable, just ask the forests and fish.

But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.   – Job 12

There is a clear gap in the person making this argument’s understanding of the world and the ways the capitalist global system destroys alternatives through political propaganda (ex. The Cold War), military violence (ex. Hillary Clinton’s government coups in Latin America), and economic sanctions/restrictions/dependency (a critique the Global South has been making since the 1960’s).

There are also tons of various socialisms, which are attempts at transitioning from a system of hierarchy to participation, from domination to collaboration, and from the violence of property to the emancipation of the commons.

There are also living examples that have not yet been destroyed by the fascist capitalists: the Zapatistas, Temporary Autonomous Zones throughout the world, and the Rojava Revolution are great examples. On larger scales there are a bunch of “Social Movement Governments” in Latin America and socialist-light countries in Europe. All of these movements, governments, and people powered alternatives have rich histories, theories, and praxis for all of us to study and learn from.

If the liberal church wants to be relevant it needs to drop “liberal” from its name, and begin to study, learn from, and join in solidarity the many alternatives to liberal capitalist logics and their devastating effects on us personally, collectively, and planetarily.

Further Reading

Participatory Democracy

Zapatistas – Schools for Chiapas (living example)

Living at the Edges of Capitalism by Andrej Grubacic

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