The story recurs through nearly every mythological system: Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to guarantee good winds to sail to the battle of Troy; human sacrifice was an integral part of Aztec religious ritual; Christians hold that Jesus of Nazareth died for the sins of all mankind. In each case, we see the hallmarks of religious sacrifice: Give up the lives of a few select scapegoats to rebalance society.
Enter Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Texas, who turns 70 next month and who told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson last week that, if called on “to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for its children and grandchildren,” he — and other seniors, the demographic most vulnerable to the coronavirus — would be “all in.”
The god to be propitiated? America’s economy.
Patrick isn’t alone in making the case that the economy demands, if not quite ritual sacrifice, at least the willingness of a nation to put its most vulnerable at risk. Last weekend, President Donald Trump hinted that, despite experts’ pleas for Americans to embrace social distancing, he would advocate for the nation to return to work within a few weeks: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he tweet-wailed late Sunday. And in a televised appearance Tuesday, Trump proclaimed, “I would love to have” business as usual resume “by Easter,” to which Fox News’ Bill Hemmer replied — blending the ecclesiastical with the civil — “That would be a great American resurrection.”
Patrick and Trump may be outliers, but their attitudes reflect a truth about the way fervent faith in the power of commerce has, over time, become the closest thing Americans have to a civil religion. As organized religion declines at ever-more-rapid rates — according to the Pew Research Center, about 26 percent of Americans (and 36 percent of younger millennials) say they belong to no faith tradition, up from 16 percent in 2007 — Americans have increasingly defined their moral and communal identities by not where they pray but where they shop.
Just look, for example, at the ways in which corporations have increasingly used the language of values, rather than personal aspirations, to build their brands: In the late ‘80s, Gillette rolled out its “The Best a Man Can Get” campaign, highlighting images of rugged, sexually assertive men. Three decades later, Gillette’s campaign has morphed into the #MeToo-inspired “The Best Men Can Be,” encouraging men to do away with toxic masculinity. Nike has used its platform to celebrate quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And this tendency isn’t exclusive to businesses aiming at progressive audiences: Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A have long courted customer bases drawn to their owners’ avowedly conservative Christian values.
Meanwhile, big companies are increasingly looking to spiritual traditions to boost internal productivity and morale: Years ago, for example, Facebook brought in academics from elite universities to teach its staff about the Buddhist view of compassion to help them optimize the site’s tools for reporting harassment. Google has offered its employees not only meditation courses (title: “Search Inside Yourself”) but also silent lunches.
Corporations have taken it upon themselves to become, in some instance, what churches and synagogues once were: our new arbiters of public morality. And the public agrees: A 2018 study by Vice Media’s branding partnership arm, Virtue, found that 54 percent of millennials and Generation Z-ers said they prioritized spending money on brands that “enhance their spirit and soul.” Seventy-seven percent say they sought out brands that shared their “values.”
Likewise, the rise of “self-care” culture — inextricable from the notion that our personal wellness is correlated with the 10-step beauty routines we buy, or high-end exercises classes such as the perhaps too-aptly named SoulCycle — has only exacerbated this trend. “Wellness” — now a $4 trillion industry — demands that we spend money not merely to yield aesthetic or medical results but rather to purify our lives and souls. We can find all sorts of products designed to optimize our spiritual well-being, whether it’s meditation apps such as Headspace or Calm, or the infamous $66 “yoni eggs” — meant to be inserted into the vagina — sold by Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire, Goop. Indeed, even our more explicit spiritual lives have come to resemble our economic ones; more and more, Americans are practicing what Harvard Divinity scholars Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have called “unbundling” — mixing and matching their spiritual traditions into bespoke practices: say, blending yoga, Christianity and tarot.
Meanwhile, Americans — traditionally faithful and religious “nones” alike — are more than willing to link financial success with visions of divine favor. It’s a tendency that unites practitioners of New Age-tinged spirituality, such as Marianne Williamson and “The Secret” author Rhonda Byrne, and evangelical Christians, as many as 40 percent of whom subscribe to the “prosperity gospel”: the notion that God rewards his most faithful with material success.
Prosperity gospel preachers from Creflo Dollar to Paula White (Trump’s spiritual adviser) regularly preach that Christian faith (and, more often than not, generous tithing) will bring believers untold riches. “No bank in the world offers this kind of return,” prosperity gospel preacher Kenneth Copeland writes of the church in his book “The Laws of Prosperity.” Financial success is proof not just that you’re working hard enough, but that you’re believing hard enough: that God, personally, has chosen to bless you.
Within such a paradigm, the implication that, in the midst of a pandemic, our capitalist system might require sacrificing the elderly to ensure future bounty for the young is the next logical step. When the language of buying and selling, product and profit, so dominate our discourse about our identities, capitalism becomes indistinguishable from religious faith. Once we made human sacrifices to appease the gods; now, we’re told, we must do the same to appease the markets.
But even Americans who don’t explicitly subscribe to the prosperity gospel accept its tenets: Financial success, and how we deploy it, are integral parts of our moral worth. From the time of the 19th-century New Thought craze — a kind of proto-”The Secret” self-help movement — onward, Americans have seen the path to enlightenment as forged through faith-tinged Horatio Alger-style bootstrapping.
In the 1920s, for example, Bruce Barton’s “The Man Nobody Knows” argued that Jesus was the founder of modern business, a go-getter and model capitalist. “Every business man,” he believed, “will read it and send it to his partners and salesmen.” In “Prosperity,” in the 1930s, Charles Fillmore published a reimagined Psalm 23 reframing God as the ultimate creditor: “Thy silver and Thy gold, they secure me,” he wrote, “Thou fillest my wallet with plenty.”
Trump’s and Patrick’s apparent willingness to sacrifice lives to the economy doesn’t come from nowhere. The idea that financial prosperity — not just our ability to eat or house ourselves, but to consume products that reify our identities — is encoded in our culture, and has been for generations.
In imagining an economic resurrection, Trump is sending a message that America values material thriving more than public health. Should he get his way and the pews fill up on Easter, the god worshiped that day won’t be that of any church, synagogue or mosque, but of the marketplace.
Tara Isabella Burton is a Religion News Service columnist. She is the author of “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World” and the novel “Social Creature.”
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