How Religion Caused The Great Recession

Any essay with a title like ‘how religion caused the Great Recession’ had better begin with a caveat or two, so here goes. First of all, religion was not what caused the financial crash of 2008, which is to say it was not the main reason for the subprime mortgage bubble. As to what was the main culprit, well that probably depends on one’s political ideology. The anti-capitalist would likely blame ‘too big to fail’ banks and irresponsible Wall Street wolves, while the anti-Left would probably cite State interference in the mortgage market as the main villain.
While either of these doubtless do stand up as greater culprits, both politics and finance, along with other kinds of collective activity, take place amidst the societies of the day and cannot help but be influenced by the beliefs and attitudes that evolve within them. And it is here, in the influencing of minds and group action, that we will see how religion helped set us up for a subprime mortgage bubble. But now I must make the second caveat and say that there are many different kinds of religion offering diverse schools of thought, and doubtless some would have guarded against the reckless borrowing and lending that lead to the 2008 Crash. But leading up to that crash there was an ideology sweeping through America, one that set the world up for a fall from the dizzying heights of the greatest delusion, and the origins for this hubristic attitude can be traced way back to the faith of the Pilgrim fathers.
As far as Westerners are concerned, the United States was colonised by pilgrims whose ancestry could be traced back to the Brownist English Dissenters who, in the 16th-17th century, had fled from the dangerous political climate of their native England for the Netherlands. The pilgrims arranged with English investors to establish a new North American colony, because they were concerned that emigrating to the Netherlands would lead to a loss of their English identity. So, in 1620, they established the Plymouth colony in present day Massachusetts, which was the second successful English settlement (Jamestown, Virginia, being the first. It was settled in 1607.)
The pilgrims who founded the Plymouth colony subscribed to a variant of the Puritan faith known as Calvinism, named after John Calvin who lived in the 16th century. This was a particularly harsh and judgemental form of Christianity, one whose God “reveals his hatred for his creatures, not his love for them”, in the words of literary scholar Ann Douglas. Calvinists believed that this God’s heaven had only a limited number of spaces available, and whether you were chosen or not had been predetermined since before your birth. As to one’s duties here on earth, the Calvinist religion saw much virtue in industrious labour and particularly in constant self-examination for any sinful thought. Idleness and pleasure-seeking were viewed as being particularly contemptible sins.
In ‘Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism’, Max Weber argued that capitalism has its roots in Calvinist Protestantism, since it taught its followers to defer gratification in favour of hard work and wealth accumulation. It was also a mindset that was pretty well suited to the conditions the New World imposed on the colonists. Forget the images invoked by the patriotic song ‘America The Beautiful’ with its amber waves of grain, from sea to shining sea. What greeted the settlers was “a hideous, desolate wilderness” (in the words of William Bradford). Not for nothing was this land known as the Wild West. In a harsh environment such as this, where even subsistence demanded ceaseless effort, the tough-minded ideology of Calvinism probably helped them survive.
Elements of Calvinism would persist in America right through to the modern age, with the middle- and upper-class considering busyness for its own sake as a means of obtaining status (a rather convenient mindset for the increasingly demanding corporations of the 80s and 90s, as we will see). But as the harsh Wild West was gradually tamed, the constant self-examination for sinful thought and its eradication through labour came to impose a hefty toll on those who became cut off from industrious work (as were, for example, women- barred from higher education by male prejudice and faced with industrialisation stripping away productive home tasks like sewing and soap-making). With productive activity taken away, Calvinism left these people with nothing but morbid introspection and this lead to various illnesses that we would now recognise as being diagnostic of mental stress.
Faced with people succumbing to the symptoms of neurasthenia, and with the medical establishment seemingly unable to cure such patients, people began to reject their forebears’ punitive religion. There was, for example, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a watchmaker and inventor who held metaphysical beliefs concerning (in his words) “the science of life and happiness”. In the 1860s, Quimby met up with one Mary Baker Eddy who, like many middle-class women of her day, had rejected the guilt-ridden and patriarchal Calvinism in favour of a more loving and maternal deity. 
Together, Eddy and Quimby launched what we now describe as the cultural phenomenon of positive thinking. Back in the 1800s, the post-Calvinist way of thinking that Quimby and Eddy established was known as New Thought. Drawing on a variety of sources from transcendentalism to Hinduism, New Thought re-imagined God from the hostile deity of Calvinism to a positive and all-powerful spirit. And humanity was brought closer to God, too. Out went the idea of an exclusive heaven reserved only for a select few, replaced with a concept of Man as part of one universal, benevolent spirit. And if reality consisted of nothing but the perfect and positive spirit of God, how could there be such things as sin, disease, and other negative things? New Thought saw these as mere errors that humans could eradicate through “the boundless power of spirit”.
Patients suffering mental breakdowns due to the ceaseless morbid introspection of Calvinism came to see Quimby and his ‘talking cure’, which sought to replace such negative thoughts with a belief in a universe that was benevolent, coupled with an insistence that the patient could ‘correct’ any negativity through positive thinking. The ‘Talking cure’ did indeed seem to cure the mental anxieties that were leading to invalidism among Calvinists who had idleness imposed upon them.
Meanwhile, Mary Baker Eddy went on to gain considerable wealth after founding Christian Science, the core teachings of which were that the material world did not exist; there was only Thought, Mind, Spirit, Goodness and Love. Whatever negativity or want seemed to exist were but temporary delusions.
New Thought went on to influence such people as William James, the first American psychologist, who claimed in his ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ that, through New Thought, “lifelong invalids have had their health restored”. It also influenced Norman Vincent Peale, perhaps best known for his 1952 “The Power of Positive Thinking”. But perhaps most importantly, as far as this essay is concerned, Mary Baker Eddy’s notion of negativity as controllable delusions influenced the mystical teachings of modern-day ‘motivational gurus’ who would lead those aspiring to the American Dream into believing that success and wealth would surely come their way if only they believed fervently enough.
And now we come to the dark side of New Thought. Although intended as an alternative to Calvinism, New Thought did not succeed in eradicating all the harmful aspects of that religion. As Barbara Ehrenreich explained in ‘Smile Or Die’, “it ended up preserving some of Calvinism’s more toxic features- a harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and the insistence on the constant exterior labour of self-examination”. The only difference was that while the Calvinist’s introspection was intended to eradicate sin, the practitioner of New Thought and its later incarnations of positive thinking was constantly monitoring the self for negativity. Anything other than positive thought was an error that had to be driven out of the mind.
So, from the 19th century onwards, a belief that the universe is fundamentally benevolent and that the power of positive thought could make wishes come true and prevent all negative things from happening, was simmering away in the American subconsciousness. When consumerism took hold in the 20th century, positive thinking would become increasingly imposed on anyone looking to get ahead in an increasingly materialistic world.
To be continued…
‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond
‘Smile Or Die’ by Barbara Ehrenreich.

In part one, we saw how the Plymouth Colonists settled in a harsh, untamed environment that required ceaseless labour just to maintain subsistence living. Gradually, though, the unforgiving Wild West would be tamed, with railroads and freeways stretching from State to State, vast swathes of farmland providing an abundance of food, and industrial centres capable of such high productivity it seemed as though everybody’s needs would soon be met.
But while this might sound like a positive thing, it actually posed something of a problem to the economic system that had been established. It was a system based on perpetual growth and that was fundamentally opposed to any notion of ‘enough’ that might dwell in the human soul. In the competitive world of business, companies manufacturing goods were compelled to steadily increase market share and profits, of fear of being swallowed by a larger enterprise, but how could perpetual growth be maintained when customers acted with frugality and were content with what they had?
Psychologists were therefore brought in to change the human psyche. One such expert was Edward Bernays. He took certain ideas from Freudian analysis about human status and applied them to advertisement campaigns. Products were no longer to be thought of as mere practical solutions to a limited set of problems. They were, instead, symbols representative of one’s identity, physical representations of one’s status. The car, the appliance, the furniture, were to be less relevant in terms of their utility and seen instead as fashion accessories. Advertising played a major role in developing this new consumer culture, because if the economy was to fulfil its imperative of perpetual growth, the customer had to be persuaded to buy things they did not even know they needed.
The consumer economy necessitated the rise of sales and service-based industries and those kinds of workplaces proved fertile breeding ground for positive thinking. After all, we all expect staff in shops and waiters serving us food to be friendly and greet us with smiles and a positive attitude (even if we don’t really believe the grinning sales assistant is genuinely pleased to see us). 
Increasingly, then, employees found themselves in occupations that required the kind of self-examination and improvement that practitioners of positive thinking strived to achieve. As Ehrenreich explained, “the work of Americans, and especially its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, coworkers and potential customers”. Nor were interpersonal skills and constant optimism confined to obvious places like sales and service-based industries. As Carnegie observed, “even in such technical lines as engineering, about 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human engineering”.
And so, whether in work or out, the consumer lived surrounded by the positive thinking message that anyone can have whatever they want, provided they exercised sufficient belief that good things will come their way. It was a belief generated in no small part to create an insatiable appetite for consumer culture. And as the corporate world seemed to ascend to increasingly dazzling heights of financial success, some clergymen noticed this ascendency and recognised within it methods to grow their churches.
Continued in part three
‘Culture In Decline’ by Peter Joseph
‘Smile Or Die’ by Barbara Ehrenreich.

In part two, we saw how a market system based on perpetual growth required a change in social attitudes once productivity was capable of meeting basic needs, and that transition was one in which we went from frugality to signalling our individuality through consumption. By the late 20th century it would have been impossible to miss consumption culture and, perhaps inevitably, marketing, advertising and other aspects of growth culture began to have an influence in areas one might consider to be outside such economic concerns.
One such example would be Church. Membership of mainstream church had been declining in the latter part of the 20th century. In the past, churches faced with an increasing number of ‘unchurched’ folk might have sent out missionaries to try and convert the heathen population. But, this being an era of marketing, they tried something different. They did what any business would do when looking to relaunch a flagging product. They began thinking of potential members as ‘customers’ and conducted market research in order to determine what the ‘customer’ wanted. The various surveys and research indicated that people were not much interested in the kind of sermons they had sat through as children. Not for them, the angry sermon condemning sin. In fact, the market research showed people were not much interested in traditional church at all.
So pastors like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and Robert Shuller set about reconfiguring church in order to better accommodate what the ‘customer’ wanted. Out went the hard pews, replaced with comfortable seating. Out went all the imagery of conventional churches. These new churches would have little in the way of traditional Christian iconography, such as crosses or images of Jesus. The result of this transformation was a building that looked less like a church and more like architecture that fit seamlessly with the modernist corporate-style environment of the rest of the city.
It was not only the physical appearance of the church that changed to suit the modern corporate, secular world. The sermons themselves changed as well. The more demanding principles of Christianity with its teachings of modesty and humble living were discarded, replaced with positive messages very much like the ones New Thought had preached. The new breed of pastor saw themselves not as critics of the secular, materialistic world but rather as active participants within it. They preached a ‘prosperity gospel’, one which claimed God wanted you to achieve status, wealth and other trappings of material success.
In terms of growth, this tactic of transforming churches into secular conference centres spreading the good news that God would payeth thy credit card proved very successful. The churches led by the likes of Schuller, Warren and Hybels became ‘megachurches’ which, if you include those attending via TV broadcast, preached to an audience of millions. Being so big, megachurches had to employ hundreds of people and find millions of dollars to keep the organisation running. These conditions led to their pastors becoming ever less like traditional clergy and more like CEOs of large corporations. As Ehrenreich explained, many of these churches were “nondenominational, meaning they couldn’t turn to a centralised bureaucracy for financial or any other kind of support…They depended entirely on their own charisma and salesmanship”.
So the audience of a megachurch entered a building that looked pretty much like a corporate headquarters. The person preaching to them wore a business suit like any CEO and probably thought of himself as a ‘pastorpreneur’- part pastor, part entrepreneur. And the message the pastorpreneur delivered was much the same as the one the corporate world wanted to get across: Through positive thinking, you can make anything happen. You can get ahead, you can become successful, you will become rich. Consider, for instance, the words of televangelist Joyce Meyer: “I believe God wants to give us nice things”.
But, underneath all that positivity was the dark undercurrent of New Thought’s attitude toward negativity as a sin. If, despite all your positivity, riches did not come your way, don’t look for any flaw in business, economics or politics. Instead, blame yourself. You just didn’t try hard enough. Pastor Robert Schuller advised his congregation to “never verbalise a negative emotion”.
Still, at least the megachurch managed to remain a nice, comfortable place in which to receive the prosperity gospel. As Ehrenreich said, in a megachurch “no one will yell at you, impose impossible deadlines…All the visual signs of corporate power and efficiency, only without the cruelty and fear”. 
The same could not be said of corporate America in the late 20th/early 21st century.
Continued in PART FOUR
‘Smile Or Die’ by Barbara Ehrenreich 

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