Capitalist Christianity and prophetic Christianity

(For the two previous posts in this series, see here and here.)

The manufactured outrage over Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s comments shows the extent to which capitalist Christianity has taken over in America. In this version, Christianity is presented as some kind of self-help program, a lifestyle choice, that is designed to make you feel good about yourself. In this approach, you just have to say some slogan about accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior, and bingo! you have automatically become a Good Person, guaranteed a place in heaven. This version of Christianity does not deal exclusively with heaven, though. It is also believed that god wants you to be rich and prosperous, so one has it nice both here and in the hereafter. Being poor or sick or otherwise troubled is seen as a sign that you are somehow unworthy or have failed god in some way.

The clergy who endorse this capitalist Christianity ignore the prophetic tradition of preachers, going all the way back to the Old Testament. The true meaning of ‘prophet’ in the Bible is not someone who primarily foretells the future, as is popularly thought, but someone who reveals the truth. Preachers in this tradition saw their role as to shine a harsh light on injustice and on their own people’s evil actions, and demand that they repent and change their behavior or god would punish them severely. Read any of those Old Testament prophets’ thundering denunciations of Israel and you will see that Wright’s damning of America after listing all its crimes fall squarely within that tradition. Take the prophet Amos, for example:

This is what the LORD says:
“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
. . .
Now then, I will crush you
as a cart crushes when loaded with grain.” (Amos 2:6,7,13)

This kind of message (that oppressing the poor and otherwise swerving from the path of justice is guaranteed to bring down god’s wrath) is rarely heard today in the megachurches of the dominant classes, the world of comfortable capitalist Christianity. Such a message is aimed squarely at those with a smug sense of their own virtue and would make people uncomfortable. The people hearing it may not come back and give generously to the church or may find a new church that preaches a more soothing message. That would be bad because in capitalist Christianity, increasing your market share of well-to-do believers is everything.

But this prophetic message finds great resonance in the churches of oppressed people throughout the world because they know exactly what it means to be exploited like the people championed by Amos. They wait for the day when god will punish those who have oppressed them. Liberation theology finds a warmer reception in the developing world than in the developed.

The boundaries of this great divide between the churches of capitalist Christianity and prophetic Christianity largely overlaps with the boundaries between white and black churches and this is why white people are surprised when the curtain that separates the two is occasionally raised.

Chris Britt, editorial cartoonist of the Springfield Journal Register captures the acute disconnect between the way that white people and black people view the racial situation in America.


As Obama said in his speech:

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.

People who as a group have not experienced a long history of cruel oppression may not fully appreciate the depth of anger and bitterness that echoes down generation after generation as personal stories of atrocities are passed on, getting slightly more diffuse each time but never quite going away. I know this from my own experience, even though I do not think that I am normally an angry or bitter person. Even though the British left Sri Lanka before I was born, there are times when I feel anger and bitterness against the British for the deep divisions they deliberately created in their colonies that have later resulted in ethnic wars. I would find it laughable if anyone said to me that the British possessed an Essential Goodness and that their colonial occupation was benign. There are also times when I feel deep anger and resentment against my country of birth Sri Lanka for the way that the Tamil minority has been treated, and still continues to be treated by the majority community.

It is easy for the members of the community that caused the injustices to say that we should let bygones be bygones, but those emotional scars run deep and cannot be removed by mere words. This anger is normally kept under control but given the right triggers, can bubble to the surface.

When Wright listed the harmful actions that the US has taken against other people, especially in the Middle East, and said that the attacks of 9/11 were the consequence of such acts, he was merely articulating the ‘blowback’ political analysis of people like Chalmers Johnson, an analysis which is widely accepted by serious policy analysts as the correct motivation for the attacks of 9/11, except that Wright was framing that political analysis in the context of religious punishment for sins. (See Justin Raimondo for a good analysis of the political content of Wright’s sermons.)

When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the events of 9/11 were god’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality and abortion, they were making a similar point to Wright, but with a different target. The significant difference is that Falwell and Robertson were laying the blame at powerless individuals (like gays and those receiving and providing abortions) as causes of that crime and hence got off lightly. Wright, unlike Falwell and Robertson, was challenging the very myth of America’s Essential Goodness and aiming his criticisms straight at the actions of the military-business-political-media complex that rules America. That is why he has been vilified in ways that Falwell and Robertson were not.

Wright is not the first black preacher to say such things and will not be the last. When Wright said right after the events of 9/11, “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and the black South Africans, and now we are indignant. Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yard. America’s chickens are coming home to roost”, and when he also said “We bombed Cambodia, Iraq, and Nicaragua, killing women and children while trying to get public opinion turned against Castro and Ghadhafi . . . We put [Nelson] Mandela in prison and supported apartheid the whole 27 years he was there”, he was following up on similar analyses made by Martin Luther King, Jr. (another preacher in the prophetic tradition) in the context of the Vietnam war, suggesting that god would rain down punishment on America for its political sins.

King said in a sermon in 1968:

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.” He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” And that can happen to America.

King was murdered just two months after delivering that sermon.

Of course, where preachers like Wright and King and Falwell and Robertson, followers of capitalist Christianity and prophetic Christianity alike, all make a mistake is in thinking that they all know what god wants and what god does, even if they are each saying things that contradict the others.

God is not going to solve the problem of deep racial divisions in America, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, or anywhere else in the world, because god does not exist. That is our responsibility.

Obama’s speech provides a small window of opportunity to start that process. We have to open that window wider and walk through it.

POST SCRIPT: The little girl is all grown up

Some readers may have seen the ‘telephone at 3:00 am’ ad that Hillary Clinton made that suggested that Obama did not have the experience to handle crises. It turns out that the images of sleeping children used in that ad were from stock footage filmed eight years ago.

Ironically, one the children in that ad is now eighteen and is campaigning for Obama. She has made a new ad that you can see below:


  1. Erin says

    I really love this post, Mano. I think you hit a number of nails squarely on the head.

    I’m atheist, but ex-Catholic, and the self-congratulatory consumerist Christianity of today still fills me with a resentment that they’ve got my religion all wrong wrong WRONG, even though it isn’t mine anymore. I think a lot of thinking Christians actually feel this way. But that may not be a majority of Christians. It’s hard for me to tell, from outside the culture.

  2. Jared says

    Hi Mano,

    Have you read “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber?


  3. A Nonny Mouse says

    While I doubt it had anything to do with my previous comment on your earlier entry, I appreciate your specifying you referred to Martin Luther King, Jr.

  4. Peter LaFond says

    I think the most charitable way to view the Fundimentalists as simply insane, now at least we can help them. However, like all insane people they can’t be held to account for themselves.

    People who claim to know God should be asked to prove this- a note, a diploma, a phone call, nmaybe a concert, but when the proof is absent then they must be told- you are insane

    Problem- asking for proof seems to imply their is something to prove- how does one handle this?

  5. bob says


    I think that people who claim to have experienced love should prove that too. And before you tell me about how love affects physiological measures I must inform you that prayer does the same.

  6. says


    The love analogy does not hold up. Of course belief in god and prayer can cause physiological reactions, just like love does. That does not prove anything about the reality of god. Love is not real in the same sense that believers say god is real, as an externally existing, independent, autonomous entity.

    Just because one has an emotional and physiological reaction to the thought of something, does not mean that that object is real. It is possible to frighten people with ghost stories or monster stories so that they start trembling with fear. Does that mean that the ghosts and monsters that were made up for the stories are externally existing, independent, autonomous entities?

  7. Peter LaFond says

    I just want to clarify that I am not just referring to Fundimentalists Christains- but any type of religous belief that posits that the world needs to end for the sake of a salvation or the sake of their beliefs. Of course the world will end of natural causes- those pesky thermodynamic laws!

    As far as love is concerned- somewhere Augustine wrote that to love me is to want me to be. Iroic I would site him- he was ( and still is ) smarter then most non- scientific people, though. Of course Plato’s Synposium is the famous love in- to love somebody is to want the beloved to be happy. In my words love is a name for an idea that means we should help each other be happy, safe , and sane. I am glad though the poets make it sound less clinical- LOL!~ peace

  8. Kathy says

    I think Bob is suggesting that people throughout history have experienced God, just as people also experience love. The truth of these experiences cannot be “proved” with documents or
    experiments. If you believe in love, you believe in something non-rational. This certainly doesn’t mean you also have to believe in God…it’s just inconsistent to insist that everything requires empirical proof.

    Check out Karen Armstrong’s talk —

  9. says


    I think the word ‘believe’ is being used in two senses. To say I ‘believe’ in love is to say that I believe that there is a physiological process involving the brain and body and emotions in response to other people to which we attach the convenient label ‘love’.

    People can also have physiological experiences due to prayer or meditation.

    In fact, even subtle physiological effects that occur mostly in the brain are becoming increasingly measurable. To accept the existence of such physiological experiences is perfectly rational.

    But it is a far cry from this to believe that ‘love’ or ‘god’ is an autonomously existing entity, independent of us. There is no evidence for that, which is why believing in such an entity is irrational.

    Rationality is different from proof. Believing in something for which there is evidence but not proof is quite rational. We do it all the time.

  10. Corbin says

    There is another meaning of belief: “a state or
    habit of mind in which trust or confidence is
    placed in some person, or thing.” In this case
    the thing needn’t correspond to something that
    ‘autonomously exists’.

    For example, a person might say that
    they “believe” in democracy. No one would
    argue that democracy exists autonomous of
    human society. It’s an idea and an ideal.
    I think this kind of definition of the word
    “belief” is more often implied than we
    might think.

    If a person says “I believe in love”
    this might not have anything to do with
    making a claim about whether the
    emotion of love exists or not, and may well
    be a statement about that person’s moral
    code, and how they plan to treat other persons.
    Perhaps “believing in love” is a statement about
    the person’s “framework for viewing the world”.
    Perhaps this is not really a statement about
    what is, or is not actually physically true.

    Likewise, when I hear someone say “I believe
    in God” I do not automatically assume that this
    is a claim for the “autonomous existence” of
    some kind of supernatural entity. Maybe it
    is for some people. But such a statement
    might not have anything to do with whether
    something like god really exists or not. Such
    a statement might be much closer to the
    “I believe in democracy” idea.

    Also, there is an element of degree. There
    is no rule that says religious beliefs must
    be carried with absolute certainty. I can
    say “I believe I’ll have a tuna sandwhich
    for lunch.” This does not imply an
    absolute conviction of anything at all.

    Anyway I find it interesting that the word
    “belief”, like “love”, has grey areas.

  11. One_Truth says

    “For the wrath of God is revealed in heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man -- and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”
    Romans 1:18-25

    Just because you don’t believe in something does not mean it doesn’t exist. I could claim not to believe in gravity, but if I jumped off a building I would still be subject to it. It is convenient for you to deny the existence of God now, but when you die -- you will still be subject to Him.

    Also, how do you prove that God doesn’t exist?? Even if you had acquired a whopping 10% of all things it is possible for one to know -- couldn’t God exist somewhere in the other 90%? Even if evolution were proven to be fact (which, of course, it has not) it still would not disprove the existence of God (it would only disprove the Bible). Evolution is a myth -- even Darwin the fable-writer himself admitted that it was so! What foolishness it takes to believe a “scientific” theory written by a theologian-turned-God-hater!

    But as for the prosperity message- you are right- those preachers have Christ’s message and call all wrong! Just because they have it wrong, doesn’t mean you have to!! God is faithful to forgive those who humble themselves and repent before Him. The wages of sin is death but our debt has been paid, my friend! What will God say to you on the day of judgment? Will He say, ‘well done my good and faithful servant’ or ‘depart from Me, I never knew you’?

  12. says

    One Truth,

    Using your argument, you can prove anything to exist. I cannot prove that invisible magic unicorns do not exist, so they exist. The gravity comparison is spurious. Using the theory of gravity, one can predict events with extreme accuracy, which is why we believe in it. Can you make similar predictions with your god theory?

    As for worrying about meeting god when I die, sorry but that means of scaring people into believing does not work with me. I enthusiastically deny the existence of each and every god, the divinity of Jesus (assuming he even existed), the holy spirit, and whatever else you might choose to be frightened of and prostrate yourself before.

    I choose to live the dignified life of a free person, believing in the power of science and rationality and humanity to create a free and just world, and not wallow in superstitions and cower before some imaginary deity.

  13. One_Truth says


    Firstly, I did not try to prove God’s existence -- I was merely showing you that it is impossible to disprove it.

    Secondly, it saddens me that you are so angry at God that you would deny Him so “enthusiastically”. A lot of horrific things go on in this world, but the good news is that this life is ‘but a breath’. God created you and He sent His son to die for you, so that you might have eternal life. God said, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay’. What this means is that while things might not make sense now, they will some day.

    When you write the words ‘I choose’ you are speaking accurately. Those who do not believe in God, are ‘choosing’ not to. You may think you are free, but God’s word tells us that he who sins is a slave to sin. I was once a slave, Mano, and now I know what true freedom is & it can only be found in the living Christ.

    As for you believing in the power of science and rationality and humanity to create a free and just world- don’t hold your breath! Even if we weren’t so damn selfish and corrupt -- we still wouldn’t have the power to redeem ourselves.

    I too believe in science; God created it! Next time you look at a plane -- remember that God first made the birds. Next time you see a helicopter hovering & you are amazed at its ingenuity -- remember that God first created the dragonfly. Next time you turn on your windscreen wipers, think about how your eyelids do the same job for your eyes. Planes and helicopters and windscreen wipers were all carefully designed by human beings, but you expect me to believe that birds and dragonflies and human eyes came about by chance??

    That’s not rationality or science.

    Bob Dylan sung, “You gotta serve someone”. What he meant was that if you’re not serving the one and only living God, you are serving Satan. There is a common misconception that Satan will be in control in hell; not so. God will be. But He doesn’t want you to go there -- you choose.

  14. says

    Actually, I am not at all angry at god. How can you be angry at something that does not exist? I find the concept for god to be just useless.

    As for not being able to disprove god, my point was to show that saying that you cannot disprove god is a worthless argument since it can be applied to almost anything at all.

    As for all the things you list, birds, dragonflies, eyes, they were created by natural selection, not chance or god.

  15. says


    Even though this thread is over two years’ old, it is worth revisiting as we approach the mid-term “referendum” on President Obama’s stewardship, taking note of the end of “combat operations” in Iraq and the simultaneous build-up of forces in Afghanistan.

    I found it interesting that you invoked Chalmers Johnson’s excellent book, Blowback. Much of his thesis, of course, followed America’s covert support of the mujahideen in Afghansitan during the Soviet occupation (aka Charlie Wilson’s war). The final book in the Blowback trilogy, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, includes a most apt (albeit somewhat predictable) definition of the title; to wit, “the goddess of retribution, who punishes human transgression of the natural, right order of things and the arrogance that causes it.”

    That mention of arrogance, of course, ties in equally with your companion post on “Essential Goodness” and, I feel, with this post. There is an obnoxious certitude abroad in the land, most palpable in the comfortable confines of the white, “Christian” conservative South. As you quite rightly point out, the faintest whiff of anti-Americanism is tantamount to heresy to these people. For me, as a naturalized citizen from Europe, to criticize America in any way is to invite the inevitable response, “Why did you come here, then?” That translates, of course, into “America: Love It or Leave It!”

    Let’s backtrack a little. The idea of American Exceptionalism has deep historical roots. I would trace it back to colonial times, particularly the religious concept of “the Elect” promulgated by the likes of Roger Williams in New England. It was a short step from there to the notion of Manifest Destiny, which conveniently justified the slaughter of Native Americans and, let’s not forget, native American bison, on a massive scale. The superiority of America gained a nice boost from victory in WWII against genuinely evil regimes, and more recently against Soviet communism (though that was more a case of internal collapse). Unfortunately, the domino theory of Communist expansion was used to justify all sorts of vicious interventions around the globe, including such high points as training the Savak (the Shah of Iran’s secret police) and assisting in the overthrow of Chile’s elected President, Salvador Allende. We now find ourselves, as documented so painfully by Chalmers Johnson, policing the world with a global network of military bases that would have made the Romans green with envy.

    So, coming back to 2010, the political focus remains on who can cut taxes the most, without touching the sacred cow of the Pentagon. Yes, I know Secretary Gates is advocating roughly $100 billion in budget cuts for the DoD, but that reminds me very much of the comment that was made about FDR and the New Deal: he reformed capitalism in order to save it. I think Gates is very cannily making a few token sacrifices to weaken any potential attacks against the military-industrial complex we can no longer afford.

    Ironically, President Obama will now be associated with the continuing struggle in Afghanistan, which has no end in sight. While our young people lose their lives, limbs, and sanity fighting a monster of our own creation in impossible conditions, the comfortable church-goers will don their Sunday best and trot off to the temple, punching another hole in their ticket to heaven. What a bizarre, obscene dichotomy. But it must be right, because it is the American way.

  16. says


    Thanks for the interesting and informative comments.

    Have you read the new book Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East by Geoffrey Wawro? It gives a broad overview of middle east politics from 1917 to the present. I think you would like it, although it is rather depressing to see the same pattern of failed policies repeated over and over again.

    I am planning to write about it in the near future.

  17. says


    No, I have not read Wawro’s book yet, though I was aware of it. I look forward to your review!

    Please allow me to make a couple of points that I could have made yesterday but did not due to the late hour. One of the central themes running through your blog is the “fallacy of faith.” While most of that discussion has revolved around religious faith, it seems to me that we see blind, unjustifiable faith in a couple of other areas of American life, with damaging consequences in the real world.

    The country’s never-ending ping-pong game about personal tax rates is a faith-based argument, at least on one side. The proposition that cutting marginal tax rates will, counter-intuitively, raise government revenues is based on a simple bell curve drawn up by the economist Arthur Laffer. The curve relates tax rates to government revenue. Up to the peak of the curve, raising taxes increases revenue, but beyond that point raising taxes any further will create disincentives in the economy, reduce output, and reduce revenue. The so-called conservative Republicans (we will leave for another day the question of what conservatism does or should mean) assume, in an act of economic faith, that the economy is on the high side of the Laffer curve.

    The truth is, it is impossible to know exactly where we are on the curve, rendering it of little use as a policy guide. It appears that a tax cut in JFK’s Administration did stimulate the economy and boost revenue, but ever since then the legacy of fiscal deficits generated by various Republican Administrations should have planted at least a smidgen of doubt in the conservative mind. But no! Doubt, you see, is the hallmark of an unbeliever -- an infidel, if you will. One wonders when, if ever, sanity will prevail in this discussion, but it appears that the lunatics are about to be handed back the keys to the asylum. The consumers of retail politics, it would appear, are every bit as gullible as our self-satisfied church-goers, suspending reason in the hope of receiving pecuniary rather than celestial benefits.

    Now let’s look at an even more fundamental manifestation of faith in American society, one which you, Mano, alluded to in your post above. Belief in the principles enshrined in the nation’s founding documents is another form of faith. It fascinates me how much America’s faith in the Constitution -- interpreted by a set of high priests known as the Supreme Court -- amounts to a civic religion. And the arguments about interpretation of the sacred text proceed with all the fervor one would expect from religious fundamentalists (of any stripe).

    Here again, from the Republican side, we are told that we must honor the Constitution; to do otherwise is un-American. There are so many problems here I don’t know where to start. The basic problem is which Constitution, exactly, are we supposed to honor? Must we be bound by the intent of the framers, based on their writings around 1787? If so, whose opinion counts -- that of Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, or Morris? And what did they mean, anyway? Justice Scalia advocates an approach based on “original meaning,” an exercise in linguistics which strikes me as akin to reading hieroglyphics in an ancient cave dwelling or looking for the Dead Sea Scrolls. I appreciate that this quest for concrete standards is an attempt to restrain an unelected judiciary with enormous power, but we surely cannot be straitjacketed by the dead hand of the past. This never-ending argument about constitutional interpretation keeps distracting us with unresolved social-policy issues when we have bigger fish to fry. (I leave aside the distinct possibility that certain actors want us to be so distracted.)

    Having said all that, the constitutional faith of the people undeniably helps hold this diverse and vast country together. Even when the Supreme Court is quite obviously wrong, as it was in Bush v. Gore, the whole country deferred to its judgment, and it is probably just as well. Without this social cohesion, we really would be in terrible shape. Faith, it turns out, is not always a bad thing!

    Those of us who have studied constitutional law almost inevitably respect the views of the framers a great deal -- possibly too much. Perhaps this is necessary in a republic such as ours; perhaps their ideals -- to the extent they are discoverable -- really do define who we are (or aspire to be) as a people. If so, one of the most American things we could ever do would be to critique the current order of things, find it wanting, and create a new one. That is what the framing of the Constitution was all about. Why, then, can we not even think about writing a new one today? Is our civic faith too blind?

    I do think that constitutional reform would provoke an identity crisis of the first order: if we no longer abide by the Constitution of Madison and his cohorts, then who are we? Personally, I would solve that problem by amending the Constitution in a manner that applied Madison’s logic to modern conditions. Such a scenario is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Revolution, which aimed to restore the perceived virtues of the British Constitution -- then seen as a unique bastion of liberty in a world full of Catholic despotism -- and apply it to America. (In a similar vein, Jonathan Freedland wrote Bring Home the Revolution, urging Britain itself to become a republic.)

    I engaged in this lengthy digression because I think faith, as a psychological entity, manifests itself in many areas of life, and if we are going to question it in one we might find ourselves obliged to question it in the others. Perhaps, when we do so, we need a set of standards for our enquiry. Is the faith totally irrational? Does it have destructive effects for individuals or society as a whole? Does it satisfy a basic human urge? Could it be, in some contexts, a good thing?

  18. says

    Hey Jared, I’ve heard about that book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber. Any Idea where can I read it online or buy it?

    Regards, Saket.

  19. says

    Living with Bipolar disorder can be very hard. In this article I spend the time to share some of the ups and downs I have had suffering with this illness and how both the doctors and the church have let me down.

  20. says

    How many of us have followed false prophets and never even had knowledge of it? Have you ever put your heart into something like a relationship, job, education, home, raising children, only to find out later that you were wrong and the effort that you put into this, didn’t seem to work out as you thought it would.

  21. says

    Hey Jared, I’ve heard active that playscript, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber. Any Idea where can I construe it online or buy it?

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