The dangers inherent in commercializing and politicizing the practices of religion in an attempt to impose religious ideology on a democratic political system seem to be more chillingly apparent now than they were on December 18, 2000, when then-President-elect George W. Bush told an interviewer after meeting with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."
As my wife and I were talking this morning, somehow we landed upon "the most memorable sermon I've ever heard" as a topic of conversation. I had to say the single most memorable and instructive sermon in my memory was one I heard on a Christian radio station in deep southeast Texas back in the late 70s. I was working as a typewriter and business machines repair technician at that time in my life, bringing home about $150 a week and trying to support a family of four. I spent at least a couple of hours of each workday driving a Ford Econoline van or a little Chevette hatchback and listening to local radio stations as I traveled from one place of business or school to the next. This was during the era when prosperity was an enormously popular topic among fundamentalist Christian preachers, many of whom had not yet discovered the glories of Greater Israel and the Book of Revelation. I was not surprised to hear the fellow on the radio talking about prosperity, but as I listened I soon realized he had a distinctly personal perspective. Of course I can't recall his words precisely after all these years, but the preacher began his sermon along these lines: "The Lord wants you to be prosperous, and the Lord wants me to be prosperous. God wants to fulfill all our spiritual and material needs." After a few minutes of waxing grandiloquent regarding God's desire for Christians to live prosperous lives, the preacher informed his radio audience that it had come to his attention that many of God's messengers and prophets of prosperity were driving Cadillacs. "The Lord," said the preacher, "has revealed to me that He wants me to drive a Cadillac too!" Ownership of a Cadillac, suggested the preacher, was an indication of Divine grace and approval. "God," said the preacher, "wants you to do your part. God wants you to go right now and get your checkbook and sit down and write a check to Southland Radio Ministries. I want you to pray about this. I want you to ask God how much Southland Radio Ministries has enriched your spiritual life and what this ministry is worth. God wants you to do your part."
Now, I have nothing against anyone who happens to drive a Cadillac. They are fine automobiles, and I'm sure many good and decent people, believers and non-believers, own, drive, and enjoy Cadillacs. Though I have no desire to own or drive one, I have little difficulty conceiving of circumstances in which owning a Cadillac might indeed be in harmony with the grace and will of God, or in which a non-believer might do so with a clear conscience. But the notion that God wants His media messengers and prophets to have great wealth, enjoy lives of ease, power, and influence, and drive Cadillacs, and that it is an essential part of God's plan that members of listening and viewing audiences ought to drop everything and run for their checkbooks in order to bring this plan for His messengers' and prophets' prosperity to fruition, struck me then, as it does now, as embarrassingly thin Christian theology at best. My problem is that I couldn't then and can't now find anything of the recorded philosophy and teachings of Jesus in it. In fact, it seems to reflect a fundamental misreading of New Testament records.
That radio sermon has assumed something like iconic status in my understanding of American Christianity. I have come to think of it as representative of what might be called the "God wants me to drive a Cadillac" school of Christian theology. And I have come to realize over the years that the central message of the "God wants me to drive a Cadillac" school of Christian theology in all its many and various permutations is enormously appealing to many American Christians. For some it is nothing less than a theological rationale for selfishness and greed. It's a message so seductive that it shapes some so-called Christians' view of the world and causes them to reorganize their lives around it. It's a media message that has found quite a following and developed synergistic effects. In an information age increasingly focused upon consumption, material comfort, and technological progress, the neo-Christian gospel of prosperity is a message that corporate America and influential conservative think-tanks love. It is a message to which the corporate media is friendly, for obvious reasons.
In previous ages, Christian civilizations constructed huge, magnificent cathedrals, many of which survive today. The great cathedrals were the grandest architectural accomplishments of earlier ages, and in many cases they were the most expensive endeavors of those ages, aside from war. Today, in America, our largest architectural accomplishments tend to be shopping malls, and the grandest of them do seem to inspire something very like reverence in Americans who regularly worship, oops! excuse me, shop in them. Many who call themselves Christians seem to be remarkably comfortable with lifestyles and beliefs that would lead an observer who didn't know better to believe Jesus preached a "God wants me to load up my Escalade at the Mall of America before the Great Day of the Rapture arrives" gospel.
One of the problems with the "God wants me to drive a Cadillac" gospel is that it creates a mindset in which anyone who cannot be put to good use in its support is seen as, well, useless, valueless. Those who opposes it are viewed with varying degrees of distrust and alarm. Depending on the tone and substance of the opposition, those who dissent from the burgeoning neo-Christian gospel of prosperity at any cost are likely to be regarded as dangerous, a threat to be managed. My problem is that I can't quite picture Jesus behind the wheel of a 7,000-pound SUV racing off to the mall, any more than I can picture Him as a vengeful God of wrath in Chapter 19 of the final book of the New Testament, the Revelation of St. John the Divine, returning to earth on a white horse, His eyes flashing fire, His robes dripping blood, His tongue a sharp sword, in his Hand an iron rod with which to subdue and rule the nations of the world. In the early days of the Bush administration's war of conquest in Iraq, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, announced that Jesus was in favor of the war, and, presumably, the shock and awe bombing campaign. Funny, I hadn't realized that Jesus had that keen an interest in Iraq's oil reserves. But however much the nations of the world may need some subduing, I can find nothing in our written records of the historical Jesus' words and deeds that suggests the Christian Zionist vision of a wrathful God of violent and destructive vengeance is anything other than the deeply and tragically flawed product of dangerously confused minds and misguided spirits.
I guess you could say I'm more than a little bit wary of America's so-called Christians who get all fired-up about bashing and bombing into submission the ignorant, unwashed heathen masses who balk at the roles assigned to them in what many Americans seem to think is their government's divinely inspired plan for prosperity, known these days as globalization. But if the concept of a neo-Christian gospel of prosperity based on globalized markets maintained and bolstered as may prove necessary by the Bush administration policy of pre-emptive war is troubling, I can think of no important subject or issue on which I am persuaded to take the word of wealthy and politically influential celebrity Christian Zionist doomsday cult media personalities or the politicians whose careers they promote. To a man, they all seem to be preaching some gussied-up version of the "God wants me to drive a Cadillac" gospel. On its face, it is a determinedly short-sighted and selfish message. It's a message that offers absolutely no assistance to reasonable, rational human beings, believers or non-believers, many of whom have come to recognize, for example, the obstacles standing between them and an economically affordable and environmentally benign energy policy. (God knows it is almost as difficult to find ways to opt out of an economic system that is systematically destroying the environment as it is to curb the hideously destructive excesses of the US government, which air-dropped some 7 million tons of high-explosive ordinance on Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war, three times the amount dropped by the Allies on all enemy countries during WWII, killing about one-and-a-half million civilians, and which subsidized the Israeli government's slaughter of 20,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, during the year 1982 alone.) It's a message that says, "The teachings of the historical Jesus be damned -- I'm going to get mine and to hell with anyone who gets in my way." While I have no way of knowing what other vehicles, as it were, God may have had in mind for self-aggrandizing neoconservative Christian doomsday cult leaders, I can say it seems abundantly clear that Jesus' plans did not and do not include either the thoughtless plunder and ruination of the planet or the ruthless exploitation, brutal oppression, ethnic cleansing, and mass slaughter of the disenfranchised, the poor, or the unlearned anywhere on earth in order that any particular racial, religious, or national group, supposedly enjoying an exclusive relationship with God, might prosper.
Too many Americans, most of whom have never traveled beyond our borders, seem to think America is the world, while they blithely ignore or dismiss the legitimate concerns of those abroad, including our allies, who are directly and quite often negatively affected by our government's foreign policies and the rapacious activities of American corporations abroad. It never occurred to many Americans that the terror bombings that killed some 200 people in Madrid in March of this year were an indirect result of the on-going disaster that is our government's Middle East foreign policy and a direct result of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's ill-considered and unpopular support of the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Americans tend to think the world changed on September 11, 2001, but it has been a very long time since Europeans enjoyed the dubious luxury of being able to ignore the untoward effects of their governments' foreign policy blunders. I will never forget an unexpected sight that greeted me at Frankfurt airport when I arrived in Germany in January 1990. A graffiti artist with a wry sense of humor had scrawled on a newspaper vending box next to the logo USA Today: "Tomorrow the world." The most memorable bumper sticker I chanced to see during the seven months I spent working and traveling in Europe during 1990 was one that proclaimed, "Everyone is a foreigner, almost everywhere." The graffiti and the bumper sticker were and are representative of a not atypical European awareness of the wider world that still, today, far too few Americans are equipped to understand or appreciate.
I wonder if America's Christian Zionists actually believe that Jesus is smiling upon an America that is so determinedly careless of its neighbors rights, legitimate aspirations, and needs, an America so careless of His creation that it seems determined to alter the environment of the planet in ways that may well have catastrophic consequences that none of us or future generations will be able to avoid or escape. I have to say I find it impossible to recognize the spirit of Jesus in neoconservative Christian Zionism. It's adherents seem to have failed to consider that global warming -- driven in large part by an America that uses more oil, about 20 million barrels per day, than the combined amount used by the next six largest oil consuming nations -- is likely to become a metaphorical iron rod that impacts the lives of Americans every bit as negatively as it impacts the lives of citizens of other nations around the globe. Where in the Gospel record is there any indication that Jesus represents a God who can hardly wait to punish His erring children?
Perhaps Falwell, Graham, Robertson, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Company plan to arrive at the Pearly Gates in their armored limousines with a military police escort. As for me, well, better to strive for a clear conscience and clean hands. To this Christian, this much seems clear: Whether the Day of Judgment comes along sooner, or later, it will come, and soon enough. In this life I choose to stand with those, be they religionists or non-believers, who oppose religious fanaticism and doomsday cult exceptionalism while they champion human rights for all men, women, and children regardless of race, religion, or nationality. I choose to stand with such men and women in this life in part because I hope to stand with them in the next. As Alex Cockburn wrote of Edward Said shortly after his death in September of 2003, "We march through life buoyed by those comrades-in-arms we know to be marching with us, under the same banners, flying the same colors, sustained by the same hopes and convictions. They can be a thousand miles away; we may not have spoken to them in months; but their companionship is burned into our souls and we are sustained by the knowledge that they are with us in the world."
If anyone feels the need to reach for his or her checkbook, I will happily pass along contact information for a reputable charitable organization that provides desperately needed medical care for children wounded and maimed by military madness in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Other Articles by Michael Gillespie