Enter Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who turns 70 next month and who told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson on Monday that, if called on “to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your 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 nation’s willingness to put its most vulnerable at risk. Last weekend, President Trump hinted that, despite experts’ pleas for Americans to maintain social distancing, he would advocate for everyone 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’s 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 increasingly define their moral and communal identities not by where they pray, but where they shop.
Just look, for example, at the ways corporations have increasingly used the language of values, rather than personal aspiration, 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 message has morphed into the #MeToo-inspired “The Best Men Can Be,” pushing back against 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. Brands such as Pepsi, Chase and airline KLM regularly introduce rainbow-themed advertising campaigns for Pride Month. 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: A decade 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 instances, what churches and synagogues once were: 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 said they sought out brands that shared their “values.”
Likewise, the rise of “self-care” culture — inextricable from the notion that personal wellness is correlated with 10-step beauty routines or high-end exercise classes such as the perhaps-too-aptly named SoulCycle — has exacerbated this trend. “Wellness” — now a $4 trillion industry — demands that we spend money not merely to yield aesthetic or medical results, but also to purify our lives and souls. All sorts of products designed to optimize our spiritual well-being, whether meditation apps such as Headspace and 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 Angela Thurston have called “unbundling” — mixing and matching spiritual traditions into bespoke practices: blending yoga, Christianity and tarot, say, or Judaism and Buddhist meditation. (Just one example: About a quarter of self-identified Christians say they believe in astrology.) Our religious lives have become yet another component of our capitalist ethos: a chance to build our identities through consumption.
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 like Creflo Dollar and Trump’s current spiritual adviser, Paula White, regularly teach 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 — however repugnant — that in the midst of a pandemic, our capitalist system might require sacrificing the elderly to ensure future bounty for the young is sort of the next logical step. When the language of buying and selling, product and profit, so dominates our discourse about our identities, our society and our metaphysics, 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.
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. Since the time of the 19th-century New Thought craze — a kind of proto-“The Secret” self-help movement — 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. These ideas about financial prosperity — not just our ability to eat or house ourselves, but to consume products that reify our identities — are encoded in our culture, and have 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.