Let’s start with another book. Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age is a brilliant story of how the western world moved from a premodern age of enchantment to our current secular age. Refuting the commonly told subtraction story (we learned science and got rid of religion), Taylor told a fuller and more nuanced and detailed story. In his telling, to live in a secular age is to live in an age of disenchantment: the cosmos was once enlivened with spirits and power, but now it is just a brute natural world (an immanent frame). At the same time, it is an age of authenticity in which many beliefs are possible: the religious person and the skeptic both recognize there are other options for belief or non belief.
You should read Taylor’s book too. McCarraher begins this book by arguing that one spot Taylor was wrong was in saying our culture has moved from one described as enchanted to one of disenchantment. Instead, McCarraher argues, we have become a culture enchanted by money, greed, business: capitalism (hence the title). He spends the next 600 pages demonstrating this shift, telling a story that covers the same ground as Taylor’s.
Its wrong to say McCarraher simply thinks Taylor is wrong. Taylor’s book covered philosophy and religion, this one is focused more on economics and religion. In other words, they cover the same historical time period but focus on different people (at least, I don’t remember many of the people McCarraher talks about appearing in Taylor’s book…but its been a while). Thus, McCarraher is adding clarity to merely one element of Taylor’s story.
McCarraher begins with the Puritans and there are some chilling passages in there about their views on not just money, but on African and Native Americans. If you are at all familiar with the “health and wealth” gospel today, you can see its roots in how he describes the Puritans understanding of money. From there he moves through the time period describing rise of Fordism and assembly lines and more, as well as the theories behind all this, the advertising that promoted it, and those who futilely resisted it. By the time he talks about Disney’ place in a culture enchanted by consumerism and advertising needing to tell a story to create a need, you’re both convinced and depressed.
I suppose I should say, I was essentially convinced going in. As a Christian, I remember Jesus’ words, “you cannot serve both God and money.” Young Christians are warned to beware pursuing money and wealth. Of course, we also demonstrated our Christian commitment in the late 90s by buying: Christian CDs, Christian t-shirts, Christian concerts, etc. Capitalism tamed Christianity.
Ultimately, capitalism has triumphed over Christianity. Most Christians in America see capitalism as a blessing from God and anything that even hints of socialism (or, 1950s era capitalism) is deemed Marxist and vigorously opposed. The Epilogue is worth the price of the book, as in these 15 pages he brings the story up to the present (the final chapter ends around 1975). The election of Trump reflects the lauding of businessmen as near gods and the unfettered marketplace of neoliberalism has so enchanted us that we cannot imagine any alternative.
Of course, McCarraher does speculate on what the future may hold. This is kind of grim, but he also ends on a hopeful note, referencing the imagination of a better world in someone like St. Francis as an ideal we may grasp on to. I hope we can imagine something more beautiful and beneficial than neoliberal capitalism.
All that to say, if you are into history or economics, read this book. It would be nice if there was a shorter version as it is quite tedious. Hopefully, like with Taylor’s work, smart people will come along to distill this for more of us. For now though, its a feast of history and economic history that is well worth it.
Honorable Mention – Social Democracy in the Making by Gary Dorrien.
In the minds of a whole lot of people, there is no real difference between socialism and communism. Its all synonymous with Russian gulags and mass murder and economic destruction. Yet this simplistic equivocation does not stand up to the least bit of historical scrutiny, for in reality, socialism and socialist ideas are quite diverse. Even more surprising might be that there is a long tradition of Christian socialism as Christians, seeking to apply the teachings and principles of Jesus, believed that some form of democratic socialism was the best way to make these teachings a reality.
Dorrien’s book presents the roots and history of Social Democracy, focusing on England and Germany. This book is filled with names and organizations and history from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s. Its not a quick or a fun read and I found myself skimming portions of it. I was more interested in the general ideas than in the details of every specific writer and thinker in the period. That said, the details demonstrate the point that socialism cannot be reduced to “Marxism” or “communism” or “bad” as it is often in popular level discussion.
For me, being more interested in theology than economics, Dorrien’s discussion of the theologians was more interesting than the economists. Thus I most enjoyed his analysis of FD Maurice, Barth, Tillich and William Temple. Along with this, growing up in America, we are simply taught (indoctrinated) from a young age that unfettered capitalism is the best way to have an economy. You could say we are discipled into a way of life (to use a Christian term) and that capitalism itself is a liturgy (a worship) that forms us. We cannot imagine any different way of seeing the world. And when we already assume our consumer capitalist Christianity is the only right and good way, we easily lump any other way, such as social democracy, into the “evil” side of things. We don’t even realize how corrupted and syncretized our Christianity is by the capitalist gods. Dorrien’s book succeeds in showing that, not too long ago, there was a strong Christian tradition of social teaching (and there is today if we take time to see it).
In providing this detailed history, Dorrien’s book is a valuable contribution for Christians (such as myself) thinking through how Christianity relates to the public world and the realm of politics. It is not as engaging and exciting as McCarraher’s. If you are looking for a general summary of Christian social teaching (as I was) you might be disappointed (as I was, from time to time). But if you want a detailed history, which is essential, this book is for you. Even if you do not read every word and cannot remember every name, this book shows that reducing socialism to a mere cuss word is historically inaccurate and unhelpful.