Tomorrow, I’m participating in the Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion, with a commentary on Kate Bowler’s recent book.
Here are a few paragraphs from the draft of my talk:
I can’t say it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. (Sorry, Kate.) I found it disconcerting from beginning to end. Not unlike reading that, according to Lloyd Blankfein, chairperson and CEO of Goldman Sachs, he was really only “doing God’s work.” (He also insisted we should be celebrating his bank’s success, not condemning it. “Everybody should be, frankly, happy,” he said. “The financial system led us into the crisis and it will lead us out.”)
But (I’ll admit) I also found it both highly entertaining (there were times I found myself laughing out loud at the harebrained ideas and pie-in-the-sky promises) and deeply human—since clearly Kate developed a great deal of affection, perhaps even grudging admiration, for at least some of the members of the Prosperity Gospel movement she met along the way.
There’s more than one reason, then, that the entire story reminded me of American Hustle, the recent film in which David O. Russell manages to capture a nation of small-time con artists, who both deserve our affection (in the earnest manner in which they reinvent themselves and try to “do the right thing”) and represent a distraction from the real culprits (the big-time con artists whose activities have actually put people out of work and driven them into poverty, kept their employees’ wages low while corporate profits and incomes at the top have soared, and now seek to deprive those at the bottom of much-needed social benefits, like food stamps and extended unemployment compensation).
Because at least at one level that’s what we’re talking about here: small-time con-artists (even when they preach in mega churches) who are quite adept at reinventing themselves to take advantage of people’s attempts to improve their lot in life and to negotiate the contradictions of U.S. capitalism. An American Dream that is both dangled before them—if only they invest adequately in their faith in Jesus—but largely kept out of reach. Small-time hustlers who actually embody that faith, or at least its trappings, until of course it all comes tumbling down by one or another much-publicized scandal.
Which makes them different from the members of their congregations, who allow themselves to be conned by the promise but are quietly hidden from view if and when they fail. And different from the real hustlers—on both Main Street and Wall Street—who have made out like bandits both in the run-up to and now in the midst of the Second Great Depression. The only thing they have in common is their shared belief that they’re all “doing God’s work.”