This week on the AS Facebook page I posted a meme that no longer seems controversial to me at all. It’s about how the plots of the classic Christmas narratives It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are critiquing predatory capitalism. And yet, when I posted it, it stirred up a firestorm. The conservative responses that came in helped me remember why such an idea would have been controversial to the right-leaning people I grew up with, and helped me see anew how much American religious conservatives disturbingly use God to defend or deflect from the abuses of capitalism. I plan to use today’s blog post to unwrap how this works and why it’s a disturbing sign of authoritarian belief systems that in fact often seem to conflate capitalism with God in disturbing ways.
How This Might Be Useful
As always, I’m hoping you’ll find this useful regardless of whether you’re a deconstructing evangelical, an atheist or progressive Christian trying to understand the thought patterns behind the white Evangelical populations whose thought patterns are having an outsized effect on various policies in the US and individual states, etc. etc. etc.
My Background and Standpoint
Also as usual, I’m coming at this topic from the perspective of a pastor’s kid that grew up in a right-leaning moderate white Evangelical denomination that went on to become a communication scholar.
Not a Fan of Where I Get My Conservative Thinking Cred From, But….
As I’ve discussed before (especially here and here), my education in conservative thought included having no choice but to listen to Rush Limbaugh for long stretches in the car during high school. Even when I was more conservative at the time, this felt abusive to me. I say this here to note that when it comes to being aware of many of the thought patterns of the talking points religious conservative people used to defend capitalism, well, I’ve got the cred.
That Said, It Had Been Awhile….
That doesn’t mean that I had invited this kind of thinking into my presence much in recent years, though, so as mentioned above, I’d honestly sort of forgotten what a firestorm it might cause to post about how the Christmas classics It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are calling out the dangers of predatory capitalism.
How, Er, Kind of Them to Remind Me Of This Strain of Rhetoric? I Guess?
Never you fear, though, plenty of people showed up to remind me of all the nuanced deflections I grew up with, complete with God language to try to refocus the conversation.
And boy did that both remind me of the rhetoric I’d been steeped in in my youth. It also encouraged me to bring my communication scholar tools to bear in looking at the problems with this rhetoric I grew up with.
Are These Movies Really About The Power of God ONLY?
What was most striking to me about these responses is the pattern of repeatedly trying to say the movies were really about God in some way. God’s power to save George Bailey. God’s power to save Ebenezer Scrooge.
But, if so, they were also about saving people from the excesses of unhealthy abusive iterations of capitalism, so as I noted in response to these threads, I don’t really see a conflict between these things.
As in my youth, though, the respondents clearly felt ONLY their explanation should be allowed. (Which at this point just makes me shrug, because both things can be true at once.)
Ahhhh, Those “Heart Issues”—Or Something
Another big related thread that I recognized strongly from my youth was the idea that the issues in the films couldn’t be about systemic issues because they were about individualistic “heart issues” for the men being critiqued.
When Drawing Attention to Systemic Issues Is Anathema
And there I was pulled back into so many memories of my youth. See, for right-leaning white Evangelical conservatives in the US, it feels downright heretical to draw attention to systemic issues, especially those that might critique the system of “free market” capitalism.
Much Easier to Scapegoat Scrooge and Mr. Potter When They Have “Heart Issues”
You see, if things that bad men do wrong aren’t actually connected to faults in the systems around us, then it’s MUCH easier to scapegoat the men in these movies without having to look at the ways similar issues are playing out in the economic systems we see around us.
Without this awareness of these movies pointing to systemic flaws related to unregulated capitalism, we can just project our discomforts about evil greedy men that exploit others into an easy viewing of these films and feel better afterwards.
Takes Away the Need to Take Action Against Injustice—Because, You Know, “Leave It to God” (So Many Eyerolls)
Having seen bad men held accountable symbolically, we can check off that emotional box, having used these films, along with our faith that only God can change the heart, to avoid thinking about how change on earth along these lines often comes through painful processes of human advocacy, even in Christian history.
Trying to Cope with Human Limitations—Sure, I Get That
This is ironic to think back on, because I can see how we did this, and how much better it made us feel about our human limitations.
But This Thinking Shrank Our Limitations Further Than It Needed To
In fact, unfortunately I can also see how it made us think that our human limitations were much much smaller than they actually were.
The Fallacy of Helplessness Rears Its Dysfunctional Head Again
In short, it betrayed us into a fallacy of helplessness. As I’ve described before (here, here and here particularly), the fallacy of helplessness is a very natural fallacy connected to the freeze stress response to feeling overwhelmed by things.
Unfortunately, like many stress responses, sometimes the freeze response when we feel overwhelmed leads us into situations where we fail to act where maybe we all collectively could be doing a lot by each of us doing a small amount of effort as we can where we’re able.
And of course when that happens, it falls into the hands of those who would prefer we not use the power we DO have to make change toward healthier systems.
I Mean, I Totally Get the Temptation…
And yes, don’t get me wrong—I totally feel this temptation, even from the other side of the religio-political fence these days.
I Mean, Sometimes It Does Feel Like Unchecked Capitalism Creates This Overwhelming Force
Unchecked “free market” capitalism does feel like a strong vicious god to be served sometimes. A hugely powerful god that aided by unhealthy leaders has increased income inequality for decades and decades in the US.
But Wait, It’s Actually Just a Human System That Can Be Checked by Humans
But that’s the thing about powerful systems. They aren’t actually these all-powerful supernatural forces like the kind of God my right-leaning folks claimed to serve—the kind of God that got strangely confused with the power of “free market” capitalism.
As the Bible points out frequently, exploitive systems are furthered by, well, ordinary people. People like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy, Mind You, to Check Them When They’re Out of Control
Granted, the Ebenezer Scrooges of the world may need quite a jolt to change their ways, sure. And they do tend to be people with an undue amount of power. Which is why instead of being visited by ghosts or angels themselves, they need the George Baileys of the world to intervene to stand up for the vulnerable and exploited.
Looking Back at How the Bible Depicts God and People Handling Exploitive People in Power
And the thing is, from my perspective, that’s an incredibly biblical idea. From my view, that’s why the Bible has God send a lot of humans to call out these kinds of exploitive people (mostly, let’s be clear, men). To call them to better behavior.
How the Right-Leaning Christianity of My Youth Dealt with These Parts of the Bible
In retrospect it’s so fascinating, in a disturbing way, to look back at how all of those Bible passages in which this happens–and let’s be clear, there are a LOT of them–were twistingly misapplied to shift them away from exploitive systems and bad behavior that enables them over to blame specific humans for behavior that doesn’t actually always hurt people.
Let’s Talk about Ezekiel—and How He Talks about the Problems of Sodom….
A prime example of this is the passages that call out the city of Sodom for exploiting the poor, vulnerable and marginalized populations. See, Ezekiel 16: 49-50 (NIV):
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
Ignoring the Point of the Passage
This passage is soooo fascinating to me, because most people in my upbringing along with many others in Western Christianity have completely ignored its message in much the same way the commenters on the It’s a Wonderful Life/A Christmas Carol post did.
See, looking at this passage, it’s so incredibly clear that the detestable things in the last part of the verse are not, for instance, likely bringing up some whole new topic relating to same-sex romantic relationships—which is what legally Western countries have erroneously labeled as “sodomy.”
Oh Wait, “True Sodomy” Is About…Exploiting the Poor and Vulnerable???
Nope, it’s pretty clear that Sodom’s issues dealt with being a collection of both individuals but also a system of individuals that exploited and hurt the needy. You know, like a whole series of unchecked capitalists like Mr. Potter and Ebenezer Scrooge.
So Wait, Are Currently Right-Wing Christians Guilty of Upholding “True Sodomy”???
What is fascinating to me about thinking about the incredibly defensive reactions to the It’s a Wonderful Life/A Christmas Carol post is that Western Christianity these days, in defending capitalism against any idea that it might have flaws in some ways, is actually incredibly guilty of what you might call “true sodomy.”
So Ezekiel Is Saying Persecuting LGBTQ+ and Poor People Is the Actual Problem???
And in specifically these days persecuting LGBTQ+ Christians with laws against even saying the word gay or affirming people who experience trans, non-binary, or gender-fluid identities, right-leaning Christians are definitely deflecting from that actual sin of “true sodomy” they are practicing and enabling.
Right-Wing Christians Defending Capitalism as…Wait, What? Perfect????
See, a third thing I found really fascinating and disturbing about the responses to the It’s a Wonderful Life/A Christmas Carol meme was that the defensive responses refused to see any flaws whatsoever in capitalism.
These people seemed to refuse to see capitalism as a human system that might naturally have good points and bad points, with good things about it and problems that may need to be shored up through things like regulations to avoid abuse.
Sigh…The Classic Authoritarian Rhetoric Trick of Refusing to Make Space for Disagreement
Nope, these people were doing the classic authoritarian rhetoric trick of seeing any reference to a subset of capitalism as “predatory” and assuming that because capitalism=good and perfect, the movies couldn’t possibly be calling out abuses of an imperfect human system and asking for change.
Definitely Not a Healthy Christian Attitude In Light of Ezekiel, Etc.
Which, again, is incredibly strange in light of the fact that biblical passages like the one from Ezekiel I cited above and many many others are saying that God is greatly displeased when broken human systems hurt people.
In fact, a whole lot of the Bible, both in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, spend an awful lot of time calling out people AND SYSTEMS who exploit and abuse people.
Yeahhh, the Religious Right Definitely Isn’t Doing the Healthy Prophetic Thing….
And in light of the scientific research that shows that the kinds of public social policies that the Religious Right is currently getting people to vote for are actively harming marginalized and abuse populations while behind the scenes the same party is actively toadying to the oligarchs who continue to gain both money and power at everyone else’s expense…
Sheep? Or Goats????
It just feels like if the God portrayed by Jesus in Matthew 25, and the one that these same Christians believe inspired the seemingly inerrant words quoted above from Ezekiel, would ever Matthew 25 this group, assessing them to see what they had done for the “least of these,” they would have an awful lot to account for.
These Conservative Beliefs Simply Don’t Fit with the Message I See in the Bible
And seeing as how the Bible deploys servants of God frequently to call out unhealthy leaders and systems, calling people over and over to do what they can to take care of the marginalized in society—the poor, the widows, the orphans and strangers, to use the vulnerable easily exploited populations of the time as examples—it feels incredibly strange to me now, this idea that “only God” is asked to call human systems of exploitation to account, much less that sins like greed are “only some sort of individual ‘heart issue’ problem.
More specifically, it seems like the opposite of what I read the is a huge theme of the Bible—that capitalism is not some sort of supernatural force to be appeased and feared like a god, but a human system that needs a lot of reasonable checks and balances through human accountability, like any other human system.
Let’s Talk About Monopoly—Yes, the Board Game—and How Systems Can Make Us Unhealthy
And yes, like any other system, capitalism itself has rules and behaviors that shape us, sometimes into behaving in ways that serve the system instead of these rules of taking care of the marginalized and of loving neighbor as self.
I got a glimpse of this the other night when I played Monopoly for the first time in ages with a couple of my progressive peops in my life.
Bringing Out the Competitiveness…
See, one of my peops specifically, when they were playing Monopoly, was deploying a strategy of buying up as many properties as possible in an attempt to earn as much rent as possible, and got quite competitive about it, but was quite cash-poor as a result.
Meanwhile, I bought properties in a more moderate way, but definitely found myself demanding my rents when people landed on my properties.
Both of us found it interesting, looking at the sides of ourselves that were brought out simply by playing the rules of the game—which, by the way, if you didn’t know, was designed not to enable capitalism but to critique it.
Systemic Leanings Can Themselves Be Problematic—Even When You Play By the Rules
Because yes, capitalism doesn’t force us to exploit and abuse others, but just simply playing by the rules of the game absolutely encourages people to think more of the money than of others’ humanity.
And that, if it’s carried out without rules encouraging it in corrective directions, can lead to a lot of incredibly unhealthy and dehumanizing behavior.
Can We Please Talk about Those Billionaire Oligarchs and Big Corporations?
You know, of the sort we’re seeing from the oligarchs that make sure they don’t pay taxes despite record profits for their huge corporations.
And Yet, Every Entity Responds to Some Form of Activism—Including Voices of Consumers
The thing is, while these people have become entirely too powerful, even corporations have all sorts of tipping points when enough people voice desire for different practices and different products. So that is most definitely something we who see these issues can do.
And Then We Can Elect People Who Will Regulate….
We can also work to elect enough leaders that will stand up for healthy regulations and policies that undo at least some of their sociopathic behaviors against vulnerable populations.
An Important Side Note about Bothsidesism
Of course, to get there, we need to explode the fascistic myth that all political leaders are as bad as all the others. While no leaders are perfect, it’s very clear when looking at the track record that only one current party in the US—the Democrats—have been both seeking to pass and actually passing legislation that has been helping people in recent years, while Republicans since the Tea Party arose have been bullying blockers of reasonable legislation while increasingly enacting a fascistic authoritarian agenda.
This sharp difference ought to concern us all. And we all, regardless of our religious views, ought to be raising our voices to hold both corporations and politicians accountable to create healthier policies that work against the excesses of the predatory sides and abuses of capitalism.
Do Not Grow Weary of Doing Good, Friends!
I’m out of steam for the day, but hopefully that’s enough for now. May we all use the plots of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, games of Monopoly, passages from the Bible or whatever else we find inspirational to spur us on toward more efforts to work against the unhealthy sides of human systems as well as individual behavior.
And may we not get so stuck in the fallacy of helplessness that we assume our efforts are not worthwhile.
A Final Charge
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