Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Economics, Religion

The New Idolatry: Religious Thinking in the Un-Commonwealth of America

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Just prior to the Labor Day holiday, Eric L. Santner, Press author and Philip and Ida Romberg Professor of Modern Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago, was in touch with some compelling observations on recent debates over taxation; the Republican penchant for religious thinking; and controversies over purity, job creation, and other new spirits of capitalism. Santner’s most recent book The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (reviewed here at Bookslut) indeed touches upon the foundation of these issues, often in pursuit of the vital metaphor of the king’s lost body, throughout the difficult transition from subjecthood to secularity in the psyches of democratic societies. Read Santner’s essay in full below:

The New Idolatry: Religious Thinking
in the Un-Commonwealth of America

At a recent debate among Republican presidential candidates in Iowa, all participants raised their hand when asked whether they would oppose a deficit-reduction agreement that featured 10 dollars in budget cuts for every dollar in increased tax revenue. I think one misses something important if one dismisses this moment as a bit of cynical political theater. But it is equally insufficient to see in it a display of genuine political commitments and principles. Rather, this peculiar pledge of allegiance is symptomatic of the ways in which the Republican side of current debates has infused questions about economic policy with religious meanings and values. And as is often the case when religious energies come to be displaced into profane spheres of life, the results are bad—not only for those spheres of life but for religion as well.
For example, one might think about the similarities between the attitude of Republicans to taxes and that of anorexics to food. For both, less is always better, and nothing would be best of all. Republicans have a “taxation disorder” just as anorexics have an eating disorder. Both groups treat what is essentially a practical matter—how much money is needed by the state given the current needs of the country and its people; how much food is needed given the demands of the body—as a matter of a quasi-sacred ethical stance concerning the purity of the body. In both cases, we find a demand for “starving the beast,” a personal or collective body felt to be disgustingly fleshy, to be always too much, to be in need of ever greater reduction, thinning, cutting, fasting. In both disorders we find a deeply pathological form of what Max Weber characterized as the “spirit of capitalism,” a fundamentally this-worldly asceticism fueled by a religious sense of duty and obligation aimed at assuring our place among the divinely elected. (There is surely much to say here about the meaning in all of this of debt, indebtedness, being in default, being in a state of guilt—the German word Schuld means both “debt” and “guilt”—but that is for another discussion.)
What is most bizarre in the current situation is the way in which the Republicans have fused this “Protestant ethic,” as Weber called it, with a sort of polytheistic worship of wealth and the wealthy—in short, with a rather blatant form of idolatry. Why does the beast need to be starved? Why does the “flesh” of the body politic need to be reduced, reduced, reduced? The answer we hear over and over again is: for the sake of the “Job Creators.” The one Creator God has effectively been dispersed into the pantheon of new idols, those to whom we must all sacrifice so that they may show favor on us and create new worlds of economic possibility. Job creation has become the new form of grace or gratuitousness otherwise reserved for divinity. Our duty is to make sacrifices and above all to be vigilant about not calling forth the wrath of the Job Creators lest they abandon us and elect others as their chosen people (other nations who make bigger and better sacrifices).
The old culture wars concerning hot-button social issues have simply assumed a new guise. Tax increases have come to be regarded as a sort of job abortion, the killing of unborn economic life. Republicans have, in a word, invested wealth with the same religious aura that radical anti-abortion groups have always invested in the cells of the fetus. Yesterday’s baby killer is today’s job killer: both are essentially infidels, non-believers. What is clear is that there is no room for debate here. If wealth has come to be regarded as sacred, if its movement into the bank accounts of individuals and corporations represents the moment of conception of (still unborn) economic life, then surely there can be no compromise.
If there is any truth to this analysis, then the real problem we face is not just the impossibility of engaging in real debates about our economic life but the impossibility of engaging with the demands and complexities of religious life as well. For by infusing money with the halo of the sacred, by transfiguring high earners into Job Creators to whom the rest of us owe pledges of covenantal allegiance, what we lose is not only the capacity to think about economic issues in a relatively rational way; we also lose our capacity to live lives informed by the values of our religious traditions. That is certainly one of the lessons of the biblical ban on idolatry.
A similar dynamic is at work on another front in the culture wars, the debate over creationism and so-called “intelligent design.” What is ultimately so disturbing about the case made for these alternatives to the theory of evolution is not that it represents bad science but rather that it demeans and degrades religion by essentially turning the Bible into a kind of science textbook competing with other science textbooks. Creationism is not bad science—it is not science at all—but rather a kind of blasphemy. It reduces the status of the holy books of the Judeo-Christian tradition to that of first-year biology textbooks. The ones who should be enraged are not scientists, but rather priests, pastors, rabbis, and all who care deeply about the moral and spiritual values at the heart of the biblical traditions.
As with evolutionary theory so with economic theory and policy: the infusion of religious values and meanings into debates about deficits, budgets, and taxes do not simply inhibit our capacity to steer our way toward a better economic future; it also represents a threat to the integrity of the life of faith and its difficult demands, demands that always, in the end, pertain to the urgent and needful presence of our neighbor. The hands raised by those Republican candidates at the Iowa debates some weeks ago do not signal strong principles about economic policy but rather a perverse infusion of religious attitudes into the sphere of economic life, a form of idolatry that does damage both to the economy and to religion.
Eric L. Santner, the University of Chicago
For additional scholarly background, have a look at On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald and Santner’s now classic gloss on the Terry Schiavo case.