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American Religion: Mammon

Via the eccentric and interesting blogger Reihan, of The American Scene, comes this fascinating piece of Wikipediana related to Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the so-called Church of Satan:

Blanche Barton, author of an autobiography of Satanist Anton LaVey, not speaking disparagingly, has suggested that the Neo-Tech "system of thought...offers Satanism in a grey flannel suit, promises overnight wealth, and never mentions the dreaded `S' word."

All of which means that LaVey's satanism was a sort of farrago of Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, hedonism, and the sort of occult camp that tends to be associated with certain heavy-metal acts, whose members have failed to mature beyond the adolescent need to provoke parents. But there is more here, namely, a sort of prosperity (anti)gospel, a materialist's credo of worldly pleasure, glory, and wealth.

All of which is richly suggestive of certain baleful trends located elsewhere on the spectrum of American religion, as I remarked in the comments:

That description is marvelously adaptable, and suggests something about both America and mainstream religion: "The (insert neologism for the stuff taught by cable tv preachers and megachurch pastors) system of thought offers Christianity in a grey flannel suit (or perhaps a pimp suit if we are talking about some of the cable folks), promises overnight prosperity, and never mentions the dreaded 's' word (sin)."

Now, far be it from me to suggest that prosperity preachers and megachurch pastors hawking guides to your best life now and suchlike are minions of the Evil One, or even merely practitioners of occult camp. No, what I suggest is that they are simply variant species of a genus, that of 'religions' that deify lusts and vices and proclaim that the entire point of existence is that these be stroked, fondled, and satisfied without measure. Perhaps anthropologists could analogize the cruder pagan cults of antiquity, which often seemed to entail little more than the invocation of some numinous power for the satisfaction of some earthly desire; or, perhaps again, the deification of that desire and its hypostatization into a cult figure.

1Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

My argument shall be succinct and direct: the great spiritual writers of the Church often understood the terms "good" and "evil" to refer to more than simply those categories of morality that we denominate by them, interpreting them to refer to the fragmentation and dissolution of man's soul under the influence of the passions; good and evil thus refer to pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, desire and aversion. We might state that the devil was not only the first libertarian, echoing a wise saying of Russell Kirk, but that he was also the first Utilitarian. The state of fallenness, of sin and bondage to death, is a passional state, a weakening of the will, which now vacillates between the antipodes of pleasure and pain; to be given over to fallenness is to be a slave of utility.

That Anton LaVey would found a church, of all things, dedicated to the propagation of such dissolution as the truth of being is merely pathetic, a rich target for mockery and scorn; that teachings not at all dissimilar have become conflated with the Christian tradition, and God made the step-n-fetchit for disordered desire - this is truly diabolical, say I. It is an inversion of the holy, and the Christian religion does possess strong language for the designation of that sort of thing.

Comments (6)

Is your primary point that these Christian preachers who assert that "God wants you to be successful" are saying an essentially bad thing? And isn't there a strain of Protestantism that teaches that success in this life is a sign of one's chosenness?

Yes, I do mean to argue bluntly that these preachers are saying a bad thing. What they are teaching is more a form of possibility thinking, of magic, than anything else. The older Protestantism, particularly in its robust, Calvinist forms, taught that material prosperity could well be a sign that one was elect, and that because material prosperity in the early modern period necessitated a frugal, worldly asceticism - in fine, the practice of virtues.

Now, I think this a perilous thing, and when the doctrine and moral practice that supported it weakened, the promise of peril came to pass - whence all of these prosperity preachers, who no longer speak of genuine conversion, repentance, the mortification of the flesh, self-limitation, and, most crucially, sin. I doubt that the old-time Calvinists taught that prosperity was a sure thing for the elect, but there is a balance here that I believe the Catholic and Orthodox tradition captures better: the getting of wealth may be a sign of virtue and God's favour, and it may be a sign of avarice; it may not come to some who do live abstemiously, piously, and virtuously, and who labour assiduously. But if wealth is gotten, it should be received as a gift and put to holy purposes. The Protestant teaching, I think, was often too confident in deeming wealth an evidence of virtue, and therein lay the peril: with doctrinal declension came the inversion, which has some preachers teaching nonsense like that of LaVey, but without travesties of the Mass and the sex. Although, sometimes, there is the latter, actually.

So some Christian preachers are in league with the devil, probably through ignorance. It's a tough call but somebody's got to make it.

As to not speaking of sin, I run into this problem frequently in Catholic parishes.

When I was a kid I never heard anybody preach a prosperity gospel and used to wonder what people were talking about who condemned it. (We had no TV until I was 9 or 10, and when we did have one, we were in church on Sunday mornings, so I never saw the TV preachers.) Baptist fundamentalists didn't get into those things. In fact, you were supposed to give 'til it hurt to the church and its projects, especially if your church had a Christian school. (This was the 60's and 70's, and Christian schools were just getting started and finding it very hard to pay the mortgages on the new buildings and stuff.)

But I gather the whole "Prayer of Jabez" thing (which I've heard about only by rumor) has more recently brought something like a prosperity gospel more into the evangelical mainstream.

I would have thought that the New Testament, and most of the old, fairly unambiguously condemned the desire for worldly wealth, particularly beyond a modest sufficiency, as evil.

Eye of the needle and the camel's hair, 'sell all ye have', the moneychangers and all that.

Granted a strained interpretation can turn any words into their opposite, but that's really stretching it.

Hi. First I want to say, I enjoy reading this blog :)

Secondly, I just wanted to express how much I agree with this:

"We might state that the devil was not only the first libertarian, echoing a wise saying of Russell Kirk, but that he was also the first Utilitarian."

These are certainly the ideological devils of our time, the driving forces behind the culture of death.

Keep up the good work.

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