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American Religion - The Iconography of Idolatry


"These be thy gods, O America, which brought thee up out of the land of self-government!"

Pious and fearful devotees of the god Mammon beseech his idol for a restoration of his evanescent benefactions, the sacraments of self-creation, to the end that they might slake their passions for a little while longer in the infinite interior abyss of desire, their minds assuming the forms of corporeal things, so as to avoid confronting the terrible abyss of their own freedom before God, in whom Alone they may find surcease of suffering.

Comments (37)

Holy crap, what is that? Is that what it looks like??

Holy crap, what is that?

It's BULL!

Actually, and more accurately speaking, the bull of Wall Street.

On a side note --

Maximos: Glad you've returned to writing (ever eloquent as before) here again (or, at least, I hope so!), especially concerning this particular matter in so precise a manner as that!

After having daily endured Kudlow's own faux outrage and his purportedly conservative views on the matter, one need hear from somebody with actual substance as opposed to a blowhard as he.

Okay, please forgive my ignorance, is there a statue of a bull on Wall Street? A statue which resembles an idol? And they're touching it and petting it for...luck, or something?

About that bull, here you are. It's a symbol of "aggressive financial optimism and prosperity."

Wait, I can hear it now--prosperity is right around the corner!

I'm all for smashing false idols as much as the next reactionary and work just blocks away from the icon in this picture. I have never seen desperate worshippers gather to slavishly stroke it back to fecundity. Please tell me this was photo-shopped by a Franciscan making a graphic spiritual point. Please.

Okay, thanks. Now I understand the current issue of the New Yorker, whhose cartoon-caption-writing contest this week has a cartoon of a charging bull statue being replaced with an ostrich-with-head-in-sand statue.

(BTW, this same issue of "probably the best magazine that ever was" has the most explicitly anti-Catholic bit (in their humor column) I've ever seen in that old mag. May be time to cancel the subscription. The Atlantic Monthly went last month, for their sickening paean to slasher movies, combined with the de rigeur takedown of Christianity, just in time for Easter! Soon I'll be left with just Harper's and First Things. At least I know what to expect when I open them.


I have never seen desperate worshippers gather to slavishly stroke it back to fecundity. Please tell me this was photo-shopped by a Franciscan making a graphic spiritual point. Please.

Even so, you still can't deny the truth (even if herein only figurative) such an image as this conveys.

It would be interesting to know what's actually going on here.

Acolytes of Ayn Rand stroking the horns of the bull?

That seems unlikely.

Apparently the bull is now is tourist destination in the financial district (so the Wiki page says), so it's quite possible this is just a group of tourists with a guide, gathered around to hear the story of the statue, and a couple of people are just touching it out of curiosity / proximity.

Oh, and btw, I should also ask: what's with this "American Religion" stuff?

What remote region in clime or time are you pining for, where the god Mammon ruled any less forcefully than he does here & now?

Can we get the audio for this Litury and listen to their incantations?

I'd be curious to learn which Friedman; Milton or Thomas, enjoys greater prominence.

Even so, you still can't deny the truth (even if herein only figurative) such an image as this conveys.

Aristocles, that comment reminds me of a point in Kreeft's _Between Heaven and Hell_ where one character says that the "truth" of the (fictional, he believes) story of Jesus' resurrection is that "life triumphs over death." To which the Lewis character replies that if Jesus didn't really rise again, then life didn't really (in that case) triumph over death. So here: What do you mean "the truth such an image conveys"? The point of the post was, I thought, supposed to be that _this picture_ illustrates Americans' creepy idolatrous love of money. If people really are touching it for luck or something, then I'm duly creeped out; if nothing even remotely like that is going on in the picture, then, sorry, but I'm still waiting to be creeped out.


What truth do you actually think I was referring to?

Suffice it to say that "where your treasure is -- there will your heart be also"!

Gintas - thanks.

So it's just like tourists (and locals) in Moscow rubbing the dog's nose at the Ploshchad revolyutsii stop in the subway.

I use the title of "American Religion" because I believe, consistent with the etymology of the word, that 'religion' is that which most fundamentally binds a people together as a people, and in the case of Americans, it is our shared secular faith in an infinite horizon of prosperity and material abundance that unifies us. Not actual religious principles or creeds, not social issues, nor any other of the ephemera of our political discourse, but the foundational conviction that public authority is legitimate only insofar as it is oriented towards the generation of increasing material prosperity, regardless of the costs externalized in the destruction of other human goods, or even of the natural world.

This is not a matter of pining away for some place, distant geographically and/or temporally, but of nostalgia for the 'oughtness' of human nature, as opposed to the mere 'isness' of human nature - a summons, that is, to choose one side of that line which bisects each human soul, instead of allying so often with the one side practically while feigning allegiance to the other. The maximization of material welfare is not one of the permanent things.

As regards what is supposed to be transpiring in the picture, allow me to state that I've been down Wall Street more than a few times, and I have never, even once, seen anything remotely like this picture unfold before me; the most I've ever seen is the shooting of a few photographs, maybe someone attempting to climb the thing, but never this superstitious touching.

Since there have been no repeat performances (and it still possible the Catholic Worker staged this as street theater) it is obvious the Dow tanked shortly after this ceremony and folks returned home crestfallen and feeling abandoned by yet another god that failed.

Let's hope many of them turn to the Living God in their hour of need.

...consistent with the etymology of the word, that 'religion'...

Religion comes from the Latin "relegere", which basically means "to relate".

Given the actual etymology of the word so conceived, I would think that, ultimately, it is far more fitting to place it within the following context:

For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also. (Mt 6:21)

Mind you, the above has far more reaching application than a mere Christian meaning of the passage.

Still, unlike how Lydia would have it, personally, I find my salvation not in the goods of this world but in that (I guess 'fictitious') person who I call My Lord & Saviour.

I want people to find salvation in the goods of this world? Watch it, Ari. I know you're given to overstatement, but I suggest you pull in your horns.

Could somebody please provide a link (to the Catholic Worker?) to the story that goes with this image and to the claim that "superstitious touching" was going on? What does the photographer claim to have witnessed?

Could somebody please provide a link (to the Catholic Worker?) to the story that goes with this image and to the claim that "superstitious touching" was going on? What does the photographer claim to have witnessed?

Lydia has a point here.

It would be good if we were provided the actual context of what's going on in the picture.

Unless, of course, it was really something photoshopped, as Kevin suggested earlier, in order to convey a point.

The photos was emailed to me, so the context was lost, necessitating a bit of searching. This was apparently the source for the image, and this nutbaggery was the apparent inspiration for the episode. Hence, it was not quite the unvarnished idolatry which my caption suggested, though it seems close enough, given that these folks are apparently praying that prosperity will be restored upon "biblical principles" (whatever the hell that is supposed to mean, given that even they admit ignorance on the subject, and given that such phraseology usually bespeaks a strange hermeneutic), which entails the redistribution of wealth to the "righteous", presumably including themselves.

So, yes, I took liberties unawares, for those incline to split hairs. But in my defense, I would argue, consistent with any meaningful theology or philosophical anthropology, that anything done in the body carries a spiritual significance, and that, consequently, praying over Wall Street's idol does symbolize something, and that the subjective intentions of the prayerful do not exhaust that meaning. I trust that we would all understand the difference between praying before a cross or icon, and praying before a pentagram, and I trust that we all understand the difference between reverencing a cross or icon and this 'pious touching' of the bronze bull.

"Could somebody please provide a link (to the Catholic Worker?) to the story that goes with this image and to the claim..."

I facetiously suggested the Catholic Worker was making a satirical point, since most beleivers in the Golden Calf express their idolatry in other ways, than publcily caressing a brass bull.

Here though is information on CW, and from my experience the Houston community has remained most faithful to Dorothy Day's religious traditionalism. Too many in the New York community have fallen to secularization and ideology

Let's forget finding the story that goes with the picture and caption it ourselves.

Were Michael Novak and Lew Rockwell there?

Richard wrote a provocative post about American Religion along similar lines, but the historical chart he provides tells most of the story.

Let's forget finding the story that goes with the picture and caption it ourselves.

Lydia just wrote a post condemning deceptive language, is it time to throw that overboard already?

"Lydia just wrote a post condemning deceptive language, is it time to throw that overboard already?"

Satire doesn't obscure the truth. It provides illumination, though the humorless often remain impervious to its effects.

Maximos: much as I enjoy your writing, it just drives me crazy that you never seem to get very specific about what sort of socio-political order you really want.

Doing my best to read between the lines, I've more or less concluded that you (like Daniel Larison, I believe, and maybe Zippy, too) would favor a return to some sort of pre-modern order with a (relatively) weak state and a (relatively) powerful church - i.e., some sort of "theocracy" - given, of course, that the church in question would conform to *correct* moral & theological views (i.e., your views), rather than the sort of "liberal" views currently promoted by all of the actually existing Christian churches.

Am I getting warm?


Satire doesn't obscure the truth. It provides illumination, though the humorless often remain impervious to its effects.

I beg to differ.

If your contention is that satire only seeks to illuminate and not decieve then I shudder to think the kind of illumination you find in those of the anti-catholic variety, most especially the rather notorious one concerning Pius XII as the infamous "Hitler's Pope" (contrary to the historically-noted positive opinions of the man by such folks as former Israeli Prime Ministers, Golda Meir & Mosha Sharett, Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog and even eminent scientist, Albert Einstein himself).

In other words, contrary to what you might personally believe in this regard, not all satire serve the noble purpose of illumination. In certain instances, its purpose is exactly the opposite.

Maximos, thanks for looking up the info. I quite agree with you about its being nutballery, and even to some extent creepy, as if there were nothing more important in the world for them to get together and pray about. And they should have thought even once about what sort of a photo op it would make.

On the other hand, I'm tempted to some degree to throw up my hands when I realize that people I respect have supported the bailout, regardless of the precedent it set and its other ill effects, because of the crash to the economy that (supposedly) would otherwise have taken place and that was (supposedly) fended off by the bailout. And so I can't help sighing rather helplessly and saying, "Which is worse: Considering the crash of America's economy to be so bad a thing that you gather a bunch of people around this silly bull statue to pray to the one true God that it won't happen, or considering the crash of America's economy to be so bad a thing that you support hysteria-driven hasty socialization of the banking sector, the precedent of massive bailouts of businesses with concomitant government control, and a sudden sharp increase in the national debt to prevent it?" I mean, speaking for myself, I think I'd rather just pray, though I'd probably just do it at church or at home!

Ari, "Hitler's Pope" wasn't satire. Hence your confusion.

Lydia's answer comparing the Gospel of Prosperity (is that Joel Osteen's wife behind the bull's left horn?) acolytes laying of hands on the bull to supporting the original TARP is a fine parody of those who hold our unregulated markets were free, transparent, accountable and operating for the benefit of all. Good stuff.


I don't really possess a systematic theory of politics, nor any sort of systematized prescription for the reformation of our political economy. It's not so much that I have an aversion to systematic thought - indeed, I think that systematic thought about metapolitics, about the general, natural-law principles, essences, and historical forms that govern the political realm is not merely valuable, but imperative - but systematic political philosophy seems to me to do violence to the historical and cultural contingency of so much that we dispute; and - perhaps this is the influence of my faith - I find that apophaticism is the path of wisdom where many specific political questions are concerned: we can state that justice and prudence are not found, for example, in - to choose a bete noire - managerial capitalism, while conceding that this underdetermines what would be just and prudent. So much of what partisans and ideologues of left and right are desirous of arguing about, and establishing as incontrovertibly just, irrespective of circumstances, is a dreary waste of time and cognitive energy, as these matters can and should be left to prudence and historically-informed judgment. Our mental tranquility should be left untroubled by pointless, incendiary, and histrionic debates over whether a top marginal income tax rate of 36% or 40% constitutes the imposition of socialism. It is of no consequence to the grand movements of power in our age. Indeed marginal rates of taxation are almost always irrelevant to these - did the high marginal rates of the Great Compression period affect in any way the political dominance of the managerial caste, and the permeability of the boundaries between political and economic power? Of course not. They were elements of the social compact struck by power with powerlessness, and by different factions of the elite with one another, during that period; when they appeared to have outlived their utility towards their ends, they were discarded, enabling a marginally different segment of the elite to rise to prominence through a different set of economic structures. It is all shadow-play on the wall of the cave.

I've chosen this rough illustration with some deliberation. I don't believe that there is any logic to entertaining grand aspirations to political reconstruction in our age, not merely because those most worthy of assuming such responsibilities are those who, for reasons of virtue, would refuse them - from which it follows that those most willing to assume them are most unworthy - but because most of the factors upon which any such reconstruction would depend are the products of billions of path-dependent decisions made by interested parties, and such decisions, contrary to the mythology of rational actors, tend to be subrational, amenable to change only as circumstances absolutely compel. For example, much of our (from my perspective, undesirable) political economy is little more than a function of the alliance of the centralized nation-state and the modern corporation, even as this latter increasingly casts off the carapace of the former, the political structure that created it; and these entities will probably have to exhaust themselves before it becomes possible to even contemplate replacing them with something more humane and decent. For the meanwhile, that leaves us with the (paradoxically) apolitical but political work of rebuilding family and community upon the ruins made of them by liberal (de) civilization. But the grand architectonics of the age are those of decay, the preparation for a new epoch whose forms we cannot but dimly anticipate, not progress, but the inexorable movements of history. The tragedy of actually-existing conservatism is that its adherents too often imagine - in the sense of indulging fantasies, unhinged from reality and tethered only to their desires - that the latter stages of this historical process could be repealed, leaving only the former, refusing to acknowledge that the former stages prepared the ground for the latter, the latter being the structural and sometimes spiritual compensation for everything razed by the former. What I am about, therefore, is not system-building but, in my own infinitesimally small way, the sharpening of the contradictions, the incoherences of the age that will gradually issue in its unraveling and replacement - demonstrating the failure and illogic of liberalism/modernity/whatever-it-is, but also attempting, again in my small way, to deny conservatives their soft, comforting blankets, because these are mostly fantasy and illusion. Sure - attempting to rebuilt communities as bulwarks against both the liberal state and the impersonal, dehumanizing corporation. But such 'organic' communities are not a political theory, nor an exhaustive political order, as they could co-exist with a diversity of articulated political forms. About these latter, I do not much care, as there is little reason to concern oneself with them, and will not be for generations to come; about the former, and their defense against the depredations of liberal state and the global corporations - which are the actors of contemporary history, with states increasingly their handmaidens - we have every reason to be concerned, since in their absence there is no communal form for the permanent things conservatism honours.


Though I supported the bailout in principle, though not in implementation, I do sympathize with your sentiment, with the exception of fearing that the government has asserted control of financial institutions, as this is precisely what has not transpired, otherwise we would not be confronted by the preposterous scenario of financial oligarchies demanding compensation for their poor investments well in excess of market valuations, the government lamely attempting to persuade and cajole the architects of the apocalypse into seeing reason. Too big to fail means too big to exist justly; too big to fail means oligarchy and inefficiency and distortion and rent-seeking and neo-feudal extraction/accumulation. But far from assuming operational control of these institutions, either to manipulate them or rein them in, the government is attempting to restore their status quo ante, which is actually worse by far than would be any attempt to manipulate them politically - since such things fail, and tend to fail rapidly - inasmuch as any restoration of the status quo ante will merely "store up the economic wrath" for the future.

"Too big to fail means too big to exist justly; too big to fail means oligarchy and inefficiency and distortion and rent-seeking and neo-feudal extraction/accumulation."

Interesting timing on this, as a few days ago I began reading the first volume of Booth Tarkington's "Growth" trilogy, THE TURMOIL. The novel was published in 1915, but in the reprint I have Tarkington added an introduction blasting then-modern America's worship of the idol of growth or "Bigness." This intro was added in 1928. No need to mention what happened the following year.

It seems that this particular false god has more than one manifestation, and is a tough one to topple.

I'm been meaning to read Tarkington for awhile now. Please let me know how it is.


I believe you missed the general point of my comments.

Unless, of course, you yourself so happen to believe that the unrestrained satire as contained in Luther’s pamphlet, “Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil”, is indeed illuminating.

You'll just have to forgive me if I so happen to toss the notorious "Hitler's Pope" out in the same bin.

Again, if you haven't gotten the gist of the previous message yet, contrary to your dogmatic teaching that satire serves only to illuminate and not deceive: try again.

"I'm been meaning to read Tarkington for awhile now. Please let me know how it is."

I'm only about 80 pages into the novel, Paul, but so far I'm finding it quite good. I'll keep you posted.

I can highly recommend his hilarious "children's" novel 'Penrod.' It's got the odd un-PC racial bit, very much of its time, but other than that it's a riot.


You might like my two-part series of this week, "Man at the Crossroads: Some Further Investigations" because it deals with the inherent atheism of capitalism and how it raises money to an idol.

Maximos - thanks for your interesting reply.

All I can say in response is that I'm as befogged as before.

Frankly, I find inchoate rants against the God Mammon pretty dull & unhelpful, until I understand exactly where they're coming from, and exactly where they're headed.

Old-Testament prophetry, in search of Theocracy? Lefty boiler-plate, in search of Socialism?

Or what?

How about classical republicanism in pursuit of an American form of subsidiarity, concentrations of wealth and power, which are indefinitely convertible, if not immediately identical, being inimical to self-government, and productive of character-warping, virtue-stunting servility?

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