God and Mammon (Revisited)

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

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12 Responses to “God and Mammon (Revisited)”

  1. Kathy Says:

    Thank you for this reminder. It was an epiphany for me when I realized in later adulthood why we give thanks before a meal. I wasn’t taught any of that in so-called Sunday school.

    I have had my own service business, just me as the proprietor. I was able to run it by taking in everyone, not cherry-picking by payment ability (I hope that makes sense), and I found that by ethically managing the business with my clients, that my schedule was always full, that I in fact made much more income than I would have thought possible. That people respected and appreciated the service I provided, and word spread fast. I never advertised except for a small ad in the yellow pages. That was the extent of the advertising budget! By putting service ahead of money, my business actually thrived and I was happy…it was magical. A magical time in my life.

  2. Kathy Says:

    I wish to add, as well, remarkably, during this many year period, I was free somehow to operate with impunity and was beholden to no-one. I held to my ethics, or as you point out…Truth.

    • markbittner Says:

      People are naturally attracted to genuinely ethical people. They have a good feeling about them.

  3. Lynn Duvall Says:

    Amen! ::wink:: I think about so-called Christianity often but don’t often read about it, as you do. I live in Alabama where it’s in my face everywhere I go. As if the more politicians who are sworn in with a hand on the bible — after a lengthy prayer by whatever religious representative is currently in favor — and the more crucifixes and bibles they can display in drugstores, pharmacies, supermarkets, medical provider offices and websites and other inappropriate (to me) public places, the more verse they can quote, the better they can demonstrate their worthiness.

    But Jesus so often gets lost in all this tell-don’t-show religiosity. Walking to lunch one day long ago with a co-worker who was a vocal Baptist, a woman approached us with a Baptist pamphlet. My co-worker puffed herself up and aimed an angry look at the woman. Then, she literally pulled me farther away from the pamphlet offering, hissing “She’s an XYZ Baptist not a true ABC Baptist like me!” So.

    Anyway, your piece was refreshing and, for me, necessary.

    • markbittner Says:

      If I lived in Alabama I fear I’d get my teeth knocked out. I’m always on the lookout here in San Francisco for someone who does that fervent Christian thing so I can work out some issues I have. (I was a Christian for a few years as a teenager.) But I never encounter any.

  4. Tim Mueller Says:

    “Another term for religiosity, though less common, is religiousness, ‘the state of being superficially religious.'” (https://www.gotquestions.org/religiosity.html)

    Which means that religiousness is actually irreligious; and a suitable gauge for determining how irreligious you are is how adamant you are that you are, indeed, religious. Round and round we go.
    This myth of a Christian nation is so entrenched, it’s practically impossible to have meaningful conversation. We only have empty words to talk about what are, essentially, empty ideas. The fact that the “God” of Christianity just happened to agree with everything the White Man did, did not (and still does not) strike that many white men (and women) as a little odd.
    Providence…it’s not just the capital of Rhode Island, but…

    • markbittner Says:

      Generally speaking, I think most people believe that, while they may not understand things perfectly, their views are pretty much close to the way things really are. I have to say that I’m like that myself.

  5. rainnnn Says:

    Christianity became corrupted in this country (as has happened many times in history). This time it’s with the prosperity doctrine where being Christian is equated with getting nice things from a god who loves to dole out punishment to the wicked and good things to the righteous– defined by the church. It is frustrating as if someone looked at the Sermon on the Mount, you see little of that in what has ended up talking points for the preaching elite. I’ve gotten very down on religion (all of them) for the damage it does. My brother, who is a mechanic, has said that his experience with Christians is they feel they can cheat nonbelievers by not paying their bills. Quite a testimony. Roughly paraphrased, Gandhi said I like your Jesus, not your Christians.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes. The prosperity doctrine is one of the most farcical pieces of hypocrisy that human beings have ever devised. Popular Christianity boils down to “Just believe in Jesus and you’re okay. We’re all sinners and hypocrites and can’t keep any kind of moral agreement because of Original Sin.” Original Sin was devised by Augustine, not Jesus.

  6. Aurelle Says:

    The very essence of the teaching was – always – to unsettle those comfortable with the status quo. Thank you for this very timely reminder!

  7. Elaine Loftin Says:

    God and Mammon…I guess it would depend on which definition of
    mammon one chooses to identify with – yes? I personally do not belief that “wealth & riches” are corrupt, anymore that I belief that dancing is sexual and therefore a sin – one’s actions decides the meaning. If you use the definition of mammon that refers to it as “wealth regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion.” – then I agree you cannot do both. There is trouble in every paradise – therefore paradise is not perfect. Even the Garden of Eden had its serpent who was able to compromise Eve due to the free thinking pass God blessed humans with. (Damn her for painful labor) ~~~ Every religion has it’s “eyebrow raisers” – therefore, I personally consider myself spiritual as I do not identify with organized religion (we were raised as part of the Frozen Chosen – Methodist) but I do believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – because I can personally identify with their existence. Just my opinion and personal experience speaking. You are blessed Mark and I pray for your continued strength and faith in “Street Song” – BTW – I’m starting at the beginning of your “blog/mission” – you are an interesting individual.

    • Elaine Loftin Says:

      Believe and Believe – not belief and belief ….. welcome to Monday LOL

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