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The Gospel of Selfishness in American Christianity

How the philosophers of selfishness came to use Christianity as their cover story.

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The fact that conservatism causes obnoxious Christian piety in American culture is most obvious when looking at some of the theological developments that have accrued since the philosophers of selfishness decided to use Christianity as their cover story. The “prosperity gospel” that has developed in recent years is a classic example.

The prosperity gospel teaches, to be blunt,  that you can tell how much God favors you by how rich you are. While some on the Christian right reject this idea as a tad crude, it’s still wildly popular and its adherents, like Oral Roberts, are some of the major architects and organizers for the Christian right. It’s a perfect example of how conservative ideology leads to pious Christianity. People want to believe that the rich are better than everyone else and the poor don’t deserve squat, so they find a way to blame God for it rather than own their own greed and selfishness.

Pope Francis may be entirely sincere when he says he wants Catholic clergy to deemphasize the right-wing political pandering in favor of highlighting values that are more in line with liberalism, such as compassion and generosity to the poor, but the odds are slim of this message making inroads with church leaders in the United States. The church needs conservatives who need to believe they’re good and holy people despite their selfish beliefs. Without them, who will show up and tithe? Liberals? Most of them are sleeping in on Sundays, secure that their commitment to social justice makes them good people regardless of how visibly pious they are.

The fact of the matter is that the purposes religion serves in America are shrinking in number. Our cultural identity is increasingly shaped by pop culture, not faith or ethnic identity. Our holidays are more about shopping and having a chance to catch up with far-flung family these days, not showing devotion to a deity. Spiritual needs are often addressed through modern means like psychotherapy and self-help. People build communities through hobbies and interests more than through faith communities bound by geography, ethnicity and family.

Increasingly, the only thing religion has left to justify itself is that it provides cover for people who want to have bigoted, selfish beliefs but want to believe they are good people anyway. As these social trends continue, we can expect the alignment between public piety and grotesquely selfish political beliefs to get worse, not better.

 
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