Why capitalism and consumerism play so well with Christianity in America

The "protestant work ethic" is invoked for any number of political reasons – foreign policy and developmental aid, the spiritual justification for reducing one's life to capitalist time, and as a way to understand the relationship between religion and profit.

A city upon a hill (already inhabited by people with millennial ties to the land and labored by kidnapped indigenous people from a country called Africa) and the divine chosen people are origin stories for the prosperity gospel. In other words, worldly success demonstrated by the trappings of capitalist consumption proved who were God's chosen people.

Max Weber was interested in studying the transformation of institutions during the rise of capitalism – as political economy, culture, and way of being in the world. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (SparkNotes available here),Weber emphasized the spiritual characteristics that lent themselves to capitalist profitability and labor efficiency. Calvinist theology is one place to look for cultural and spiritual behaviors that dovetail with capitalist cultural notions of efficiency, profit, and scale. Others include individualism and self-help, the spiritual secular components of Christian meritocracy.

The Money Cult: Christianity, Capitalism, and the Undoing of the American Dream, by Chris Lehmann, engages these historical dynamics and belief systems and their consequence on contemporary life.

"We think we know the story of American religion: the Puritans were cold, austere, and pious, and Christianity continued pure and uncorrupted until the industrial revolution got in the way. In The Money Cult, Chris Lehmann argues that we have it backwards: capitalism has always been entangled with religion, and so today's megapastors aren't an aberration — they're as American as Benjamin Franklin. The long-awaited first book by a hugely admired journalist, The Money Cult is a sweeping and accessible history that traces American Christianity from John Winthrop to the rise of the Mormon Church to the triumph of Joel Osteen."

This New York Times review of The Money Cult by James Livingston asks these resonant questions: "How can the most hedonistic consumer culture on the planet also be host to some of the most religious people in the world? Why hasn't the bureaucratic rationality of corporate capitalism erased the last vestiges of faith in God, especially in the United States, still the farthest outpost of ­modern-industrial society?"

The author, Chris Lehman, is a senior editor for The Baffler, DC bureau chief for The Nation, and co-editor of BookForum.