William F. Buckley Jr. was, like most American conservatives, a traditionalist Christian who was appalled at the secularization of western culture. And like most who share his right wing world-view, he made a mistake that is astonishing in its naivety — a mistake that is helping wreck western religion while it promotes the very secularization of the population Buckley et al. decry. It is the Grand Alliance between the religious right and corporate capital.
The Bible was written by Bronze and Iron Age peoples who had little concept about modern free enterprise. Nor did Jesus talk about stock options or hedge funds. Many early Christians lived in communistic communities where property was considered sinful. The fundamentalist Protestant William Jennings Bryan used to rail against the secular forces of capital. The Roman Church Buckley belonged to has always looked askance at capitalism. Yet, especially since World War II, the bulk of the conservative Christian cause — mainly evangelical with a number of Catholics going along for the ride — have embraced free wheeling, deregulated, laissez-faire, corporate capitalism as though it is God’s way for his human creations to manage their large scale economics.
What explains this peculiar and unprecedented amalgamation of economic modernity with social and religious traditionalism? Obviously corporate capitalism has become the modern American Way, and is a source of pride for most on the right. It is equally obvious to these people that God is pro-America, so it follows that God must think that free enterprise the best way for his creations. Intellectual justification for this notion derives from Buckley’s argument that individual free will is critical for human salvation, another innovation that would perplex traditional Christians. The Christian right goes on to imagine that the free market of commerce and ideas will somehow return the nation to the traditional religious culture they crave. The ultimate expression of this world-view is found in Protestant, Charismatic Prosperity Christianity, the self-help megachurch phenomenon in which self-aggrandizing ministers contend that the Lord wants all of his followers to be as rich as possible.
Horrified by the rise of the counterculture starting in the 1960s, major elements of the religious right decided to fight back by allying with the corporate interests under the aegis of the Republican Party, allowing them to leverage their political power well above their minority status. But this alliance of convenience is a deal with the corporate devil. In their incessant need to maximize the market base and profits, a fundamental aim of corporate capital is to transform western citizens into materialistic, hedonistic, sex, violence, celebrity and sports obsessed consumers whose life goals and values deviate from those associated with traditional piety. And to a large degree the population has gone along with the project even as it complains about it — people want to be free to have a lot more fun than the churches want them to.
One reason only a quarter of the public attends church on a given Sunday is because lots of busy shoppers prefer to hit the stores on Sunday — which became possible only after the retailers helped repeal the Puritanical Blue Laws. Bill O’Reilly targets secularists for waging war on Xmas in order to divert attention away from how the mercantile powers have remade the event into a shop-til-you drop secular holiday. The right once owned the culture via the oppressive Comstock Laws, and the Hayes Code that ruled Hollywood. Nowadays not a single conservative Christian themed program graces the corporate owned entertainment networks, whose programming is steeped in the salacious and irreligious. Such as FOX’s hypergraphic medical drama House which stars a proudly atheist MD. Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment empire is notorious for offering an array of irreligious TV and film product that feeds cultural secularization, while his FOX News presents conservative pundits such as O-Reilly are careful to charge the faithless liberals, not the capitalists, with coarsening the culture. Despite winning the occasional battle, the right has lost the culture war as the corporate world takes its putative religious allies for a ride.
The damage to American faith has been immense. God-fearing America is experiencing the popular secularization that has already imploded faith in the rest of the west. Church membership has been slipping from its peak in the 1950s, with men especially leaving the pews. The latter is a demographic disaster for the churches because most children pick up their non/religion from their fathers, and American youth is increasingly nonreligious. Christians as a whole are in decline as Protestants approach minority status for the first time. Until recently it was the mainstream churches that were taking it on the chin, but the evangelical right has stalled out too, and a report by the once mighty Southern Baptist church laments that “evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration.” Two recent Harris polls found that disbelievers have ballooned from a couple of million in the 1950s to some 60 million today, rivaling the Catholics and the evangelicals in numbers. The nonreligious doubled in just the last dozen years.
William Buckley was instrumental in shifting the American Christian right from William Bryan’s old fashioned anti-capitalism to its modern enthusiasm for mass consumerism. To be blunt about it, for all his erudite intellectualism Buckley was not socially astute; the populist Bryan had much better horse sense concerning the dangers that the capitalist world-view posed for popular piety. One has to wonder exactly how right-wingers think that they will get a traditionalist culture out of the rat-race that is the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. Instead, Buckley’s Grand Alliance has predictably backfired. The corporate-consumer culture has been a disaster for mass faith in every western democracy — that’s one reason the Vatican remains so skeptical about it. But to be fair, it is not like the religious right has much in the way of viable options. They are in a classic socio-political bind. If they break off their Republican collaboration with capital they will lose what political power they have, which is already sliding as the growing secularism favors the Democrats. Nor can the churches compete for cultural influence with commercial forces that enjoy a cash flow amounting to many trillions each year. It looks like there is little that the followers of Buckley can do to stem much less reverse the rise of popular secularism.
In “Why the Gods Are Not Winning,” Edge (2007) 4/30; Phil Zuckerman and I discuss additional socio-economic forces that help secularize western societies. I detail some of the societal positives of popular secularism in “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,” Journal of Religion and Society (2005), 5, (covered by Lee Salisbury, “Religion May Be Dangerous to Our Health,” Dissident Voice).