by John Stamps
“My little children, guard yourselves from idols.”
(1 John 5:21)
The US is not and never has been secular. We are awash with gods. Gods and goddesses surround us. The whole universe is filled with deities. We think we Americans live in a secular world and a secular nation. We don’t. The bogeyman of secularism haunted us, but rank idolatry stalked our blind side. We imagine we live in a disenchanted world—the gods of old vanished. No, they did not. The old gods—Moloch, Baal, Mars, or Eros come to mind—simply re-appeared in different disguises. Fr Richard John Neuhaus was wrong. The Public Square has never been naked.1
Once upon a time, the famous German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) begat a whole generation of intellectual historians, philosophers, theologians, and so on, who fretted about Entzauberung. The German word literally means de-magic-ation, what we now call “disenchantment.” Weber prophesied the desacralization of the West and the decline of “religion.” He was also wrong. The pantheon is filled to capacity.2
Yes, Americans are deserting churches in record numbers. Even so, we’re not becoming “secular.” My favorite Augustinian philosopher wisely observed that everybody has a hungry heart. The self-declared “SBNR” crowd—spiritual but not religious—is growing in record numbers. Whatever we Christians are selling, they aren’t buying. But the SBNRs are not “secular” simply because they won’t darken the doors of our churches. The human heart still aches for God.3
Demythologizing the American gods
The novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman is the most important book on theology I have read in recent memory.4 It is Homer updated for the 21st century. The novel shook me out of my secularist dogmatic slumbers. It is based on a fantastic premise: what happens to old gods like Thor, Odin, Ēostre, Thoth, or Èṣù when their worshippers have moved to America and then died out? And who are these new American gods? Their names are familiar to us all.
One more truly important American god we know quite well. But he has changed his name many times over the centuries. Jesus named him “Mammon.” But we call him “Money.”
St Paul and the rest of the Bible begrudge false gods a weird semi-existence:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor 8:5-6)
The American gods live, move, and have their being only because we have created them in our own fallen image. We invented these gods and then we serve and worship them. When fed with human blood, they speak. What is surprising about the American gods is just how truly vulnerable and needy they are. Without regular transfusions of money, oil, and yes, human blood, the American gods would shrivel up and die.5
During the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, we pray that the Lord will deliver us from a destiny nasty, brutish, and short:
Ὑπὲρ τοῦ ρυσθῆναι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης θλίψεως, ὀργῆς, κινδύνου καὶ ἀνάγκης τοῦ Κυρίου δεηθῶμεν.
That we might be delivered from all Affliction, Wrath, Danger, and Necessity, let us pray to the Lord.
If I was an ancient Greek, I’d fear the goddess ἀνάγκη (Ananke) more than any other god. She weaves the implacable fates of all gods and all mortals on her remorseless loom. But as an American, we fear being chewed up in the maw of Capitalism. Industrialization and globalization have left untold misery to persons, cities, states, and nations in their wake. Capitalism tramples us without mercy or consideration. Our livelihoods can be ripped away from us by global forces beyond our control. If you give them a finger, they will take your entire arm. As we’ve been warned by better prophets than me, Capitalism dissolves everything solid into thin air. It baptizes greed as a virtue and transforms materialism into a sacrament. But as recent events have shown us, while Capitalism might be inexorable, there is nothing inevitable about it, to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
O Foolish Americans, Who Has Bewitched You?
If we want to understand why and how the American gods have so completely seduced us, we can turn to The Enchantments of Mammon by Eugene McCarraher. Reading McCarraher’s tour de force is a serious life commitment. The book is 800 pages. It is a brilliant economic and intellectual history of Capitalism in America. Fortunately we can summarize McCarraher’s entire argument in a single quote: “The world does not need to be re-enchanted, because it was never disenchanted in the first place.”
Page after page after page McCarraher describes how ministers and theologians, economists, captains of industry, and advertising executives worked to “enchant” the dismal business of Capitalism, economics, and the American empire. They succeeded all too well. Capitalism is the default American religion. We are enthralled by it and we cannot imagine any alternative. But there were those who begged to differ otherwise, who offered us a truly amazing countercultural witness. For example, William Blake famously vilified the forces of “Progress” that shoved people out of the commons into England’s “dark Satanic mills.” McCarraher lumps these critics of Capitalism under the general rubric of “Romanticism.” These “Romantic” voices from the past are an astonishing counterpoint to the enchantments of Mammon. McCarraher eloquently describes the glorious protests of:
- Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers
- Robert Southey
- John Muir
- Via Dutton Scudder
- William James
- Dorothy Day
- Lewis Mumford (probably McCarraher’s favorite)
But there are two serious flaws to McCarraher’s magnificent book. The first flaw is that McCarraher makes Capitalism sound more omnipotent than it really is. Come to find out that all kinds of things can topple the American gods. There is nothing inevitable about them.
- Democracy has proven to be more fragile than any of us ever realized. The full effects of the January 6 terrorist attack on the US Capitol are yet to be felt.
- Technology is surprisingly vulnerable. A coldsnap caused untold misery to millions of Texans when the power grid failed. State-sponsored hackers attacked a little-known technology service provider (also in Texas) called SolarWinds and exposed deep flaws in our nation’s security, despite the best security software that money can buy.
- Wall Street looks like an almighty god, but it is not. Reddit, GameStop. RobinHood, and short-sellers brought the stock market to its knees until panic and the SEC stepped in. Wall Street is also amazingly vulnerable to disease. Covid-19 posed a dire threat to Capitalism that was completely unexpected. Businesses failed left and right. Mom-and-Pop stores and restaurants simply vanished.
- In the financial crisis of 2008, we witnessed the near-collapse of financial institutions too big to fail (TBTF) and yet many of them did. If the Treasury Department had not propped up the system with trillions of dollars, Capitalism as you and I know it would have died a miserable death.
With the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight, McCarraher concedes too much power to Capitalism, way much more than it deserves. But in all fairness to McCarraher, the American gods looked pretty darn formidable in 2019. Not so much in 2021. To paraphrase St Paul, the American gods are weak, beggarly, and preposterous, like all principalities and powers. Every American god has one or more fatal flaws.
Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered
The second flaw is that Romanticism represents almost the entire load-bearing infrastructure in McCarraher’s criticism of Capitalism. The Diggers, the Arts and Crafts movement, Populism, and other protest movements do all the heavy lifting. McCarraher’s critics and friends alike ponder this Romantic critique of Capitalism. Is the Romantic movement the only viable alternative to Capitalism?
McCarraher’s conclusions disappointed me for two reasons. First, he needed to focus more on Jesus Christ and less on Romanticism. American Christians can be insouciant about the American gods for one crucial reason—Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross under Pontius Pilate but He is now risen from the dead on the third day. If death does not terrify us, the American gods have no hold over us. If we truly believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, we can bear witness that we are not enslaved to the principalities and powers, though they would try to persuade us otherwise.
Second, is there a genuinely viable alternative to consumer Capitalism? Sure there is. We call it “the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” There exists in space and time one community who is tutored by the Holy Spirit to bear faithful witness to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect McCarraher doesn’t trust the church will prove to be “the community of character” that she needs to be. The church looks more like an all-too-willing collaborator than a courageous counterbalance to offset the forces of Capitalism.
Yes, it is certainly true that American churches have given in to craven fear. Yes, American churches try to serve God and Mammon, despite the stern warning of Jesus. Yes, American churches have sold their precious birthright to the Wall Street Journal for a meager bowl of ideological pottage. Even so, we have powerful resources ready-to-hand, in good working order, to form us and shape us in how to tell the truth.6 That is, we can speak and live the truth and boldly witness to the gospel; but it requires us to exorcize our parishes of the American gods. Whether we broker commercial real estate deals or we drive a taco truck, the church can train us to become faithful witnesses to the resurrection. We do not need to live our lives in fear. We do not need to opt out of society, to escape the world and its temptations. Ordinary Christians can live ordinary lives in the world with joy and courage because our identity is not from the world. God has freed us from the tyranny of the American gods by raising His Son Jesus from the dead on the third day.
We can go to church and feast lavishly on the sacraments, yes, for the life of the world. God has freed us to ponder Lewis Mumford, and also Wendell Berry7, and Jacques Ellul8 and Jim Forest too. We can imitate Dorothy Day or her Russian counterpart, Mother Maria Skobtsova. We can fast, we can pray, and we can give alms to the poor.
These simple acts of faithfulness are profoundly subversive to the principalities and powers. Our open hands and our open wallets testify that we are not governed by greed, anxiety, and fear. The threat of scarcity does not terrify us. We trust God’s promises of abundance and blessing and providence. We bear witness that the inexorable law of supply and demand does not rule our hearts. The mere sight of a homeless man or a bag lady does not frighten or repulse us. They are made in the very image of God and Jesus summons us to help them. What God has given us in His generosity, we do not need to protect with guns.
Finally, we can love our enemies. Loving our enemies is the most preposterous, impossible statement ever spoken. Unless of course Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the third day.
Our Lord Jesus Christ entrusted us with no power in this world except for faithful witness. But the principalities and powers tremble and shake before that testimony. For every American god amounts to nothing but lies and violence. Ultimately, they are impotent. Devotion to them grows only in darkness, out of lust, greed, and fear. “As the smoke vanisheth, so shalt Thou drive them away.” The American gods are merest smoke, without fire. They are a miasma, a foul stink. God arises and blows them away.
 The title of this article is my own riff on We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour. Thinking I was clever, I wanted to title it, “We have never been disenchanted.” Then I discovered Eugene McCarraher had already beaten me to the punch. His 2015 article was only the tasty appetizer he was cooking up for us. We had to wait until 2019 until the full feast. It was certainly worth the wait. Also see McCarraher’s article “You’re a Slave to Money, Then You Die,” as well as the Syndicate symposium on The Enchantments of Mammon.
 On the subject of Entzauberung, Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences is the finest book I know of. Learning how Madame Marie Curie attended seances in fin-de-siecle Paris is easily worth the price of admission. As Josephson-Storm observes, by all rights she should not have been there. And yet there she was.
 Tara Isabella Burton describes the amazing lengths that Americans will go through to fill their restless hearts. It’s the finest spirituality—typically disguised as an exercise routine—that money can buy. Take up and read Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.
 Read the novel. Ignore the television series on Starz.
 One of the most chilling lines in American Gods is “Liberty is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.”
 Stanley Hauerwas famously labels himself as a “high church Mennonite” or a “congregationalist with Catholic sensibilities,” because he can’t find an actual empirical church in which to situate his theology. By contrast, I’m reasonably happy being empirically Eastern Orthodox. And yet I realize I am speaking a dialect about “the principalities and powers” that is certainly unusual in Orthodox claims about the supposed “symphonia” between Church and State. But if we shake off Constantinianism, it’s certainly within our wheelhouse.
 “And it seemed that The War and The Economy were more and more closely related. They were the Siamese twins of our age, dressed alike, joined head to head, ready at any moment to merge into a single unified Siamese, when the crossed eyes of government should uncross. The War was good for The Economy.” (Jayber Crow, p. 273)
 “Thus when we claim to use money, we make a gross error. We can, if we must, use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims. We are not talking only about our inner life; we are observing our total situation. We are not free to direct the use of money one way or another, for we are in the hands of this controlling power… That Mammon is a spiritual power is also shown by the way we attribute sacred characteristics to our money. (JS: it is the “almighty dollar” after all) The issue here is not that idols have been built to symbolize money, but simply that for modem man money is one of his “holy things.” Money affairs are, as we well know, serious business for modern man…. We understand then why money questions are not considered, in the Bible, as part of the moral order. They are actually part of the spiritual order.” (Money and Power, pp. 76-77)