Corporate Christian Complex: Eisenhower never saw it coming

Before he left office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned Americans of the rising influence of the Military Industrial Complex. Little did he know that the Military Industrial Complex was only a precursor to the much more insidious Corporate Christian Complex, an unholy alliance between corporate interests and Christian marketing designed to seduce true believers into the unholy heresy that Jesus wants big business to be even bigger.

The Corporate Christian Complex grew out of televangelism and telemarketing, thanks to the well meaning hippies and stoners who dropped out and tuned into Jesus in the seventies, and I count myself one of them. Until the Jesus movement, evangelical Christianity kept itself separate from popular culture. In fact, evangelicals prided themselves on being in the world but not part of it.

Sure, televangelists sold Bibles, blessings and prayer squares over broadcast television, but evangelism was decidedly unhip and determined to remain that way. Christians (at least white bread Christians like my family) didn’t listen to rock and roll, they listened to gospel or Ralph Carmichael, who was to Christian music at the time what Robert Goulet was to pop culture.

Christians didn’t have the New Christy Minstrels, we had Up With People. Sure, they sold a few albums, but it was for inspiration and to keep the work of the Lord going. But when the fans of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones realized that Ralph Carmichael made Neal Diamond sound like Roger Daltry, they did what they always did. Started their own bands.

Those bands made money. Much bigger money than the backup singers for Billy Graham. It went further than that. Jesus Freaks bought Jesus Freak translations of the Bible with leather fringe covers, and even leather belt pouches for their pocket editions. They bought Jesus jewelry and Jesus beads, and in a few short years Big Business discovered a huge market for modern day relics as well.

Hippies and Jesus Freaks were political, too, and that scared the evangelical and charismatic sponsors looking to adopt them. Many of us intended to cast our first eighteen-year-old votes for George McGovern. Our evangelical foster parents tried to convince us that Christians avoided politics, but we marched against the war and went to Woodstock.

The new era of rock festivals for Jesus proved to the evangelical old guard that we could be co-opted, and so the evangelicals harvested the energy to march to form the religious right. They might not convince us to give up politics, but they could convince us to change political alliances. If we could give up pot for coffee and scripture, we could give up McGovern for Reagan.

And the dollars rolled in. And in, and then began to flood. You see, the Corporate Christian Complex wasn’t new, it had been lying dormant since the Renaissance and Reformation. Shrewd businessmen cashed in on Christians with relics, pilgrimages and even mass crusades. If you couldn’t bring your husband to Christ, you could buy his way into heaven once he died. If you wanted to be pure and keep on drinking and whoring, you could buy an indulgence.

Today we have Christian Broadcasting Networks, and more commercials for Christian music CDs than the commercials that used to sell Slim Whitman tapes. Even the BBC will sell air time to songs of praise CDs. Churches sell coffee, and their pastors sell books and tapes. Good Christians can now own (and probably do) at least six different translations of the Bible and two more paraphrased editions.

You can find home-based Christian businesses on the internet. You can worship Jesus with t-shirts, mugs, coozies and coolers. You can sit through worship with your Starbucks coffee and power bars. Michael Jackson may have appalled people with his Jesus Juice, but only because he thought of it first. In a few years we can expect to see Jesus Juice, Jesus Jolt and cans of Red Gospel.

Go online and you can order Nativity stickers, Jesus gliders, birthday stickers for Jesus, and bouncing Jesus balls. Headingtoheaven.com promotes itself as a “Christian superstore” with shirts, jewelry, books, games and even home communion kits. Sounds a lot like Walmart. How about c28 or Christiangear.com?

Nor is it surprising that corporate and Christian interests pour millions of dollars into Republican and Tea Party politics. After all, when you’re raking in cash hand over fist from the rubes, you don’t want to pay taxes to fund a government that might regulate your enterprise.

If you read the Gospels, you know that Jesus forgave a lot. He forgave drunks, adulterers, pagans, hookers, and adulterers. He rarely got mad, but one thing really pissed him off. He lost his cool when he saw the entrepreneurs cashing in on God. He got so pissed off he kicked their tables over and drove them out of the temple.

The businessmen and religious hypocrites he challenged got even. They got in bed with the Roman government and had him killed. In other words, they formed their own version of the Corporate Christian Complex, and there was nothing Christian about it. These were the Bible’s bad guys.

So how did they become the heroes now?

Literal love

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve droned on about literalists, but I want to stress that I’m a literalist myself. At least when it’s clear the literal interpretation makes more sense than twisting the meaning and redefining words with meanings that can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

I first got in trouble for this in my high school freshman English class when I told my teacher that the rose in a poem could simply be a rose. (And this was before I read Gertrude Stein). Even in college poetry workshops, I felt that a poem that couldn’t be read literally first probably couldn’t support a meaningful symbolic structure.

So when I question the belief that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally, it’s not because I don’t feel literal interpretations aren’t important. In fact, I think it could be dangerous to ignore the literal meaning of passages. I simply believe that snipping verses and passing them off as “God’s literal word” can lead to as many problems as refusing to accept any basis of truth in the scripture.

Take the phrase “it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is a metaphor involved but the metaphor isn’t the point. It doesn’t really matter what the eye of the needle is or how hard it is for the camel to get through it. The point is the literal meaning, which is that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven.

Even if we don’t understand the metaphor of “eye of the needle” at all, the context of the saying makes it clear. It follows a literal declaration making the exact same point with no metaphor whatever. “…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” It doesn’t get more literal than that.

The syntax of the sentence (It is easier for A than B) makes the meaning clear as well. Take other examples: “It would be easier to split a rock with your head than separate something glued with epoxy,” or “It would be easier to survive water torture and electrocution than to sit through another Republican primary debate with Rick Perry involved.” When anyone encounters that structure in ordinary language, we don’t stop to reinterpret it to mean “this will be easy” (or in the case of Christian Republican theology, essential).

And yet I have sat through any number of sermons explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean it was hard for rich people to get into heaven. I’m not just pointing my finger at Baptists here (although most of the sermons I heard came during Baptist revival when giving was at its highest), but Episcopalians and Presbyterians as well.

I write this because I remember a long night spent arguing with a family member about Matthew 22. This family member, whom I won’t name, argued that homosexuals couldn’t be Christians because they didn’t obey God. In fact, she argued, no one could really be Christian if they weren’t in complete obedience. People who weren’t in complete obedience didn’t deserve God’s love or forgiveness.

So I quoted (or paraphrased) Matthew 22: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (This is the NIV version, but it isn’t too much different than the others).

She claimed that verse wasn’t talking about agape love, so we looked it up on the Internet and it was. Then she said, “but love means ‘obey.’ So the commandment is really saying that if we love god we will obey every commandment.”

Sadly, this kind of tunnel vision drives too much of Christian thinking. When the time comes to read a verse literally, we can’t accept it.

I’ve looked up every definition of love and agape on the web (and that includes a number of cranky sites) and couldn’t find one that defined agape as obedience. I’m sure, however, that this meaning has popped up in more than one discussion. It’s easier to redefine words when the dictionary isn’t in front of us.

Here’s my thinking. If the definition of love is to obey, then Jesus was really saying the the most important way in which we can obey God is to obey God. I don’t think Jesus was given to that kind of circularity. If anything, he was too much of an out of the box thinker for most Christians.

But if this is what he really meant, then we are left interpreting the second commandment to mean, “Obey your neighbor as you obey yourself.” I don’t want to discuss the linguistic twists that follow from this thinking.

More accurately, this is a case where we need to think literally. If we really want to obey God we will love him and love each other. Love, in essence, is a commandment, and that doesn’t mean tough love or doing what’s best for someone in spite of their desires, or denying them the love of God because we think they’re disobeying God themselves.

It’s tempting to walk away from such clear injunctions because they seem so trite and obvious. The Beatles said, “All you need is love,” so it must be more difficult than that. Who wants their most important imperative to be reduced to a jingle?

But in the case of Jesus’ followers, it’s an order. If you want to obey God, you will love him and everyone else. Homosexual or not. Unwed parent or not. Had an abortion and still believing it was the right thing to do or not. Planning on having an abortion or not. Or, in my case (and that’s what makes it so hard to love them) whether or not they believe in creationism (as opposed to creation), support the Tea Party, and think Obama is the antiChrist.

Judge not. Even if it’s Casey Anthony

Casey Anthony will be released from prison soon and, judging from the news, more than half of America is furious that she got away scott free for murder. Of course she didn’t get away scott free. She spent three years in prison and just about everybody hates her. And, I suspect, she will be viewed with suspicion for the rest of her life. 1

She now rates below OJ Simpson and Dick Cheney as the lowest of the low. People probably hate her worse than Pontius Pilate. After all, he didn’t kill an innocent baby.

Christians who feel that righteous indigestion boiling from the gut when they think how Casey walked and Caylee ended up duct taped in a trunk will say this is perfectly okay. You can love the sinner and hate the sin.

Of course the Bible doesn’t say that. Anywhere. That’s something somebody made up, and not even somebody as smart as Ben Franklin (he’s the one who wrote “God helps those who help themselves”). Here are two things the Bible does say:

  • Love sinners.
  • Don’t judge anybody.

In fact, on the judgment thing, the Bible makes it pretty clear that God will judge most harshly Christians who pass judgment on others. That includes those who judge liberals, women who have abortions, doctors who perform abortions and Casey Anthony.

Twelve of her peers found her not guilty on any count of murder. None. Nada.

These weren’t elitist bleeding heart Hollywood lawyers, these were jurors from Florida, jurors who could afford to take several weeks up from work—which means they’re probably God-fearing, mostly Republican, jurors. This means that, Nancy Grace aside, the most a conservative prosecutor in a conservative state could convince 12 jurors (odds are more than half of them conservatives as well) that Casey Anthony was guilty of was, well, something.

No one doubts that Casey Anthony is guilty of something, possibly even gross negligence. But she was only charged with murder and lying. So what’s the Christian thing to do?

Forgive her.

That’s right. It doesn’t matter what she did, or whether she wants to be forgiven herself. Our responsibility is to forgive her and move on with our lives, and let her move on with hers and pray she doesn’t become a mother again for a long, long time (if ever). But if she does, it’s still none of our business.

It’s okay for Bill Maher to be upset about the verdict and to say she’s guilty, guilty, guilty. He’s not a Christian. In fact, he thinks Christians are morons. This should be reason enough for Christians whose faith jerks with their knees to forgive her. But it’s actually the Christian thing to do. Well, the Biblical thing anyway.

Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) I’m well aware of the doctrine of preemptive strikes to sin. Keep an eye on that sinner and keep them out of trouble. This is the same thinking that drove Bush to invade Iraq. But you can’t keep anyone out of trouble, and you’re only likely to cross a line yourself if you insist on trying.

Cain asked God, “Am I my brothers keeper?” Too many Christians answer that question “yes,” and that answer is just as wrong as the decision to kill.

Christians I know often justify their preemptive guardianship by quoting the passage in Corinthians where Paul says to cast out the members of the church who flagrantly and continuously offend other members. They conveniently overlook the fact this letter was written to Corinthians. Corinth made Las Vegas look like Norman Rockwell’s America. For someone to do something so offensive even Christians would take note, it must have been pretty bad.

He never said Christians could set themselves up as arbiters of right and wrong. Nor did Jesus. For Jesus, believers should be like the Prodigal who let his son take off and drive himself to the brink of destruction. He didn’t condemn his son, he didn’t disown his son, he didn’t put his son in rehab or rat him out to the cops. No tough love for the Prodigal’s son. He simply let his son go his own way. And then, when his son reached rock bottom and asked forgiveness, he welcomed him with open arms.

Like it or not, the law has said Casey Anthony is not guilty of the murder of her child. As Americans, and especially Christians, we have to accept that legally she is not guilty. This means any guilt she does have is between her, her family and God.

But, and here’s the hard part, should she come to any Christian and ask for help—for food or even shelter—it is our responsibility to offer her not only the help she requests, but whatever additional help we can afford.


1Unless, of course, she goes on Pat Robertson and declares herself a born again Christian and Republican, writes a book that will earn big money for a Christian book publisher, and goes on tour to raise money for Jesus.back