The Deified Money: A Historical Theological Analysis of Economic Realities

Authored by Patrick Sarmiento

Introduction (by Aaron Detiege)

The following is a thesis paper written by a friend of mine and fellow scholar for the completion of his undergraduate work in theology, the study of the history of the human experience of God. The work presents itself in the manner of providing a thesis or framework with which to perceive the information and focus of the work, which is then analyzed and assessed, followed by outlining implications of the conclusions of the thesis. It presents a view of American history and society neither typical nor fashionable, but critical and detailed in its review of certain economic, social, and political aspects of the making of our current culture and society, through a theological perspective. The author details how political and economic structures and social constructs prevented any establishment of a free American society during the Reconstruction in post-Civil War America, and explains how the progression and establishment of a “new slavery” bound all citizens to economic servitude as a result of the cultural deification of money and the association of poverty with second class citizenship through signification. The work is presented as was made for academia, so it does not go into great lengths to explain all its processes and terminology, but the premises and conclusions throughout are supported by the sources cited (see the bottom of the article for the Works Cited).

The Deified Money: A Historical Theological Analysis of Economic Realities

In modern American society the goals of many individuals regardless of their ethnic, cultural or economic background is the assertion of material prosperity. This search for a material end is furthered by the American mentality toward material goods and “economic success.” However, what is considered “economic success” by those in power may not necessarily be the proper end which people should strive for. Instead this economic success is only beneficial to maintaining the current status quo, which is the deification of material goods and the maintaining of the industrious mindset of citizens. By the deification of material goods, I am speaking in reference to the mindset of citizens who feel the need and believe that the primary means of survival, happiness and liberation from their hardships is to obtain material goods. This mindset has been ingrained into society through the historical context of reconstruction, specifically the denial of universal suffrage and the economic requirements for suffrage and citizenship. This mindset was further strengthened in society by the division of its citizens through the signifying of skin color during this period. Lastly, the deification of material prosperity has been upheld by society through its reinforcement in American religious practices and the education system. Before delving into the deification of material prosperity and its signification of historical realities, it is important to first see the historical context which would provide the foundation for it to occur through its lens.

The historical context of reconstruction is vividly depicted in Black Reconstruction In America written by W.E.B. Du Bois. In this book, Du Bois touches on various topics with a focus on the political events unfolding throughout the period of reconstruction. A key section depicted by Du Bois was focused on the events which unfolded around Andrew Johnson and the Committee of fifteen. At this time the U.S. government brought together the committee of fifteen, a group dedicated to deciding what is to be adjusted in this period of reconstruction. A key topic of argument within the committee is how to perceive all of the newly emancipated slaves, as well as the free blacks of the South. If they were to pass a bill of universal suffrage, they would also have to consider these individuals to be their equals as complete citizens, regardless of their economic status. Du Bois also writes that if Northern and Western labor were able to compete with the South’s slave labor, they would never have dismantled it (237). The North’s political goals began to be swayed by its economic powers, especially after the assassination of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson becoming president. According to Du Bois, Andrew Johnson prior to his presidency was a “Champion of the poor laborer” and the ideal for bringing about universal suffrage, as he was against the Southern oligarchy and the Northern monopolies (322). However, the ideal was not the reality as Johnson’s bias against black labor would lead to difficulties and the decision against universal suffrage, but would not prevent a civil rights bill from being passed. 

Johnson during his presidency would be swayed by the Southern oligarchs and would attempt to veto a civil rights bill being passed through congress which outraged the nation, and congress would overrule his veto (Du Bois 283). This implication of this bill was that all citizens who fell under its blanket would be property of the state and that congress would have the power to abolish laws which discriminate against citizens. However, the problem continued because to be considered a citizen would mean to have the right to vote during this time.  This mentality of citizenship and suffrage being connected came from the Northern manufacturers who were attempting to gain more power in congress and weaken the South (Du Bois 287). This economic battle between the North and South influenced the rights of the citizens of America. The constant question of who is considered a citizen was the focal point of this, and with this suffrage. These political changes would affect the laborers of both the North and South, and partially reveal to the Northerners their own enslavement.

To the Northern laborers, the dismantling of the Southern slave system was a means of allowing for their own economic success. In a sense, the Northern laborers had already begun to deify material success, as their reason for ending slavery was part of their own greed and fear of economic failure (Du Bois 18). In the South, the slaves were enslaved physically but in the North the laborers were enslaved by the manufacturers and the economy. The Northern labor felt the pressure to own property as it was a requirement for suffrage, and with that a vicious cycle of economic enslavement. This economic enslavement was what Johnson had originally stood up against. However, he would fall prey to the Southern oligarchs and create difficulties in providing freedom through suffrage. When Johnson is later confronted on his lack of legislation ending slavery, his misinformation from Southern oligarchs became clear as he believed the slaves and poor blacks despised poor whites (Du Bois 298). The truth of this matter was explained by the delegation who explained how the hostility between poor whites and slaves was created by slave owners as a means of dividing the people. This division of people by the slave owners would have seemingly been prevented by the civil rights bill, however the specific implications of it create a loophole of sorts, the issue of citizenship as a requirement for protection.

The underlying problem presented through this historical reality is that suffrage is needed for citizens to participate in government. Without suffrage, citizens are unable to have any say in political policies which influence their lives and thus the economic realities in which they are a part of. Without this right, those in power and the political economy have complete control over their lives and can limit their decisions. Furthermore, this historical reality portrays three key issues which would lead to the modern deification of material prosperity. First, those in power are capable of controlling information and thus through signification, can sway the minds of others and control what is considered a necessity in society. Secondly, the economic realities of the North and South created different images in the minds of laborers regardless of ethnicity, economic status, or creed. In the North, the fear of losing income and property created a fear of slaves and thus a barrier for unification of people. On the other hand, the slave reality of the South controlled by slave owners created a division between individuals as a means of dividing and conquering the laborers and furthering the status quo. Lastly, the implications of the civil rights bill created a possibility for either unification or division.

During Andrew Johnson’s presidency, he fell under the influence of Southern oligarchs (Du Bois 283). These oligarchs gave a name to the fear Johnson had as a poor white by portraying the slaves as a threat to his ideal. Long describes this action as a form of signification in his book Significations: signs, symbols, and images in the interpretation of religion, and that, “this naming is at the same time an objectification through categories and concepts of those realities which appear as novel and ‘other’ to the cultures of conquest” (4). By giving a name to a fear of Johnson and the laborers of the North, they were able to at the very least slow the progress toward universal suffrage and also grasp control over them. Furthermore, this signification caused Johnson to trust the oligarchs as they had given him an answer which was simple and difficult to question without further knowledge. Of what can be seen as misinformation through the misperception Johnson held about the conflict between poor whites and slaves in the South, it can be understood how the powers that existed at this time were able to maintain a divide between the peoples of North and South.

The next issue of signification comes from this difference in economic realities. In the South, the economic reality of chattel slavery created a divide between those in power and those forced to obey. The slaves also knew that they didn’t have a chance to achieve this power, as the economic reality of slavery prevented this. However, the economic reality of the North was different as it gave a false hope of material prosperity to the laborers. Through hard work and commitment to labor, a laborer could ascertain freedom from their economic bonds and become the manufacturer (Du Bois 18). By trapping laborers in this cyclical arrangement, the status quo can be maintained as the laborer’s perception has become narrowed by their own greed. This greed amplifies their own suffering, and also divides up the laborers as each attempts to liberate themselves from the system, unbeknownst to them that they only strengthen it by looking for false liberation. This mentality of false freedom that had become ingrained into Northern laborers brought with it the fear of losing material prosperity. This is where the fear of the slave economy and thus the bias against slaves and this illusionary divide between the newly emancipated slaves and poor laborers of the North grew from. By signifying slaves as the laborer’s threat and the chattel slaves as an antithesis to their own goals (Du Bois 30), the political economy of America had successfully divided its citizens through imaginary lines and abstract concepts which attempt to forfeit humanity of its freedom. Furthermore, the choice to aid slaves came from a place of fear, fear of losing what one has and false perception of the slave’s dependence on their masters.

The final problem presented by the historical reality of reconstruction as depicted by Du Bois is the implications of the civil rights bill. For the civil rights bill passed during reconstruction to apply to an individual, they must be a citizen of the United States (321). However, the treatment and protections one is meant to receive from these rights could more simply be seen as following a morally right and good mentality. By placing these rights into a bill and specifying this treatment only to be for citizens, it is implied that amongst the population there are individuals who are instead second class citizens and unequal to others. The formation of the committee of fifteen found its purpose in determining the fate of those who at the time were being treated as second class citizens, the slaves, poor laborers and freed blacks. The committee’s decision and its aftermath (e.g. The Civil Rights Movement) has left America in a state of being unable to come to terms with itself (Long 139). The concept of citizen, because of the economic realities which had become merged during reconstruction now implied what is considered human, and with that the problem of the historical treatment of those who would now be considered human rather than property. 

The irony of this problem and the reality of American society according to Gustavo Gutierrez, is that in the eyes of the political economy all are merely capital to be expent and controlled by poverty (172). This material poverty created through the division of peoples and the deification of material prosperity would lead to people further dividing themselves in seeking their own forms of salvation. This new reality would form a new religion in America, one that according to Long allowed slaves to see themselves as human, but also made them seperate from those who did not share their experience (180).  This shared experience of the chattel slavery would unify them, but they would isolate themselves at the same time through their new “religion.” However, the remainder of the nation would now find themselves in a new modern slavery (Linden 78). Where slavery was once purely economical and used to maximize profit, this new slavery divided humanity into categories. This signification of humanity, would from the outside appear to be the celebration of individuality and uniqueness, but in actuality caused a rift in the communal lifestyles which had been in place. Linden continues to demonstrate how this categorization and signification can be seen in theology itself with the various disciplines (e.g. Black theology, Feminists Theology, etc.) (82). While these theologies provide people with varying perspectives in which to view the various realities of the world, they also show how humanity itself has become so heavily categorized and organized by the political economy and how this division in itself has created a sense of confusion within people. 

This idea of embracing one’s uniqueness is not necessarily wrong, as it is a unique gift and trait of humanity that all people are equal but unique.  However, in focusing on this uniqueness and this individuality and if choosing to refuse the community that is humanity, people instead choose to follow a theology that is lacking (Linden 83; Long 154). In the context of the historical reality that is reconstruction, this emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual was an underlying issue when dealing with the concept of what is a human. Johnson feared that the slaves would see themselves as their own group separate from the Northern laborers who he perceived as enslaved, and that they would view them as the same as the slave owners and poor whites of the South. The implications of his fears are that not only was Johnson knowledgeable of how divisions between the poor laborers and the slaves could create disaster for the economic situation of the U.S. but that Johnson perceived himself as powerless as president. Another issue which arises from this categorization of people, the perception of slaves was that of individuals in need of emancipation and liberation (Linden 82; Mazique 393). The problem with this perception is that to emancipate is to “free” someone from social, political or economic restraints. Theoretically, to emancipate would be to separate someone completely from the system, but in doing so one would no longer be considered a citizen or property of a citizen and thus no longer human. The construct of citizenship is a hardship that is faced by humanity in the shadow of the political economy and this new economic reality.

This new economic reality has also created hardship for the world of education, as even in education people continue to be given signified information meant to create a division and disconnection from the true reality. The concept of development would be taught as a means of bettering society, by changing that society within the structures that exist (Gutierrez 17; Mazique 394). However, to change society by developing its current structures only builds upon structures which were originally designed to oppress and control or by using said structures, will only bring about signification and the entrenchment of those same ideals. Furthermore, these ideals become ingrained into newer generations through an education which idealizes them and reinforces a history that has been signified and optimized for this purpose (Mazique 396). They reinforce through this the deification of material prosperity, and that by reaching for this false god one could achieve success and freedom. The truth of this economic reality is that in following it one becomes ensnared in its cyclical trap until they have been discarded by the system. Furthermore, liberation from this system does not come from knowledge obtained through education, as education has become signified and obscured by it. 

Liberation from this economic reality is not possible through unification nor education as both can be manipulated. With unification, humanity can become stratified and categorized as a means of division and control. Furthermore, this economic reality has become so ingrained into American society that the education system itself has accepted this categorization which dehumanizes and allows for the commodification of the human person. Gerald Boodoo explains in, “Faces of Jesus in a Forced Theological Context,” how this new economic reality that he titles “Wild Capitalism” has, through the signification and commodification of humanity, become the dominant reality within America (3). Wild capitalism, which grew from the merger of the economic realities during reconstruction, has become the biggest threat to the survival of the human person as its end goal, it’s eschatological purpose is to exploit until there is nothing left to be exploited. However, Boodoo explains that the means for the human event, the existence of the human person free of signification, to become free of this exploitative and dehumanizing reality is through a “forced theology” (6). This forced theology exists as a means of confronting Wild Capitalism, these structures and constructs of exploitation and commodification. Through its forced nature, people are not given any choices which can be manipulated by Wild Capitalism, and instead presented with the most urgent matters. This theology also presents freedom not as something of hope, but to reach out for it in despair. The entire trap of Wild Capitalism functions through the concept of giving false hope, a false sense of freedom, and a false reward for loyalty. These falsities are how Wild Capitalism deified material prosperity as a means of turning the eyes of human persons away from its exploitative purpose. Lastly, this forced theology requires one to let go of the human condition, as it is a means for the individual to signify their own life and to betray themselves by focusing on pseudo issues and become sidetracked in their seeking of liberation, and more specifically salvation.

Boodoo explains that the eschatological goal of forced theology is, “not primarily that of survival but liberation understood as salvation” (8). Forced theology is then a theology of salvation, one which aims to bring about a genuine liberation from oppressive forces through revelation. However, through revelation one becomes aware of the ending of all possibilities and grants a sense of urgency to those who have witnessed it. Yet, salvation in itself does not necessarily equate to survival but instead true freedom, as survival has become equated with religion, education, and material prosperity (Boodoo 8). This forced theology instead brings this salvation through the reflection within this reality of exploitation and confrontation. Through reflection in this reality, Boodoo states that genuine freedom and liberation become revealed (9). This genuine freedom and liberation that is revealed through hardship is reflective of Job, who endured hardship and reflected upon it without giving in to the realities which surrounded him and the temptations from people to give in. Through this unrelenting reflection and will to obey God, Job was rewarded with salvation from his suffering. Similarly, the realities which surround the human person and limit it, are not only economic but also social realities. These realities aim to tempt people into its trap of giving in and avertings one’s eyes from the truth which is hidden in plain sight. These social realities have become developed, and fall within the structures of Wild Capitalism as a means of shaping the human person into a mold through developed culture and capitalistic practices as a means of commodification. 

This forced theology allows for the revelation that the deification of material prosperity has served the purpose of being yet another signified construct within the reality of America. The deified money serves the purpose of turning one’s eyes away from the economic reality of Wild Capitalism, which exists for the sole purpose of exploitation and the commodification of the human event. The human event has become so deeply signified through the focus on its uniqueness and individuality, the miniscule differences in morality and belief, and even in the way in which one lives or the place one may  have lineage from. These signified constructs have become further ingrained into our society through the development of nations with a blueprint idealized by Wild Capitalism with the purpose of converting people into a raw material to be exploited and commodified. The focus on the right of suffrage had become a means by which people were distracted from the vice grip in which Wild Capitalism would begin to commodify them, as to become a citizen would be the same as becoming a commodity for society. These various levels of signification and through the development of the “modern” nation, people have been placed into a forced theological context which only allows for its salvation through reflection and perseverance as all other options have the possibility of leading to the spiral of suffering which comes from Wild Capitalism. However, through perseverance and reflection one achieves revelation and salvation through the understanding of the presence of Jesus in our actions, and around us in the genuine love that can be found within.  For through revelation, it is revealed to humanity the coming of the kingdom of salvation and love, the true reality which brings down the kingdom of falsity, exploitation, and death.

Works Cited

Boodoo, Gerald. “Faces of Jesus in a Forced Theological Context.” 1-10.

Casanova, José. “Religion, the New Millennium, and Globalization.” Sociology of Religion, vol. 62, no. 4, 2001, pp. 415–441. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3712434.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Black reconstruction in America: The Free Press, 1998.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, et al. A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation. Orbis Books, 2014.

Linden, Phillip J. “Letting Go of Race: Reflections from a Historical theological View.” Transgressive Theological Voices, vol. 35, Jan. 2013, 75–88.

Long, Charles H. “Introduction.” Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, 1-9.

Long, Charles H. “Interpretations of Black Religion in America.” Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, 133-157.

Long, Charles H. “Perspectives for a Study of Afro-American Religion in the United States.” Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, 173-184.

McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Fortress Press, 2007. Mazique, Jewell R. C.. “Betrayal in the Schools.” A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African American Studies. Edited by Floyd W. Hayes III Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, 392-398.

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