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Worshiping a Strange God

by John Spritzler

February, 2004



In contrast to theocracies like Iran, "secular" nations like the United States claim to have a separation of church and state. People can belong to whatever religion they wish, and there is no official state religion. Insofar as "church" refers only to specific organizations and to beliefs about the supernatural, the claim is justified. But religions also codify moral beliefs about what kind of behavior is right and wrong in the everyday "secular" world of life lived on earth. When separation of church and state purports to exist, a religion that does not call itself a religion – that is, a morality or code of conduct – may sneak in through the back door and claim the "secular" realm as its domain, all in the name of "separation of church and state." My point is not that we should have a state religion, but that we already have one.

In the United States, where capitalism asserts its power in a particularly unrestrained way, powerful people use the logic of separation of church and state to enforce a capitalist morality of self-interest and competition on the entire society. Most people, however, hold to a very different morality, one which all the major religions of the world are based on, the Golden Rule – not the capitalist version ("He who owns the gold makes the rules"), but the one we all learned as children.

The Golden Rule [1], both its positive version – "Do unto others..." – as well as its negative version – "Do not do unto others…," expresses a universal human standard of morality and appears universally in the world’s religions. [2]

Two thousand years before Jesus was born, an ancient Babylonian sacred teaching said, "Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy, Be friendly to your enemy." (Akkadian Councils of Wisdom, as cited in Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts.)

A Buddhist holy teaching written centuries before Jesus was born said: "Shame on him who strikes, greater shame on him who strikes back. Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us. Let us therefore overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth."

Hillel, a great Jewish rabbi who lived just before Jesus' day, taught, "What is hateful to thee, do not to another. That is the whole law and all else is explanation." (b Shabbatt 31a; cf. Avot de R. Natan ii.26) The Positive Golden Rule is also found in Jewish literature (Mishneh Torah ii: Hilekot Abel xiv.I.)

Jesus said, "All things therefore that you want people to do to you, do thus to them." (Matthew 7:12)

Islam teaches: "That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind." (Sukhanan-i-Muhammad, 63)

A Buddhist holy teaching is: "In this world hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible." (The Dhammapada)

In ancient China, Confucius taught, "Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you." (Confucius, The Analects. Roughly 500 BCE.).

According to Hindu sacred literature: "Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to himself." (Mahabharata, bk. 5, ch. 49, v. 57)

Buddhist sacred literature teaches: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udanavargu, 5:18, Tibetan Dhammapada, 1983)

Historically human beings the world over have tried to shape social relations with fundamental codes of conduct such as the Golden Rule [3], and they sanctified these codes as an authority standing above the state or ruling regime by means of religion. In secular capitalist states, however, the practical effect of separation of church and state is to exclude the universal morality enshrined in the Golden Rule from having any authoritative influence on any of the vital matters that the state asserts to be "secular." Churches must restrict their criticism of capitalism to ineffectual platitudes and "the people" must keep their criticism within the framework of capitalist morality – that is, self-interest.


The Origin of Our Separation of Church and State

The medieval Catholic Church was notoriously ruthless in suppressing heretics, women suspected of being "witches," free-thinkers, and anyone who it feared might threaten its absolute power in the religious realm. At the same time, the Church defended a feudal world view and morality that had positive as well as negative aspects. These positive aspects are important reasons why the Church still has so many followers today.

In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church proclaimed that feudal relations were the way that all people, though holding very different stations in life – as lords, peasants, priests or soldiers – nonetheless acted together as an organic whole to serve the will of God. Lords and peasants and priests were certainly different, not equal. But they all served a common purpose and merited the dignity that this implied. The privileges of any group were only a means for that group to play its role in the larger common good. With privilege came obligations, and with obligations came certain rights. People were meant to serve the greater whole, not their individualistic desires.


In keeping with this view, the Church defined greed and avarice as a sin. Ecclesiastical law applied this concept to the practical issues of the day. It specifically declared usury (which today refers narrowly to a "loan shark" charging excessive interest on a loan, but which in the Middle Ages referred not only to demanding any interest for a loan [4], but generally to one person taking advantage of another’s misfortune to extort an oppressive bargain of any kind) to be sinful and punished it. The Church, for the same reason, said it was a sin to "buy low and sell dear." [5] And while Jesus said to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, by the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was a power in Caesar’s as much as in the spiritual realm.


A sense of the Church’s determination to enforce its morality on everyday social relations can be seen from this passage from R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism:

The high-water mark of the ecclesiastical attack on usury was probably reached in the legislation of the Councils of Lyons (1274) and of Vienne (1312)...No individual or society, under pain of excommunication or interdict, was to let houses to usurers, but was to expel them (had they been admitted) within three months. They were to be refused confession, absolution and Christian burial until they had made restitution, and their wills were to be invalid. The legislation of the Council of Vienne was even more sweeping. Declaring that it has learned with dismay that there are communities which, contrary to human and divine law, sanction usury and compel debtors to observe usurious contracts, it declares that all rulers and magistrates knowingly maintaining such laws are to incur excommunication, and requires the legislation in question to be revoked within three months. Since the true nature of usurious transactions is often concealed beneath various specious devices, money-lenders are to be compelled by the ecclesiastical authorities to submit their accounts to examination. Any person obstinately declaring that usury is not a sin is to be punished as a heretic, and inquisitors are to proceed against him. [pp. 46-7]

In the twelfth century the Church’s intellectual leaders -- the Schoolmen -- were able to apply lessons from the Bible to everyday life so that the Church could say with confidence and authority what was sinful and what was not. The moral outlook of what we now refer to as Capitalism, the Church defined as sinful. [6] People were supposed to serve the will of God and only worry about economic production and accumulating personal wealth secondarily and only insofar as it was necessary to carry out their appointed tasks for the larger society. While achieving wealth was not in and of itself sinful, it was sinful to have that as one’s chief goal in life. Saints eschewed wealth and material possessions. A poor man could enter heaven more easily than a rich one. (Hypocrisy of course was not unknown among many Church leaders, but in spite of it the Church set the standard for what was right and what was wrong, and it was a very different standard from what prevails today.)

The Catholic Church tried to adapt ecclesiastical law to the changing times that saw the rise of merchants and world trade and complex commercial financial and credit arrangements. But the theory behind the ecclesiastical law was rooted in the premise of a simpler feudal society of lords and peasants, masters and servants, each feeling bonds of personal loyalty and obligation. The new world at the close of the Medieval period was one in which peasants were becoming rural wage workers on the land, hired when needed and let go when not. Land was becoming capital for investment. The new lords of the realm lived in towns and preoccupied themselves with business matters never mentioned in the Bible and undreamed of by the Schoolmen. As late as the seventeenth century the Church was still trying to rein in behavior that now is considered legitimate. The Church condemned feudal lords in England who stopped acting like stewards of the land and instead viewed their land primarily as a source of wealth accumulation. These large landlords, motivated by the profits that could be made by turning the land over to sheep grazing and selling the wool at a high price, were "enclosing" their land to stop peasants from cultivating it, and thereby driving peasants off the land.

But now the Church was on the defensive. Men of business came to view the Church’s "interference" with their business as illegitimate. How could the Church deny the need for charging interest on a loan to a world-trading merchant as if it were the same thing as taking advantage of one’s peasant during a poor harvest? Not only men of business, but new religious leaders as well, men like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the sixteenth century, undermined the stature of the Catholic Church, espousing ideas that led to the formation of the rival Protestant churches.

The Protestant Reformation introduced new ways of thinking that were seized upon by the rising capitalist class. The institutions of the Church (including its ecclesiastical courts with their claim to rule on matters of everyday life and business) were dismissed as not necessary, since according to Protestantism each individual had a direct relationship with God. Because each person’s destiny was determined by his or her personal relation to God, there was little need for concern about the collective welfare. The church taught that man was saved through faith and good works; the reformers taught that man was saved through faith alone. The realm of the spiritual became private to each person. The individual was paramount.


Individual rights and liberty and character were the new themes, replacing the older vision of society as an organic whole in which individuals served a common spiritual end by carrying out their respective social obligations. The world of Caesar, now dismissed as "not spiritual," became no longer a legitimate arena for religion to judge. Quite the reverse. Caesar now became the judge. Wealth was a sign of Godliness; poverty a sign of un-Godliness. Godliness was defined as having personal character traits that happened to be those admired by the rising capitalist class – prudence, thrift, energy, self-control. The pursuit of wealth, once secondary to doing the will of God and posing temptations to sinfulness at every turn, was elevated to be the primary occupation of the most Godly people. The poor served God by being good workers and not engaging in the sin of idleness.

In the twenty-first century we still have many Christian churches and many church-goers, but the priests and the ministers know that this is no longer an era when it matters much what they say or do. They either keep quiet about their opinions concerning the behavior of the wealthy and powerful, or they state them in deliberately vague and ambiguous terms. Their pronouncements never have teeth in them. (These are the best church leaders. The worst, like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, are outright cheerleaders for capitalism.) The Catholic Church, with its historical link to feudalism and feudal morality based on viewing society as an organic whole, and its history of being the Establishment Church defending the old world view against the new capitalist class with its individualism and Protestantism, still asserts its anti-individualism in the form of opposition to abortion and homosexuality. But this is merely the Catholic Church’s last hurrah.

During the first Gulf War a Catholic friend of mine in Walpole, Massachusetts, went to every priest and minister in town and asked them simply to give a sermon applying their own religion’s doctrine of a just war to the ongoing war, no matter whether their doctrine approved or disapproved of the war. None of the ministers or priests would do it. The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church George W. Bush has been a member of since 1989, opposed his war in Iraq in 2003 as immoral. What greater sin could there be than waging an immoral war? But the church did not tell the President that (in the words of the The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church which defines the conditions for membership and the steps to be taken when members do not meet them) "he hath no more place among us." [7] Similarly, the Pope issued statements opposed to the war, but he never declared it a sin to wage the war, although he could have. Had the Pope declared that it was a sin for leaders to support the war and for soldiers to fight in it, the warmongers would have faced a serious crisis of legitimacy. But they were spared this predicament.

The half-hearted measures of the churches to stand up to Caesar today are a far cry from the days of the thirteenth century when the Church compelled money lenders to submit their accounts for examination to see if they were taking advantage of debtors; or the days of the sixteenth century when the Pope excommunicated King Henry VIII of England for divorcing Catherine of Aragon, forcing the King, a devout Catholic, to leave the Catholic Church and found the independent Anglican Church.

Our current separation of church and state rests upon the agreement by the churches to restrict the sphere of religious concerns to the realm of personal and private behavior. Corporate leaders and politicians like President Bush in the United States are mounting ferocious attacks on "the weakest among us" and on working class people right and left with acts of material self-interest that would have made the medieval money-lenders fear for their souls. In earlier centuries the Church would have condemned these acts as sinful and punished the offenders in ecclesiastical courts with punishments that hurt in their lifetimes, not just their afterlives. These same corporate leaders are launching wars based on lies and killing thousands of innocent civilians simply to strengthen their wealth and power. Most of these leaders are members of a Christian church and attend services with some regularity. Yet their churches do not condemn them, do not declare their acts to be sinful, and certainly do not excommunicate them. Insofar as they still stand for anti-capitalist values of concern for and commitment to one another rather than selfish materialism, the major Christian churches have caved in to Caesar and accepted defeat.


What Is Our "Secular Democracy?"

Religion is conventionally equated with beliefs about God or the supernatural. What makes religion a powerful force in the world, however, is that it codifies beliefs about transcendental values that determine what kinds of behavior are right and wrong. Therefore it makes sense to generalize the meaning of religion to include such beliefs, regardless of whether or not they are arrived at by reference to God or the supernatural. With this definition of religion, the dominant religion today in U.S. society is not Christianity but Capitalism. Although the vocabulary of religion is not used by Capitalism in reference to itself, we can see how remarkably well it fits.

Capitalism’s one God is economic productivity. It has no other gods besides this – neither in heaven nor on earth. It sacrifices everything to the one God of Economic Productivity. Catastrophically for the human race, Capitalism sacrifices to its all-powerful god that which is most valued by the majority of the world’s people – caring and trusting relations between people. When greater economic productivity and profits can be achieved by trampling people’s dignity, or by condemning people’s concern for one another, or by attacking solidarity among working people, or by undermining relations of love or mutual aid, or by poisoning trust among diverse races and nationalities, or by subverting good will towards man, or by instigating war to destroy peace on earth, then Capitalism does not hesitate to crush these incarnations of the "false god" of human solidarity.


Economic productivity today is what the "Will of God" was in the past. Whatever serves it is good; whatever does not is bad. In the religion of Capitalism, one worships God by selfishly pursuing material wealth and by beating the competition no matter what the cost to other human beings. In the religion of Capitalism, all human beings are created in the image of a capitalist – selfish and in competition with each other. This is the natural order of the universe, and, say the priests of Capitalism, it is good because God’s Invisible Hand, working in mysterious ways, ensures that a world based on selfishness is the best of all possible worlds.

All of our major public and private institutions have been taken over by the new religion of Capitalism. The religion of Capitalism is the Official Establishment Religion. The pulpits from which it is preached are our television and radio stations and newspapers. The cathedrals that glorify it make up the skylines of our cities’ financial centers. The altars where it is worshiped by the faithful are our stock exchanges. Its Commandments are enshrined in contract law. Its high priests are CEOs and its saints are billionaires. Its church bureaucracy is the government, sanctified by rituals called elections. Its Deacons are mayors and governors whose greatest wish is to offer sacrifices like tax breaks to entice capitalists to worship economic productivity in the local diocese. Its parochial school system is the entire public school system; instead of rapping knuckles with rulers to enforce obedience, it administers standardized tests (which are designed to ensure a certain number of failures so that children will learn they are all in competition with each other to see who will be a winner and who a loser) for the same purpose – to instill fear. Its Crusader soldiers are in the 82nd Airborne Division. Its theologians lead our universities (least importantly the divinity schools.) Its Heaven is where Bill Gates and Mega-Bucks lottery winners luxuriate. Its purgatory is a homeless shelter. It’s fire and brimstone is shock and awe.


And its Satan? Anybody who dares to say out loud that there can be a better world.

The Official Establishment Religion denies our most important freedom – the freedom to create relations of trust and concern for one another, solidarity and dignity. Its "fiduciary responsibility" law makes it illegal for corporate management to give first priority to anything other than the self-interest of the investors. Labor laws against "sympathy strikes" make it illegal for workers to strike in solidarity with other striking workers. Laws prohibit public school teachers from bargaining over demands to make the schools better for their students; they can only bargain for their own interests – "wages and working conditions." The mass media tells whites that blacks are dangerous criminals or recipients of jobs they don’t deserve, and tells blacks that whites are racist oppressors. By threatening job layoffs companies make people fear that their co-worker might be doing something secretly to save his or her job at the expense of one’s own. By imposing "two-tier" wage schemes that pay younger workers less for the same work as older workers companies pit young against old. Everywhere that people try to help and support each other and develop relations of trust and understanding, the religion of Capitalism attacks such efforts with laws or management schemes or simply by ensuring that the law of the marketplace–pure self-interest–trumps all other social relationships.

The religion of Capitalism even turns people against each other on a global scale. It spreads lies about foreign peoples to justify raining shock and awe upon them, and by doing this in the name of ordinary Americans it foments hatred between Americans and other peoples. Permanent war is its strategy. It does all of these things and more to destroy positive relations among people and to crush their dignity in order to make them more controllable. It has to do this because the high priests of the Capitalist Religion understand that most people, in their hearts, are heretics -- their God is not Economic Production but relations of trust and caring. The high priests of Capitalism know that if real democracy prevailed the Capitalist Church and their exalted position in it would not survive.


1. Different religions at different times have varied with respect to whether "others" referred to people of different religions or not. But regardless of whether society was conceived as universal or tribal, the Golden Rule was understood as the proper basis of behavior within it.

2. Another code of conduct found in many religions is the principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" which, to many a modern ear, seems barbaric. But this principle actually was formulated as an attempt to reduce violence among people, as the following account of its origin demonstrates.

"The law of 'an eye for an eye' is usually called the law of retribution, or 'lex talionis' (Latin, lex [law] and talio [like]; the punishment is like the injury), or the law of equivalency.
1. History of the legislation. The lex talionis is found in three passages in the Old Testament (Ex. 21:23, 24; Lev. 24:19, 20; and Deut. 19:21). A similar law is found in the ancient Mesopotamian code of Hammurabi. Earlier codes legislated financial compensation for bodily injuries, but Hammurabi seems to have been the first to require physical injury for physical injury. This has led some historians to conclude that there was a time when monetary compensation redressed personal injuries because the state did not consider them to be crimes against society.
The law of equivalency was a significant development in the history of jurisprudence in the sense that what used to be a private matter between two families was now taken over by the state and considered to be criminal behavior. This fits very well with the Old Testament understanding of offenses against others as offenses against the covenant community and against the God of the covenant.

2. The principle involved. The law of equivalency was an attempt to limit the extent of a punishment and to discourage cruelty. The principle of this legislation is one of equivalency; that is to say, the punishment should correspond to the crime and should be limited to the one involved in the injury (Deut. 19:18-21).
This law was a rejection of family feuds and the spirit of revenge that led the injured party to uncontrolled attacks against the culprit and the members of his or her family (cf. Gen. 4:23). The punishment was required to fit the crime, a principle still used in modern jurisprudence." [Bible Research Institute]

3. The Golden Rule quotations and sources presented here are taken from "The Golden Rule" and Christian Apologetics by Edward T. Babinski

4. "Nevertheless, the 12th canon of the First Council of Carthage (345) and the 36th canon of the Council of Aix (789) have declared it to be reprehensible even for laymen to make money by lending at interest. The canonical laws of the Middle Ages absolutely forbade the practice. This prohibition is contained in the Decree of Gratian, q. 3, C. IV, at the beginning, and c. 4, q. 4, C. IV; and in 1. 5, t. 19 of the Decretals, for example in chapters 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 13. These chapters order the profit so obtained to be restored; and Alexander III (c. 4, "Super eo", eodem) declares that he has no power to dispense from the obligation. Chapters 1, 2, and 6, eodem, condemns the strategems to which even clerics resorted to evade the law of the general councils, and the Third of the Lateran (1179) and the Second of Lyons (1274) condemn usurers. In the Council of Vienne (1311) it was declared that if any person obstinately maintained that there was no sin in the practice of demanding interest, he should be punished as a heretic (see c. "Ex gravi", unic. Clem., "De usuris", V, 5). [New Advent]

5. The twelfth century Church writer, Gratian, wrote in his Decretum, "Whosoever buys a thing, not that he may sell it whole and unchanged, but that it may be a material for fashioning something, he is no merchant. But the man who buys it in order that he may gain by selling it again unchanged and as he bought it, that man is of the buyers and sellers who are cast forth from God’s temple." [pt. 1, dist. 1xxxviii, cap. xi] St. Thomas Aquinas, in The Summa Theologica, writes that a man "who buys in order that he may sell justly condemned, since, regarded in itself, it serves the lust of gain." [2a, 2ae, Q. 1xxvii, art. iv] (Both quotations cited by R. H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, pg. 35.)

6. "The assumption on which all this body of [medieval Church] doctrine rested was simple. It was that the danger of economic interests increased in direct proportion to the prominence of the pecuniary motives associated with them. Labor – the common lot of mankind – is necessary and honorable; trade is necessary, but perilous to the soul; finance, if not immoral, is at best sordid and at worst disreputable. This curious inversion of the social values of more enlightened ages is best revealed in medieval discussions of the ethics of commerce." [R. H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, pg. 33.]


7. The General Rules of the Methodist Church [page 2 and 3] state: "There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: 'a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.' But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as: …Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling…Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us… These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice…If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls."

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2000. Copyright 2000 by The United Methodist Publishing House.

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