Practical Application of the Word of God
Before the 1920’s, religion in the United States was, for the most part, local, community-based and was part of the backbone of American life.
Despite what your history books told you, the Puritan model of religious worship had little effect outside of New England.
However, because many of their core beliefs were actually based on scripture and because scripture was the foundation of the religious worship in the South as well, those biblical principles became the model for acceptable behavior and living throughout the colonies.
But as America expanded west and more non-English immigrants came into the burgeoning country bringing different flavors of religious worship or no religious worship at all, the colony model for acceptable behavior and living began to mutate and be less influential in daily living, especially in industrializing cities and the western frontier.
One reason for this change in these areas was that a new national religion was emerging and that was the religion of business.
There was a lot of money to be made as America grew and the love of money (the promise of great rewards in the present) was far more attractive than the love of God (the promise of great rewards in the future).
Another reason for this change was the very nature of the western expansion.
People were leaving families and communities, which often impose a natural set of boundaries on behavior and life, behind, often never to be seen again.
The land these people were going into had no established communities and were essentially lawless. And so people basically did whatever they wanted to do and lived by their own ideas of right and wrong. There was no place for religious worship there.
Although back east religious worship was still local and community-based outside the big cities, the fabric of it was beginning to change. People in general were becoming less concerned with the state of their souls than the state of their physical assets and fortunes. “Going to church” became more of a social activity than a spiritual one.
There were regional movements from time to time – known as Great Awakenings – that addressed the secularism with a perfunctory nod to religion a couple of times a week that was becoming the American way, but they were, on the whole, ineffective and unable to stem the tide toward business as the god Americans increasingly were choosing to worship.
In many ways, though, the final death blow to most scripture-based religious worship in American was World War I.
As the first truly global conflict in the history of humans combined with weaponry designed to annihilate whatever they came in contact with, World War I exacted an unbelievable toll of death and destruction across the world.
Most directly impacted were the young soldiers who actually fought the war and survived, in some shape or fashion, to go back to their countries of origin.
The horrors of the war often had a physical cost as chemical agents like mustard gas destroyed the lungs and led to shorter lifespans due to respiratory failure. The psychological and mental damage was just as horrific, if not worse.
The generation that fought and survived that war carried the brunt of its scars. In reaction and to try to forget, they developed a hedonistic lifestyle that began in the 1920’s and is now known as the Jazz Age (you can thank F. Scott Fitzgerald for that phrase).
One of the casualties for a lot of members of the Lost Generation was religious belief.
That was replaced with all-out consumerism and materialism fueled by higher wages and shorter working hours, which money brokers and businesses were happy to meet and exceed.
(Ironically, the same lending practices and stock market overvaluation that led to the global economic recession that began in 2007-2008 were also the hallmark of 1920’s financial markets and led to the global economic depression that began in October 1929.)
But it was during this boom of consumerism and materialism that the god of worship changed as well. Although business was still worshiped it morphed into a church with the sole source of almighty worship becoming the businessman.
A telling paragraph from Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore reveals this change: “The American businessman had replaced the statesman, the priest, the philosopher as the creator of the standard of ethics and behavior.”
This church of business and business people as objects of worship continues today in modern business. Apple and Steve Jobs. Microsoft and Bill Gates. Amazon and Jeff Bezos. Oracle and Larry Ellison. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Google and Larry Page. To name just a few.
And a common thread among these extremely successful business people harks back to the common thread of successful businessmen of the 1920’s: disdain for and abandonment of, as well as pride in the lack of, formal education.
Henry Ford, the 1920’s businessmen’s businessman said: “Facts mess up my non-educated mind.”
That’s an important quote to remember because we see that mentality continue as religion becomes a business beckoning the uneducated, but charismatic (and often intimidating), narcissistic people that often lead these organizations with a self-contrived, but unfactual – in fact, it is very often in direct conflict with scripture – brand of “fundamentalism” that does not serve God nor humans, but in fact serves themselves.
And it is here in the 1920’s – the Jazz Age – where the roots of modern religious organizations lie when some unscrupulous – and often unsuccessful – business people saw the opportunity to make religion a business.
And that model, which became wildly successful, because it cleverly, deceptively, and quite convincingly appropriated the authority that only God and Jesus Christ have over human souls, has been perpetuated, copied, continued, and expanded (and it continues even now in full gear) in all religious organizations today.
Quotes from prominent advertisers (the Mad Men of the 1920’s), businessmen, business groups, and even presidents show how business became a church and businessmen were first compared to Jesus Christ and then replaced Jesus Christ as the authority and object of worship for the masses.
Calvin Coolidge (U. S. president from 1923 to 1929): “Those who build a factory build a temple of worship. Those who work in a factory worship there.” Salesmen are “angels and evangels.”
Advertising executive Bruce Barton (The Man Nobody Knows – 1925): Identifying Jesus as the the founder of the modern business world and first Chief Executive Officer ever, He “picked twelve men from the bottom ranks and forged them into an organization that changed the world.” (Notice that the other 108 disciples are missing and that Barton equates the ekklesia with a physical organization rather than what it actually is, which is a spiritual body than has no organizational boundaries.)
Henry Ford (1863 – 1947): Machinery is “the new Messiah.”
The Rotary Club (founded 1905 – became a secular replacement for theologically-based worship, but had pseudo-Christian tenets): Jesus was “the first Rotarian.”
Moore, perhaps unwittingly, lays down the foundation for how religion was a prime target for the transition to a business model with this quote from her book: “Advertisers’ success in manipulating the gullible buying public became an article of faith. An essay in 1922 on the subject opened with the words, ‘Do I understand you to say that you do not believe in advertising? Indeed! Soon you will be telling me you do not believe in God.'”
In part 2 of this series, we’ll look at the specifics of how religion became a business, as well as how technological changes enabled the admen and salesmen to grow huge profitable, but idolatrous, organizations (churches that became altars of worship led by people who claimed to be in place of God and who demanded the worship that only God deserves) that promised things that mere mortals could never deliver – at a spiritual and financial cost that God and Christ specifically warn against in scripture – and how that continues unabated and more pervasively today.