Buddhism under Capitalism: The Unholy Alliance of Capitalism and Christianity

Two recent books explore the history of the relationship between capitalism and the forms of Christianity that dominate the religious discourse of the United States today. Important contributions to understanding both the character of contemporary American religious culture and the dynamics of purposeful adaptation of religion as a social force in the service of capitalist ends. Two interviews in Religion Dispatches introduce the works and their authors:

Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, New York: Basic Books, 2015

Interview of the author by Andrew Aghapour on 20 April, Religion Dispatches (here), and

Timothy Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of American Evangelism, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Interview of the author by Daniel Silliman on 6 May, Religion Dispatches (here).

One of the directions of study that I hope/intend the AAR seminar will pursue is how capitalist formations of Christianity have ramified into the academic conceptions of religion generally, including the ways that Buddhism has been and continues to be represented by the academy to itself and in pedagogy. This complements the more obvious commodification of Buddhism as a product for consumption, but operates at a level of naturalizing particular understandings in ways that make capitalist-informed representations of Buddhism obvious, given, and difficult to call into question.

The academic study of religion has a long-standing tendency to privilege doctrinal representations of religion to the exclusion of practice (both narrowly as religious practices and more broadly in the sense of Bourdieu’s habitus). Equally influential, however, is the presumption that religion is both the grounds of morality and that it is good for you. Consider for example the frequently encountered rhetorical claim that religion has to do with making meaning, and that meaning–making is the essential characteristic of human life, or the humans cannot live without meaning. This rhetoric is often then put in service to the idea that a transcendent source—something beyond or above our silly mundane existence here with our friends—is required as the firm foundation for that meaning.

This complex of ideas has created a match for the privileging of doctrine, an equally long-standing, though equally implicit prohibition within religious studies against examining the economic dimensions of religion. (I would suspect that one of the rationales for the academic study of religion in mid-twentieth century America was as a bulwark against “godless communism.”) While we find, for example, various academic subspecializations such as the psychology of religion, the sociology of religion, the anthropology of religion, and more recently the cognitive study of religion, there is no corresponding subspecialization of the economics of religion. This once invisible lacuna now appears to be gradually shrinking.

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