God and Mammon Go to the Movies

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On the Tension Between Religion and Capitalism 

In Three Recent Hollywood Movies

You might think there’s enough conflict in our lives as it is, between cable news, Twitter feeds, jobs and daily commutes. But no, we never seem to get enough. Small wonder then that conflict maintains a steady grip on Hollywood, where it’s behind the action in action films and love’s delayed triumph in romcoms. In some movies there’s yet another layer of conflict that bubbles beneath the surface: the competing demands of the market economy and religion. That conflict is unmistakable in three much lauded films of the last decade, There Will Be BloodHail, Caesar!, and The Birth of a Nation, in which characters negotiate the underlying contradictions between a get-rich-quick economy and a money-is-the-root-of-all-evil faith. Each filmmaker takes a different route but leaves audiences in the same uneasy limbo at the end. In the on-screen battle between God and Mammon for the American soul, there’s no resolution in sight. 

To uncover the origin of this cinematic idee fixe you need to go back to the beginning. Not to the era of Charlie Chaplin, but to those 17thcentury European settlers who braved the Atlantic passage in hopes of achieving wealth and salvation. Some of them struggled with the apparent contradictions between those dreams, to judge from their letters and sermons. Even so, the odd coupling of adventure capitalism and evangelical Christianity has been nothing if not successful – sort of like a dysfunctional marriage that produces wildly successful kids. Four centuries later, the United States is one of the world’s most solidly Christian nations and its most exuberant free market capitalist. Not only does the US boast the world’s largest economy (equaling the combined GDP of the next three nations on the list), Americans make about 23% of the world’s money each year and comprise less than 5% of the global population. And despite declining church attendance, the US is more observant than other developed nations. Each Sunday 46% of American adults plop themselves into a church pew, compared to 14% of adults in the UK, 8% in France, and 7% in Sweden. So it looks like this sacred-profane mashup has overcome its built-in conflict, right? Not at all. Instead, it has spawned an internal rivalry that shows up in all sorts of cultural productions, from novels to poems and movies, of which these three recent films are compelling examples. 

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) is dominated by the Olympian ego of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), who in some ways recalls characters from earlier Anderson films like Magnoliaand Boogie Nights. Macho bully Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) and porn entrepreneur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) are cut from the same cloth as Plainview, but neither can match his all-consuming monomania. The movie pits Lewis’ character against a crazed fundamentalist preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), in a dire warning about combining capitalism and Christianity. In the early years of the 20th century, prospector Daniel Plainview discovers oil in Southern California and starts a company to lease drilling rights on nearby farmland. Following a tip, Plainview pursues a deal with the Sunday family, but the negotiation is hijacked by son Eli, who demands more money as a way to fund his fledgling church. Within a few years, Plainview is successful but unfulfilled; he lacks one tract of land to realize his dream of an oil pipeline stretching to the Pacific. The tract’s owner finally agrees to sell on the condition that Plainview be baptized in Eli Sunday’s church. In the final act, a wealthy, drunken Plainview is visited in his mansion by a now desperate Eli Sunday, who claims he can negotiate a deal for the missing tract. Plainview says he’ll agree to the deal if Eli renounces his faith. 

In There Will Be Blood, history’s ongoing battle between capitalism and Christianity is acted out literally and violently in the struggle between Plainview and Sunday. And that action is undergirded by the film’s intricate web of biblical references. Old and New Testament names abound: Daniel, Eli, Paul, Abel. There’s bad blood between brothers as in Genesis. Plainview tells his adopted son “You’re a bastard in a basket in the middle of the desert,” evoking the story of Moses. Daniel Day Lewis ends the film with the declaration “I am finished,” much like Jesus’ last words on the cross (John 19:30). The dominant symbols of oil and blood are associated with wealth and redemption respectively. (This makes the early scene where we see Plainview covered in blood and oil especially resonant.) The US oil business at the turn of the century has all the extremes of greed, deceit, and ruthlessness that mark capitalism at its worst. Two powerful scenes reveal how religious faith can become a bargaining chip for the pursuit of money. At the blessing of the oil well, Plainview steals the spotlight and, more to the point, Eli’s words, to enhance his position in the town at Eli’s expense. In effect, business usurps religion’s role. And Plainview cynically uses baptism as a way to achieve his goals when he goes along with Bandy’s oil-rights-for-repentance deal. The same could be said for Eli’s confession at the end: religious rituals are performed for capitalist aims. 

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While Daniel Plainview enriches himself by manipulating his community’s religious beliefs, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation depicts an elaborate economic collusion between capitalism and Protestant Christianity itself to perpetuate America’s original sin. Like the earlier film 12 Years a Slave, in The Birth of a Nation we see Christian theology distorted to fit capitalist objectives. From the film’s opening scenes, the young Nat (Tony Espinosa) is a soul set apart. He’s marked by tribal memories, tutored by the plantation owner’s wife, befriended by the owner’s son, and encouraged to read the Bible. As a grown man, Nat (Nate Parker) is a trusted worker for Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer) and a beloved preacher to his fellow slaves. All of this comes in handy when rumors of slave unrest get the attention of plantation owners. The local Methodist minister – a middling villain in a movie filled with them – has the solution. He tells Samuel Turner to rent preacher Nat to other plantation owners. According to his scheme, Nat’s sermons will mollify the slaves and the fees Nat earns will solve Turner’s cash flow problem. But on those preaching trips Nat witnesses the abuse and torture his fellow slaves endure. It marks an epiphany for Nat and spurs him to lead a rebellion ending in the massacre of white families and his slave followers. 

The Methodist minister’s disturbing role in all this is neither historically unusual nor surprising, considering the financial stakes. Southern churches depended on the slave-based economy too, and clergy often used their pulpits as a theological rampart protecting the slave system. Some church groups actually punished ministers who preached against slavery, as Edward Baptist writes in his new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Biblical justification for slavery was an exercise in elaborate manipulation of scriptural texts carefully plucked from their contexts like cotton bolls from a stem. And, of course, knowing that the preponderance of scripture tilts in the exact opposite direction never seemed to bother them. It was exegesis at the service of economics, an instance where capitalist ambition takes the upper hand, twisting and reshaping the Christian message to achieve material goals. 

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Nat Turner’s epiphany transforms his sermons in content and tone. Early on, he preaches from passages that encourage slaves to accept their plight: “Wait upon the Lord, be of courage” (Psalm 27:14); “Slaves submit to your masters” (1 Peter 2:18). But later, at the campfire meeting with his rebellious followers, Nat says he’ll no longer preach from the few passages his owners allowed him to read. After finally reading the entire Bible, Nat discovers that “for every verse they use to defend our torture there’s another demanding our freedom.” Part of Nat Turner’s rebellion is a radical re-thinking of the Bible’s meaning and message. Plantation owners use it to cow their slaves; Nat uses it to foment rebellion. 

Religious values aren’t exactly twisted to meet the demands of business in Hail, Caesar!, but they are definitely tweaked. Set in the early 50s, the film traces the problem-solving escapades of studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Just beneath the surface of the executive’s manic schedule simmers a tough career decision: Should he leave the studio to accept a lucrative offer from Lockheed? It would mean more money – the Lockheed recruiter implies Mannix can name his price – and a future unburdened by studio hijinks. That kind of soul searching links Mannix to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the Coen Brothers’ earlier effort, A Serious Man. But while Gopnik focuses on why bad things happen to good people, Mannix worries about the impact of wealth on a meaningful life. Not that raising money is a big problem. When the star of the studio’s blockbuster-in-production Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is abducted, it’s up to Mannix to come up with the ransom. The abductors, it turns out, are a cabal of Commie script writers and intellectuals who try to persuade Whitlock to join their cause. Mannix in the meantime is deflecting a steady stream of publicity challenges: a gossip columnist threatens to publish dirt on Whitlock, an unmarried starlet’s pregnancy is growing impossible to hide beneath her tight costumes, and a cowboy actor-singer is having a career crisis. In the end, Mannix mops up all the messes and decides that his place is the studio after all.

Like There Will Be Blood, the Coen film is filled with religious references and imagery. To set the tone, the movie opens on a crucifix with Mannix in the confessional at his local church (where the priest wonders if Mannix may be coming to confession too often). The movie-within-the-movie is titled Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ and follows a Roman centurion who comes to faith at the foot of the cross at Calvary. That is, if the star can remember his lines. But it’s the career decision Mannix faces that unifies the movie’s meanings. Whether or not to take an offer for more money is a routine decision for employees in a market economy, and while it’s sometimes a tough choice, it rarely involves the angst Mannix suffers. It helps to remember how the offer came about. In a series of meetings with Lockheed’s recruiter, Mannix is told that making movies is trivial and lacks meaning. After the sweetened offer, Mannix prays about his decision. By the time neophyte Communist sympathizer Baird Whitlock complains to Mannix that studios are just pawns of the capitalist system, Mannix has figured out what really matters in life. He tells Whitlock to get to work because “the picture has worth and you have worth as long as you serve the picture.” For Mannix, it’s serving the movie industry that is what gives life meaning, not serving God. Paradoxically (and comically), his religious foundation doesn’t prevent Mannix from lying to reporters, faking a phony adoption, or slapping an actor back into shape; all these are requirements of the job, done for the good of the studio that gives his professional life value.

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Each of these films peels back another layer of the American struggle between God and Mammon. For Eddie Mannix, the capitalist economy offers up tempting opportunities (along with its promise of status and fame), yet his religious scruple do force him to question the place of wealth and power in his life. Those very practices are cynically subverted by Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, and his tragic triumph mocks Christian ideals. In The Birth of a Nation, individual effort is revealed to be powerless in the face of a capitalist economy reliant on slave labor, an economy that repurposes sacred texts for profit. In all three movies, Christian beliefs and practices are challenged by capitalism, and in each instance, the representatives of Christian faith (Eli Sunday, Eddie Mannix, the Methodist minister) fail to meet the challenge because they have been compromised by their own participation in the capitalist system. As a result, the conflict that drives these narratives is never fully resolved simply because no one is able to square the competing demands of religious faith and the marketplace. Those compromised characters – representatives of the Christian values that might check the excesses of market enterprise – in their failure, perfectly embody the broader issue in American life. In a cultural setting so thoroughly immersed in the two opposing sets of values, where the ambitions of capitalism and the aspirations of Christianity are bound together like a parasite and its host, no resolution is available. 


About the author

Ken Hines is an independent researcher based in Richmond, VA who writes about cultural contradictions in American life. He is currently writing a series of essays about the tension between capitalism and Christianity in American culture. “God and Mammon Go to the Movies” is part of this series, as is his essay “When Capitalism and Christianity Collide in Fiction” published in The Millions, which looks at this tension in well-known short stories.


Ken Hines