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Russell Conwell: His Theology of Wealth and Today’s GOP

Dr. Zogby: “I thought of Russell Conwell’s bizarre nineteenth-century theological glorification of wealth this past week when the Supreme Court removed one of the last remaining limits on the amount of money wealthy donors could spend in political campaigns.”

I did my doctoral work at Temple University, whose founder was a nineteenth-century Baptist preacher, Russell Conwell. Conwell was, to be sure, an accomplished writer, a captivating preacher, and a visionary entrepreneur, but the theology he helped to popularize was, in a word, disturbing. It provided divine justification for the acquisition of money and legitimized the gap between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. On reflection, it sounds a lot like today’s GOP.

Conwell believed and taught that wealth was available to all men. Because opportunities to become rich are everywhere, all one needed to do to attain wealth was to work hard enough and be blessed by God.

Conwell wrote that it is a Christian’s duty to become rich. “Money is power, money is force…Money printed your bible, money builds your churches, money sends your missionaries, and money pays your preachers.” He continues, “The man who gets the largest salary can do the most good with the power that has been furnished to him.”

If wealth and power are “blessings from God”, then, according to Conwell, to be poor must be the result of punishment for one’s sins. “To sympathize with a [poor] man whom God has punished for his sins…is to do wrong, no doubt about it…let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings…”

I thought of Russell Conwell’s bizarre nineteenth-century theological glorification of wealth this past week when the Supreme Court removed one of the last remaining limits on the amount of money wealthy donors could spend in political campaigns. Before this week, the limit an individual donor could spend directly on campaigns was $117,000. Building on its belief that “money is speech”, and that Congress has no right to pass laws that limit free speech, the Court voted to end these limits to campaign spending. After this new Supreme Court ruling, it is now possible for individuals to give as much a $3.5 million to campaigns and campaign committees in a single election cycle.

This Supreme Court ruling comes on top of the Court’s 2010 “Citizen’s United” decision which took virtually all limits off of the amounts that wealthy individuals could spend independently to influence the outcome of elections. The wealthy have taken advantage of this ruling and have spent quite freely.

In 2012, it is estimated that the interlocking network of committees funded by just one group, the Koch brothers, spent almost $400 million in support of Republican candidates and causes. Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate and advocate of hard-line Israeli policies who has a net worth of almost $38 billion, spent over $90 million to support his favored Republicans. Overall, 61 big donors to independent efforts to sway the 2012 elections gave more money to influence the presidential election than the nearly 3.7 million small donors who contributed directly to the 2012 Obama and Romney campaigns.

And so, thanks to the Supreme Court, to Conwell’s litany of “money is power, money is force”, we can now add that big money gives one a bigger voice. And to the list of what money can buy – in addition to bibles and preachers – we must add that it can also buy elections.

This was on display this past week when Adelson convened all of the GOP ‘s 2016 presidential aspirants to his Las Vegas casino for the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. The meeting was dubbed, in the press, the “Adelson Primary”. With Adelson and the Israeli Ambassador to Washington in attendance, one by one the Republican hopefuls auditioned, hoping to win access to the magnate’s deep pockets to support their campaign. Looking at the scene, I could only think of Russell Conwell’s quote – “Money is power, money is force.”

I thought of Conwell again this week when Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan (R-WI), released his newest budget proposal that would cut federal spending by over $5 trillion over the next ten years. He would cut taxes for the rich to encourage economic growth and cut health care, food stamps, and other anti-poverty programs to end the “culture of dependency” and encourage hard work.

I believe that Russell Conwell must be smiling at these displays of callousness, masking as righteousness, and at the craven quest for money and the role it has come to play in our politics.

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