God and Success
Americans have always been responsive to revivalists and to those who seek to popularize religion. But recently, as CURTIS CATE points out, the glorification of commercial success has been added to godliness in a way to make us somewhat skeptical of the new piety. Mr. Cate, who was born in France and educated at Harvard and Oxford, is now on the editorial staff of the Atlanlic.
by CURTIS CATE
WHETHER or not the historians of the future will agree with Norman Vincent Peale’s verdict that “America is the first great nation in history to be established on a definitely religious premise,”it is perhaps a little premature to say. But when they come to bend their magnifying glasses over the confusing paradoxes of the present, there is one symptom at least which they are likely to single out for special study as constituting, for better or for worse, an unquestionably American innovation in the field of contemporary religion. This is the new style, or perhaps one should say the new pace, which has been set by those rugged captains of faith, by those trail-blazing religionists, who have sought in the last ten years to give a new and unprecedented impetus to religious predication in this country.
The American religionist — the title is a relatively recent one — has no exact counterpart in any other country. He is not a saint or a holy man, with his staff and his bowl, as we have been brought up to imagine them. There is none of the monk or the mystic about him, though there is quite a touch of the missionary. He is not a man of meditation but an activist; not a man of faith and prayer himself so much as a man who assiduously instructs others in how to acquire faith and how to pray. A religionist does not even need to be a clergyman. His mission is simply to popularize and sell religious health. He is a zealous promoter of psychic comfort, a supersalesman of salvation who has revolutionized the traditional methods of propagating piety by learning to peddle faith with all the clan of a Madison Avenue advertiser plugging a new barbiturate.
The new faith has little to do with the oldfashioned faith as Saint Paul conceived it — the faith of the contrite Christian humbly imploring the mercy and guidance of the Almighty to light off sin and temptation. That is a negative approach to faith which our pioneer religionists have repudiated as unworthy of the Century of the Common Man. The new faith is a positive faith in man’s power to have faith and to use it to conjure up the coöperation of Cod; it is a confident faith in the latest “prayer techniques" that are guaranteed to get results; it is a streamlined faith in the tried and tested spiritual formulas that will win us those earthly rewards which the Baptist faith-healer, Oral Roberts, assures us are our due, because “Christ has no objection to prosperity.”
One of the easiest ways of acquiring this twentieth-century approach to religion is to dip into a few of the inspirational books which have added luster to our literary output. Lay hold of the master key to the life within you, Marcus Bach recommends in a recently published book, and you can acquire The Will to Believe. Just learn to think well of yourself, Dr. Hyman Sehaehlel urges, and you will get The Life You Want to Live, You can achieve spiritual sovereignty, Dr. Roy Burkhart assures us, by acquiring The Freedom to Become Yourself. Harness The Magic Power of Your Mind, Walter Germain encourages us, and you can live twentyfour hours a day. Learn to pray while at work, George Murran insists, and you will find that There Is a Place for God in Business. Forget the “ifs” in your life and you will discover, according to Alexander Lake, that Your Prayers Are Always Answered. The last three authors, incidentally, are not gentlemen of the cloth. Mr. Germain is a former Michigan police inspector who has made a specially of juvenile delinquency; Mr. Murran is a New York business consultant and the founder of the Spiritual Guide for Business Institute; and Mr. Lake has been an African big-game hunter and guide as well as a writer.
But the most important source books of the new faith are, of course, the great classics of Dr. Norman Vincent Beale. Get rid of your inferiority complex, Dr. Beale urges us, and you will possess A Guide to Confident Living. Learn to believe in yourself and you will find that You Can Win and that you can enjoy The Art of Living. With Dr. Smiley Blanton (Dr. Peale’s coauthor and psychiatrist colleague at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York) you will discover that Faith Ts the Answer to all your problems, and you will develop The Art of Real Happiness. Learn to break that worry habit and you will be able to tap the miraculous reserves of hidden energy stored np in The Power of Positive ‘Thinking.
The latest masterpiece in this impressive series has just been published by Prentice-Hall under the confident title Stay Alive All Your Life. Like its predecessors, it is an anthology of success stories. Its author assures us that it goes even further than The Power of Positive Thinking in “emphasizing how to achieve well-being, vitalily, enthusiasm, and effectiveness in life.”
REDUCED to ils essence, Dr. Peale’s philosophy is this; the mind of man is like an eight-cylinder motor, If it feeds on “defeat thoughts,’ it splutters and chokes, like a Cadillac that has been filled with bad gasoline. Weighed down by negative thoughts, man loses his self-confidence and Ids power to act. Everything in him turns gloomy , somber, sour. The sourer he gets, the more he alienates his friends and associates, thus exacerbating his initial feeling of rejection and insecurity. To escape this vicious cycle, he must cleanse his mind of negative thoughts and inject new positive ones. This will act on his spiritual metabolism like high-octane gasoline on a coughing engine, turning his mind into a “powerproducing plant.”And how do you go about getting these “positive thoughts"? The answer is simple: by praying (prayer is an essential ritual in the “power-producing process”), by going to church (going to church also ensures a longer life), and above all by dipping into the Bible.
“The words of the Bible,”say s Dr. Peale, “have a particularly strong therapeutic effect. Drop them into your mind, allowing them to ‘dissolve’ in consciousness, and they will spread a healing balm over your entire mental structure.”For example, as you get up in the morning, repeat tlie following biblical phrase three times: “This is the day’ which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalms 118:£4.) And the Doctor adds: “Only personalize it and say: ‘I will rejoice and be glad in it.”. . . If you repeat that one sentence three times before breakfast and meditate on the meaning of tiie words, you will change the character of the day by starting off with a happiness psychology.”
There is, of course, nothing radically new about tins kind of morale-boosting technique, variants of w hich can be found in a number of our religious cults. It is reminiscent of the technique of “conscious auto-suggestion" which was popularized just after the First World War by Dr. Emile Coue. But lilt’ method prescribed by the genial French doctor from Nancy had almost no religious overtones, and it contained suspicious symptoms of negative thinking. You could, if you wished, add t lit’ phrase “By the Grace of God" after you had made the ritual incantation (twenty times repeated) of “Every day in every way I am getting better and better, and thus turn it into a prayer. But this addition was not essential to the success of the formula. Furthermore, Dr. Cone’s pocket, reader. Self Mastery Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion, is studded with negative warnings, like the fine print in an insurance contract. “Of course, the thing [desired] must be w ithin your power,” or “ Don’t discuss things you know nothing about, or you will look ridiculous.
When we move from Dr. Cone’s modest book to those of Dr. Peale we move from a timorous to a confident universe. Dr. Peale’s many formulas are altogether positive and guaranteed to work for all sorts of situations, and above all, for hard-pressed business executives down on their luck. Get rid of your negative-thinking friends and learn to have faith, and you will soon be moving mountains of dollars. Invoke God’s divine assistance through “deep prayers that have a lot of suction" and you will get what you want in life, or at any rate you will potentially be in a position to get what you want. (This is, fortunately, the only shadow of negative thinking haunting Dr. Peale’s books.)
A typical case cited by the Doctor as an example of the success of this method is that of a saleswoman who has been unable to sell vacuum cleaners. One day she breaks down and pours out her tale of woe to a sympathetic customer, who, taking pity on her, gives her this encouragement: “Repeal this formula before every call. Believe it and then marvel what it will do for you. This is it. ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ [Homans 8:31.] But change it by personalizing it so that you say’, ‘If God be for me, who can be against meY If God be for me, then I know that with God’s help, I can sell vacuum cleaners.’” The upshot of this story’ is that the saleswoman goes out and sells vacuum cleaners. And Dr. Peale concludes: “Now she declares, ‘God helps me to sell vacuum cleaners,’ and who can dispute it ?”
The beauty of this moving story lies, of course, in the ingenious way in which Saint Paul s exhortation to his fellow Christians in their desperate struggle against the pagan authorities of Home has been “personalized" and adapted to the everyday usage of the harassed saleswoman. The new formula is thus ready-made for secular use and has no religious implications whatsoever. This is, indeed, the signal originality of Dr. Peale’s works. They are great religious books with a minimum of religion in them. You can search their pages in vain for moral injunctions or guidance as to the kind of good or bad actions you should or should not undertake in Life. These books are not much concerned with morality; their essential concern is success. What matters is that you should get what you want.
The new, confident approach to religion has been objected to by some theological traditionalists on the ground that it inevitably implicates God in the seething ebb and How of human fortunes. It is all very well to say that if you have faith in God, Me will never let you down. But what happens if your good luck fails to materialize or suddenly ends? Are you to conclude that God has broken Mis part, of the bargain? To this objection our forwardlooking religionists, like Dr. Beale, have a ready answer: you simply didn’t try hard enough. Go out and try again. They are equally unperturbed by such judgments as this one of Henry L. Mencken’s: “All great religions, in order to escape absurdity, have to admit a dilution of agnosticism. It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely.” Mencken was notoriously one of the most negative thinkers this century has produced, and his past pontifical ions have simply been ignored by our pioneer religionists, even supposing they have ever bothered to read them.
The new fashion, on the contrary, is to see God everywhere and at least potentially succoring everyone in his secular pursuits — except, of course, Communists and fellow travelers. Today the idea of partnership with the Divine is no longer seriously contested, except perhaps in a few last strongholds of resolutely negative thought. Everywhere else it is expanding and triumphing prodigiously. In Dr. Beale’s books we find God everywhere, lending a hand in the most mundane occupations. We find Him helping to sell vacuum cleaners and running a beauty parlor; we find Him on the football Hold, the athletic field, and out on the golf links; above all, we find Him in the business office, helping the enterprising to get ahead in the world. For nothing succeeds better in business, Dr. Beale assures us, than “effecting a merger with God.” God is everywhere in the universe, the source of all energy, like a cosmic battery that any believer can plug into with the live wire of faith.
This, of course, is pantheism — a new breezy kind of pantheism in suede shoes and a gray flannel suit. The new cult has gone to the extreme of sporting a rakish-loo king zoot suit, as happened last July when the International New Thought Alliance held its annual convention in Washington, D.C. I doubt if there has been a religious convention in modern times that has been as positively inspired as this one. For before it was over, the delegates had swept away all the old distinctions between God and Mammon, celebrated the mystic marriage of the Cross and the Dollar, and plunged into ecstatic dithyrambs over the distribution of a pamphlet, w ritten by one cleric present, which bore l lie elect rifyng title; Money Is God in Action!
Getting God into 1 lie business office, and even out on the golf links, is the surest way of making Him popular in a period of prosperity. It is the easiest way of divesting Him of Ids former aloof, paternal attributes, of “bringing Him down to earth" and “democratizing” Him, in order to make Him more palatable to the success-seeking, Freudridden, leisure-loving generations of the present.
Thanks to our pioneering religionists, we can now take comfort in a new God shaped “in the image of Man”; a really friendly, companionable, democratic God, who doesn’t, mind having His back slapped in a spirit of pious partnership; a God who, as Jules Masserman has put it, has become “man’s omnipotent slave.”
In the “dynamic” religion that we are being promised for tomorrow no ascetic discipline or special humbleness will any longer be required. It will be a hot-water bottle kind of piety with none of that gritty old morality in it. It will be a brand of faith that has been synthetized, vitaminized, homogenized, and capsulized, and it will be as ready-made for effortless consumption as that magically bleached, cottony, crust less, already sliced white bread which is the symbol of the modern American’s massive superiority over the pagan bushwhacker.
Did I say tomorrow? I was being overcautious and almost guilty of negative prognostications. For our boldest pioneers have already left even as enterprising a religionist as Dr. Beale far behind. A harbinger of the great things to come was the recent Gospel Boogie craze, in which jazzed-up fragments of the New Testament were offered to jam-packed audiences munching popcorn and sipping soda pop. Another is the wave of religious songs that has recently swamped the juke boxes with such immortals of sentimentalized piety as “It Is No Secret What God Can Do,” “Are You Friends with the King of All Friends?", “If Jesus Came to Your House,” and “The Man Upstairs.”
Some of the verses in these songs are, it is true, a trifle sticky; and referring to God as “The Alan I pslairs” may be hard to swallow’ for the oldfashioned among us. But ibis is the price we must pay for the privilege of bringing God into the drugstore as well as the business office. We can all rejoice, with Dr. Beale and his fellow pioneers, that the Good Lord has heard the call and condescended with such debonair grace to be One of the Boys, a Hundred Percent American, and a valuable Member of the Team.