The first job that ever taught me anything was at a bar by my house. My commute was a five-minute drive.
It was late one night, the end of a shift, and I was wrapping up the host booth. Not too far away, one of the bouncers was there eating.
He was a great guy, great at his job, rarely complained. From what I could gather, his life wasn’t easy, but that night he was eating like a king; the kitchen had cooked a steak by accident, so that was what he was getting for an end-of-shift meal.
We started chatting, and he told me that earlier, he had thought of how great a steak might be. This thought, he said, had been broadcast to the universe, and the universe had provided him with a steak, just like he wanted. He was convinced that this was the secret to getting rich, living life to the fullest, and being successful. He talked about it like a preacher talks God, or a barefoot runner talks about how running shoes ruin your joints.
I didn’t think much of this at the time, but looking back, this was my first encounter with a particular American belief system, one supersedes all our other beliefs, even the Christianity many of us believe to be the bedrock of our country.
It’s part of a faith I call the religion of the Vending Machine God.
The Vending Machine God has its own church. It has its own texts, doctrine, and clergy.
It’s a faith you’ve never heard of, but it’s everywhere.
The Canon of the Vending Machine God
What the bouncer was talking about was something called the ‘Law of Attraction.’
At its core, the Law of Attraction is an idea that a person can send out brain waves to the universe in order to get what we want. This is called ‘manifesting.’ You can manifest money, people, love, or a steak dinner. Everything you need can be provided if you just think about it in the right way for long enough. The only thing that holds people back from success in all areas of their lives is ‘blocking,’ or mental and emotional barriers that a person puts up to keep them from their goals.
The current, most successful peddler of this idea is Rhonda Byrne. Her book, The Secret, was only published in 2006. Already, it’s sold over 20 million copies worldwide, and another million and a half copies of her DVD. She describes the Law of Attraction like the laws of physics; as sure as gravity makes you fall to earth, you can manifest anything to make you rise.
The Secret tries to harken back to ancient knowledge, like most religions do, but it can’t; it’s the warmed over idea of a man named Napoleon Hill, who wrote the book Think and Grow Rich. That book has been a perennial bestseller since it was published in 1937. Worldwide, it’s sold 70 million copies. Hill believed that a person could ‘manifest’ in almost the exact same way: “Whatever the mind can conceive, and believe, the mind can achieve!” he wrote. You see similar lines of thinking in the Positive Psychology movement, which was founded by Norman Vincent Peale.
These books have a different name for this concept: in The Secret, it’s called the Law of Attraction; in Think and Grow Rich, it’s the Master Mind; in The Power of Positive Thinking it’s called, well, Positive Psychology. But the law is the same.
With these authors, we’re only talking about the major saints; there are countless smaller prophets that posit the same beliefs that you’ve never seen, like thelawofattraction.com.
When you go to that site, the first thing you do is take a quiz. It’s a few questions about what’s blocking you in life, how much control you think you have, even what song lyrics best describe what your life is like.
The first thing you see when you finish is a long page of text, with all the important points in bold:
After I see my results, I find that for only $49 (usually it’s $99, but thankfully there was a, uh, February Special running) I can gain the secret knowledge of Kristen Hurst, rather than Tony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne, or anyone else who doesn’t take into account that you can transform your body ‘into a magnet 5,000 times more powerful than your brain,’ whatever that might mean.
But looking at the text of the ‘test’ results, it is easy to see why people believe. The message is that you’re special, you have limitless power waiting to be released, and, most importantly, you are in control. These are intoxicating ideas, especially if your back is up against the wall.
The Vending Machine God demands nothing moral. It does not call on you to live well, to treat others with respect, to love radically. The Vending Machine God is subservient to you, so long as you know its secrets. And if you take these ideas to their logical conclusion, you can end up in some pretty dark places.
Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, famously quoted Rhonda Byrne when she said that the people who were affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had brought it on themselves because they were on “the same frequency as the event.”
This was an ‘event,’ mind you, that killed an estimated 200,000 people.
In the religion of the Vending Machine God, a person is always in control of their circumstances. They can overcome everything, whether it’s where they’re born, when they’re born, anything, with the right mindset.
So long as you pay the proverbial and actual $99.
I mean $49.99.
The Tenets of the Vending Machine God
Byrne, though, is a saint of the Vending Machine, a shock trooper of the faith if you will. What does this mean for mainline believers, like you and me, the rest of America? What does the Unitarian belief in the Vending Machine look like?
First, as a nation, we are radical individualists. We believe we should be judged on our individual merit, work ethic, and character, regardless of where we come from. This veneration of the individual feeds into everything we like to believe about ourselves, that we are a self-made country, that we venerate individual freedom, that we can bootstrap. We ignore the fact that being born in the right family in the right age in the right place makes much of our destiny.
Napoleon Hill, when he was first tasked by Andrew Carnegie to research what made great men great, he had a wealth of interviewees. In fact, some of the wealthiest men in the history of the world lived in that time period, as the late 19th Century was a period of great industrial expansion, demographic explosion, and economic strength.
Even in Germany, one of the richest men in all history, Jakob Fugger, was a party to a fortuitous birth. He was born in the Jewish community of Frankfurt, which due to historic and geographic circumstance, was a city ripe for banking. Banking, to this day, is a huge part of Frankfurt’s economy, an industry that survived two world wars.
The Vending Machine God cannot abide these facts. That’s where the second tenet comes from. It’s the belief that we are in complete control of our destiny, free from the constraints of society or history, the idea that anyone can be rich if they just work with enough grit and pluck. A person born in Montana, far away from wealth concentrations and industrial revolutions, especially ones of historic proportions, cannot have the same chance for historic success as a Andrew Carnegie, a Jakob Fugger, or even a Napoleon Hill can.
And if you read the story of Hill, he was an underdog. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, connected with the great titans of industry, and rose.
We used to love to tell this stories like this, but Americans really don’t like that story anymore. We don’t talk about the poor in a noble struggle with circumstance; now, we’ve got superhero movies, where we always end up rooting for the rich and powerful against everyone else, or movies like Idiocracy that portray working class people as so stupid they cause an intelligence Armageddon.
In our stories that we currently love to tell, those that have are good; those that don’t are contemptible. This is, naturally, the third tenet, because if you believe you’re in complete control of your own destiny, and that you are a powerful individual free from the constraints of society and history, then if you don’t have, it’s you’re own fault, and whatever punishments you receive for your lack of power are your own fault.
In a very sad way, though, it runs contrary to what we purport to believe as a Christian nation.
The Vending Machine God and the Christian Religion
It is easy to say the Christianity in the United States is a hobbled faith.
From 2007 to 2014, Pew Research did a poll of 35,000 people in the US, asking them about their religious faith. The percentage of people not affiliated with any particular faith, including agnostics and atheists, rose from 36 million to about 56 million, a rise of more than 50%. The unaffiliated are now only second to evangelical Protestants in terms of their slice of the American population.
But even those that are moving away from faith are running into the open arms of the Vending Machine. And the Vending Machine God, wherever possible, has co-oped Christian teaching and narrative. In megachurches all across the US, people are being taught that Jesus Christ wants you to be rich, and that poverty is an obstacle to salvation.
In this sanitized version of the faith, it is easy to forget the Gospel itself is revolutionary. Most people don’t think of it that way, but it is.
When the German peasants got their hands on a translated German version of the Bible, they realized that the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was taking them for a ride, that Jesus clearly demonizes wealth and its accumulation. The German peasantry was so angry about this it committed the largest revolt against the ruling classes in Europe until the French Revolution in 1789. It was brutally suppressed.
Now, we’re in the midst of our own revolt on the right from a certain real-estate developer and one of the weirdest things about his rise is his popularity with evangelical Christians. The Donald even got an endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the current president of Liberty University.
It’s easy to ask how a Christian could bring themselves to vote for Trump; he’s immodest, thrice-married, and so vain he possibly beat and raped his first wife over hair plugs. I can’t imagine that fellow from Nazareth would look kindly on him with that sort of record in the Book of Life.
It makes perfect sense, though, if they’re voting as worshippers of the Vending Machine God; clearly, Trump has everything he wants, says whatever he wants. He must know the secrets of the Machine, and thus, should be supported.
Hell, if the Vending Machine were to have a Christ, he would look a lot like Donald Trump.
The first time I ever travelled alone, I went to Germany. It was the furthest I’d ever been from home, and it taught me a lot. It’s easy to underestimate how different a country is when you’re not there, and you can study it from afar. Germany is a far different country. Even being able to speak the language.
The first city I visited was Frankfurt. In its central UBahn station, there were all these people with dogs. It was almost a dog convention. Some were on leashes, some weren’t, but there were a lot of them. The people that were holding the leashes looked all right, if a little punkish.
I asked the fruit vendor what all those people were doing in station. Turns out that was how people begged in Frankfurt. And it was tolerated. It was more like busking than anything else. And when Frankfurt’s winter came around, these people were allowed to stay in the station because it was heated; after all, they didn’t want anyone dying from the cold. There were other things too. Frankfurt also has free clinics that allow people that are addicted to drugs to shoot up in an environment where medical help is close at hand.
These are simple things, really. Having a clinic where people could shoot up safely, a tactic that can save more than a few lives, wouldn’t cost a ton of money. Neither would letting homeless people sleep in a train station. It’s just the right thing to do. Some would even say it’s the Christian thing to do. Funny thing was, I couldn’t imagine programs for drug addicts or tolerance of the poor being supported by Americans in the same way.
That’s why I was so happy to see similar kinds of efforts springing up across the country. There are pockets of us pushing for more humane ways to deal with these problems. Even in my home city.
It’s small proof that while we have this faith in our society, we don’t have to serve it; so long as we understand it, we can cast it aside.