The Religion of America Is Capitalism
I believe that the religion of America is capitalism, and the lottery plays a key role in this religion. Americans are told to work hard in order to have a lot of money, so they can buy big houses and fancy cars. We marvel at other people’s success with pride as well as envy. We are told to make money in any way we can, as long as no one is hurt in the process. From the time a child is young they are told to work hard in school, so they can go to college and make a lot of money as adults. The possibility of getting money is the driving force in America. In this paper I argue that the lottery shows that capitalism is a religion in America. I refer to articles by Robert Bellah, Max Weber, and Clifford Geertz.
The lottery is a national game played in almost every state in the U.S. twice a day. Considered as gambling to some, which is viewed as a sin in other religions, the proceeds made from the lottery here are said to support public schools around the country. As long as people have the opportunity to make money, and are helping others in the process, the lottery is not seen as a form of gambling. In fact, the prospect of making money through the lottery is glorified.
On a September morning I went to a local liquor store in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Tin Choi Liquor store on Prospect Place and Nostrand Avenue, to observe the playing of this fulfilling and addictive game enjoyed by more than a million Americans. I wanted to see if the lottery really aids people in making money, or if it is the thrill of the possibility of winning that drives people to spend sometimes as much as one hundred dollars a day on this game. Even without the likelihood of winning any money, people still come out in droves to take part in the American belief system embodied in the lottery.
On that September morning I accompanied two of my neighbors, “Mama J” and “Ms. J,” to the liquor store to observe the playing of the New York Lottery. We arrived at 10:30 am. The first drawing for the numbers takes place at 12:15 pm every day, and most lottery players buy their tickets before then. I chose to accompany “Mama J” and “Ms. J,” because they are both avid lottery players, who always play at this store. They both admitted to having a favorite place to play. They did not say why but I assumed that some superstition is involved. If you have won at one particular store, you are more likely to go back to it all the time. They agreed to help me with my observation as long as I changed their names. They play their numbers for the day and evening drawings. When asked if that is the custom with lottery players, they said yes, and explained to me how upsetting it would be if they only played the 12:15 lottery and the same number they played came out in the evening. I noticed in fact that most people play morning and evening the same way “Mama J” and “Ms. J” do. I decided not to use a pencil and paper during my observation, and opted to use the notepad on my cellular phone instead because I did not want to draw attention to myself. Of course once at the store I realized that drawing attention to myself would have been impossible, because the people were focused on the task at hand.
The store is located on the corner of a busy avenue with a bus stop directly across the street. On the windows outside the store are two large poster boards dedicated to the rules and regulations of the game, as well as the numbers drawn on the previous day. I took time to read the rules of the nine different forms of the lottery that one can play. The rules are different for each game, but the motive, which is to win money, is the same. I found it interesting that these posters, rather than liquor advertisements, were posted on the front of the liquor store. At the rear of the store, a clerk sits behind thick plexi-glass, and takes the numbers and money of the people purchasing tickets. Every number taken from a customer is put into a machine and a small pink and white ticket is generated with the numbers chosen printed on the front. I participated in the game myself. I purchased two numbers for midday and evening. When the tickets were given to me, I noticed a telephone number on the back. The number was for a hotline for people with gambling problems. I thought how convenient it was to have the hotline number printed on the back of a ticket millions of people see in this gambling act everyday; but we’ve noted that the lottery is not looked down on like other forms of gambling.
During the hour and a half that I observed the game being played, I estimated that close to eighty people come into the store to buy a lottery ticket. I did not see any patrons purchase any liquor during this time. How interesting that no liquor was purchased in a liquor store. Most of the people who bought tickets bought more than three at a time. One gentleman who stopped to talk with “Mama J”, “Ms. J,” and me explained that he purchases only his afternoon tickets at that time, and after work he purchases his evening numbers. When I asked why, he said, “It’s the best way to win! And my mother purchased her tickets this way.” I saw this act as both a superstition, and a family tradition. “Mama J” and “Ms. J” purchase both their morning and evening tickets at the same time. They say that it is more convenient to buy their tickets all at once, but they did admit to having a ritual like the gentleman who buys his tickets separately. The women always buy their tickets together, and at 11:30. On this particular day the two women reluctantly brought me to the store earlier than their usual time. They understood that I needed more time to observe in order to view more of a crowd buying tickets. They explained to me that the two became friends because of the lottery. They met at the liquor store, not knowing that they both lived in the same apartment building. In fact I noticed that people who bought tickets at that time seemed to be very close friends. “Mama J” and “Ms. J” were even able to give me a profile on almost every person who came into the store, but when I asked the person’s name, they could not remember, or never got the person’s name to begin with. What they did know was the person’s regular numbers, and their reason for playing the lottery in the first place. The reasons were simple and straightforward for most; it was to get extra money.
On that day I saw people of many different cultures and races purchasing lottery tickets. Crown Heights has a strong Hasidic Jewish and Caribbean population living there, as well as East Asian and Middle Eastern. I saw people of all of these cultures come in and purchase tickets. All these different cultures, representing different religions, and speaking different languages share in the American culture’s focus on money. We are always striving for bigger and better here in America. Each person has different plans for what to buy if they ever win, but the motive is always the same.
In “The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism” Max Weber discusses the importance of working hard and making money in America (49). Weber reminds us that, “time is money” and “credit is money” (50). “Time is money,” because the more time you take out of your day to work, the more money you are likely to make. “Credit is money” because here in America, we use “credit” or the act of borrowing as a form of money. If one borrows money, the money has to be given back to the person it is borrowed from in a timely fashion, and most times with interest. He mentions that if creditors see the person who owes them money not working hard, the creditor will go to that person first to collect their debt. Americans being lazy is unacceptable, because lazy people cannot possibly be making money. Weber quotes a story about Jacob Fugger and his “business associate who had retired and who wanted to persuade him to do the same, since he had made enough money and should let others have a chance.” Fugger rejected that thought “as pusillanimity and answered that ‘he thought otherwise, he wanted to make money as long as he could’” (Weber 51). The idea of not striving for something more in life is cowardly to Fugger, and to many Americans. No matter how long one has been retired, the desire to make money is still present in a strong way.
“Mama J,” “Ms. J,” and a lot of the people at the liquor store who play the lottery embody this principle. Like Jacob Fugger, the women are retired, but they still have a desire to make money any way they can. On the day of the observation, “Mama J” mentioned that she was eighty-two years old, and had been retired for fifteen years. She has a cozy apartment in Crown Heights, and a home in Florida that she goes to during the summer. For some, having a summer home is opulent and a privilege, but she still feels the desire to play the lottery daily. She hopes to use her winnings to buy nice things for special occasions and take her family on vacations during the year. Money is always to be made or earned in someway.
Weber argues, as I do, that capitalism or the importance of making money is the religion of America. I’d add that the desire in every person who participates in the lottery is to make money. Weber states that in the United States, “the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually gives it the character of sport” (54). Is such a sport frivolous? Americans continue to send their children to good schools, and encourage them to pursue high-paying careers so they can make a lot of money in the future. The desire to make money is found even in games and competitions. The lottery is only one of the many games where people can make a profit by winning. The lottery is a sport, someone always wins, and someone always loses.
The religion I’ve described is not reserved for less fortunate Americans. Americans with good salaries also participate in the lottery. During my observation I saw several nurses purchase lottery tickets, as well as construction workers and teachers. They explained that their salaries were simply not enough. If they wanted to buy nice things, and do nice things with and for their families, they had to find ways of getting additional money. The superstar of the store was a young man who once won a lot of money from the lottery. He drove up to the store in a very expensive car, wearing very nice clothing. What surprised me was that even after winning so much with the lottery he was still playing the lottery every day.
In “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah paints a very different picture of religion in America than my own (509). Bellah argues that Americans have a strong belief in God as described in the Christian bible. Bellah points out the use of the word God in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Just below the surface throughout Kennedy’s inaugural address, it becomes explicit in the closing statement that God’s work must be our own” (512). Bellah emphasizes that the work of God is to help others be humble; that’s what we should do as American citizens. I disagree with his view of our country. Being humble does not involve being a millionaire or working so hard to achieve that title or status. Americans work to make money. Bellah also argues that Americans are a very moral and just people, and their behavior comes from their belief in a Christian God. I disagree. I agree that America can be a very moral place, and this could come in part from the things learned in the Bible, but America is a melting pot of so many different types of cultures, races, and religions that I do not think this behavior or belief comes from the Christian Bible.
Bellah describes various American holidays like Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays as religious holidays and rituals, but I see that these holidays and their rituals have become ploys for making and spending money. Bellah states, “Memorial day observance, especially in the towns and smaller cities of America, is a major event for the whole community involving a rededication to the martyred dead, to the spirit of sacrifice, and to the American vision” (515). Bellah paints a picture of Memorial Day being a day of honoring the men who sacrificed their lives in the Civil War. But today what would Memorial Day be like without a sale at a major department store? Thanksgiving he calls “a day which incidentally was securely institutionalized as an annual national holiday, to serve to integrate the family into the civil religion” (515). But what would Thanksgiving be like without the excitement of “Black Friday”? What would Thanksgiving be like without the opportunity to get an exceptional deal on a flat screen television, or an IPod?
Many stores count on “Black Friday” to boost their annual sales. “Black Friday” has been marked the beginning of the holiday shopping season. On all of these holidays, American rituals have been replaced by the desire to spend and make money. Americans feels so obligated to make money to spend during these holiday sales that they will gamble away money with the strong hope of making a profit. One woman I observed who purchased lottery tickets said she saved all of her winnings during the year so she could buy Christmas gifts at the end of the year. Money has become the root of every ritual and traditional holiday here in America. Money is a part of the American belief system, and the lottery aids in the religion of America by helping people to make additional money.
Playing the lottery truly felt like a religious experience that September day. People came into the store always at certain times, approaching the store clerk as if he was a priest at a Catholic mass giving Communion, with each number played having a story and meaning behind it, and with the person leaving with the same reverence as when they came in.
In the article, “Deep Play: Notes of The Balinese Cockfight,” Clifford Geertz discusses cockfights in small villages in Bali (430). Geertz also describes a culture of winning, but reasons for winning are slightly different than those in the lottery. In Bali only men can participate in cockfighting, and winning is a male status symbol. Cockfighting is outlawed in Bali, therefore, the men must compete in secret, and competing allows these very poor men to create a hierarchy amongst themselves. Money is not the only reason to compete, but it is still important to them, as much as status within the village. Geertz states, “It is because money does, in this hardly unmaterialistic society, matter and matter very much that the more one risks, the more of a lot of other things, such as one’s pride, one’s poise, one’s dispassion, one’s masculinity, one also risks, again only momentarily but again very publically” (434). What Geertz says here is that money for the Balinese is very important, but what is more important is the image of being a winner that comes with it.
Like cockfighting to the Balinese, the lottery aids in the creation of status here in the U.S. But since the lottery is not outlawed here, the way cockfighting is in Bali, people are more comfortable participating in this competition. Everyone over eighteen years old in the U.S. can participate in the lottery. Both cockfighting and the lottery are gambling, but the lottery is glorified here because it allows us to make money. Also, as with cockfighting, winning the lottery creates status. We have a class system in America. Americans work hard to maintain their middle class status with hopes of one day being considered upper class. The lottery is a quick way to achieve that class difference. Having money means more opportunities. When a child grows up in a financially privileged household, they have many academic and extracurricular activities, and are exposed to more things because they can afford to travel. Like “Mama J” and “Ms. J,” winning in the lottery allows them to travel with their families, and to provide the things they need in a capitalistic consumer-based society. Their families can appear as if they are in a higher class than they truly are.
People participate in the lottery to take part in the American ritual. On November 9th I went with my mother to purchase a ticket for the Mega Millions. The amount she hoped to win was over 500 million dollars. I took her to the liquor store on Prospect Place and Nostrand Avenue that “Mama J” and “Ms. J” took me to. My mother and I chose our numbers carefully and split the price of the ticket in three, because a friend wanted to try his luck as well, and gave me a third of the lottery ticket’s price. After the ticket was purchased, and was put into a compartment in my wallet for safekeeping, my mother and I walked the five blocks back to our apartment. As we walked, I calculated the amount of money each of us would get if we won. My mother asked me what would I buy if we won, and I asked her. We spent the entire walk back to our apartment talking about what we would buy if we won. The conversation was great fun. It was fun to imagine a life better than what we have, a life where you could buy what you want and travel when you want. This moment was the perfect embodiment of the religion of America, the desire to have more than we already have, to gain the same options as the people we see on television and in magazines. The possibility of being “better off” than you are now, and knowing the only way to achieve that is through money, is the American way.
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