NEW YORK — "The Lord is my banker; my credit is good."
--Charles Fillmore's "Prosperity," 1936
In the nave of New York's historic Trinity Church, a mere block from Wall Street, Suze Orman is saving souls and talking T-bills. Bathed in TV light, America's top-selling financial author and investment guru looks sternly at a young businesswoman who confesses to the sin of credit card debt.
"OK," says Orman, "you have to create a new truth." And this truth, she explains, is the power of mind over money: Once we believe we're going to prosper, money will come to us. "Your new truth should be: 'I have more money than I'll ever need,' " Orman says dramatically. "Can you say it?"
Hanging her head, the woman mumbles with difficulty. But Orman beams anyway: "You know what I think happens? God looks down and says, 'I better make that come true!' "
The dialogue is part of "The Real Bottom Line," a public interest TV show sponsored by Trinity, and seconds after it ends Orman parks herself at a table in the sanctuary, behind piles of "The Courage to Be Rich," her newest bestseller. Stockbrokers and salesmen alike wait in line, arms bulging with books.
It might seem shocking to see a financial writer collecting cash in a church where George Washington attended services. But Orman and others like her are simply the latest variation of an old theme in American intellectual life: The marriage of spirituality and good old-fashioned moolah.
Indeed, America has long worshiped the unholy dollar and religion in the same breath, dating back to the Puritans. The message has traditionally been conveyed in self-help books, feeding a national hunger to get rich quick. But what began as a modest publishing market has become a blockbuster phenomenon in our time--and the spin of this literature offers a fascinating cultural mirror, reflecting an America obsessed with money yet riddled with spiritual doubt.
'Plug in the Right Spiritual Code'
Orman's book, "The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom," has sold more than 1.6 million copies and was the top-selling nonfiction title of 1998, according to Publishers Weekly. Her newest book, "The Courage to Be Rich," debuted at No. 1 on several bestseller lists. A familiar face on "Oprah Winfrey" and PBS, she has her finger on the pulse of an audience that is intimidated by high finance and wants simple answers to spiritual malaise. Fast.
"For many people, God is now as available as an ATM machine," said R. Laurence Moore, professor of history at Cornell University and author of "Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture." "If a writer tells you how to plug in the right spiritual code, people think they'll get buckets of money. It's an old American dream."
While critics denounce such fare as snake oil, fooling people into believing they can become rich with slogans and attitudes, Orman's readers couldn't care less. Hustling to the front of the book line in Trinity Church, Diane Fisher, a software expert, made no bones about Orman's personal impact.
Americans' Quest for Happiness
"Suze convinced me to lower my debt," Fisher said. "She got my bills down from $45,000 to $27,000 . . . and she taught me how to feel good about myself. I could never thank her enough."
Al Leisengang, a banker who works for the Federal Reserve, said he was buying extra copies of Orman's book because "she talks to people in a voice they can relate to. Her message stands out--and that's saying a lot when you think of all the self-help books out there."
Clearly, something is resonating here--and it says much about American angst in the 1990s.
"We're living in good economic times, because you don't have the luxury of worrying about spiritual details in a depression," said Michael Lewis, author of "Liar's Poker," a scathing look at Wall Street culture. "But lots of people still have a sense that everyone's getting rich on Wall Street except them. And in this country, the traditional response has been to buy a book where someone tells you what to do."
Recent titles include "Jesus CEO" by Laurie Beth Jones; "God Wants You to Be Rich" by Paul Zane Pilzer; "God's Plans for Your Finances" by Dwight Nichols and "God's Money-Back Guarantee: The Seven Steps to Financial Security" by C. Gerard LePre. Other financial books are less overtly religious, falling into the "spirituality lite" category, such as "The Energy of Money" by Maria Nemeth. In this camp, which includes Orman, the emphasis is more on faith as a big tent, with elements of Buddhism, Zen, psychotherapy and other disciplines.
Either way, it's an old formula. But Orman and others have injected a new sizzle: Today, the quest for happiness focuses less on traditional religion and more on private spirituality. The Lord wants you to make a killing, they suggest, but only if you take charge of your life. And how you get there is up to you, whether it's New Age crystals, fundamental Christian prayer or other routes.