Credit Cards and the Devil's Work
Issue #51, October 2000
It's Everywhere the Antichrist Wants You to Be
In the 1970s, Christian fundamentalism in the United States looked a lot different than it does now. Today we're accustomed to the big business that is TV-evangelism, and to the mixing of politics and policy with "God's word." But in the 70s, the political, activist-oriented Christian fundamentalism of the 1980s and later had not yet been realized. The religious sect was not politically cohesive or even politically oriented back then. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority movement wouldn't begin until 1979, and although the Reverend Jimmy Carter was our president, fundamentalist Christians had not yet taken on the mantle of being the moral voice for our nation.
In fact, even though the fundamentalist (also called evangelical) movement was experiencing a surge in popularity, it was still at that time on the fringe of American Protestantism and marginal in the public sphere. Evangelicals had "spirit-filled" services, speaking in tongues, and the laying on of hands for prayer — they were far-out Christians indeed, often in step with hippie radicalism and philosophy from the 60s. In addition to their unusual practices, another thing distinguishing this movement was their serious preoccupation with the Bible's book of Revelations, and the coming apocalypse. The signs for the end of the world were everywhere, and there was a flurry of comic books, low-budget films, pulp novels, and eschatological writings all interpreting the Bible's prophesies about the end times.
The Book of Revelation in the New Testament is a series of visions recorded by Christ's disciple John, which reveal God's plan for the end of life on earth as we know it and the eventual defeat of the Devil. The images he gives are the stuff of nightmares: bloody skies and ten-headed beasts rising out of the sea, natural disasters and warfare, and an Antichrist who arrives promising peace for the world but who eventually delivers most of humankind to hell. The prophesies also suggest what a good Christian must do to survive the tribulations and ensure a place in heaven. These Christians focusing on the end times weren't concerned about preserving our nation's family values, because America was going down in flames regardless, and the more pressing concern was knowing how to save your own hide once the Antichrist showed up and all those plagues and famines started.
Alas, in Y2K the apocalypse still hasn't arrived, and modern day fundamentalists don't seem to be looking for it as hard (otherwise, why would they be so interested in the next elections?). Mainstreamed fundamentalist Christianity today still locates signs of the end times, often in the "moral decay" of our society and the rise of international governing bodies, but utilizes them as calls to political action and obligation. For those fundamentalists in the 70s, the impending end times meant a necessary withdrawal from society in specific ways, not an increased involvement. They were a wary bunch. In those early prophetic interpretations, though, you can find a very suggestive and insightful reading of a social and technological change in our culture, one whose warning still seems relevant. That reading is this: the Antichrist is already here, and he's issuing you your credit cards.
Many of us have passing familiarity with the "Antichrist," whether it's from going to church, listening to heavy metal music, or watching horror movies. And we know about the mark of the Beast as well, the infamous 666. In the King James Version of the Bible, Revelation 13:16-18 warns about the Antichrist and his evil plan:
And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the Beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
For hundreds of years this King James translation has had people guessing who that man named 666 might be. In 1973, though, a new translation called the New International Version slightly altered that last line. It reads, "If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the Beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666." No longer the number of a man, 666 becomes the number of mankind.
In other words, the Beast has got your number. What could "man's number" mean? The attention of prophecy interpreters turned to all things coded: Social Security numbers, UPCs, credit cards and the like. They noted in that in our society people, places, and things have all become increasingly identified numerically, tracked and named by numbers. The prophesy specifically identifies commerce as a realm of the Beast's control: no one might buy or sell without the number. It serves as a method of identification, and exclusion.
Also in the 1970s, Americans had begun using their credit cards a lot more often. In the early 70s a computer network that allowed for computerized authorization of card use was established (verifying maximum spending limit and card validity), and by 1974 the interchange between the store, the member bank, and the credit card company was computerized as well. Speed, ease of use, and reliability increased as a result, and at the same time the high inflation of the dollar in the 1970s made spending by credit card a reasonable financial practice — today's goods purchased with inflated dollars from the near future. Personal debt reached unprecedented amounts.
For the interpreters of Revelation's prophecy, this new technology that makes credit card use possible was especially suspicious, because it extrapolates easily into a monitoring device. Visa and MasterCard know every item you buy, including where you buy them and when. Because credit card purchases must be authorized by an outside party, one unrelated to either the buyer or the seller, the transaction is under the absolute control of a system with unlimited reach. The Antichrist is building a global economic system, they say, and this computer technology is the beginning. Every person is marked by it, is known by it. Soon, the faithful knew from the prophecies, not participating would mean not participating in commerce at all — to be shut out from making money and from purchasing goods.
This was the dilemma for those on the lookout for the Antichrist. The Book of Revelation specifically states that if you take the mark of the Beast, you aren't getting into heaven, but if you don't take the mark, you can't participate in consumption. Writers imagined that money in the end times would become entirely paperless and virtual. Satellite technology would eventually make consumption authorizations and identifications instantaneous, when credit card codes are finally supplanted by the mark of the Beast itself. David Wilkerson imagines in his 1974 text "The Vision" that when the time of the mark comes, each individual on earth will be a "walking credit card." Information from the mark (which he interprets as being some sort of laser number inscribed in or on the body) will be relayed through satellite to a "central computer facility." In his vision, people without the mark won't have access to funds, won't be able to buy groceries or clothing or anything else. They'll be shut out from commerce completely. The computer system that credit cards run on is a technological precursor, getting people accustomed to such a virtual financial system. Eventually, the fact that all consumption is surveilled won't seem odd or oppressive to people at all; in fact, they'll come to see it as a convenience. According to Wilkerson, that's why Christians need to be particularly vigilant, to make sure that they recognize the Beast when it arrives, because they know that the insidiousness of its design will be disguised.
The end times, for those who refuse the mark of the Beast, will be very difficult. Wilkerson's vision sees a world that will be united under the Antichrist, all citizens attaining social identity only through having the mark, through allowing themselves to be identified by the number of man. Although the verses from Revelation mention that those without the mark will be unable to buy or sell, most of the prophesies focus on the consumption-side of these emergent marking technologies. At a time when credit cards were expanding America's ability to consume, providing a cushion between actual paychecks and the desire for goods, fundamentalists imagined that Christians would need to give up the right to consume completely, in order to get into heaven.
For Everything Else, There's MasterCard
So, is the Antichrist behind your credit cards, your charge cards? Most Americans are accustomed to the idea that their consumption is monitored, and are concerned with consuming in a way that maintains the moral value of having "good credit." Misbehaving consumers are punished with "bad credit," and their future consumption is curtailed until they are able to prove that they deserve to be able to buy again. And "no credit" belongs to the non-entities of consumption, whose practices of consuming have fallen outside of the realm acknowledged by the credit bureaus. If you think about it too long, it's easy to become at least a little nervous about the fact that privacy is compromised by these technologies of convenience offered by your bank. The less obvious danger though, the one that those Christian fundamentalists reading the Book of Revelation saw so clearly, is what happens to you if you don't accept the mark of the Beast at all. Banished to the realm of "no credit" forever, participation in the economic life of these United States becomes severely diminished.
Of course, there are a lot of people who don't have credit cards, either because they choose not to, or because they can't acquire one. If credit cards were simply a way to get a free short-term loan until the end of the month, this would be less of an issue. But in fact, credit cards have become a particular kind of money in our culture, with particular uses. We usually work under the assumption that all money is money, but in practice there are specific uses for each type of money that we utilize. Sometimes this is dictated by cultural norms (your grandma probably wouldn't put ten dollars in nickels in your birthday card), by law (you can't send cash through the mail), or by technology (you can pay at the gas pump with your ATM card). Different moneys are spent differently as well: grandma's ten dollar birthday gift is not the same as ten dollars from your paycheck. Credit card money as well is inappropriate for certain kinds of consumption (tipping your stripper), but essential for others (renting a car). And, potentially, it's spent differently: it's a gamble on the availability of future funds, and not limited by your bank balance or how much cash you have in your wallet. It gives you the freedom to spend more. To live a lifestyle beyond what your present paycheck allows. Using a credit card is good for you too, it gives you good credit, it builds credit, and all you need to do is pay off a minimum amount, indefinitely. Good credit means you can buy more things, bigger things, like a house and a car. It means that you can be middle class. It means that you can't be middle class without it.
In the end, it's difficult to achieve and maintain the markers of middle class America if you have "bad credit."
But avoiding credit altogether, having "no credit," has essentially the same repercussions. Those Christians wary of the mark of the Beast knew that when the time came to refuse it, they'd be cutting themselves off from society. They saw for themselves a future of persecution, of uncertainty about their survival. They also thought they'd be going to heaven in the end though, too, which is possibly not the reward for having no credit history. The Beast still lurks: many of the material benefits that are supposed to be achievable for the citizens of our great capitalist democracy are only available through credit. And, as credit card companies continue to expand the kinds of consumption that you can use your cards for (or that you must use your cards for), those indiidentified by many as a basic freedom in our society). They are not simply a technology of convenience. They affect the way we buy, the way we think about money, and the kind of information about us available to the corporations who would encourage us to buy more.
In addition, as many credit card advertisements stress, credit card money transcends national boundaries. These kinds of electronic monies create a particular geography, identifying spaces where these monies are accepted and refusing to acknowledge those vast realms where they are not. If Visa is "everywhere you want to be," as their tagline asserts, "you" are an individual identified and approved by a financial system, and "you" don't want to be anyplace where that system does not extend. Just as there are "bad credit" and "no credit" individuals, there are "bad credit" and "no credit" places, and this moral economy translates accordingly. To be an entity, to be a place, one has to be marked with credit.
Is Pat Robertson the Antichrist?
As for the impending apocalypse, if you go to the web site for the Christian Broadcasting Network, a hub of Christian fundamentalist media these days, you can order bibles, music, books, and videos that concern themselves with the end times. The 700 Club, CBN's major television production hosted by one-time presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, also occasionally points to news-worthy incidents that resonate with prophecies from the book of Revelation. However, the Antichrist and the mark of the Beast are a minor focus at present for these mainstreamed media, and the front page of the CBN web site offers links to news stories seamlessly both secular and Christian: Olympics coverage, the presidential debates, demonstrations in Washington. This is a Christianity claiming a political voice, one which has a say in defining what is valid and "American" but which also extends globally to Christians who are linked through their faith in nations everywhere.
In other words, unlike the fundamentalism of the 1970s, the public fundamentalism of the new millennium has washed itself of its anti-authoritarian tint. Additionally, as Christian fundamentalism has moved from the fringes of our culture to seeing itself as having an crucial role to play in guiding society (and the globe), it has become less concerned with withdrawing from the economic sphere, and more concerned with being an active player in the global market. From global media industries and evangelist television stars to consumer boycotts, fundamentalist Christians have become huge producers and consumers of "Christian" products. And even here, in spite of all of the warnings from decades previous, credit cards are ubiquitous. To order anything from the store on the CBN web site, you must have a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express card. To be active, recognized entities in our society, fundamentalists have had to become good consumers too.
- Boyer, Paul. 1992. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Nocera, Joseph. 1994. A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Also, for those fond of the B-movie genre of apocalyptic films, check out the series produced by Mark IV productions. First viewed in church basements across the U.S., you can rent them for yourself: A Thief in the Night (1972), A Distant Thunder (1977), Image of the Beast (1981), and Prodigal Planet (1983).
Aimee Placas is currently researching all things credit and working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at Rice University.