Material History of American Religion Project

The evangelical dollar

Dollar bill with evangelical message

In our intensely commercial society, money is everywhere. We go to work to earn it, build banks to store it, and massive malls to spend it. Money is not only "the Almighty Dollar," but also one of the most common media of communication. We exchange money with people with whom we would otherwise have no connection. A cashier, a bank teller, a beggar on the street--we might not talk to them, but we'd give them a dollar.

Given this omnipresence of the dollar and its centrality as basic communication, it shouldn't be surprising for the dollar to be used as an evangelical medium. Fresh from the mint it bears religious messages already, including "In God We Trust" and the obscure, vaguely Masonic imagery of the all-seeing eye of God above the pyramid. Some people, however, add to the religious message.

Several months ago, Dan Sack, the project's associate director, received this dollar in change in Georgia. Around the edges someone has carefully and clearly written: "Anyone who uses this dollar bill will have a lot of blessings if they write this on ten one-dollar bills John 3:16." Writing on money is common (if illegal), but often the messages are cryptic-most likely just a reminder for one holder of the bill who then passed it on. This note, on the other hand, is a clear message. The goal of the writer--like that of sign-holders in many football stadiums--is to encourage strangers to the Christian message to read one verse of the Gospel of John, a verse he or she hopes will convert the stranger: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believes in him might have eternal life." The bearer of the bill, converted or not, is offered an inducement to spread the message further; if he or she writes the same message on ten more bills, she or he will receive "lots of blessings."

Does this message distract from the medium? No; although it's defaced, the dollar is still legal tender. Does the medium detract from the message? Again, no; in the eyes of the person who wrote on the bill, the dollar's ubiquity simply assures that the message will get around. With the addition of a simple sentence, the lowly dollar bill--seen by some as a symbol of dangerous materialism--becomes blessed as an evangelical tool and a medium of blessing.

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