Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

01/23/2009 (12:31 pm)

Consumerism and Politics

I’ve been teaching in a religious home group about wealth and prosperity, how they differ and how Christianity regards them. The subject has been on my mind for a while; I can’t say why. However, given that it’s likely that America’s historic level of wealth is about to recede into fond memory, it would do well for us all to examine our attitudes toward wealth, and to relax our grasp on material goods. President Obama thinks America’s wealth is a constant, and that it can be redistributed to produce “justice.” What he’s about to learn — if he has the wit and character to grow from the inevitable failure, which I doubt — is that wealth is a function of liberty and incentives, and that when you attempt to force even distribution, what you get is vastly reduced wealth for all. As he, and we, get reminded of this, we’d better learn to obtain our happiness from non-material things, ’cause the material things have made themselves wings, and are poised to fly away.

It’s become vogue to speak of capitalism as “greed,” and to denounce American consumerism in political terms. I agree that American consumerism really is something at least partly wicked; however, while the Democratic party has argued that this is a result of Republican policies and has attempted to make us all hate corporations, I don’t believe consumerism is a political problem at all.

Consumerism really is about the love of money, about vanity and self-promotion, which are dangers all rich people face (and lets face it, in terms of world income, nearly every one of us in the US is wealthy.) A prison minister I used to know named Jim Newsome once observed, “All the benefits of wealth are temporal, and all the dangers of wealth are eternal.” It’s not the case that wealth is evil; it is the case, however, that it takes a much more righteous character to manage wealth and remain holy than it does to live in poverty and remain holy. “For 100 men who can withstand poverty,” wrote Carlisle, “there is one who can manage prosperity.” This is why the author of the Proverbs prayed to the Almighty, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food I need.” (see Prov 30:7-9)

Various brands of modern Marxism have replaced references to “borgeoisie” in their dialectic with references to “evil corporations. ” Somehow, though, these arguments always end with a call to increase the power of government. That’s no solution; if corporations are driven by greed for money (they’re not, really, or at least, not entirely,) governments are even more driven by greed for power. How does it address the problem to remove power from the lesser sinner and hand it to the greater one?

We have to resist this sort of manipulation by politicians with ulterior motives, and recognize that the cure to consumerism has nothing to do with transferring power from corporations to governments, but everything to do with increasing the ability of individuals to do the right things with their wealth. This is not a problem for political parties to solve, but a problem for the Church to address through consistent charity, financial responsibility, self-policing of the wealthiest among us, and prophetic denunciation of rank consumerism. “The American dream” began as every man’s liberty to serve God according to his own conscience; it has morphed into a craving by every man to become a millionaire. This is evil. The Church cannot sign onto that quest; we must be in a position to speak against it, which means we have to repent of doing it ourselves, and we have to understand what we ought to be pursuing instead. It’s one thing to obtain wealth while serving others faithfully; it’s another to pursue wealth for its own sake.

Credit for the clip art goes to Barry’s Clipart Server.