Friday, September 10, 2010

The Gospel of Wealth and the American Establishment

David Brooks has a nifty column on the critique of our material excess. It is not surprising when greens and lefties make this critique, but Brooks is citing David Platt, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor, who says the evangelical church is as guilty of pursuing material wealth, and even, in effect, worshiping it. Platt says we have to choose God or mammon.

Brooks rightly notes, though, that Americans, including American evangelicals, have a counter tradition of disciplining wealth. The Gospel of Wealth that he refers to is not the "health and wealth" gospel that some pentecostal churches preach, that God will reward your faith with riches. Quite the opposite. Rather, the Gospel of Wealth is that the rich - which includes most Americans, compared to the rest of the world - have a religious obligation to use our wealth for the common good. Wealth, though a huge temptation, is not bad in itself. It does impose great obligations.

The Gospel of Wealth was developed by the original Establishment of this country, the Protestant Establishment that E. Digby Baltzell wrote about. Wealth, health, privileges of all kinds are gifts of Providence, as well as connected in mysterious ways to our own work. As gifts, they come with religious responsibilities.

15 comments:

Thomas said...

Adopting the traditional Christian view that a life lived in poverty is morally superior to a life of material comfort would be a good start. Perhaps one day we would again hear pastors asking the wealthy to sell all of their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

c3 said...

Perhaps one day we would again hear pastors asking the wealthy to sell all of their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

Thomas;
I think you've taken that quote a bit out of context. Remember Jesus was challenging a wealthy Jew who believed he had done it all. The implication was he had achieved perfection (at least by the law)

You'll note how he didn't likewise challenge Nicodemus. The commonality was challenging the barriers to belief.

On a larger note I do get frustrated when various editorials, blog posts etc express displeasure/disgust of our material ways and then in other posts decry how we haven't started spending enough to get us out of our recession.

The American Dream of upward mobility and success will always be in tension with the Christian ethic of worshiping God not mammon.

Whit said...

I think the Calvinist doctrine of Calling is important here. Hard work and success are Godly because they benefit those with whom we deal in the marketplace. The emphasis is on production rather than consumption. This same distinction can be made between "stimulus" designed to increase consumption, and tax and spending cuts designed to stimulate production. Interestingly, economic history supports the latter over the former.

Thomas said...

C3,

I was actually referring not only to Christ's request of the rich young ruler (which was followed by the observation that wealth at least makes it more difficult to get into heaven), but the great pastors such as St. Basil the Great, who notoriously preached the same message to a wealthy congregation.

I cannot imagine this being preached in the United States. In every single sermon I have observed on the passage, the first thing the reverend does is to pacify the congregation's fear that this might be asked of them by assuring them that this is just about where one's priorities lie. I think it can be reasonably inferred just from the fact that such hurried provisos are apparently needful that Christ's demand has never been more relevant. If any culture needs to be told to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, it is ours. We are a country of rich young rulers if ever there were any.

pink said...

c3 said...

"If any culture needs to be told to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, it is ours."

Our poor are much richer than the poor of many many other nations. For instance many Muslim and Arabic nation have huge natural resources (oil) yet the poor there are many times worse off than our poor.

Just a little perspective.

Thomas said...

Oh, well, if there are wealthy Muslim countries that have more of a divide between rich and poor within their own countries, then we are absolved of any responsibility as a wealthy nation to the poor of our own country and the world.

In any case, given that the context of the discussion was the relation between the materialistic American dream and the acceptance of that sort of materialism by some sectors of Christianity, I cannot see how the point is in any way material. Remember, the rich young ruler came to Christ to learn how to gain eternal life, not Muhammad.

Whit said...

I think this might be instructive here:

http://www.redstate.com/erick/2010/09/13/must-see-tv-milton-friedman-in-defense-of-capitalism/

Gruntled said...

Friedman does not address any basis, religious or otherwise, of social responsibility in this clip. In fact, he casts doubt on whether there are any "angels" who could be trusted to be virtuous.

Whit said...

On the contrary. He says that market forces will, through the working out of individual self-interest, redound to the benefit of the poor - and cited history to prove it. I mean, come on, even Cuba and China are moving toward free markets.

And as for the search for Angels, Reformed theology, and for that matter history, is clear on the depravity of man. And he is in good company:

"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." - James Madison in Federalist #51

Gruntled said...

I don't see a conflict between free markets and social responsibility - do you?

Whit said...

Well no. But your comment implied that there was such a conflict. So my response was that free markets are socially responsible.

Gruntled said...

I do not think there is any actual conflict between free markets and social responsibility. I do think there is a conflict between libertarianism and social responsibility, a criticism that includes Milton Friedman.

Whit said...

Friedman was, indeed, a libertarian in some aspects of his policy preferences such as drugs and prostitution. But his comment here was that free markets have done more than any Marxist or other communitarian system for improving the lot of the poor. What conflict did you see between what he advocated there and social responsibility?

By the way, I have seen Sowell sound very much the same note as this clip from Friedman.

Gruntled said...

This whole conversation about Marxism is a red herring in relation to the topic of my blog post.

clue said...

Actually "Communism is a red herring."