God and Wealth

Gary Laderman rants today about religion, Republicans, the Tea Party, the cult of capitalism, and in the process raises some interesting questions for me in my quest for goodness:

A few questions may help make the case about the intimate, if unexpressed, links between money and religion: Is the pursuit of wealth an ultimate value? Is self-worth tied to the accumulation of material goods? How do moral virtues connect to marketplace success? Is money a means to transcend everyday suffering and despair? Would you die to save capitalism?

I agree with Laderman that capitalism and the pursuit of wealth has turned into a cult — one that is sometimes (often?) promoted by people who claim to only be concerned with faith. (Oh, the irony.) I’ve been mulling over Laderman’s questions this morning. Here are my first answers. What do you think? Am I on base, off target, insane?

Is the pursuit of wealth an ultimate value?

No. Or, to be more precise, the first thing that came to mind was: “Good God, no! Do people really believe that?”

I see money (wealth) as a means of taking care of myself and my family, getting an education and helping me do things that ARE important. Money pays the mortgage and puts food in my mouth. Pursuing wealth in and of itself is of no more worth than cleaning a bathroom. Actually, cleaning a bathroom may be of more worth because at least it does more than simply benefit yourself.

Am I alone in thinking this?

Is self-worth tied to the accumulation of material goods?

No. And thinking so sets you up for a life of despair. No object on earth is going to provide a human being with a sense of worth. You might feel better for a while, but then the old ache returns. Tying self-worth to the accumulation of goods sounds to me like a recipe for addiction and depression.

How do moral virtues connect to marketplace success?

I hate to admit this, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that virtues block success.  I desperately don’t want to believe this. Am I the only person with this attitude? Where the heck did I get this?

Is money a means to transcend everyday suffering and despair?

Money is a means to transcend poverty, cold, hunger, lack of education and sometimes even ill-health if it can pay for the treatment you need, but as for anything else? Once again, do people really believe this?

Would you die to save capitalism?

That’s a disturbing question. Would I die for capitalism? I’d die for freedom. Capitalism is economic freedom, but unrestrained capitalism also leads to economic oppression. Would I die for that? No.

Laderman is director of Religion Dispatches and professor and chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University.

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5 Responses to God and Wealth

  1. nancyjane says:

    No, you’re not nuts. My responses are the same as yours, including the “good God, no” and the “do people actually believe this?”

    And as for dying for capitalism: It seems to me that a lot of people have died for capitalism, but I can’t think of anyone off hand who died for it who also reaped the financial benefit from it.

  2. Linda Herzberg says:

    You are not nuts but I do think you are only partially on target.

    For some people the pursuit of wealth is an ultimate value predicated by their beliefs. For many, the belief to go forth and multiply meant that God rewarded those who did good by the means of wealth. If you work hard and sacrifice wealth will come. Those that were not wealthy were somehow “unworthy”. You can see that in the poor laws and in the way we treat welfare. There are the worthy poor (widows, children, and soldiers) and the unworthy poor (those who “refuse to work”, didn’t get an education, were in prison, or used alcohol and drugs, and all the rest).

    As far as self worth being tied up in material goods, I have seen that a lot too, as in “keeping up with the Jones’”. The only area I haven’t seen much of this is on the reservation. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, everyone is poor and unemployment has always been around 50% or higher. If you wanted a job you had to leave family, friends and culture to go to the city. Our culture says we take care of the poor. When I was growing up the soldiers were coming back from Vietnam. While the Native soldiers were in Vietnam, those at home made things such as star quilts and beaded items. When the soldiers came home they were honored with a Give Away. A gym was rented and people were invited to come to eat. This was announced all around and anyone could come. The family prepared food and served everyone who came. Then they preceeded to give everybody who came a gift as a thank you for their son returning safe and for people coming to help them welcome him home with honor. If the son died, they would have a memorial a year later. The family prepared all the food, and served everyone and had a giveaway in honor of the soldier. This was from the family that was living in one of the poorest counties in the nation. These customs continue today. The culture does not honor the accumulation of goods. The culture says you have a Give Away and you help the tiosapaye (extended family and neighbors). In order to leave the reservation, to get a job, you have to leave behind some of the culture. For most Natives, it was not worth the sacrifice.

    You ask how moral values connect to the market place. I think that ties back into the individual morals of the owner. Just as you can let money be your personal god, you can let it be your career. As an owner, you can plow money back into the business without trying to gouge everyone. Nothing says you can’t have a positive work environment with family friendly policies. You can pay extra in wages, bonuses or benefits. As a business, you can give back to the community. I think you see this more with small businesses but there are some larger ones that do this too.

    I, personally do not believe money transcends everyday suffering and dispair. I have lived a “comfortable” life materially when I lived with my “ex”, but the emotional and spiritual toll were not worth it. I am relatively poor right now, living as a student and enjoying it more. I know that happiness, health, or contentment cannot be bought with money. Even if you have the money to pay for treatment, it does not guarantee health, or even the ability to continue to live. Money cannot buy love. Sure, you can buy a good house, but without contentment, it is not a home. Having someone who loves you, unconditionally is worth more than any of those things. I know this because I have lived it, both the having someone who loved me unconditionally and living a “comfortable life” monetarily but not emotionally.

    There are people in the world who understand this and people who do not. I feel sorry for those who do not.

    I would not die for capitalism. But I might die to fight whatever comes in to take over and do away with capitalism. I don’t know. I would have to see what is happening before I would know.

  3. Linda, I am aware that there are some religious people who teach that wealth is a sign of virtue for the reasons you give, but I have always found that appalling, especially in Christians since it seems to contradict the teachings of Jesus. I do assume that some people justify their wealth as a reward for their virtue, hard work, better values, etc., but I have always taken that as a justification that really wouldn’t stand up if they were willing to examine themselves.

    I’m sure my thinking on these issues is affected by my own upbringing. My family was middle class in terms of education, but we didn’t have a lot of money — my parents were journalists and my father, as a West Texas boy, was more interested in owning land than in a fancy house. I recall being embarrassed at how much more we had than some of my friends whose fathers worked as roughnecks. At the same time, we went to an Episcopal Church with people who were engineers and executives at NASA and had much fancier homes and cars than we did.

    I certainly didn’t consider the well-off more virtuous than my family, nor did I find them more virtuous than those who struggled for every dollar. It did give me an appreciation for how education can give you choices. If you have an education and flexible job skills, you can decide what level of wealth you need for comfort. If you don’t have those choices, you can easily get stuck. And these days education itself is pretty expensive.

  4. Rob Ramcharan says:

    Well, let’s see…
    Is the pursuit of wealth an ultimate value?
    No.
    Is self-worth tied to the accumulation of material goods?
    It shouldn’t be, but it happens a lot.
    How do moral virtues connect to marketplace success?
    As near as I can tell, they don’t. In a perfect world, people who lie, cheat, steal, employ sharp business practices and so on, would fail ignominiously. People who are honest, treat their customers and suppliers fairly, and so on would succeed, and yet it is not so. Why are we broke and Hugh Hefner is having a good time? Beats me. All you can do is the best you can and hope things work out.
    Is money a means to transcend everyday suffering and despair?
    Suffering, sometimes. But only the kind of suffering that comes from having no electricity in February or from seeing someone who needs help and being unable to provide it because you lack the resources. Despair, not so much.
    Would you die to save capitalism?
    I’d like to know what is meant by “capitalism” in this context.

  5. dianesilver says:

    Thanks so much to you all for the fascinating perspectives. I appreciate every comment, and Linda, your perspective on life at Pine Ridge is very helpful.

    Rob, as far as which “capitalism” we’re willing to offer up our lives, that is the billion dollar question, isn’t it? I’d die for freedom or to protect another person, or at least I hope I would if the need arose.

    What bothers me is that some folks seem to have decided that unrestrained capitalism = freedom. In a literal sense I suppose it does. But then so do theft and murder, yet we have laws against those two crimes. Some people seem to believe that fraud and stealing in the name of capitalism are OK, or am I missing something?

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