One-hundred years ago when John Rockefeller became the first billionaire in the history of the world, he was asked “How much is enough?” He responded “Just a little bit more.” Though the exchange is most likely legendary, it paints an accurate portrait of the man and the age. Rockefeller’s own Gilded Age (1870-1900) was the first of three eras of excess in recent American history. The Roaring ’20s and the current era, beginning in 1980, share similar characteristics with Rockefeller’s era of excess: untenable inequalities in wealth and income, rising poverty, and increased social instability.
In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I argue that the dominant religion of American society – using Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as “ultimate concern” – is the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. It’s been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions in the 250 years since the beginning of the Industrial era, many of these lifted from poverty. This religion can go too far, however, and consequently “break bad.” Americans work more hours than we used to – for the same relative pay; our materialistic pursuits enslave us to increasing debt; and, we believe (we are told as if by incantations) the solution to our travails is more and more economic growth. Just a little bit more, instead of serving as incentive for improvement, becomes a burden that shackles and confines.
Another commonality emerges in the study of the two most recent eras of excess. The Roaring ’20s experienced, as has our current era, decreases in church attendance and participation. Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their 2010 book, American Grace, tell the story of the ups and downs of American church attendance and participation. Undoubtedly a complex subject with many contributing social and cultural factors, declining church attendance in these two eras of excess seems more than coincidental. The 1920s saw the ascendancy of Wall Street; the phrase “playing the market” was popularized and the beneficent stock market was to provide for the young and old, eventually abolishing the need for charity and ending poverty. The promised land was within reach and church attendance and participation were not part of the journey. Church attendance in the United States flagged during the 1920s.*
Post-WW II America, continuing to the early 1960s, experienced exceptional church attendance and participation. It was a much more economically egalitarian era (for majority whites). General mainline church decline, however, has been evident since the 1970s; precipitous drop-offs in attendance and participation beginning in 2001 (to current) are of historic proportions. Again, many factors – busyness, changing modes of belief related to modernity, less reliance on overestimated self-reporting of attendance – contribute to the downward trend. I add another factor: reliance upon and widespread adoration of the religion (ultimate concern) of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. We live in a society that increasingly accepts market values – all things having a price – as the arbiter of what is good and right. Underachieving schools kids in Dallas paid to read books, donors paid to give blood, and people encouraged to think of themselves as brands, are all examples of the intrusion of market values to areas previously unaffected. Two generations ago Americans self-identified as citizens; today we self-identify as consumers.
Let’s do a theological thought experiment with Ephesians 2:19. Does the following slightly transformed text seem out of place? “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are consumers with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Pretty distasteful, isn’t it? One changed word puts an entirely different spin on the text (and it certainly puts the modern phrase church shopping in perspective). Even though the transformation in identity from citizen to consumer has been gradual, it is seemingly irrevocable. The values proposed by an ethic of consumerism (wants and desires satiated now) and those of an ethic of the gospel (God’s provision for all) are in many ways opposed. Market values do have their proper place in society (and church), and benefit the common good in many ways. In our day and age, however, market values do not self-regulate. (If you ask your child to clean the table tonight after dinner, remember you’ll have to pay her or him to do so.) They tend to be intrusive, and have the ability to erode shared values (volunteerism, for example) that make our communities livable and enjoyable. Churches need to know where and when to draw the boundary lines, announcing to those who have ears to hear that there are values worth caring about other than market values.
Professional religious leaders have the responsibility of encouraging and maintaining boundary formation in and for their congregations. We are proclaimers of the gospel – do we need to be current with the economic theories and practices of the day? Yes – good stewardship demands it. As long as the society we inhabit religiously promises the nirvana of material pursuits and gains, we must stand up and proclaim it to be idolatrous. Filling up the pews in an era of excess is hard work, but countering the very culture of excess helps build a spiritual house in which the Divine Spirit dwells.
* Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon & Schuster (2010), 83-4.
Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.