There is a pervasive and persistent force working in American culture that is undermining individuals, disintegrating families and communities, and sapping the Church of its influence and relevance. That force is consumerism.
Consumerism is more than materialism, consumerism is an ideology of which materialism is merely a component; it is a way of thinking that has become a principle basis for how many Americans understand life and view themselves. By definition, consumerism is a cultural phenomenon resulting from the systematic creation and fostering of the desire to possess material goods and personal success in ever greater amounts. The net result is a cultural mindset which seeks an idealized "lifestyle" that promises a better life to all who work hard enough. This "better life," according to its devotees, can be achieved by temporal means through the improvement of one's self-image. While there is nothing wrong with a healthy self-image there is something inherently destructive about an image of one's self that is rooted solely in physical appearance, social status, or material success. In such a system human persons are in essence reduced to objects whose value is determined by "having" and not that of "being."
The late Pope John Paul II regarded consumerism as "a threat to the freedom of the human person to live according to the higher demands of love rather than to the lower pull of material desires." Christian theology teaches that it is not the possession of material goods alone, or the desire for a better life that is sinful. Rather it is possessing, including the desire to possess, without regard for the appropriate hierarchy of the material goods one has and the subordination of those goods to their proper place. Material goods and resources should remain subservient to man and available to support his service to his neighbor.
Consumerism also posits that this "better life" can be achieved through increased financial security which promises greater freedom to enjoy life, reduced worry, and increased stability. Often, this desire leads to a validation of every decision that places career choices above everything else. For example, we do not hesitate to relocate our families for the "right opportunity" often leaving extended family behind and depriving our children of multi-generational influence. We are the most transient society on earth; we are consumerist nomads in continual search for greener pastures and this nomadic condition works to dis-integrate families and communities by severing familial and community roots. We seem to be a people who are always on our way to somewhere else, never content with where we are.
This is evidenced in the fact that the average length of home ownership in America is approximately six years, by far the shortest duration in the world.
Another area affected is that the barrier which once insulated family time from employment demands is eliminated. We do not hesitate to travel on Sunday, for example, in order to make that Monday morning meeting or stay over Saturday on out-of town business to reduce airfare expense. American workers are working more hours than ever before and the growing expectation among employers is: "if you want to get ahead you'll do what needs to be done otherwise you lack commitment and your career here is over."
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, "the average hours worked by all family members is up 11 percent since 1975" and according the Bureau of Labor, 32.8 percent of all full-time employees worked on weekends and holidays.
The shield which once existed between the demands of the marketplace and the obligations of family is gone. The marketplace reigns supreme and therefore if family and marketplace come into conflict the family must give way and the rationale is; it is ultimately for the good of the family.
Americans suffer spiritually and emotionally as well. Given the extraordinary time pressures on families today, and often misplaced priorities, there is less time for involvement in the community of believers. Church attendance has reached an all time low in America. (42 percent according to Barna Research and declining) Worse, many people today who find themselves slaves to consumerism have come to see that despite achieving the promised lifestyle it has failed to produce the promised benefits. These discontent consumerists will often go to "religion" in search of meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, many are only looking to give their "lifestyle" meaning and purpose and they think that by integrating "a little Jesus" into their lives they will then balance and perfect the lifestyle, never realizing that it is not their lifestyle that is in need of salvation it is their lives.
Often Christians will respond to the forces of consumerism with an increased effort to integrate the spiritual disciplines; scheduled prayer and "quiet time," regular Bible study, etc. These are fine but they can seek to emphasize spiritual works rather than addressing the root issue which is ultimately the discipline of our appetites and learning to be content with what you have and where you are in life.
Emotionally, Americans are more "disconnected" than ever. The Dartmouth School of Medicine recently completed a study entitled, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. The study reported that, "a great deal of evidence [now] shows that we are hardwired for close attachments to other people, beginning with our mothers, fathers, and extended family, and then moving out to the broader community." The report concludes that, "The fundamental problem in today's society, especially among young people, [is a] lack of connectedness - connectedness to other people and to a sense of transcendent meaning or purpose."
With the increased priority given to the marketplace, there follows a decreased commitment to neighbors, community and connections to extended family, children are displaced in pursuit of "opportunities," and familial priorities become subverted to company demands. What is perhaps most disturbing is that too many Christians are compliant in this subversion of family to work by both their unquestioning participation as employees and the imposition of these values as employers.
To be continued...
Copyright 2005, National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. All rights reserved.
S. Michael Craven is the vice president for religion & culture at the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families and leads the work and ministry of Cultural Apologetics. The Cultural Apologetics ministry works to equip the Church to assert and defend biblical morality and ethics in a manner that is rational, relevant and persuasive in order to recapture the relevance of Christianity to all of life by demonstrating its complete correspondence to reality. For more information on Cultural Apologetics, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.CulturalApologetics.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.
Send feedback to: [email protected]