The Papacy, Material culture in America, and Economic Determinism


Jon Kofas says: "In a recent statement after president Bush's visit to the Vatican, the Pope cautioned the American people to be less materialistic and to seek contentment in spirituality. Though such a statement may appear rather typical, I found it intriguing because public opinion polls indicate that more than 60% of the American people identify themselves as religious while only 10% of Europeans. This is a reflection of the level of American political, social, and cultural conservatism in comparison with Europeans. Yet, the Pope has the same perception as the rest of the world that American society is immersed in materialism/hedonism, despite the public proclamations of religious convictions. How do we reconcile the 60% public opinion poll with the widespread perception throughout the world that we are indeed the most materialistic and by implication least spiritual society? Do the forces of economic determinism supercede those of faith? Are India and Brazil, and the entire Third World, more spiritual because they have the vast majority of the poor on this planet, so people turn to religion as a core value with which to cope with life's daily adversities, while in bourgeois America, and the G-7 for that matter, we seek satisfaction in automobiles, houses, DVD players, etc. etc.?"

George Frederickson comments on the posting by Jon Kofas: "An hypothesis from a comparative historian of Europe and America: The Pope's comment reflects a deeply-rooted European assumption that the acquisition of wealth is morally suspect and probably sinful. The traditional Christian view is that avarice or greed is one of the deadly sins and that voluntary poverty is virtuous. (Think of the rich man trying to get through the eye of the needle.) If we follow Max Weber, the rise of Protestantism led to a modification of this viewpoint. For Calvinists particularly, wealth could be a sign of divine favor, provided that one led an abstemious life and engaged in sanctioned form of philanthropy (which did not include giving alms to the "undeserving poor.") This more permissive attitude toward weath-seeking became strongly rooted in the American colonies and later in the United States. Whereas a neo-Calvinist form of Protestantism has declined or become thoroughly secularized the in the parts of Europe where it got established at all, it has clearly thrived in the US. Even after it became detached from its original asceticism by the rise of a consumption-oriented capitalism in the twentieth century, it continued to sanction the American belief that materialism (in the sense of acquisitiveness) and religious dedication or devotion are thoroughly compatible. Baptist John D. Rockefeller said "God gave my money," and Ronald Reagan, the hero of the religious right, contended that "Greed is not a sin." In Europe, from which charges of American materialism frequently emanate, such attitudes would be shocking if not incomprehensible to many people. The residual strength of Catholicism and the rise of socialism and social democracy have combined to make the ardent pursuit of wealth and its self-satisfied attainment sources of suspicion if not of outright disapproval. Sociologist Michelle Lamont's comparative study of the social attitudes of working men in the United States and France reveals a great disjucture in their attitudes toward "the people above" them economically. Most of the Americans workers she interviewed want to emulate the economic elite and move into their ranks. The French tend to regard them as owing their position to personal corruption or to an unjust system and, if not reduced to cynicism, favor redistributive reforms".

RH: Reagan's remark that greed is not a sin troubles me deeply, since I regard it as the great flaw in our society. I would like to know when and where Reagan said it, I find it hard to believe that he was a theologian. The Seven Deadly Sins are pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. The word "greed" is not used, but it is covered by avarice, lust and envy. "Greed" is defined as "desire for acquiring or having more than one deserves or needs, avarice, cupidity" Reagan will have some explaining to do..

 

 

Ronald Hilton -


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