When I was a Jesuit scholastic teaching ethics at Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) in Kansas City over 30 years ago, a student presented me with a Yuletide advertisement for a new credit card. Its headline: What Gives? Mastercharge. I had spent a class analyzing ads, commenting on the covert moral values and images of the human person in consumerism. This particular ad, howeverwith the astute commentary of the studentset me on the more deliberate project of uncovering the latent ethical message of advertising and capitalism.
The full-page ad pictured thousands of shoppers crossing a city’s intersection. In place of various department stores were huge products rising like megaliths to loom over and dwarf the people, who in scale looked more like ants than humans. The student’s comment ran something like this: The impoverishment of the personal world in Capitalism’s Xmas. I began to suspect then that producing, buying and accumulating stuff not only dominated our preparations, celebrations and conversations at Christmas; they were increasingly controlling our lives.
Little more than a decade later, I was startled when Pope John Paul II’s inaugural encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, contrasted authentic Christology and humanism with consumerist ideology. In the centerpiece 16th chapter, Progress or Threat, the pope warned that while great human progress was being made, there was a real, perceptible danger that our own humanity was itself subject to manipulation in many wayseven if the manipulation is often not perceptible directly through the production system and through pressure from the means of social communication (emphasis mine). He cautioned us not to become slaves of things...economic systems...production...products.
The picture of the ant-like humans, dwarfed by capitalism’s huge idols, found even sharper focus. What is more, the pope’s words were prophetic. Although some commentators have tried to suppress or soften his critique of consumerism (which is as strong and sustained as his critique of Communism), it has been vindicated. In their more candid moments, few people would agree with the claim, for example, that democratic capitalism has a cultural system or a political system independent of money’s imperial clutch on our lives. The pitiful election of 2000, a brief survey of mass media and a thoughtful review of how religious passion is so easily domesticated should lay to rest such illusions.
It is interesting now, 20 years after Redemptor Hominis, that its theme of weakened religion and diminished humanity is found in secular writers. Thomas Frank has debunked the rituals of market-worship and its high priests in One Market Under God. Robert Lane, in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, portrays the systemic loneliness and lack of mutual trust endemic in a system devoted to the endless accumulation of products. It echoes in many ways the thesis of Robert Frank’s Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. Jean Kilbourne’s Deadly Persuasion and Robert McChesney’s Rich Media, Poor Democracy apply the theme to the exploitation of women and the commercialization of politics.
In all these books, there is the subtext that high-powered market capitalism overrides personal relationships and religious belief. Exemplifying the 30-year-old ad and the 20-year-old encyclical, they are commentaries on idolatry, worshiping the products of our hands. As Psalm 115 reminds us, idols have eyes that never gaze upon you, lips that never speak to you, hands that never touch you. Such are pagan gods, the psalmist says. And those who worship such gods become like them.
There are people, of course, who think all of this product worship is to the good. One of the more blatant celebrations of American Materialism’s Triumph (taken from the book’s subtitle) is James Twitchell’s Lead Us Into Temptation. While cataloguing capitalism’s waste, its hedonism, ruthlessness toward the poor, one-dimensional life and its displacement of religion, Twitchell gladly announces the enthronement of capitalism. Woe to the government or religion that says no. Getting and spending has been the most passionate and often the most imaginative, endeavor of modern life.... We have made stuff the dominant prerequisite of organized society. Things R us.... While this is dreary and depressing to some, as doubtless it should be, it is liberating and democratic to many more.
What am I writing about here? It is not, to be sure, of countless men and women (some who have written me, thinking that I would condemn their desire to have some security, a nice home and a living income) who use their earnings for the giving of gifts, the enjoyment of family and the needs of others. Nor is it a call to cast off this economic system, which, if it goes unchecked, may self-destruct anyway. Nor is it an indictment of good music, nice homes, happy parties and beautiful clothes. It is only to point out that if the center is missing, all the trappings are a trap.
In this time of Merry Xmas, Christians will be liberated from idol worship only if they place Christ (dare we utter the thought?) back in the moral center of happy holidays. At such a center, we find not only our true God there. We find true humanity as well: our very selves, who in the quiet of solitude, in warmth of relationship, in the cry of the poor, discover once again what no money can buya community of Persons abiding at the beginning and end of all that is.