As I noted with some astonishment the other day, I saw one of these bumper stickers on a Lexus SUV in the western suburbs. The message is pretty clear: I am an egregious materialist, but somehow, abstractly, I am also storing up my treasure in heaven. Attachment to wealth and the gauche flaunting of that wealth go hand in hand with being Christian for the people with this bumper sticker. What, I wonder, would Savonarola have to say to these people?
At any rate, for a lot of people, the contradiction would be pretty obvious. This is not just the Joel Osteens offering you your “best life now” and the hacks preaching the “prosperity gospel,” who would be bad enough considering how many people they have taken in with their sugar-coated deceptions, but it is a much more casual and apparently widespread sentiment that Christian duty has little or no connection with what we should do with our wealth.
This is entirely a question of what people voluntarily wish to do with their own property. This is a question of cultural habits and the degeneration of a Christian ethic, which is surely as much a part of our cultural decay as is the culture of death. Attachment to material things is somewhat more subtle in its dangers, but it is something to which everyone is prone and therefore more of a constant and present danger for everyone.
I would suggest that we could not have a culture of death if we had not already had a culture that prized the desires of the self. It has been for the alleged benefit and convenience of the self, and for the easing of its obligations to others that men have created a culture of death. If the culture of death stems in part from disobeying the boundaries set by God in protecting the sanctity of life, rampant materialism and a culture that caters to the wants of the self stem from a similar lack of limits and spirit of excess. It comes from the same spirit of autonomy that causes man to look to his own interest and desires, to satisfy his own self-will. They are ultimately theologically linked in their common disorientation of the will towards the self and away from God in disordered relationship with creation and with other men.
It should be incumbent on those Christians and conservatives most keenly aware of the sinful inclination of man’s will to guard against such disorder. They should be among the best prepared for guarding against it. But that there seems to be a broad constituency among both Christians and conservatives in this country for entertaining this disordered relationship with possessions should not be much in doubt. However, it will not surprise anyone to learn that this constituency is not new. Thus Russell Kirk (with thanks to reader Randall Dietz for sending me this) on industrialism and conservatism in The Conservative Mind:
Personal loyalties gave way to financial relationships. The wealthy man ceased to be a magistrate and patron; he ceased to be neighbor to the poor man; he became a mass man, very often, with no purpose in life but aggrandizement. He ceased to be concerned because he did not understand conservative norms, which cannot be instilled by mere logic-a man must be steeped in them. The poor man ceased to feel that he had a decent place in the community; he became a social atom, starved for most emotions except envy and ennui, severed from true family life and reduced to mere household life, his old landmarks buried, his old faith dissipated. Industrialism was a harder knock to conservatism than the books of the French egalitarians. To complete the route of traditionalists, in America in impression began to rise to the newly industrial and inquisitive interests are the conservative interest, that conservatism is simply a political argument in defense of large accumulations of private property that expansion centralization and accumulation are the tenants of conservatives. From this confusion, from the popular belief that Hamilton was the founder of American conservatism, the forces of tradition in the United States never have fully escaped.
That there is nothing conservative in the encouragement and enabling of consumption and accumulation should be obvious to all. That this modern grasshopper-like view of property has no necessary connection to the proper defense of the rights of property should be clear. Nowadays, we are confronted with an ideology of development and growth, embodied in Kelo v. New London among other things, that starkly opposes the vision of the accumulators to the vision of the small property holders and which privileges the claims of growth over those of prescriptive right. Unfortunately, the distortion of what conservatism properly is has reached such a point that to restate Kirk’s words from over 50 years ago in new form elicits shrieks and howls from the accumulators, their hangers-on and those conservatives too ignorant of their own tradition to know any better.