Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel,Ā A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

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9 thoughts on “Religion and Mammon

  1. Hugh, I am going to quote the famous philosopher on the wealth and religion equation named Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. “And, she’s buying her way to heaven.” While there are countless pious and altruistic religious people, money can be a corrupting influence, even in religion. Keith

  2. Ah! I’m loading this to read offline, as it – like the others – deserves total attention, not possible here in the cyber!
    I see several others I’ve missed – loaded now as well.
    Until next week,
    Z

  3. Dear Hugh,

    These rich religious folks should be made to read the Parables and the story of Lazarus in their Bibles. Both stories remind us that we all will die some day and you can’t take it with you.

    I like this piece of advice: “Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.” And, “By desiring little, a poor man makes himself rich.” — Democritus, pre-Socratic philosopher (circa 460 B.C. to circa 370 B.C.)”

    This is my favorite: There are people who have money, and there are people who are rich.” — Coco Chanel, fashion designer and businesswoman (1883-1971).

    I put President Trump in the category oh having lots of money but he is not rich.

    Hugs, Gronda

  4. Isn’t it a funny thing that Christians, particularly of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist variety, should have so easily fallen into the money trap, even to making if seem a blessing from God when their own Bible says, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (KJV) or “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (NIV). These would be the people who exhibit powerful exceptionalism because they believe the Bible is the unchanging, inspired Word of God and would have their particular “bible based” religion foisted upon young people in public schools. They claim that anyone who does not believe “in” Christ or the inerrancy of the “Holy Bible” is going to hell. Yet there they are, either totally ignorant of one of the most common biblical quotes, or deliberately making their god to be a liar who, given the right circumstances, is no slouch at contradicting himself a la Donald Trump. The same applies to injunctions against all killing and the despising of “the brother in lowly circumstances.” If there is one word that perfectly describes Christianity, it’s none other than hypocrisy.

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