Capitalism breeds attachment to material goods. I get it. It may even tempt — make that, cause — its users to measure happiness and the good life by worldly standards. But is socialism any different? If capitalism breeds haves, does pointing out what the have-nots don’t have really challenge materialist notions of wealth, standard of living, property, or means of production?
The Social Gospel has always struck me as just as materialist as high capitalism, though it is much more sanctimonious about it since for every Russell Conwell ten ministers publicly identify with the poor even while depending on market mechanisms for their wages. In other words, applying a materialist reading of the beatitudes — either pro-free markets or pro-redistribution — misses the point. A capitalist might say that free markets lift all boats and will take the poor off poverty rolls and put them in the suburbs with a mortgage and car loan payments. A socialist might say that the elimination of private property and free markets will distribute wealth to all citizens so that everyone has a home and a car. But what about when the home owner or sharer dies? What kind of home does he have then? Neither the capitalist or leftist reading of the Beatitudes addresses the matter of spiritual poverty, or the understanding that this world’s goods are inconsequential for the world to come, when the spiritually poor, whether financially rich or destitute, will inherit the kingdom of God (if they trust in Christ)?
These questions follow from Andrew Sullivan’s rebuke to Rush Limbaugh. Conservative talk radio’s supreme host is worthy of all sorts of criticism. But I don’t think Sullivan’s complaint hits the mark:
But the Pope is not making an empirical observation. In so far as he is, he agrees with you. What he’s saying is that this passion for material things is not what makes us good or happy. That’s all. And that’s a lot for Limbaugh to chew on. And if the mania for more and more materialist thrills distracts us from, say, the plight of a working American facing bankruptcy because of cancer, or the child of an illegal immigrant with no secure home, then it is a deeply immoral distraction. There’s something almost poignant in Limbaugh’s inability even to understand that material goods are not self-evidently the purpose of life and are usually (and in Jesus’ stern teachings always) paths away from God and our own good and our own happiness. Something poignant because it reveals a profound ignorance of one of the West’s deepest cultural inheritances in Christianity.
If Sullivan had wanted to show his spiritual understanding of Christianity, he might have re-written this line: “… if the mania for more and more materialist thrills distracts us from, say, the plight of a working American facing
bankruptcy because of cancer the wages of sin and death, or the child of an illegal immigrant with no secure home without the assurance of God’s forgiveness through the cross of Christ, then it is a deeply immoral distraction.”
As it is, paychecks and housing appear to rank high in Sullivan’s understanding of Christianity. That makes him anti-materialist and separates him from Rush Limbaugh how?