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Pious Materialism: How Americans View Faith and Money

by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University. This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 3, 1993, pp. 239-242. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Pundits dubbed the 1980s the Decade of Greed. Yuppies, Rolex watches, Avia sneakers, Michael Milken, Charles Keating and the Trump shuttle defined the period. Now, faced with a multitrillion-dollar national debt, we have apparently decided that pocketbook issues should occupy our attention. A new president has been elected to put our financial house in order; preachers and poets call us to repent. But what do Americans really think about money and material possessions? And what role, if any, does religious faith play in guiding our thinking?

If money talks, it does so with a divided voice. The subject evokes deep ambivalence within many people. On the one hand, the sentiment prevails that American culture emphasizes money and material goods too much. On the other hand, most individuals are themselves terribly interested in money, and few seem able to decide when enough is enough. Faith, too, has a voice in these matters, but often it is one that can scarcely be heard. These are among the conclusions emerging from a three-year research project on Religion and Economic Values at Princeton University. Last spring we completed a nationally representative survey of the active (employed) U. S. labor force in which more than 2,000 people participated. We have also interviewed more than 150 people from various faiths and occupations in greater depth. Their responses provide new insight into our deepest obsession -- money.

The mood of the '90s may well be more sober than that of the '80s. The view we heard repeatedly during interviews was that money is indeed corrupting our society. Margaret Anderson, 40, an accountant who works in a large firm on the West Coast, expressed it well when she said, "There's an overemphasis on material goods. Like home computers. You're always having to add things to them. Or furniture. You buy things just because of how they will look when people come to your house. It's easy to allow money to corrupt you."

In the survey, 89 percent agreed that "our society is much too materialistic"; 74 percent said materialism is a serious social problem; and 71 percent said society would be better off if less emphasis were placed on money. Many of the people we talked to described the corrosive effect of materialism on their families. Young adults reflected on how hard their parents had worked. The result was a comfortable life, but one saddened by emotional distance. Even more common were the young parents who talked about their own children being corrupted by television and by advertising. Ninety percent of those surveyed agreed that "children today want too many material things." And 75 percent agreed that "advertising is corrupting our basic values." Chicago attorney Stuart Cummings, 33, sees himself as a bulwark of restraint who seldom succumbs to material desires. But he admits, "I worry about my kids. It's a very consumer-oriented era for our kids. They grow up watching TV, they see things they want, every commercial is like beckoning them in. And so I worry about [materialism] on their level. I'd like to rein things in."

Also prevalent is a view that materialism is at odds with the deeper human values that have made us a great nation. Teri Silver, 29, a systems analyst who worked for Michael Milken and is now laid off, says she was sickened by the greed she saw among her co-workers. But the deep materialism she came to recognize in herself made her feel even worse. She admits she's totally obsessed about buying a leather jacket. She thinks we have to get beyond materialism if we are truly going to care for others. "Going without some things," she says, "would open our eyes to the needs of other people."

It is possible to be cynical about these views. Having listened to people talk at length about their aims and aspirations, however, I am inclined to give their remarks a more benign reading. Most of us are quite sincere when we express concern about our society's pervasive materialism. We sense that our wants are spiraling out of control. We know there is more to life than having nice things. For many of us, a religious factor may also prompt our misgivings. We are dimly aware of biblical teachings contrasting the worship of God and mammon. When journalists write of greed, we remember that religious authors have had something to say on the topic as well. Secular as our culture is, 71 percent still agree that "being greedy is a sin against God."

Thinking that materialism is a serious problem, however, seems to have little connection with how we actually live our lives. Money and material possessions are, in fact, among the things we cherish most deeply. Our consumer habits are one indication of their importance. We spend huge sums on consumer products, mount increasing credit card debts, and perceive ourselves to be under enormous financial pressure. In the survey 63 percent said the statement "I think a lot about money and finances" describes them very well or fairly well, and 84 percent admitted "I wish I had more money than I do." On more specific questions, virtually everyone mentioned having serious financial concerns.

Another indication of how attached we are to our possessions is that we readily admit our attachment. When asked how important "having a beautiful home, a new car, and other nice things" was to them, for example, 78 percent of the people surveyed said "very important" or "fairly important," while only 22 percent said "not very important." The responses were similar when people were asked about the importance of being able to travel for pleasure, wearing nice clothes, and eating out at expensive restaurants.

Of course, money may be regarded as a means for attaining other things, rather than as an end in itself. Most of us, however, draw such a tight connection between money and other aims that money itself acquires great value. Freedom, for instance, is one of our deepest values, and in the survey 71 percent agreed that "having money means having more freedom." Or, to cite another example, feeling good about ourselves is a basic value, and 76 percent agree that "having money gives me a good feeling about myself." The survey also showed that worrying about not having enough money is significantly correlated with not feeling good about oneself. Most people do give lip service to the view that money and happiness may not necessarily go together. In the survey, for instance, only 11 percent said wealthy people are generally "happier than other people." Yet many of us harbor the conviction that having just a little more money would indeed make us happier.

Floyd Jackson, 42, an Air Force officer who lives in Louisiana, says the main thing he learned as a child was that money "could make you happy." His parents were poor, and they blamed all their problems on not having enough money. Floyd figured he'd be equal with everyone else if he could just make a good income when he grew up. He says he still believes this. Now what he wants most is money to buy a few more things -- a truck and some CDs for his retirement. Asked if he ever worries about money, he laughs and says, "No, just the lack of it."

That a substantial proportion of us are willing to sacrifice other things in order to have more money is still another sign of how much we value money. Despite the fact that 66 percent of the labor force say they are working harder than they were five years ago (and 52 percent would like to work fewer hours), 68 percent say they would be willing to work even longer hours each week to earn more money. Nearly half say they would do less interesting work or take a higher pressure job if, in either case, they could make more money. And these figures are as high among people who are already in the upper third of the income scale as among those with lower incomes. In addition, 46 percent say they would play the lottery to make more money.

Our love of money is evident too in our attitudes toward wealth and poverty. Although 92 percent believe that the condition of the poor is a serious social problem, our hearts are fundamentally with the rich. This fondness for the wealthy is perhaps most clearly attested by a series of questions asking people how much they admire individuals in various circumstances. People who work hard, of course, draw the greatest admiration -- which is one reason why we dislike the idle rich as much as the proverbial welfare chiseler. But when working hard is taken into account, the wealthy gain our greatest respect. Thus, 80 percent say they admire "people who make a lot of money by working hard" -- 11 percent more than those who say they admire "people who take a lower paying job in order to help others," and 20 percent more than those who acknowledge admiring "people who work hard but never make much money."

Religious tradition provided earlier generations of Americans with a moral language that helped curb the pursuit of money. Faced, as we now seem to be, with a sense that materialism has gotten out of hand and that we are unable to resist its power, some of us might hope that religious faith would still be a source of wisdom and guidance in these matters. Yet the results from our study are at best mixed. Faith is certainly more of a factor in how Americans use money than economists might suppose. But it is undoubtedly less of a factor than religious leaders would like it to be. Most Americans do believe their faith is relevant to their finances. Only 22 percent of those surveyed, for example, agreed that "God doesn't care how I use my money." Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that faith makes little difference to the ways in which people actually conduct their financial affairs.

Our thinking about greed provides a vivid example. Given the large majority who believe that greed is sinful, one of the most striking findings from the survey was how few people had ever been taught that it is wrong to want a lot of money: only 12 percent. Even among people who attend church every week, this proportion was only 16 percent. In fact, many of the people we talked to in depth found the question itself a bit strange. What they had been taught, they said, was to want a lot of money. The biblical teaching about serving God or serving mammon suggests that there might be a conflict for religious people between valuing one's relationship with God and valuing making a lot of money. But careful statistical analysis of the survey results showed there was none. Taking other differences into account, people who highly valued their relationship with God were no less likely to value making a lot of money

Jesus' warning about the rich man's difficulty entering the kingdom of God might be another source of concern to Bible-believing Americans. But most of the ones we talked to were able to rationalize their way out of this difficulty. Most figured riches weren't a problem unless one had gained them illegally. A few agreed with Jesus, but said that the rich were probably just too busy to cultivate their spirituality. One would also think that preachments about the poor might do something to unsettle middle-class Americans. And of course they do, at least if charitable donations are considered. Yet our basic sense of being squarely in God's graces remains more or less undisturbed. Two-thirds of us believe that "God wants me to have the kind of job that will make me happy." More than half of us believe that "people who work hard are more pleasing to God than people who are lazy." A majority of us agree that "praying in the morning helps me have a better day at work." However, three-quarters of us reject the view that "it is morally wrong to have a lot of nice things when others are starving." And only one person in five agrees with the idea that "the poor are closer to God than rich people are."

What religious faith does more clearly than anything else is to add a dollop of piety to the materialistic amalgam in which most of us live. We do not feel compelled to give up any of our material desires, only to put them "in perspective." When finances worry us we pray, and that gives us strength to keep on working. In short, a kind of therapeutic motif is at work. Our faith helps us feel better about ourselves whether we are worried about our finances, whether we have money in abundance, or whether we fall into both of these categories.

Critics claim that the churches do a better job of comforting the afflicted than they do of afflicting the comfortable. Here is clear evidence that supports them. But some of us, at least, would like to be challenged more deeply than we are about our use of money. Three persons in four, for example, say they would like churches and synagogues to "encourage people to be less materialistic." We may not be serious about this, but there may be room for churches to engage the issue. For that to happen, however, we must understand some of the impediments. It is not without reason that churches have been unable or unwilling to address money matters more directly. When we consider why the churches are failing in this area, each of the following merits consideration:

1. Money is considered too personal to be discussed openly. The darkest taboo in our culture is not sex or death, but money. Despite business magazines filled with discussions of money, we still believe that our personal finances are too ticklish to be discussed with even our most trusted friends. We feel it is inappropriate to burden others with our concerns. We feel that our money is none of their business. We may worry about sounding conceited or making someone feel bad. We may well have been taught in childhood that money is a family secret. In the survey 89 percent said they never or hardly ever discussed their family budget with people outside their immediate family. The proportion who seldom discussed personal finances with fellow churchpeople was even higher -- 97 percent. Ironically, while most of us worry about our money (and many of us even fret about the fact that we are worried), we do so alone. We do not place ourselves in a position to benefit from the counsel of others. Nor do we try to gain the kind of perspective that might come from articulating and testing our own views more openly.

2. Money and morality are kept in separate compartments. Our culture encourages us to think this way. Money is allegedly value-free. It is simply a convenient mechanism of social exchange. Indeed, 68 percent in the survey agreed that "money is one thing, morals and values are completely separate." We might, therefore, pay attention to what economic experts say about it, but we do not seek counsel about money from philosophers or theologians. This does not mean, of course, that Americans are so materialistic that they have no other values. Seventy-eight percent of working Americans, for example, say they "think a lot about my values and priorities in life." But many of us ponder such matters without drawing implications for our economic behavior. Consider, for instance, the thought processes that guide us in making a major purchase such as an automobile. We found in our conversations that most people adopted a consumerist framework in describing how they made such decisions. Their language sounded like the car commercials they saw on television. The survey showed the same pattern. Eighty-one percent said they would think a lot about "which dealer will give me the best deal" and 76 percent said the same about "will it get good mileage." In comparison, only 43 percent said they would think a lot about "how does having a car fit into my basic values," and even fewer (20 percent) said they would think a lot about the question, "Are automobiles consistent with protecting the planet?" None of this, of course, is very surprising. Indeed, we would probably be shocked if clergy preached sermons about how to buy a new car. Yet the fact that we let advertising define our thinking in such a major financial commitment shows how powerful it is.

3. People seldom think about connections between faith and money. Religious writers sometimes comment on how frequently the Bible itself discusses money. This message seems to have gotten through only to a bare majority of working Americans. Fifty-one percent agree that "the Bible contains valuable teachings about the use of money" But agreement is one thing; making use of these teachings is another. Only 29 percent said they had thought more than a little in the past year about "what the Bible teaches about money," and only a few more (31 percent) had thought this much about the broader issue of "the connection between religious values and your personal finances."

4. Clergy may be fearful of seeming too interested in money. Most of the pastors we talked to admitted they found it difficult to preach about money Our research revealed at least part of the reason pastors feel this way. Many people believe that churches should be devoted entirely to the spiritual life, rather than having to pay any attention to material needs. In the survey 43 percent agreed that "churches are too eager to get your time and money." On another question, 36 percent said "it annoys me when churches are too eager to get your time and money."

Even more telling was the response to the question of whether people would give more or less to their church "if the church emphasized giving money more than it does now." Thirty percent said they would give less; only 7 percent said they would give more. In contrast, when people were asked what they would do "if the clergy were less materialistic," 31 percent said they would give more, while only 9 percent said they would give less. (The remainder said it would make no difference.)

5. Stewardship has lost much of its meaning. One might think that the stewardship sermon would provide churches with an occasion to offer instruction to parishioners about money and material possessions. But stewardship is perceived by the public to mean either something as narrow as charitable giving or something so broad that it has virtually no specific implications. When we asked people what they thought was the best definition of stewardship, 10 percent said it meant "giving a certain percentage of your money to the church," 12 percent thought it was "taking good care of our planet," 16 percent said it meant "remembering that God makes everything," 40 percent said it was "using your individual talents in a responsible way," and 20 percent were unsure. Moreover, only 22 percent said the idea was very meaningful to them; 40 percent said it was fairly meaningful; 20 percent said it was not very or not at all meaningful; and 18 percent were unsure.

These are all serious cultural impediments. But they are, nevertheless, impediments that the churches can address. After all, the subject of money is too important to be left entirely to economists. Money can be discussed in churches more openly than it is currently, especially in caring and supportive small groups. The moral dimensions of money can be addressed by theologians and ethicists. Sunday school classes and Bible study groups can stimulate thinking about the connections between faith and money. Clergy need to do a better job of communicating their churches' material needs. And stewardship must be discussed in terms of its specific implications for the Christian life -- not in vague generalities. The stakes are high. But in facing up to our material obsessions, we should expect more from churches than silence.

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