Published September 23, 2021
By almost any measure, America is the wealthiest nation in the world. Whether compared to other nations of the world today or in the past, ours stands out as perhaps the most affluent society in history. Sure, there are a handful of countries with higher per capita GDP. Switzerland, for example, has a higher per capita GDP than the United States; it also has fewer people than New York City. Almost no other major country has a higher median income. No country has more disposable income, per capita, than the United States. We lead the world in household consumption. We are the undisputed world champions of “having stuff.”
Are we better for it?
Almost no one I know would argue that we’d be better off if we were poorer. Probably this is because most Americans don’t feel particularly well-off. Just over half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, if you believe the news. I doubt many of them feel that being poorer would be better for them, either. In 2019, 10.5 percent of Americans were living below the federal poverty line. While that was the lowest rate observed since estimates were first published in 1959, I doubt those 34 million Americans feel like they’d be better off with less.
Even setting aside the wealthiest of the wealthy, the broad American middle is still absurdly well-off by global, let alone historical standards. No Roman emperor ever enjoyed the conveniences I have in my suburban home: central air, two (!) color (!!) TVs, and Wi-Fi that reaches most corners of the house most of the time.
The ubiquity of American affluence makes it harder, not easier for us to see. When it comes to the specter of consumerism, there is a kind of perverse temptation to seek safety in the anonymity of the comfy middle: “I’m not some billionaire! I drive a used Ford! I worry about paying the bills and saving for college for my kids. I’m ordinary.”
If you’re anything like me, the relative security and modest comforts of middle-class life in America come with a nagging suspicion. Scripture isn’t exactly silent on the dangers of wealth. Neither are the saints. Nor the magisterium. We all know the greatest hits:
— “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven.”
— “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
— “The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”
— “The love of money is the root of all evils.”
— “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much.”
— “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”
It’s hard to write about these things without sounding like a moralizing scold (or at the very least a hypocrite). But given the ubiquity of wealth in this country, and given the innumerable warnings from Scripture, the saints, and the tradition about the perils of wealth, consumerism, materialism, and the like – and given the manifest prevalence of these vices in the world around us – isn’t it at least possible that we Americans ought to be paying much closer attention to these warnings?
Isn’t it possible that those of us in the broad, comfy middle, ought to pay heed even if – perhaps especially if – we don’t feel especially well-off compared to those around us? Isn’t it possible that, if comparing ourselves to those around us (a dicey proposition in the best of times) makes us comfortable or complacent, that is in itself a warning sign?
It’s true that the Church has always insisted that it’s not so much about what or how much you have, but what you do with it that matters. As St. John Chrysostom put it, “He is not rich who is surrounded by many possessions, but he who does not need many possessions; and he is not poor who possesses nothing, but he who requires many things.” But that teaching should not soothe us in our comfort so much as compel us to see in everything we possess an obligation and responsibility to use it for others, for the Kingdom.
Most Americans are at least rich enough to believe the myth of our own self-sufficiency. We are just wealthy enough to believe that we can afford to live without the kind of solidarity past generations depended on for survival. This presumption of self-sufficiency can manifest itself in a callous resentment towards those who depend upon us. It can even make us resent the very idea that we might have to rely on someone else. This isn’t just a spiritual danger; it’s a social and political danger as well.
As a society, we have actually come to believe that the human solidarity without which we cannot flourish can be replaced by the independence and isolation our money can buy. Marriage rates fall, birthrates collapse, social distrust spreads. Forced isolation brought about by the pandemic in recent months has only served to underscore this reality, as have the related spikes in substance abuse and suicides.
Maybe, just maybe, having all the good things money can buy, and Amazon to deliver them to us, makes us less dependent on one another, and that in turn makes us less happy. And less likely to realize that we’re dependent, not just on one another, but on God.
Is America better off for being so rich? Are we better disciples and evangelists for being affluent?
Happily, all those stern warnings about the perils of wealth are not just warnings, but promises, too:
“As for you, do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore.
All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them.
Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides.”
Stephen P. White is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.