I want to talk with you about capitalism and economics--not as an economist, but as a theologian. I don't know much about economics and couldn't begin to analyze complicated financial pictures. I don't even balance my checkbook. But I am a theologian, and I do know about gods. I know how they work, how powerful they are, how invisible they usually are, and know that beneath nearly every human endeavor with any passion or commitment about it, there will be a god operating, doing the things gods do.
Gods are those concerns that our behaviors show we take very seriously. We commit our lives to them, we are driven by them, and in return they promise us something we want, or think we want. Whether what they promise us is good or bad is a measure of whether the god involved is an adequate or an inadequate one. Good gods really have the power to bestow a greater and nobler quality of life. Bad gods pretend to, but in the end it turns out that we serve them and get little in return that was worth the sacrifice of our lives.
As a theologian, I'd say that the most important fact we can know about ourselves is to know the gods we're serving in our lives and in our societies, and whether they are really worth our lives.
Some people imagine their gods as supernatural people, sort of living "up there" somewhere. Others don't think of them as beings, more as powerful ideas and realities without a physical form. But if we serve them, they are our gods.
And in this age of skepticism and disbelief, one of the biggest misunderstandings about us is the thought that we have no gods, that we're not a religious people. No: In general, we serve our gods well, even when they're not worth serving at all.
Let's think of the battle between gods and idols, and how that is being played out in our economy today. It isn't a simple thing, the contrast between people and profits. Its roots go all the way back to comments made by the Founding Fathers, over 200 years ago.
The people are "a great beast" that must be tamed, Alexander Hamilton declared. Rebellious and independent farmers had to be taught, sometimes by force, that the ideals of the revolutionary pamphlets were not to be taken too seriously.
Or as John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, put it, "The people who own the country ought to govern it." Others among the Founding Fathers agreed wholeheartedly. The primary responsibility of government is "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority," said James Madison.
Madison hoped that the rulers in this "opulent minority" would be "enlightened Statesmen" and "benevolent philosophers," "whose wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country." Such men would, he believed, "refine" and "enlarge" the "public views," guarding the true interests of the country against the "mischiefs" of democratic majorities, but with enlightenment and benevolence.
For such a bright man, that's quite a naive hope.
Thomas Jefferson also distrusted the emerging class of capitalists: "The selfish spirit of commerce knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain." Sounds surprisingly modern.
The battle between democracy and private profit-making has been a continuous thread in our history since the country began.
So there are these two powerful and opposite ideas in our society, both with roots going all the way back to our founding. Will the people rule the country, or will big businesses rule the country and the people, while bamboozling the masses to keep them from understanding how badly they are being manipulated?
We live in the time when the scales have tipped heavily toward capitalism and away from democracy.
But capitalism, like all gods, is a jealous god and knows no boundaries. Eventually, most gods and idols seem to want to rule the world.
The quality of our economy, according to the pundits on television, is determined by the stock market. Yet again, we must ask what small part of the economy we're talking about. Half the stocks in 1997 were owned by the wealthiest 1% of households, and almost 90% were owned by the wealthiest 10%. Concentration is still higher for bonds and trusts.