The Real American Religion?

Sightings is a twice-weekly publication of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. One of the newsletters is written by noted religion scholar Martin Marty; the second is an essay by another religion scholar. They are always thought-provoking, but I was especially struck by a recent contribution by one Bruce Rittenhouse:

My own research on consumerism supports the conclusion that the reason Americans remain attached to a consumeristic form of life is because it performs the religious function of providing them with an answer to the existential problem of meaning.

In my research, I defined consumerism as a form of life that sacrifices other consciously-valued goods in order to maximize the consumption of economic goods, despite the fact that this consumption exceeds any objective measure of need.

Rittenhouse offers a variety of research findings to bolster his contention that even the most economically challenged U.S. households prioritize consumption over savings, and he identifies the role that consumerism plays in the American psyche. He notes–accurately–that “economic goods are never simply objects of use.” Consumption becomes consumerism when the intent is to procure “social recognition,” when it is the way in which the consumer signals his or her “personal significance in a community,” allowing the consumer to “transcend personal mortality.”

In other words, in the absence of a different source of meaning, owning stuff serves that purpose– the consumerist lifestyle is “psychologically essential to the person who uses it to secure his or her personal significance.”

Rittenhouse’s conclusion is grim:

So long as American culture fails to provide a ground of personal meaning that calls for self-sacrifice for the common good and for future generations, the United States will remain unable to meet its current economic, demographic, and environmental challenges.

If Rittenhouse is right–and there is a depressing amount of evidence supporting his thesis–we have a very big problem, because the health of the American economy rests on our ability to generate consumption. One of the most persuasive arguments for raising the minimum wage is that consumption requires disposable income.

A change in the culture of consumerism won’t come without considerable economic upheaval. Assuming it comes at all.


  1. I saw an op-Ed piece recently that I think relates to this. It was asking why people in the U.S. don’t seem particularly concerned about the enormous disparity in wealth between top and bottom earners. The conclusion was that most people are focussed on consumption rather than net-worth or savings, and cheap goods are readily available to “consume” for most people in this country.

  2. It seems to me that the god America worships is money. Our religion is capitalism based on the theology of greed. And consumerism? Why that is our most frequently indulged in sacrament. Worry about the health of our economy is the least of our problems. We should be worried about our souls.

  3. When you add in the combined pressures of China and India to acquire as much “stuff” as those in the West, the true scale of the problem becomes even more apparent. There needs to be a strong, consistent global focus on what constitutes a good life and the components of “quality of life.” Herman Daly, among others, is looking at how we might transition to a “steady state economy” which respects planetary limits.

  4. It is also interesting how the dominant Christian culture plays into this. You would think that the teachings of Jesus would play right into the ideas of sustainability, but in fact it seems that to many this life is “disposable,” which not only destroys the incentive to build for the future, but it nicely matches spiritual beliefs with consumer behavior. Why bother with Satan’s Earth when Jesus has already built a paradise for you?

  5. Back when I was growing up which is a long, long time ago, “Keeping up with the Joneses” was a statement that was used a lot.

    Then sometimes in the 60’s it seemed everybody wanted to do it.

    In the late 60’s, I was an institutional analyst with a large regional investment firm in Dallas. By pure luck, I was the first analyst in the country to recommend Pier One Imports. It was only $2.00 a share at that time. But you could really see things changing around that time. Pier One could see it. They were great at marketing. They were the first to import well designed furniture and accessories that most could afford.

    Now everyone could have style. Even back then, I could feel something bothering me about all of this: Are we going to become a society of phonies where only our outside appearance makes a difference?

    Next came the apartment complexes with their stylish facades and swimming pool. Now everyone can feel like they’re members of a country club.

    Now we’re down to worshiping Donald Trump. I’m afraid it can get even worse than that.

    So it goes on and on. We’re all guilty for playing into it, one way or another.

  6. Marv, we must be connected via the Matrix. I thought also of the Joneses. For you young whippersnappers – To fail to “keep up with the Joneses” is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.

    You Boomers may even remember the song by the Temptations ( IMHO one of the greatest bands ever) “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down”. A few Lyrics – Keeping up with the Joneses, it’ll only makes your life a mess. Bill collectors, tranquilizers and getting deeper in debt. Joneses got a new car today.
    Here’s what you should say…
    Harray for the Joneses!
    Now listen, if you see something you want and you know you can’t afford it,
    The very next thing for you to do is start saving towards it.
    The Joneses have been a downfall for many persons, you see.
    So people, take my advice and let the Joneses be.
    The decline of the Middle Class earnings or stagnation has led to an explosion of debt to Keep up with the Jonses. The housing bubble was the latest manifestation. Eventually, for some finances fall apart. I suppose what is needed is the discipline and knowledge to realize your financial limits. Our financial system and consumer capitalism demands more spending. The banksters and fraudsters have been oh so eager to hook you on credit, to keep up with the Joneses.

  7. The point of advertising is to get folks to purchase something they don’t need, with money they don’t have in order to impress people who don’t care. This is the abiding philosophy of US capitalism and sadly it works far too well. It has even penetrated some churches–hence the “Prosperity Gospel” preachers such as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar, et. al.

    I have said far too many times in posts and letters that unfettered capitalism leads to wage slavery unless tempered with a bit of socialism (SSS, ACA, et.) and free–make that free and worthwhile–education. The privatization of so many services–especially schools–should be referred to correctly and honestly as “piratization” (my own description).

    While I support capitalism as an economic model I can never support seriously “deregulated”, or “unregulated” capitalism. To use a biblical analogy or two, we humans are sinners and some will always steal “legally” to have more, and, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” That love of money is the driving force for many evils, the most obvious begin the myriad of wars we fight for profit.

    There is no reason that anything and everything should be made profitable. Many of the truly good things should be non-profit or even operate at a loss for the good of all humanity. It is long past time that we in the US “grow up” and face it like good, faithful and patriotic men and women we claim ourselves to be.

  8. The economic press frequently reminds us that the US economy is 70% based on consumer spending. How did we get ourselves into such a position? Every financial adviser on earth tells you to diversify to protect your assets from the effects of major changes in economic conditions. Somebody should tell the US.

  9. Anthropology is of course the study of culture, and courses and books on it typically begin in primitive tribal settings because other different simpler cultures are easy to see while one’s own is nearly invisible.

    All tribes had government and one of their jobs as leaders was to set a culture in place that minimiuzed the need to think about survival. As a leader it was important to have the tribe doing not wondering. So leaders set culture in place and were chosen typically for their demonstrated wisdom in doing so.

    As tempus fugited that model remained in place and aristocracy evolved as leaders improved their skills in creating culture that guaranteed their jobs and living by developing and teaching it.

    Democracy threw a monkey wrench into those works so leadership and aristocracy put themselves in business as an alternative means to aristocracy and developed marketing as a formal cultural development means of maintaining their position.

    The next major development was to put a marketing presence in every living space. The home the environment the office the car the neighborhood. The Joneses were invented.

    Today the aristocracy, the tribal shamen, live better than any of the chiefs before them and the serfs work long hours for little money to support them.

    But wait, wasn’t democracy supposed to change all of that? Yes, it was. Why didn’t it? We got out smarted. Aristocracy chose business which due to marketing technology became more lucrative than government.

    In days of yore the only way to eject the aristocracy was to ask your neighbors to die for that cause but of course they were asking you too.

    Today there is a small but I think growing plan to oust aristocrats less expensively but it depends on smarts and the natural question is are there enough just like our forefathers and mothers used to ask are there enough willing to die.

    Like then we just don’t know if there are enough but waiting to be sure is just not wise either. Let’s act like we’re sure and act. Do what we can. Hope for the best. Be optimistic. Have faith. Take back our world. Throw the bums out. We need government but not business aristocracy eating our lunch. The lunch that the universe created for us.

    We can do this by being smart.

  10. America today is about 1/3 Socialism and 2/3 Capitalism. When we make the inevitable move to Medicare for all, that will shift that ratio. If we find that full socialized health care is the only way to be competitive as a nation that might take the ratio near 1/1.

    Is that optimum today? I don’t think anyone knows. I would guess that the next big question will be energy production and distribution. We have to move towards electricity as the only energy currency and doing that through the optimum mix of all the natural sources is a huge planning job and if accomplished by Capitalism a regulation triumph. It may well be less costly and higher quality to nationalize it. Making it more complicated is the fact that energy visionaries see ultimately a mixture of centralized and individualized energy capture. You and I make some of our own solar and/or wind then buy the remainder.

    On top of all that, IMO, is the creation of consumer freedom by the regulation of advertising. What a challenge. How can we free consumers from brainwashing with minimal intrusion into legitimate markets?

    Our successors will have to be much more collaborative and better educated than we. Not a high bar you say. We’ll just have to wait and see.

  11. What an amazing load of tripe in these comments. What we need vs what we want? Not one comment writer leaves a definition or guide to need. Somehow no one mentions the decline in belief in a hereafter and the amazing progress in meeting “needs” during the last two centuries. How many of these moralizing comment writers will give up air conditioning this summer?

  12. Morton objects to reality’s intrusion into his privilege. Not uncommon among the entitled. They think reality sucks.

    Sometimes it does. But it always wins.

  13. What do humans want or need? Wrong question.

    What does reality, the Universe, benefit from?

    We are an experiment by the Universe testing the benefit/harm of ration.

    The results are not yet in.

  14. Pete, I really don’t think we are and experiment. We, I think, are a random outcome.

  15. Irvin, of course you are right. Evolution is always random but natural selection is an experiment. Humanity will either prove the benefit of reason or that it doesn’t enhance adaption.

  16. I agree Pete, it’s just that the word experiment suggests a planned course of action and I don’t see that in evolution.

  17. @Morton, I respect your response and would no more challenge your reply than I’d challenge my brother-in-law’s likely similar response. He holds an endowed Chair in Finance at Tulane’s Freeman School of Business and flatly refused a challenge in a simple game of Trivial Pursuit from his now ex-wife and me, just a couple of harmless English majors. I’ll leave it at that.

  18. What can I say? Pete, you must stay up nights in order to beat me to the punch.
    Is the entire universe no more than an experiment? I believe so. Could ration have explained all that was to become one Planck Time after the Big Bang? (Consider this was before ration!) Truly we are no more than the result of time playing with space.

    And the complete span of our existence will remain too brief to note.

    But we will go on. We will continue. On the atomic level. Consider the half life of a proton.

    You breathe the air of Moses each time you inhale. That’s right. The very air. Somewhere in that lungfull is a element or an atom when he took in. And the same is true with Adam.

    So you see it is what we are made of that matters. Not us. Throw this stuff up in time/space and see what happens.

    That is the definition of an experiment.

    But who is watching?

  19. Earl. First there was nothing. Then energy. Then matter and space time. Then combinations. Then life emerged. Then us.

    Where is it going? The whole process is being modeled in human minds.

    To what purpose?

    It’s forever ahead of us.

    But we’re but a word in the story.

  20. I live in a place without air conditioning and it’s supposed to be in the high 90s the rest of the week, so it’s quite possible to live without a/c. And after moving multiples times in past few decades, I’ve learned not to load up on STUFF because you have to move it eventually. I admire those people that can live in the same house for 30 yrs and pay off their mortgage. I’ve never lived anywhere longer than 5 yrs, in my 50+ yrs since I turned 18.

    I laughed at my neighbor when she visited as we moved last time. She said everyone should have to move every 5 yrs in order to purge stuff. I give most of it to goodwill because I take care of everything I do own. Pride of ownership I guess. I don’t want to contribute to loading up the landfills. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Learned that in the 80s.

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