Consumerism has become an acceptable earmark of American society. While the world’s poorest 20% consume only 1.5% of the world’s goods, Americans disproportionately consume meat, energy, paper and other goods. For example, we spend $8 billion annually on cosmetics. As the Christian church struggles to survive in such a moment, one has to wonder how consumerism has affected the body of Christ. Dr. Carl Trueman, a British theologian and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, offers his thoughts on the matter.
Q: You argue at great length about the negative impact of consumerism on the Church. How has it influenced us?
A: In economies that depend upon people buying things, there is a need on the one hand to instill the notion that, in some sense, the meaning of life is to be found in the acquisition of goods, or, perhaps to be more precise, the process by which one acquires goods; on the other hand, there is a need to constantly recreate markets or find new ones. The impact of this is huge and I cannot give an exhaustive account here, but the following would be examples, in no particular order.
In society in general:
First, it fuels the the infantilisation of society. Youth is a huge market, and the selling of goods to such a market not only appears to have fostered a view among young people that they are of central importance and much wiser than their elders, it has also created a situation where the desire to be young and trendy percolates through all age brackets. That flies in the face of biblical teaching, where a premium is generally placed on age and experience.
Second, it encourages huge levels of personal debt. Economists know that a certain level of debt is good: it oils the wheels of the economy, fuels creativity, helps with social mobility, etc. But unsecured debt linked simply to purchasing can very quickly grow to a level where it is actually hindering all of those things. When the values of the culture link status to possessions, and when credit is easy to obtain, the recipe for bad debt is clear; and that, of course, is a large part of the economic problem, both macro and micro, with which we are facing today.
Third, and more subtly, it produces notions of truth and ethics that are as malleable as the market place. By placing individual purchasing power at the heart of the system, public morals are made dangerously vulnerable to all manner of transformation. The right of private choice, the centrality of consent, and the need to avoid hindering the economy are all related to consumerism. We see this in the arguments in California about how anti-gay marriage legislation is bad because it impacts the economy by discouraging gay tourism; similar arguments can be, and have been, made about abortion. If it makes my life better and does not hurt anybody else, how can it be wrong (see the current debate about the Columbia professor who had an incestuous relationship with his adult daughter)? And if it helps the economy as well, surely it must be right?
In the church all this is evident in a number of phenomena: the obsession with youth culture; a model of ministry that judges success in terms of numbers, not faithfulness; a culture which disregards the past; a dislike of anything approaching discipline, as the church is there for my needs, to scratch where I am itching. When church is just one more product to buy or leave on the shelf, then marketing, not theology, become the driving forces in her life.
- How do you believe consumerism is affecting the Church?
- In your opinion, how much does American’s “obsession with youth culture” play into this discussion?
Editor’s Note: The artwork above is a Banksy painting that was used from here.