Friday, May 2, 2008

Government sponsored spiritual decline

I used to watch The West Wing, a TV show about presidential politics starring Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlett. In one episode I vaguely remember a conversation Bartlett was having with a young assistant about a report indicating that Americans were saving a little more and spending a little less. Bartlett was concerned about the report and the young staffer was confused thinking that savings was a good thing. Bartlett explained that he needed for the people to wait for the next administration to start saving because a healthy economy depends on Americans spending more.

I thought about that episode when I heard the news and commentary about the funds from a government stimulus package beginning to arrive this week. The plan is supposed to stimulate the economy by putting some money in the pockets of Americans--$300 to $1,200 or more depending on family size and circumstances. Many reports of recent days say, like
one I read, "Proponents of the stimulus package hope people will use the money for purchases that will give the American economy a boost "

In the days leading up to the release of the stimulus funds I heard numerous government officials and economic experts express the concern that many Americans, worried about the economic outlook, might save that money or use it only for groceries or gas. If we do that rather than blowing that government money on HDTV's or iPods or video games or eating out or other non-essential purchases then the stimulus package will not do much to stimulate the economy.

I have a degree in economics and I know that it is true that our economy depends on our spending. But here my economic knowledge and my theology collide. I heard Brian McLaren say that, spiritually speaking, "consumerism is more dangerous than terrorism," and he is right. Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and Money" (Mat. 6:24, TNIV). For years I have preached against the obvious spiritual perils of consumerism even as I have struggled to escape those perils myself.

Now, with this stimulus package, we have blatant government sponsored consumerism, complete with worries that Americans will save rather than spend. What does this say about the whole structure of our society? Who do we really serve? Our currency pardoxically proclaims "in God we trust," but I'm not so sure.

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