Marx's interpretation of Twentieth-Century Capitalism, as described by Miller, describes the changes in the American dream. The American dream was initially one linked to the idea of land ownership. Immigrants came from Europe, where land ownership had been a privilege of the wealthy. However, when America was relatively unsettled, almost anyone could theoretically come to America and claim land, and many people did just that. Of course, some of these early Americans did so in a grand way, traveling westward from the cities and establishing homesteads in the wilderness. The idea of home ownership, however, was not limited to those frontiersmen. Instead, only 100 years ago, someone could come to America and, because of the cheap price of land, afford to build his own home if he worked hard enough to do so. However, the nature of the home, itself, was different. Those homes were centers of production: at the beginning of the twentieth century, homemaker wives grew gardens and produced almost all of the food for the home in the home. (Miller, p.39). By mid-century, the home of the American dream had changed into a suburban single-income home, which was supported almost entirely by wages and featured little production. (Miller, p.39). That image transformed again by the end of the century, when both conventional members of the household began to work outside of the home to fuel increasing demands for consumption. (Miller, p.39).
The Commercialization of Religion
This emphasis on profit has even begun to impact how many perceive God's dream. Though religion has always had an economic aspect, as anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the Crusades and other Holy Wars can attest, in modern America religion has become a commodity. This is understandable given the highly commercial nature of American culture. Culture and religion always interact, changing and being changed by each other. In fact, "contemporary anthropology emphasizes the unsettled and dynamic character of cultures. The influence of culture on social practices is always in process." (Miller, p.23). The commercialization of culture has led to a commercialization of religion, which has changed the nature and practice of religion. One way that it has done so is to make the observance of religion less communal. As a result, "individual concerns increasingly swamp questions of communal obligation and broader questions of justice." (Miller, p.84). Commercialization even changes the observance of religious traditions. As mainstream Christianity has become secularized, it has removed "the transcendent goals and sanctions that had previously set the bounds for acceptable behavior." (Miller, p.86). This was accompanied by a shift from character to personality, and changed to a culture of therapy that emphasized "security, vitality, and harmony as personal concerns and responsibilities that could be achieved without social change." (Miller, p.86). That has resulted in a decrease in charitable activity associated with the church, because people believe that they can achieve personal growth without a related change in society.
The Christian View of Poverty
However, the Bible tends to reinforce the idea that religion and society are agents for personal growth and social change. In addition, the Bible specifically speaks against the idea of the monopolization so the world's assets. For example, the creation stories in Jewish and Christian tradition depict the creation as "a gift of God that is intended to provide sustenance for all his creatures, especially human beings." (Van Til, p. 57-58). Furthermore, in the Exodus, God freed his people from slavery in Egypt. Though, while slaves in Egypt God's people were not impoverished, they did not have the freedom to practice their religion. However, part of God's covenant with his people guaranteed them land, with each tribe being given an appropriate portion of the Promised Land. (Van Til, p. 65). However, these benefits came with a price, and God gave his people an affirmative responsibility to care for the poor. "God mandated that his people serve the neediest among them by keeping laws that were specifically enacted to sustain them." (Van Til, p.69).
However, modern Christians do not necessarily embrace the traditional Biblical view of poverty. Mainstream Christian tradition continues to affirm the concept that God has mandated basic sustenance for all. (Van Til, p.86). However, given that the increased ability to utilize natural resources means that the standard of living has improved beyond basic sustenance, perhaps it is no longer sufficient to provide basic sustenance. Moreover, while the Roman Catholic tradition has been renowned for its charitable efforts, it has been equally condemned for its exploitation of native peoples and resources.
Christian Alternatives to Capitalism
Though the church has failed to live up to its promises of social justice, which does not mean that Christianity cannot be used to solve some of the problems created by capitalism. In fact, Christianity can provide an alternative to capitalism. John Medaille outlines how Catholic social teaching, which is essentially similar to the core teachings of other Christian denominations, can be used to create an alternative to capitalism. More importantly, he does so in a way that does not require one to abandon all of the principles of capitalism. On the contrary, what he does is encourage people to embrace a more distributive economic system. This does not require that people abandon capitalism for socialism or communism. In fact, in practice, communism has not proven successful at redistributing natural resources and societal benefits and burdens in the promised way. Medaille makes the point that any economic system that is purely capitalistic and lacks its own distributive principles will be inherently unstable, which will require continuing governmental intervention in the economy. Catholic religious principles suggest that natural resources, including land and other means of production, should be distributed in an equitable manner, which does not mean that things have to be distributed in an equal way. However, those same religious principles would condemn someone who pays an unjust wage or otherwise exploits workers. While not entirely Marxist, this approach encompasses some important elements of communist theory.
When people talk about today's American dream, the emphasis is on the economic aspects of that dream. However, the reality is that America was not founded upon economic ideals. On the contrary, the founders of the country came here in search of religious freedom. Of course, their concept of religious freedom simply referred to their desire to be free from religious persecution; the Pilgrims were actually very intolerant of other religious beliefs and practices. In fact, early American life in the colonies could accurately be described as a theocracy. While a theocracy is completely incompatible with the current American dream's notion of personal liberty, there was a greater sense of community responsibility to take care of the poor and to show charity. This sense of charity was even reflected in the treatment of servants and slaves; laws regulated their treatment, but, as capitalism evolved, moral standards of treatment devolved. Modern moral standards have certainly evolved, but the capitalist system that helped contribute to the decline in morality and the erosion of God's dream for His people, is more firmly entrenched in American society than ever before. Capitalism is not going anywhere, but that does not mean that Christians have to embrace capitalistic ideals. Instead, Christians can return to some of the traditional aspects of Christian social teachings to help bring about distributive justice and ensure that all people have access to basic sustenance.
Medaille, John. The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace. New York:
Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007
Miller, Vincent Jude. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.
New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.