Christmas prompts admonishment from well-meaning people that the reason for the season is not materialism.
Indeed. But being counseled by Americans about the vice of materialism is a bit odd.
According to the Bible, the person who we are reminded is the reason for the season said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Most Americans don’t think they’re rich. They’re wrong.
Most Americans who live below U.S. poverty thresholds rank among the richest 10 percent of people in the world. Middle-class Americans easily rank among richest one percent.
And compared to all the human beings who have ever lived — all 108 billion of them, by demographers’ estimates — Americans alive today are Rockefellers and Buffets.
The defining features of the lives of the vast majority of people who have ever lived are constant hunger, chronic malnutrition, sickness, disease and premature death.
If you live in a weather- and vermin-resistant dwelling with running water and electricity, and you have a car that gets you to and from a grocery store, by the standard of human history, you are ridiculously rich.
But Americans don’t seem much effected by the “eye of the needle” threat of eternal damnation.
The National Retail Federation forecasts that Americans, most of whom are Christians, will spend about $720 billion on gifts, food and other retail items this Christmas season.
That’s just shy of the GDP of Switzerland.
Are we a nation of materialists? Or do we simply wish to enjoy family, friends and life?
The tension between Christianity and commerce is ancient and deep. Only recently, and only in certain Christian quarters, has Christianity ceased to be antagonistic toward commerce.
Historically, “You cannot serve both God and riches” has been applied with a heavy hand.
Yet Christianity also preaches concern for the poor. So did the secular Scotsman Adam Smith.
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable,” wrote Smith in 1776.
When it comes to alleviating poverty, no religion, political philosophy or economic system holds a candle to capitalism.
In 1800, the U.S. was one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. National income per free person per day was about $2 — as in the purchasing power of $2 today.
Two dollars per person per day is destitution. Yet it was standard in the rich U.S. of 1800.
Today, U.S. national income per person per day is $156 — an increase by a factor of 78.
Improvements in living standards by a factor of two over 200 years were unheard of in the world before 1800. Since 1800, improvements by factors of 10, 30 and 50 have become commonplace.
Economist Paul Collier estimates that the number of poor people in the world — as measured by that $2 per day per person threshold — fell for the first time in human history around 1980. It has continued to fall ever since.
The reason is Capitalism. (For elaboration, please read books by economic historians Deirdre McCloskey and Joel Mokyr.)
The essence of capitalism is not the “Protestant work ethic.” Living standards don’t improve by factors of 10, 30 or 50 through thrift and capital accumulation.
The essence of capitalism is the idea that science and ingenuity, combined with liberty, can improve the human condition.
The idea was born not of religion but of the secular Enlightenment. Which only heightens the drama of the strange relationship between Christianity and capitalism.