"Survivor," "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," "Big Brother," etc., have become staples of our cultural consciousness. These shows - and their promise of instant fortune - float from our televisions, nourishing our secret desires for power and respect. The common thread: all of these game shows carry the suggestion of an alternative, an escape from the daily drudgery that threatens to enmesh us. They hold the appeal that, along with a million dollars, all of our human anxieties would just flake and peel away.
The message probably has a special resonance in America where citizens have been weaned on the myth that fortune awaits them. Lacking a sense of genuine cultural history, Americans have been bound together by a common belief in credit. Capitalism is our motherland and our cultural heritage was forged in the post-Civil War boom, when shrewd men took advantage of the Industrial Revolution to secure vast fortunes. From their success, sprung the notion that in America a better life awaited. This rags to riches theme formed a powerful folklore; one that linked capitalism with the beautiful possibilities of life.
The capitalist system is built upon the notion that the friction of workers competing against one another benefits the consumer and thus the economy. The classic definition of capitalism is that for one to win, another must lose. One wonders, however, if the concepts of brotherly love and Christian acts of charity don't fall by the wayside of an economic system so red of tooth and claw. After all, religion recognizes that there are principles beyond the acquisition of wealth, which endow our lives with meaning.
Religion is predicated upon the concepts of unconditional love and forgiveness. To embrace these concepts, one must purge his or her ego and remove himself or herself from vain, materialistic concerns.
Capitalism, on the other hand, is a triumph of individual ego. It is based upon a bourgeois value system that makes the accumulation of objects a substitute for God's country. This rousing point was not lost on theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, whose turn-of-the-century social gospel movement equated the burgeoning Industrial Revolution with the new idolatry. The Bible warns that "Thou shall have no other God before me, nor any graven images." Rauschenbusch feared that capitalism's emphasis upon material acquisition and personal vanity was supplanting the worship of God as the center of man's life.
American industrialists have massaged this incongruity by preaching a distinction between their public and private lives. A long line of hackneyed social theory aided them in this regard. For example, Social Darwinism has been much esteemed by the industrialists who liked to justify their shrewd business practices as a means of preserving the social order. After a long day of squashing the hope of the masses, they would retreat into their posh homes and indulge in a few religious customs. For them, the workplace and their homes were separate moral spheres. (As if God wasn't going to notice the technicality.) And though many turn-of-the-century industrialists proclaimed their belief in God, they seemed to stop short of embracing the true word of Christ on company time.
Of course, this separation of public and private moral spheres is absurd. Plainly, our actions - public and private - animate our religious beliefs. Without action, our religious beliefs cease to have meaning. It is not enough to love Christ; one must love his fellows as Christ. It is only through Christian acts of love and fraternity that man can reconcile himself to a materialistic society.
The sad thing is that many continue to aspire for material acquisition without any thought to the true meaning of life. For them, I offer St. Augustine's sage observation: "Our souls are restless, O Lord, until they rest in thee."