And Alan Greenspan said, "Let there be recession," and there was recession.
Despite the fact that it has been more than a year since he left his job as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan's words still have the power to move markets. Earlier this week, Greenspan said, "When you get this far away from a recession, invariably forces build up for the next recession, and indeed we are beginning to see that sign." In response to this prediction, nervous investors sold stocks, causing the biggest stock market drop since September 11, 2001. After six years of economic success, could America be entering a recession?
I certainly hope not. Like Millions of Americans, I have money invested in the stock market, and I hope our economy remains strong. I hope that we avoid an economic recession, and that our nation never again experiences a serious depression. Nevertheless, from time to time it is good to remember that no one is immune from economic loss. As individuals, and as a country, unforeseen circumstances could lead to financial hardship. How would we fare under such circumstances?
Wealth: An American Birthright?
Most Americans have become accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle, and in fact, many people think material wealth is their birthright. According to a recent study, in 1966 only 42% of college freshmen thought it was important to be "very well-off financially." By 1980, the percentage of freshmen who thought financial success was very important had grown to 62.5%. Today, it is 75%. Wealth is becoming a requirement for more and more students.
When it comes to desiring wealth, many Christians have jumped on the bandwagon, believing that earthly riches are their spiritual birthright. The "health and wealth" gospel is well known to those who have listened to the preaching of America's most famous televangelists. Across the nation, some pastors are promising that if you are a good Christian, and if you have faith, you will undoubtedly become rich.
Similarly, for some conservatives, the most important criteria when considering public policy is its affect on the economy: will this policy make people wealthier? For such men and women, other considerations are secondary.
The New Consumerist Mindset
Without a doubt, the most popular ideology in America is "consumerism." According to this philosophy, you are what you buy. People with the means to buy things that are desired—"new and improved," "bigger and better," "latest and greatest"—are considered the most admired, successful, and happy.
The current mindset seems to be, "I shop, therefore I am." Americans become the people they want to be through the commodities they buy. Everything today, from fashion to music to television to cuisine, is fine-tuned to meet our individual wants and desires. Through consumerism, each individual becomes the god of their own private universe.
Consumerism, Scripture and Changing Worldviews
There is a deep deception at the root of the consumer mindset. The Scriptures teach that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1Tim. 6:10), and they discourage us from calculating our net worth based merely on the relationship of our assets and liabilities. They teach that we have value because we are creatures made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), so loved by Him, that He sent His Son to die in our place (John 3:16; 1Pet. 1:18-19). Redemption, we are taught, comes through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—not on the basis of our material wealth. Personal success is measured in terms of one's obedience to God's call (Heb. 11), not accumulated material wealth.
In the 20th century, the Christian worldview described above came under intense attack, and it ultimately lost its status as the prevailing worldview of the Western world. Men and women stopped seeing themselves as creatures made in the image of God; they stopped seeing themselves as moral creatures. Suddenly there was a great ambiguity about what it meant to be human and what it meant to live a successful, happy life. The result: widespread emptiness and confusion.
Filling the Void
Into this void stepped an army of advertisers who claimed to have just the thing to fill that deep sense of emptiness. Most advertisements try to tell the same story: buy our product or service and you will finally find true happiness. Bombarded with these advertisements 24-hours a day, seven days a week, Americans became convinced. Consumerism has become the new prevailing worldview and the new means of salvation.
The consumerist version of salvation encourages us to see ourselves as merely economic creatures whose redemption comes through buying and selling. Everything becomes a commodity—even people. Consumers are encouraged to ask, will this person meet my needs, will they make me wealthier, healthier? If not, then the person is merely in the way.
Consumerism directly contradicts Christian truth in many important places. Therefore, Christians should resist falling into consumerist thinking. Our primary mission in this world is not to accumulate stuff, but it is to love God and each other (Mark 12:28-34). As Christians, we must constantly remind our fellow Americans in the public square that economic questions are not the only questions worth considering; in fact, they are not even the most important questions. The most important questions relate to the wellbeing of our people, and personal wellbeing cannot be calculated in merely economic terms. Both Republicans and Democrats fall into the mistake of thinking that if people simply had more money and more stuff then everyone would be happier.
Therefore, though we certainly should not hope for a recession, we should not fear it as if it is the worst possible fate. If nothing else, it offers an opportunity to remember that true riches are not those we store here on earth, but those that await us in Heaven.