Money and Morality

I’m used to Christians getting blamed for all sorts of things. But I never thought that responsibility for the current economic mess would be laid at our doorstep—yet that is exactly what happened in the pages of the New York Times, and from an unlikely source.

That source was columnist David Brooks, whose work I often commend. In a recent column, Brooks wrote that, in an earlier age, the “Calvinist restraint” created a “counter-vailing stream of sound economic values” that enabled Americans to resist the decadence that usually accompanies prosperity. True.

For most of our history, Brooks argued, we Americans have been “notoriously materialistic,” but we weren’t soft. Hard work and self-denial were part of our national character—actually our Christian heritage.

In recent years, the “sound economic values” have eroded. That’s true, too. Brooks cites examples like government-sponsored lotteries or excessive executive compensation, part of a larger pattern of self-indulgence leading to record levels of personal debt.

Well, if he had stopped there, it would have been fine. But he went on to say that this self-indulgence grew while “the country’s cultural monitors were busy with other things.”

According to Brooks, while Christians “were arguing about sex and the separation of church and state,” they were “oblivious to the large erosion of economic values happening under their feet.”

Reading Brooks you might think that the asset bubble and rampant speculation that led to the economic crisis was unprecedented—but of course it isn’t. America’s economic history is regularly marked by asset bubbles and financial panics.

Brooks writes as if it were unprecedented because it enables him to propose a new culture war. Instead of the obsolete one pitting secular liberals against religious conservatives on matters of sexual morality and religion, he wants a united front against the erosion of economic values.

But the problem, you see, is that values and the character they produce aren’t divisible. People will not exercise restraint in their economic dealings while casting off restraints in their sexual and social ones. function fbs_click() {u=location.href.substring(0,location.href.lastIndexOf(‘/’));t=document.title;window.open(‘http://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u=’+encodeURIComponent(u)+’&t=’+encodeURIComponent(t),’sharer’,'toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436′);return false;}

For evidence, we need only to look in Brooks’ best-known book, Bobos in Paradise. The “bourgeois bohemians” Brooks describes are self-indulgent in all their dealings, building enormous houses with enormous kitchens that they seldom cook in, or vacation homes they seldom visit.

When they’re not spending money on their rationalized version of the “good life,” they engage in excessive sexual practices.

Or turn on the television. There, people are indulging every sexual desire in the midst of a consumerist paradise—big homes, expensive cars and fashionable clothes. You can do anything you want.

The “Calvinist restraint” that Brooks cites didn’t preach chastity or thrift; rather it preached chastity and thrift. That’s because it saw both as proceeding from a common source: the Christian understanding of man’s nature and the purpose for which God created him.

If you try to have the one without the other, you will get neither. Far from being obsolete, the old culture war is more relevant than ever. Restoring moral values across the board is essential to rescue a sagging economy as well as renew our nation’s spirit.

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