Recovering its roots in family, community and humanitarian values
By Rich Higgins
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow is not only an authority on America's religious landscape but also a keen observer on the intersection of values and money in American life.
Among his more than 20 books is
Poor Richard's Principle: Recovering the American Dream through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money
, published in 1996. Its take on Americans' ambivalence about money and materialism grabbed our lapels here at More Than Money-as did its main theme: that the America Dream was in danger.
Wuthnow, who directs Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion, writes that the American Dream is increasingly seen as a kind of recipe for individual success, in the mode of Horatio Alger and bootstrap immigrants.
But the American Dream was historically about more than money, he says. It was a moral framework shaped by our religious heritage and our highest political thought. That framework, based on family, community, and humanitarian commitments, became a lens through which people saw work and money issues. Thus it restrained our economic behavior. How? Most of us don't work around the clock or speculate in get-rich schemes, he says, because we recognize at a deeper level that these are not what we truly want or they conflict with other obligations.
Despite his concerns, Wuthnow also argued that this framework holds a deep grip on the American mind, still checks our economic lives today and is a hopeful resource for those seeking to align their money and their values.
In April, Princeton University Press will publish Wuthnow's
American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short
. It, too, is about moral narratives and national identity. But the new book explores gaps the author finds between the myths that drive our national identity-stories about individualism, diversity, religious freedom and American "classlessness"-and the reality of those narratives today.
Wuthnow presents the dilemma of contemporary immigrants, who must learn the mythic versions of our "melting pot" and "heroic individual" narratives-but whose own experience is often quite different. The gap between our idealistic selfimage and our social reality, he said, undermines our pursuit of our highest national potential
We spoke with Wuthnow about the connections between these books.
Read excerpts from both works
You said in
Poor Richard's Principle
that the American Dream has messages about why we work hard and the value of money that keep us from pursuing them as ends in themselves. And despite some erosion, you said these moral frameworks were intact and still curb our economic behavior. Do they 10 years later?
They do. There are always dramatic exceptions, the Savings & Loan scandal of the '80s, and the Enron and Tyco cases more recently, perhaps the case against [former House Speaker Tom DeLay] right now. But those messages, about our responsibilities to each other for example, are so much a part of our self-identity, that yes, by and large, they restrain us. Maybe not always immediately, but Americans do tend to bring moral values to bear on economic decisions. And there's evidence that people are trying to put their values in the center of their lives. The lapses get in the way, but people generally do want to have more control over the role of money and work in their lives.
Some books about consumerism like Peter Whybrow's
, and before that
Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
, are gloomier. They say capitalism is out of control-that we're a nation of zombie shoppers. They see a real wasteland that you do not.
In my view, it's wrong to think of consumerism as a "mania." As a consumerist culture, we often do seem out of control, but as individuals, we are much more ambivalent. My research showed that people want to spend less and hope to spend wisely. Some worry that they are not doing these things. Some indicated they lacked guidance or alternatives.
One other example-the number of middle-class Americans with two jobs has increased. What caught my eye was the headline that they chose to work longer "rather than trim their lifestyles."
That is a concern, and I've written about American families' struggles to balance work and family, to find meaning in their careers. One factor in this is the rise in economic inequality over the last 30 years-it creates this type of pressure. People at the bottom feel pressure to keep up with the rest. .On balance, however, I see hopeful signs that Americans are trying to bring their values into the economic arena.
What are the hopeful signs?
Well, More Than Money is one, along with groups such as the Ministry of Money and the stewardship movement. You have the faith and work movement, trying to integrate work and spirituality. Yale has a program [the Center for Faith & Culture], to get people to bring a faith perspective into all spheres of life. There are neighborhood and local groups concerned about the nature of community and caring for each other.
What are other resources?
One thing that works is small groups. Among religious people, there'sbeen a proliferation of small fellowship
groups. .Some of them deal with work and money issues. It is tough to get people to talk about money, but these small groups are intimate, there's a lot of trust, so they can. .Small fellowships are really a counterculture in which values and ideas different from what you see or hear on television get reinforced.
Beyond groups, any hopeful signs?
The influence of art and artists. Artists think about values and the human condition. Many think in moral terms. Look at Bono, who's had a major influence.. In
, I cite a survey in which half of all respondents said that they thought materialism was a problem. But among people who described themselves as artists, 77 percent had that concern.
Also, musicians and people in the
visual arts work in non-discursive, aesthetic
terms, so what they're saying really hits home. It appeals to people on a different perhaps sensory level, so the message gets across.
You write in your new book about America's love-hate relationship with materialism. What is that about?
It goes back to the country's founding and earlier, if you look at warnings in our religious traditions against seeing money as an idol.. There's a strand in our history that sees materialism as a threat to democracy, something that could erode civic virtue. At the same time, it recognizes that economic prosperity is compatible with, maybe good for, democracy. So the ambivalence is that, while we are materialistic as a people, we don't want to be seen as crassly materialistic. That's a redeeming thing to me-we don't believe in or really accept 'capitalism out of control.' We want to connect with our deeper values, to put materialism in its place.
MTM: Putting materialism in perspective. Is that a link to
Absolutely. We do need to know that money and work has its place.
How do people live with the ambivalence you mentioned?
We compartmentalize the economic and the moral, which is part of the problem. Also we have a sliding scale. Well, sure I have a BMW, somebody says, but I don't have
like my neighbor, so I'm frugal. We tolerate it because we feel we have to. .[We tell ourselves] that if you don't live in the right neighborhood or earn enough money, your kids won't go to college. .There's a feeling there's no choice, really, except to go for the money. But we do it with this nagging sense that we should be able to exercise more choice.
You've sustained your focus on moral and religious questions even as you've acquired the economic status of Princeton professor, etc. Is that a challenge?
In terms of my own economic situation,
I'm sometimes surprised that things have gone well.. I do wonder why things costs so much and whether I am a victim of the inflated expectations that seem to be present in the middle and upper middle classes. So I struggle to think through and make sure I connect my monthly budget with my higher ideals. . Also, I grew up on a small farm in Kansas. It was in one of the poorest counties in the state. More farmers went bankrupt in those years [the 1940s and 1950s] than had gone under during the Great Depression. And having grown up in a very religious family, I learned early to ask questions about the relationships among faith, morality, and money.
Any advice to people who want to help put materialism in perspective?
Be realistic. Railing against our economy is probably not going to be helpful. Nor is trotting out Mother Teresa. Maybe try to get people to see how lives are lived, relative to these issues, around the world. That can build a sense of connection to other people in the world that gives people a motive, a desire, to do more.
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