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 sprang 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 if the concepts of brotherly love and fundamental acts of charity don't fall by the wayside of an economic system so red of tooth and claw. After all, our spiritual compass recognizes that there are principles beyond the acquisition of wealth that endow our lives with meaning. Our spirituality is based on the concepts of unconditional love and forgiveness. To embrace these concepts, one must remove himself or herself from 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 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 the almighty 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 their supreme being wasn't going to notice the technicality.) And though many turn-of-the-century industrialists proclaimed their belief in a higher power, they seemed to stop short of embracing the true word of their fundamental spiritual foundation 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 the belief systems that animate your life; one must love his fellow human beings as their faith teaches.
And this is not strictly an emotional appeal, either. Can the marketplace truly find no value in the warmth of community that comes only from selfless sharing? Are we completely blind to the priceless spiritual fruits because they are not easily commoditized in terms of dollars? An informed capitalist knows that it is only through moral acts of love and fraternity that man can benefit from that which is beyond measure within 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."