Lessons From the Puritans
“Greed is good.” (1987 film “Wall Street”)
“Whoever loves money, never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
The financial “crisis” on Wall Street has provided another teachable moment. It turns out that greed is not good after all.
While the media and politicians blame the usual suspects, greed, like illicit sex, is not held in copyright by either party or political persuasion.
Barack Obama partially and predictably blamed the Bush administration, but it was the policies of the Clinton administration (as detailed in the Sept. 15 issue of Investors Business Daily) that sowed the seeds for the subprime mortgage collapse.
John McCain wants more regulations. What McCain should be demanding is an investigation, especially of those members of Congress who failed to provide oversight. It also wouldn’t hurt to recommend more self-control and an embrace of the Puritan ethic of living within one’s means.
Modern Western culture has been built on the success ethic, which says the acquisition of material wealth produces happiness and contentment and that the value of a life is to be measured not by one’s character, but the size of his bank account, the square footage of his home, the cost of his clothes and the cars in his garage. The Puritan Thomas Watson addressed this notion when he said, “Blessedness … does not lie in the acquisition of worldly things. Happiness cannot by any art of chemistry be extracted here.”
Christianity Today magazine noted in a 1988 article, “The Puritan Critique of Modern Attitudes Toward Money”: “American culture has been strangely enamored of the image of ‘the self-made person’ — the person who becomes rich and famous through his or her own efforts. The idea of having status handed over as a gift does not appeal to such an outlook. Yet the Puritans denied that there can even be such a thing as a self-made person. Based on an ethic of grace, Puritanism viewed prosperity solely as God’s gift.”
The writer might have added that prosperity should not be seen as an end, but a means. Throughout Scripture, people are warned that money is a false god that leads to destruction. Wealth is best used when it becomes a river, not a reservoir; when it blesses and encourages others and does not solely feed one’s personal empire.
The modern business ethic seems to be to make as much money as possible, but with little purpose for making that money other than to enhance the wealth and status of those who make it. No wonder Paul the Apostle wrote that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). It isn’t money itself that is evil. Money, like fire or firearms, can be used for good or ill, depending on the character of the person who possesses it. But money can be worshipped with as much fervency as that golden calf in Moses’ time. In Dow we trust!
Part of our problem is a failure to distinguish between needs and wants. Until the last century, most people were familiar with the Puritan ethic of living within one’s means. The Gilded Age in the late 19th century demonstrated the folly of rapacious living, yet the Roaring Twenties generation had to learn the lesson anew from the Great Depression.
When the Forbidden Fruit was handed to Adam and Eve, they were allowed the moral choice to accept or decline. I know people who have refused to feast on the money tree. They live simply, within their means, and seem far more content than those who are trying to horde their wealth while clinging to the ladder of “success,” terrified to let go. That isn’t real living. The Puritans rightly saw that as covetousness.