Spending, The Crisis, And Idols

In recent years there was a move to focus Reformed and evangelical piety on “the idols of the heart.” Of course, as one of those who agrees entirely with Calvin’s dictum that after the fall the “perpetual disposition” of human beings is to be a “factory of idols,” it seems difficult to dissent from the new inquisition of the heart.1

Yet, we should observe that the fellow who gave us the dictum about our inclination to be an “idol factory” did not turn every sermon into an inquisition of the heart. This is perhaps because it was not a shock to him that we are idolators by nature. He did comment on it quite frequently, however. With that, I wish to consider a popular idol that has caused quite a lot of trouble: the pocketbook and spending habits of the last twenty-five years or more.

One of the patterns that some economists have noted in connection with the “Great Recession” we are experiencing is that consumer spending has continued to grow with very few pauses since 1980. [Disclosure: I am not an economist. I was a political science major way back when, but I read more Plato than von Mises.] At the same time, the savings rate dropped. Baby boomers (those born between 1946–60) had come of age in the era of the credit card. Gone was Mom and Dad’s staid Diners Card. In came a plethora of cards, and soon there were “platinum” cards by which to measure one’s credit and affluence. Buy now, pay later. Cash was not king. Credit was king. Gradually, from the 1950s it seems that we moved from being a savings-based economy to a credit-based economy. That move probably reached its apex in the Clinton-Bush years when credit card companies were throwing cards at consumers and, of course, lenders began throwing mortgages at people and then packaging them into derivatives to be sold in bulk to investors (backed by a AAA Moody’s rating).

Like everything in this world, credit has a natural market. Sometime after 2004, the credit market began to hit its limit. The mortgage-backed securities turned out to have been backed by overpriced mortgages (fueled by record-low interest rates) and, finally, the housing market began to tumble as interest rates rose on the adjustable mortgages. Home values plummeted (because of falling demand) and suddenly millions of homeowners were “upside down” in their houses—and banks owned loans against these severely devalued assets.

We will leave it to the economists to sort out exactly what happened and how to deal with it on the macro level (though I am not sure that borrowing unimaginable sums against future earnings will solve the problem). Our interest here should be the degree to which Christians participated in the culture of credit. Could it be that our problem was not just an idol of the heart but an idol of the credit card?

Is it not true that during a couple of ostensibly “conservative” administrations we Americans were in fact anything but conservative fiscally? I am not speaking of tax cuts but of personal spending. We came to believe in easy money and high rates of return. I remember hearing someone once say, “You’re only getting fifteen percent on your IRA?” That sounds pretty funny in a time when treasuries are offering almost zero percent interest.

Did you know that, in Reformation Geneva—purportedly the birthplace of free market capitalism—interest rates were strictly regulated? It is true that the introduction of interest rates was a change in policy. Patristic writers generally discouraged lending money at interest and medieval canon law forbade it. The Reformation did allow the charging of moderate rates of interest, but usury or unjust rates of interest were forbidden strictly and were a matter of moral and ecclesiastical censure.

This is not an attack on free markets. Generally, as a matter of natural law or creational pattern, markets do a better job of promoting freedom than command economies. In recent decades, however, it has not always been easy to tell the difference between a “free-market” economy and an economy grounded in a spending frenzy. Consider that, when the bad news of the current crisis began to settle in, one of the first responses by some was to say, “We must get people spending again.” Repeatedly politicians have yelled at bankers to begin “lending again” even if those banks are insolvent (i.e. out of balance so that further lending would only cause them to close their doors).

The prosperity that began in the 1980s continued more or less unabated until the recent crash. There were pauses along the way, but not even 9/11 stopped the momentum. Some writers speculated that we might have defeated the historic economic patterns. We knew how the economy worked. We had a system. We had overcome nature. Except that, as it turns out, the prosperity of the recent decades was largely fueled by credit—credit that assumes sufficient future wealth or growth in assets to be able to repay the debt. But consumer spending has outpaced growth in earnings. Remarkably, we have spent our gross domestic product for the foreseeable future. (Savings have risen more sharply in the last few months than at any time since the 1950s. That is extraordinary because, as many have noted for years, savings had dropped to record-low levels.)

The spiritual question we must ask is what drove us all to the frenzy of spending that just ended? This frenzy was not only a matter for “the culture” out there somewhere. The culture of spending was in the church. Why have “health and wealth” and “prosperity gospel” preachers flourished at the very same time our credit cards went gold and then platinum? Why was it that those middle-class suburban preachers whose attendance prospered in the same period were those who gave us relatively easy lists of dos and don’ts instead of God’s impossible lists of dos and don’ts? It was no coincidence that the phenomenon of the “mega church” occurred during this same period. It was no coincidence that, during the great prosperity of the last quarter century, in some segments of “evangelical” theology, we manufactured a manageable “God” who does not control the future and who is contingent upon our sovereign free choices.

Even Reformed theology, piety, and practice has not been immune from the effects of the prosperity gospel. While Robert Tilton and Joel Osteen were preaching happiness and prosperity—”$29.95, send now before midnight”—some ostensibly Reformed writers were pointing to a coming earthly “golden age” when things would just get better and better. Some of them predicted a coming crash, out of which would rise, phoenix-like, a golden age. It almost seemed that, despite the warnings by some bunkered-down and hunkered-down prophets of doom, when Y2K did not get us and then even 9/11 did not bring it about, we were invincible. It was no accident that, in this time period, Reformed congregations were convulsed by a controversy over the doctrine of justification. Are we really so sinful that righteousness with God is purely by the unearned favor of God, or may we play a small but necessary part in being right with God?

The prosperity “gospel” of “better every day and every way” or the anti-Reformation message of righteousness “by grace, through faith and works” found a home in too many congregations where the old message of guilt, grace, and gratitude (the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563) gave way to messages about personal fulfillment and happy marriages or social transformation.

Could it be that we no longer defined ourselves as God’s fallen image-bearers redeemed by his unmerited favor alone, through faith alone in Christ alone who obeyed, died, and rose for us? It seems so. Who wants to talk about sin and salvation when the local clothier has Armani suits on sale? Who needs grace and a bloody Savior when AmEx just extended one’s credit limit to $50,000 enabling a down payment toward the purchase of that vacation home in the Bahamas? Who needs a resurrection when the plastic surgeon is offering monthly payments?

No one knows the future. It may be that, after the current “Great Recession” (or worse) America may again bounce back economically. We have had stock market crashes before. The Great Depression lasted twelve years (and, according to Amity Shlaes, was probably worsened by government spending).2 But whatever transpires, Christians—those who say they believe in a Creator, a creation, a fall, a holy Redeemer, grace, and life hereafter—should be chastened by the recent crash. We should take stock not only of our retirement accounts but also of our spiritual well-being. We should recognize to what degree we participated in the orgy of spending and why. We should admit that we have been too much “of this world” and not merely in it fulfilling honorable vocations to the glory of God and the well-being of others. Contemporary evangelicalism (if there remains any such thing) is a creature of the culture of spending and credit. Now is the time to recognize that fact and repent of it.

We seem to have forgotten a simple but profound Christian truth that we cannot serve both God and mammon at the same time. Jesus said:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19–21)

Jesus did not divorce the idols of the heart from the idol of the coin. Our idolatry of prosperity, of what others think of us, is reflected in our economic behavior. There is no question whether we have idols of the heart and mind. We manufacture them constantly. If we are going to address the idols of our hearts, then we can start with the idols of easy credit, big money, and never-ending earthly utopias.

The good news is that Jesus obeyed, died, and rose for the justification of idolaters, even for those who sold CDOs and for those who spent themselves into oblivion.3 He died for sinners and he still receives them freely. The banks may not be lending and the credit markets may be frozen, but grace is always free and life in Christ leads us to define ourselves not by the color of our credit card but by the immutable truth of the law and the gospel.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.

  1. “Unde colligere licet, hominis ingenium perpetuam, ut ita loquar, esse idolorum fabricam.” Calvin, Opera Selecta, 3.96.28–30. Institutio, 1.11.8.
  2. Amity Schlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper, 2007).
  3. A CDO is a Collateralized Debt Obligation. It was a financial tool associated with the collapse of the real estate market in 2008.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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6 comments

  1. I would love to have you continue this line of thought. How will the attrition of the baby boomers affect the future of congregations who have been carried along financially by their acquired wealth? For instance, our congregation has just passed 40 years since its founding. It has been supported primarily by the generous giving of its baby boomer members. This generation of savers have amassed fortunes which have been able to meet the financial needs of the congregation and mission work. The following generation does not seem to be the sort who will have the “disposable” income to continue that practice. Will this credit dependent generation be able to meet the bottom line for their congregations?

    • William,

      I remember when the Boomers were credit dependent too. Obviously, congregations should be prudent, e.g., avoid debt, and trust the Lord. 35 years ago people were predicting a future disaster among boomers. I was among them. Their spending in the 80s was something to behold.

  2. Great article. Additionally, I think there may be some correlate with “Big Eva” brands of evangelism and the credit card mindset. Get a shallow profession of faith on the front end at all cost and worry about the consequences or how the person will grow into spiritual maturity later.

  3. And now, some 15 years later and following the market crash of ’08, we have people in this area at least, paying cash for houses often following a bidding war. Oh, and I read recently that credit card debt is at an all time high, which means any payments made toward paying the balance down will follow an outrageous interest rate being tacked on. It never ends.

  4. Profligate government spending the model for profligate personal spending to the tune now of almost $18 TRILLION dollars, federal government deficit approaching $35 Trillion.
    The federal reserve funding it all by printing money, electronic and paper money, fueling the whole maniacal goal of providing everything for everyone both in America and around the world, lascivious, licentious economic policy and debt future generations will have to bear.
    These are not economic or political issues as such but rather spiritual/ethical/moral issues that, the expectation that government is god and can and should provide everything for everyone or most everyone, the expectation that peoples should have whatever material thing they see or can imagine.
    This all not only anti-Christian but also opposed to the biblical principles of free enterprise economics and limited, constrained (by law) government.

  5. It’s why demographics are top priority for the big Reformed denominations not to mention the seeker movements. We’re prosperous Americans pursuing the American dream of self prosperity, not the support of ministry nor widows nor orphans ect.

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