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Is Davos the New Church of Calvinism?
Will we continue to worship great wealth & allow the morbidly rich to manipulate our nation’s political processes to their own ends? Or will we wake up to the danger of this way of thinking?
One of the stories out of the Davos Morbidly Rich Support Group meeting in Switzerland yesterday was Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema high-fiving each other, celebrating their success at killing voting rights legislation while preserving massive tax loopholes for banking and fossil fuel industry billionaires.
But there was more “high” to that high-five than the media showed. They were literally high, both from the fortunes each has acquired and the billions they were surrounded by onstage.
Science shows that acquiring wealth stimulates the pleasure/reward circuits in the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, just behind the eyes in the front-most part of the brain. Studies that map blood flow and electrical activity in the brain demonstrate that even anticipating money lights up this region, much like what happens when we’re presented with food or sex.
Sometimes we become aware of this.
I’m still haunted by the insight of a woman who called into my radio program about a year ago and noted that for most of her life she’d lived paycheck-to-paycheck but, because of some life circumstance (perhaps it was an inheritance: I don’t recall), she now has more money than she needs. She’s secure.
“And I find myself checking my bank balance every day,” she told me, as I recall. “I never did that before.”
She seemed troubled by her apparent newfound “love of money,” probably because so many Christians were raised to believe Paul when he wrote to Timothy:
“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which, while some coveted after, they have … pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
Jesus, of course, was history’s most famous communist: he and his disciples shared everything they owned via a common purse. When a rich man asked him how to get to heaven, Jesus told him to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor.
Not exactly Davos material.
Jesus notwithstanding, in our society we’re trained from childhood to respect and even worship great wealth. Cinderella is desperate to marry a rich prince. Brave knights serve their feudal lords and kings. Jack climbs his beanstalk and risks his life to steal a giant bag of gold coins.
We’re also trained by some of our religions to defer to wealth. Royal families have told their people for centuries that they rightly rule because it’s their god’s will.
Many British coins have the inscription “ELIZABETH II : D G REG : F D” on them, an abbreviation for the Latin Dei Gratia Regina Fidei Defensor which roughly translates to:
“She rules [Britain] and defends the faith by the grace of God.”
The American version of this comes via the followers of the 16th century protestant reformer John Calvin, who fled European religious persecution and populated the US east coast and western Michigan in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Instead of salvation coming from confession or good works, Calvin taught, his god decided our social station before we were even born (predestination). As St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:4–6 and Calvin loved to quote, each of our fates was determined “before the foundation of the world.”
Thus, whoever has the most money must have the biggest measure of spiritual blessing. And those with the most spiritual blessing should, of course, run things from companies to governments.
The more widespread “prosperity gospel” is simply a modern reinvention of Calvinism, although in recent years it’s moved from the fringes to the mainstream of protestant Christianity.
The crisis for our society from this worshiping of wealth and power is that it contradicts the first evolutionary imperative built into all social species: cooperate or die.
This is how we humans, lacking fangs, fur, or claws, made it through the three million years of our species’ evolution.
Looking at aboriginal societies across the world, we find this one consistent theme: wealth is shared and status is acquired by giving things away. Americans faintly remember this: the first Thanksgiving may have been a potlatch — a “giving away of things” (including food) ceremony to bind groups together.
From the Wendat and Iroquois of North America, to Australian aboriginal societies, to African, Asian, and South American tribes, the eruption of kingdom-like political and economic structures (like the Aztecs) are the modern (last 5000 years) anomaly: the pre-Agricultural Revolution norm throughout the vast majority of human history was pretty much the same thing Jesus was crucified for teaching (that’s ignored by almost all Christian sects today).
Americans once shared this skepticism of great wealth and the political power it brings. After Wall Street millionaires’ greed crashed our economy in 1929 and Franklin D. Roosevelt came to power with the election of 1932, he relentlessly called out the morbidly rich:
“[O]ut of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the Fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.
“There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small businessmen and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit...
“It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. …
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.
“In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
Then, in the 1970s, “conservatives” on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery, leading us straight into the jaws of the Reagan Revolution, a radical transformation in American values.
The curse of Reagan’s 1980s was a foundational shift in the story America told itself about great wealth.
It was essentially a secular form of Calvinism: we should be ruled by the rich because they are the “good people”; they are the good people because they are rich.
“Greed is good” was the era’s mantra, and FDR’s pronouncements were ridiculed by media figures like Limbaugh and his imitators as hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date.
The first year of Reagan’s presidency saw American television follow his trend and begin the glorification of the rich with shows like Dynasty, which ran from 1981 to 1989. Conspicuous wealth and elegant homes replaced the small apartments of the earlier Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore eras.
Wall Street, with Michael Douglas proclaiming “Greed is good!“ in many ways defined the decade.
Americans reverted to worshiping the rich as we had in the 1920s. We forgot the importance of cooperation, of caring for each other, of protecting the world in which we live, of regulating greed and restraining the power of the morbidly rich.
That simple change in our nation’s internal dialogue — our national mythos and apologue — put our species at risk, worldwide, for the first time in human history.
The fossil fuel industry was then discovering — through their own scientific research — that the waste from using their hydrocarbon products was trapping the sun’s heat in our atmosphere and threatened to change our weather in a way that could destroy civilization.
Levels of atmospheric CO2 and methane were rising so rapidly that, scientists predicted, within a few decades we’d start seeing floods, wildfires, droughts, and storms of unimaginable power.
But the barons of the industry didn’t care: there was money to be made!
Behaving more like addicts than responsible executives, they silenced their scientists, buried their papers, and threw hundreds of millions of dollars into denying the very science they had revealed.
All in the service of the money that fires off the reward circuits in our brains.
Can we pull back from this disaster? Can we recalibrate our values and regain our humanity?
This week a group of over 200 multimillionaires and billionaires hand-delivered a letter to every Davos attendee calling for immediate and substantial taxation of great wealth.
Joe Manchin’s and Kyrsten Sinema’s efforts on behalf of fossil fuel barons (Manchin is one himself) notwithstanding, our world’s climate crisis is also a topic of discussion at this meeting of the rich and famous.
As several speakers at the conference have pointed out, the world is at a cusp, an inflection point pregnant with import.
Will we continue to worship great wealth and allow the morbidly rich to continue to manipulate our nations’ political processes and destroy our atmosphere to their own greedy ends? Or will we wake up to the danger of this suicidal way of thinking and seeing the world?
Worldviews are like viruses: they’re contagious and spread in response to circumstance and opportunity. Every one of us is a carrier.
This is how social, political, and even cultural change happens at the macro scale.
A small number of people wake up and share their new understanding with others. It spreads across society. Society recalibrates its consensus about reality. And, finally, things change.
Which is why it’s so vital, at this hinge-point of history, that each of us work to awaken our own circles to both the crises and the opportunities before us.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we are not helpless before this task.