spoiling of americaI propose that instead of the noble eagle, the symbol of the United States should be a large, juicy hamburger. Instead of the stars and stripes—a bowl of ice cream. Replace the national anthem with a Coca Cola advertising ditty and instead of “the land of the free and the home of the brave” we’ll promote the burger selling slogan, “Have it Your Way.”

Americans have been subtly conditioned to see themselves not primarily as patriots or serious citizens, but as customers, and if customers, then consumers. They have happily endorsed the mantra that “the customer is king” and have enthusiastically embraced the idea that therefore each and every one of them is a member of the American royal family which includes everybody with a dollar in their wallet and the desire to buy. With happy faces they flock to have the royal experience at Burger King and Dairy Queen, crowning their experience with a procession if not down the Mall then to the shopping mall.

Without even thinking about it we have gotten used to having it our way. Because excellent customer service is ubiquitous we believe it must be part of the natural order. The service in the restaurant is always friendly, efficient and courteous to a fault. The menus are perfectly written and professionally designed not only to inform, but to whet the appetite in a pleasing way. The re-fills on your drink are free, the food is tasty and reasonably priced, the decor is interesting and the ambiance carefully constructed. Is there a complaint? The footman-server will take the blame, the butler-manager will offer you a free dessert and quietly slip you a gift card to soften the price of your next visit as the porter opens the door.

The same delightful experience awaits you at the big box hardware store, the supermarket, the appliances store and every other major chain. Indeed, even the doctors, nurses and dentists have been trained in customer care. Communications with the customer are superb. You will receive thank you emails and polite enquiries about your experience. If you fill in a questionnaire you might win a free vacation or a hamper of other goodies. Pampering you further is not a nuisance. It becomes an exciting little game in which you might win a prize, for remember the customer is king and Everyman in America must be coddled and cuddled in one big Fantasyland where everything is wonderful all the time and everybody is always happy.

The problem with this consumerist nirvana is that it is unreal, and like all artificial pleasures, it does not really satisfy. Because it does not satisfy it becomes addictive. Should anything go wrong in our perfect world our disappointment is disproportionate. We assume everything will not only work perfectly, but we also assume that everything must be to our liking instantly. If not, spoiled children that we are, we will stamp our feet, put out a pouting lower lip and demand that the instant gratification start up again.

Those with money often blame the poor for being indigent and dependent. We talk of the “entitlement culture” in which those who are less well off feel entitled to certain privileges and pleasures. In fact all of us in the consumer culture are addicted to privileges and pleasures. Middle class people feel just as entitled to be pampered by all those whose goods and services they purchase as the under class. Does the fact that one class have paid for their privileges and pleasures make that much of a difference? Is not their egotistical and self indulgent attitude the same?

Furthermore, we have come to expect the same level of “customer service” from the organizations we once joined in order to be part of a community of service to others. So good Christians treat their church as yet another outlet to get what they want as they want it, when they want it. Catholic priests used to schedule seven masses on a weekend in order to cope with the large numbers coming to worship. Now they schedule seven masses on the weekend to give people consumer choice. Parishioners who once volunteered and found in the church a way to serve God and others now demand instant service from the church and school. Faithful believers who once came to church with an attitude of obedience, worship and a willingness to serve God and neighbor now come to get something: an inspiring talk, an uplifting experience, a spiritual poke or a clerical joke. If they don’t like the pastor, the company, the music or the gospel message they will complain and move to another church to have it their way.

These behaviors are the symptom not the disease. The deeper disease is the dispiriting greed that first drives, then destroys a nation. That greed is, in turn, the symptom of a deeper deprivation—the deprivation of the divine. Put simply, souls starved of God must feed on lesser gods, and those lesser gods are money, comfort, pleasure, food and drink. Forever sated but never satisfied, we are poor spoiled souls cut off from God because of our worship of lesser gods. Consumer service professionals may treat us as royalty, but our royal status is no more real than the cardboard crown they hand out at Burger King or the sweet, melting soft ice cream from Dairy Queen.

This is not what we really want. Instead we want the solid joys and lasting treasure that come with self discipline. We do not really want to be spoiled. We want to be saved. We want not so much to be consumers as to be consumed with the fire of a greater love. We want not so much to be served as to serve. We do not want to be spoiled children, but responsible adults—serving with simplicity, giving with generosity and living with dignity.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay is adapted from a chapter in Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Published by Thomas Nelson.

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17 replies to this post
  1. This is a good post but I would like to add one point. The spoiling of America began with an unbalanced emphasis on the individual and individual rights. Unbalanced in the sense that we sometimes live as if self-interest is our only interest and individual rights are the only rights.

    The emphasis on self-interest comes from our concept of the free market and how the individual only needs to work for their own interests, immediate or long-term, and everything will work out in the end. That one’s pursuit of self-interest eventually floats all boats. Of course charity is always welcomed but never required because that will infringe on the pursuit of self-interest.

    A similar theme is applied to over emphasis on individual rights. There are other rights such as those that belong to the group. We see the exercise in applying group rights when democracy flourishes. But unfortunately, some have conflated such rights with all forms of “big government.” To such people, it isn’t the distribution or centralization of power, or democracy vs elite centered rule, that is the issue, the issue is whether government is big enough to control this or that.

    We need to draw on Martin Luther King’s synthesis of capitalism and communism to help remedy the overemphasis on the customer. He said, “communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social”. So, according to him, we need to take the best of both approaches and put them together.

    What this points to is that just perhaps, it the systems and institutions we cling so passionately to that help feed the rampant consumerism and sense of entitlement that we see today.

    • The problem never was and is not “Individualism”. The problem is that the definition of the concept of the Individual has been drastically corrupted. Individualism does not mean self-obsession or disregard for one’s fellow man. It means self-reliance, moral integrity, personal discipline.

      Second, the Luther King quote is slightly off-putting, in my view. Communism was not “social”. It was mass enslavement, ruled by a very a-social Nomenklatura rife with its own social climbing, greed, elite, etc.

      In addition, on the popular level, men had an appalling contempt for one another in such societies, each seeing his counter-part and “equal” as the source of his own miserable state in life. Milovan Djilas had some interesting words on this in his book *The New Class.

      • Marcia,
        The USSR’s Communism was social in that they had a collective in it. And that was what King was referring. King read Marx and knew about communism and so, for the most part, he knew what he was talking about. In fact, he wrote Marx and Communism either in the late 40s or early 50s. In addition, its communism had a measure of success when one considers what it had to recover from in WW II.

        On the other hand, many socialists adamantly opposed the USSR’s communism and rejected it being called socialism–it was called that by both the USSR and the USA for different reasons. The key component of socialism is worker control–Lenin dismantled the Soviets (the workers’ councils). Lenin hijacked the revolution and brought in, what USSR contemporary socialist Rosa Luxemberg called, a bourgeoisie dictatorship. In other words, Lenin turned the Russian Revolution to the right. In fact Lenin himself chided the Leftist communists in the USSR. And because of that, you had what you observed of the greed and social climbing.

        But after that, yes, the problem is individualism. Not that individualism itself is bad but when it is not balanced by group liberties, it leads to elite center control with the elite being those who excel in the business world.

        • Not to pounce on the point, but I just do not accept that Communism was “social” and it was, in fact, severely a-social.

          Collective yes–forcibly so. “Social”, however, implies community, which, in turn, is founded upon shared values. Communism grafted a phony egalitarianism upon men that was in no way communal.

          I restate my comment above: that in communist societies/countries, mutual contempt and loathing were the primary, ugly characteristic in relations between men, the result of “equality”-by-force/violence. And consider how many individuals in those countries so eagerly spied on one another–and often within the same family.

          As for Dr. King, I respect him deeply as an American civil rights icon; his writings, I am afraid, I find a tad superficial.

          • Marcia,
            Again, one has to examine how faithful Lenin was to Marx with regard to how he redirected the revolution. Lenin actually turned to the right by making the Communist party into an elite centered group. This stands in contrast to what the Leftist back then wanted.

            So when you read King’s analysis of Marx, one has to be aware of when he is interpreting Marx and when he is interpreting the USSR.

        • Mr. Day,

          You are stating that if Lenin had not turned the Revolution “to the Right” and made it a kind of bourgeois dictatorship, as asserted by R. Luxembourg, that Communism would have maintained an egalitarian, worker-dominant character. I am stating that this is false; that inherent in the philosophies of Communism (The Communist Manifesto) was/is the seed of a-social, a-communal, inequality. The manifestation of this became readily apparent.

          Also, Martin Luther King, whom I respect as a civil rights leader, is not particularly recognized as a leading light on Communist philosophy so I take his remarks cum grano salis, I am afraid.

          Furthermore, like many Socialist-leaning individuals, you appear to be one who separates theory from practice–a common and dangerous phenomenon that corrupted much of 20th century thought. From the get-go, even in the early hours of the Revolution, the Marxists/Leninists/Trostkyites, call them as you will, were asserting their own class consciousness.

          And to think of those limousines that Trotsky so favored and those grand Petersburg villas Lenin had such great taste in!

  2. Fr. Longenecker, what I want from my parish school as well as from my pastor is Truth. Truth in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world, truth in the realities of sin, truth in the benefits of self-control and, yes, even suffering. When the parish school starts teaching the truth about yesterday, today and tomorrow, I’ll send my children. No, we have not separated from the parish but instead pray, pray, pray and volunteer many hours to be part of the parish community in hopes that someday–someday!–we won’t have to endure the jokes during the homily and other times within the mass, the wretched music, the irreverent happy-clappy. I get what you are saying. I do. But I am one who is not asking for ‘having it my way’ so much as having it the WAY IT SHOULD BE. It is exhausting and downright discouraging at times. No doubt you too are discouraged. I want what you want: solid joys and lasting treasure.

  3. Yes we are spoiled and egocentric. But the answer to: “Does the fact that one class have paid for their privileges and pleasures make that much of a difference?” is yes. Not always, but typically “paying for privileges” requires some degree of the self-discipline you mention – working for the privilege. This distinction is important. Ignoring it weakens the message we need to hear about our “egotistical and self indulgent attitude”. The ability to pay for something does not mean we SHOULD pay for it. Having the self discipline to “earn” something, doesn’t mean that it deserves the energy and time we are willing to give it.

  4. I have a certain level of agreement: radical individualism can be just as harmful as radical collectivism or slavery/master. The philosophy of Objectivism I specifically reject.

    However, it is possible to have strong individual rights without the doom and gloom here. Common folk wanting more? Sure. Not satisfied that only a few elite or royalty can have the nicest things? Bring it on. I like nice things, tasty food and drink, leisure time. But a very large majority also want meaningful work, a real sense of accomplishment, perhaps even some recognition for a professional job well done. Hard work and it’s rewards are tied to individual rights as much as the writer’s warnings about sloth and greed. I think people deserve more credit. We built an amazing nation here, with accomplishments in tech, science, great works, art, and civic duty while balancing many rights against each other as best we can. We built a (theoretically, when obstruction and zero sum game don’t triumph) government that is flexible and can adapt and change. My colleagues are bright, talented, hard working, and enjoy their time off too, harvesting the fruits of their labor. We maintain a safety net (against constant attack) that keeps many out of poverty and let’s them rebuild themselves: I place my father as a success of that net, allowing his children to succeed rather than perpetuate poverty through the generations.

    Give us more credit. We have our flaws, but that means opportunity to do better rather than doom warnings.

  5. Oh that lead in was very funny! But I have to say Fr. L, though I almost always agree with your takes on life, I disagree here. I don’t disagree that we in the modern world are pampered. Sure, we are and we expect it, or at least satisfaction. I agree at what you call the symptom, though I personally don’t see anything wrong with getting value for one’s money. What I disagree with is your assertion that this is the cause for the deprivation from the divine. You state, “This is not what we really want. Instead we want the solid joys and lasting treasure that come with self discipline. We do not really want to be spoiled. We want to be saved.” Well, where is the evidence that we want to be saved? That’s a claim from assertion. In fact everything in your piece is evidence of quite the opposite. We want to be spoiled. And we want to be saved too, if salvation is even in our vocabulary.

    Putting the blame on people choosing other than your choice is akin to blaming the victim for the crime. The other noteworthy time I disagreed with you is when you blamed cultural Catholics for the demise of Catholicism. Both instances have this in common: Where is the good, solid preaching to connect our lives with the divine? If we are separated from the divine, where is the Church in its catechesis? Where is the message that resonates? Seems to me there has been a failure of those who are to convince us of the importance of the divine. Throughout history civilization has sought to bring ease to life. Europe and Asia and South America are just as seeking to be spoiled (perhaps in different ways) than we Americans. No civilization that I’m aware has consciously chosen harder life over ease. It’s not rational. If people are free beings with rational minds, then someone has to take responsibility for not providing a rational winning argument. There is a rational argument to be made to not be so self-centered. But clearly the Church and its preachers, with some few exceptions, have failed.

  6. Mr. Day,
    Soicialism and/or Comunism bring much worse “individualism” than Capitalism does. Back in Communist Poland, in elementary school, right when official communism was about to collapse, my teacher said that communism would work if people were good, and this is an evil argument that tries to defend an evil system. If people were good, not corrupted by an original sin any system would work, or rather no system would be needed as we would live in the paradise. I love what Ms. Marcia wrote “Individualism does not mean self-obsession or disregard for one’s fellow man. It means self-reliance, moral integrity, personal discipline.” Socialism is a disease that under the cover “Social” brings corruption of all sorts.

  7. Mr. Many,
    “If people are free beings with rational minds, then someone has to take responsibility for not providing a rational winning argument.” I assume You are talking that having it easy is rational. “There is a rational argument to be made to not be so self-centered.” So which one is rational? Or perhaps which one is more rational if we are assuming that there are degrees in rationality?

    • What I was trying to say is that the general culture at large in essence provides a rationale that a life of ease is rational. It is up to those arguing against it to provide a counter argument that wins. An argument of Christian self sacrifice is such an argument. It has for some over the centuries. It will never convince everyone, but clearly it has lost ground in the past decades. The question is, who’s fault is that?

  8. Remarkable that you asked this question “The question is, who’s fault is that?” as I have been contemplating this very question for some time, and it even sparked a thought somewhere deep in my mind, that perhaps it would be better to take away freedom from people and force them to do good, like Mayor Bloomberg trying to forbid big soda bottles, so people wouldn’t act in a self-destructive matter, but of course this is an absurd as even God doesn’t take our freedom away; this very freedom makes us human-freedom to choose the good, the beauty, the true. And what happens when you leave people a choice of either going to public library to read a good meaningful book or going to the mall? Those who pull the strings (including the Church) should encourage choosing the good, the beautiful the truth, but it is not “beneficial” for them to do so. I guess the fault is at both sides still not being sure at what magnitude it is spread on both sides…Starting with the Reformation, followed by French Revolution, Marx, then all the evil ideas of XX century then Second Vatican Council…got us to place that Fr. Longenecker is describing in his article; times that one smart person described as “we don’t live in post-modern times, or post-Christian times; we live in post-human times.” For the truly rational human being it is better to suffer unjustly than to commit wrongdoing. For the rational (and reason is what differs us from animals) human “library vs. mall” would not even be a dispute….but we live in post-human times.

  9. There’s a big difference between “entitlement culture” and a sense of entitlement. In the former, it’s people who have gotten used to getting something for nothing.True, it’s a rather crappy something, but they consider it a decent trade-off that they get to be free all day, every day, to frolic and do whatever their impulses command in a chaotic lifestyle. The latter, a sense of entitlement, comes from paying actual money, in an exchange, for something they value in a market that competes for such exchanges, often through offering better service. If I pay for a 1st class ticket, I feel quite entitled to get vastly better attention than if I fly economy. Alas, I always fly economy as I really just what to get there and and don’t want any attention while I sit with my homemade sandwich.

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