Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Materialists
As riches increase and accumulate in few hands, as luxury prevails in society, virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard. This is the real disposition of human nature.
– Alexander Hamilton, speech to the New York Constitutional Ratifying Convention, June 1788
Hamilton’s prophetic insight that virtue declines as luxury increases is essential to any valid understanding of the relationship between human nature and self-governance. Men are fallen and have both short memories and temporal perspectives, which means they forget the God Who prospered them to begin with and set in order the framework for the abundance they enjoy. However, there is a key corollary to Hamilton’s observation. It is that as great wealth reaches ever-newer heights, whether due to honest labor or dishonest gain, those in the middle- and lower-income categories resent the super-rich and grow restive in their anger over its attainment by a relative few, whether obtained ethically or not.
And today, the trope that wealthy, greedy capitalists are exploitive has been given a new lease on life by various banking and investment scandals of recent years. The brush used to paint this picture is overly broad, but avarice is undoubtedly alive and well not just on Wall Street but in many other places, as well.
This brings us to the candidacies of the Senator from Vermont and the tycoon from Manhattan. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seem about as different as any two persons can be. These two sons of New York are as far as the east is from the west.
Yet in one profound way, they stand on common ground. They are both materialists.
The Materialism of Trump and Sanders
As the theologian David Wells has written, materialism is a core element of the larger philosophy that claims that what we see, experience and feel is all there is and all that matters:
Materialism is the view that there is nothing but matter: there is no spiritual dimension, no moral world, no supernatural, and no God … (as a result,) secular Westerners are practical atheists. For them, materialism is not a system of thought that has inclined them to exclude God from consideration but a whole web of relationships in life whose interests are centrally affluent and whose cognitive horizons make the pursuit of the “good life” normative.
“The good life” is then defined by the material, whether in ostentatious consumption or the redistribution of money and goods. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are exemplars of these distinct prongs of the same fork.
Trump believes that fulfillment comes from commercial achievement, social prestige, financial gain and the accumulation of things with a high monetary value. He views all of this as “winning” and things by which one “keeps score” (his terms). Getting whatever one wants and displaying it ostentatiously is, to Trump, the rightful occupation of every person. He is a materialist.
Sanders believes that fulfillment comes from having enough material goods to satisfy not only basic needs but at least some personal dreams. The means by which he wishes to reach this goal — government redistribution of private income, primarily — emanates from a belief that the things of this world, more fairly distributed, satisfy. Thus, Sanders’ understanding of what is most valuable is grounded less in a belief in the supremacy of justice than in what Sanders believes is justice’s end: material well-being. He is a materialist.
Matter, Means and Ends
No one can dispute that physical needs are vital, quite literally. The Old and New Testaments are full of injunctions concerning economic justice for the oppressed, compassion for the poor and needy, and the necessity of hard work to provide for oneself and one’s family.
It is for this reason that Family Research Council has, for many years, been such a strong advocate for such federal tax provisions as the child tax credit, the charitable deduction and the adoption tax credit. The economic well-being of the American family is a major part of our stock-in-trade.
But family prosperity is not an end in itself. We seek to advance it so that parents and children are better able to have sufficient material well-being as to enjoy one another and life’s many opportunities and blessings without undue financial stress. We are mindful that, as Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
If this world is all there is, and if tangible things could ever fulfill the deepest needs and longings of the human heart, Trump and Sanders are heading in the right direction, if by radically alternative means.
Warnings from the Past
America’s greatest leaders have long warned of the “economics is everything” mindset. “We must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever benefitted by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue,” said a young Theodore Roosevelt in 1886. His warning is newly urgent in America in 2016.
Our republic is premised on the belief that national character is composed of the character of its citizens, men and women who internalize and practice the classical and Judeo-Christian virtues: Courage, justice, prudence, temperance, humility, faith, hope and love. Without such virtue, we become creatures of amusement, self-indulgence, dependence and gullibility.
Virtue must be coupled with a view of life that extends beyond the coffin. Eternity awaits all of us (in one of only two possible locations). For Christians, especially, preoccupation with the material is nothing less than idolatry. To His disciples, Jesus said:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:25-30, ESV)
The Savior’s point is not that we shouldn’t work to provide for our basic needs, but that an exclusive or dominant interest with accumulating wealth is foolish: It neither lasts nor satisfies.
In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a moving, even startling call for prayer and fasting that included this passage:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are basing their campaigns for the presidency on the notion that national greatness and personal contentment are contingent on accelerating wealth creation (Trump) and equitable wealth distribution (Sanders). And they seem to believe wealth can be obtained without the grace and mercy of our Creator, the very thing against which Lincoln warned so eloquently.
The claim that man bears God’s image and likeness asserts that there is more to fulfillment than a secure retirement in a pleasant suburban bungalow or a private jet outfitted like a pasha’s palace or anything in between. A major part of the American Christian’s calling in our time is, through personal example and public proclamation, to affirm this truth.
We offer a message that transcends temporal materialism and leads to eternal joy. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (4:16-18).