Getting Rich and Forgetting God
One of the most misunderstood phrases in American history is “the pursuit of happiness.”
When 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt rose to speak on a hot Fourth of July in Dickinson, North Dakota, he could little have realized the impression his speech would make on generations yet to come.
The year was 1886. The people of Dickinson had embraced this unlikely young man as their own. His friendliness, ready laugh, and willingness to work hard were engaging. Yet he remained 100 percent himself: Who else but TR would read Anna Karenina as he guarded a band of thieves along the icy Little Missouri River? The hearty souls gathered on that long-ago Independence Day loved him.
“Like all Americans, I like big things,” said TR. “Big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat-fields, railroads, and herds of cattle too, big factories, steamboats, and everything else. But we must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue.”
“No people were ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue.”
The corruption of virtue through material wealth: A reality as old as recorded history, yet ignored throughout all of time. From 1886, TR is speaking to us.
The Corruption of Virtue
We have most of the goods for which we dream. Smartphones, with all their wonderful apps, are as common as turkey on Thanksgiving. Electricity and indoor plumbing and affordable, effective medications and access to doctors and supermarkets and so much more. Things that are wonders in much of the world are passé for us.
Economic liberty is a great thing. But we have left our moral sense sitting outside on the porch swing, always available for a reassuring chat, but an uncomfortable presence at the table of our souls. We’ve made the mistake of thinking that prosperity means happiness.
One of the most misunderstood phrases in American history is “the pursuit of happiness.” The “happiness” referred to wasn’t happiness in the sense of feeling glad in the moment. Happiness meant “well-being in the broader sense,” argues James R. Rogers, a political science professor at Texas A&M. “It included the right to meet physical needs, but it also included a significant moral and religious dimension.”
We have put that moral dimension in a box that contracts inward more and more as time goes on. We have replaced it with the quest for more and more things of a passing nature.
This is true for material objects, of course. Cars, houses, condos, endless varieties of food, toys of every sort and size, even more physically attractive spouses as we age. We look for fulfillment in the intangible, as well: Social prestige, educational attainments, promotions at work, awards for community service, and so on.
Yet we don’t benefit from our riches. We remain unsatisfied. Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that dissatisfaction seemed typical of the people of the then-new republic.
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures. The principal reason for this is that the first do not think of the evils they endure, whereas the others dream constantly of the goods they do not have.
Quality of Life
Speaking to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses said, “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:11-13).
Moses speaks to us. We’ve eaten and are full, live in good houses and enjoy so many good things multiplied. TR warned us, back in Dickinson, North Dakota, in 1886. Until we remember Him, keep his commandments and his rules and his statutes, we’ll sacrifice our virtue by our pursuit not of good things but of things as gods. We can still pursue happiness, but we won’t be happy.
Perhaps Abraham Lincoln was reflecting on Israel’s entry into Canaan when he drafted his 1863 Thanksgiving Day proclamation. “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.”