America, the Workable

A semi-recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Want More Growth in China? Have Faith,” reports that Peter Zhao, a Communist party member/advisor to the Chinese Central Committee, is arguing that Christianity is the key to the West’s prosperity.

“He claims that Christianity produces greater wealth than other religions or no religion. His view is partly historical—the wealthiest societies are those that are either traditionally Christian, either Catholic or Protestant. He says that Christianity provides three elements necessary for economic growth: motivation—those who work for God rather than for pleasure, money or status don’t tire of being productive; a moral framework that makes for less exploitation and less corruption; and a mandate to care for the poor and disenfranchised. ‘Traditionally,’ he says ‘when Chinese become rich, they buy houses or maybe they marry a second wife.’ But they start to become lazy. Not so with Americans. ‘Even Bill Gates is still working very hard.’”

The article also points out that John Wesley, another man to make this connection, warned of its consequences: “religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”

Indeed, the Bible warns of the temptations of the rich. Jesus’ words, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” however bizarre, make it quite clear that those accustomed to riches may find them hard to forswear, even if they know it is good to do so. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and the Gospels speak of the simple joys of life and against those who have gorged themselves on riches, particularly when a brother lacks. The man who increased his barns to eat, drink and be merry later in life was called a fool, at least partially because he died before he could ever enjoy them.

Similarly, many Americans have taken their work ethic far and above the teachings of Christianity. Riches and material possession are never lauded in the Bible. Enjoying the “wife of your youth,” and sharing with those in need is. In this way Christianity should produce honest workers (as pastors and employers teach), those devoted to doing right in the workplace, but no more than they are devoted to doing right elsewhere.

The error of a Christian society is that it may well produce hypocrisy; the sheen of doing right by an employer or wife or brother when the heart of the matter is different. Often, the sheen of doing right can be rewarding itself; as Peter Zhao noticed, Christian societies admire hard work and creation and “random acts of kindness,” even if one is not kind to the people closest at hand, or is working merely to store up wealth for a self-contained retirement.

Thus, many Americans, Christian and otherwise, answer the call to work 50,60,70 hours a week, to the detriment of every other part of their lives. They even continue the cult of business outside of work: they multitask while eating, researching, or even sleeping (hypnosis to stop smoking on tape); they shop, golf, take up Japanese, or watch football to improve their image and gain ground with their boss. If they’re older, they antibacterialize their houses and stretch plastic over their couches to protect their assets, and then coddle Fido because they don’t have many real friends to turn to, never having had the time to build friendships, particularly not with their children or grandchildren. If they’re young they jump on the social web to network and make inane comments for an hour on various acquaintances’ walls, and maybe jet over to a friend’s house to make inane comments in person—about shopping, golf, how they’ve taken up Japanese, or football.

This doesn’t take much thought and thus they will not be intellectually taxed the next day when they wake up at 6 a.m. to do their hair for work.

I make no mention of those of the younger generation who actually are too lazy to do anything but go to a third-rate college for 17 years while they party. This is the result of riches, too: they have found a way to use the obsessive productivity of their parents. Or they accrue so much debt they are forced to work 50,60,70 hours a week upon graduation to pay it off, with or without the skill to make working 60 hours in this country better than working 35 hours in another society.

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