I started out my morning having breakfast and coffee with friends and family, many of whom were, or are, small business owners and fervent Christians. Like any meal we have the topic of conversation quickly turned to politics, questions of morality and my hatred of the Orange One. Those at the table quickly mocked my hatred of the president and pointed out how ‘good’ Trump had been to their checkbooks and their businesses. ‘Sure, he is an idiot,’ their words, ‘but he is good to me.’
Naturally as a left-leaning sociologist I replied with, ‘But how good have the improvements in your businesses, in businesses across the country, been to the workers? How can you say that the economy is great if people are having to work three jobs just to barely put food on the table and a roof over their head? How come you get to increase your net-worth by hundreds of thousands while your employee increases their net-worth by a few thousand if they’re lucky?’
Their response was exactly what you would expect: ‘Not everyone can be paid the same. You have to work your way up the ladder. If you don’t like your position go back to school and learn a skill that will make you more valuable.’
I responded: ‘Well, how can you find time to go back to school when you are working two or three jobs and are raising a child?’
They looked at me incredulously as if to say how dare you suggest that I take into account someone else’s circumstances that reveal my privilege. After the dirty looks softened someone spoke up and said ‘Well, life isn’t fair. Not everyone can succeed.’ And to make matters worse a Pastor sitting at the next table said, ‘They will be rewarded for their sacrifice in the next life.’
It was this moment that I walked away from my food and left the restaurant.
The sheer arrogance and lack of empathy for one’s employees and for their poor was bad enough, it was unChristian enough. But when the Pastor justified the suffering of the poor by saying they would be rewarded after death…that was just too much to take.
Listen, I am sorry if you’re reading this and you’re religious. But the chances are when we die…that this is it. There is nothing for us in the next life. We only have this one, and this one only to live. While I still attend Catholic Mass on a semi-regular basis because part of me wants to hold out hope that one day I will see my sister, some of my friends, and other relatives again I understand that I am probably just living a bit of a fantasy two hours a week. Knowing this, having accepted this is OUR one life to live, I find it particularly disturbing that there are pastors teaching their flock that they should embrace poverty, economic inequality, healthcare inequality, and their lowly position in this world because it is God’s will and that he will repay them later for submitting to the reality of poverty.
I know that I should not have been shocked or bothered by the pastor’s statement. After all, religion, especially Protestantism has served the purpose of reinforcing the divisions of labor in a capitalist society since market economies came to be. Evangelical Protestants have long taught their flocks that their rewards are in heaven not on Earth. This has convinced poor people for hundreds of years that they should not strive for wealth, equality and access to the benefits of society. Furthermore, the acceptance of the Protestant work ethic has led to the delusion that poor people are poor because they are not good hard-working people and therefore are not being rewarded by God.
It is hard to have hope for the continued existence of the Republic that we call the United States if we do not find a way to end economic inequality. I am not sure that is possible until we start to exercise some of the demons and bad philosophy that has led to the economic divide that we are seeing in modern America, starting with the Protestant work ethic and trickle-down economics and exploitative capitalism. Both the religious philosophy and the economic philosophy go hand and hand, and until we condemn and remove both from our society we will get more and more of the same until the we suffer another economic collapse. Until we remove both of these terrible philosophies from our country I, and many others, will have to continue to have these infuriating conversations with friends and family explaining why one percent of one percent’s success does not equal success for everyone.