We don’t need more lawyers or financiers. We need a new clergy class.
When Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was uncovered last fall, it dominated headlines. But when attorney Marc Dreier was sentenced in July to 20 years in jail for defrauding investors of more than $400 million, The New York Times stuck the news on page A20. The three evening news broadcasts included segments on Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, the tangled relationship between the CIA and Dick Cheney, and a prison break in Indiana. But nothing on Dreier.
In the wake of the Madoff and A.I.G. scandals–and the exposure of a broader truth, that the pre-crash economy was actually a funhouse of illusion and deceit–Americans have grown desensitized to tales of corruption that would spark outrage in normal times. But with no end to job losses in sight and talk of a second stimulus turning serious, these are not normal times. Who can blame the country for wanting to change the channel on the economic crisis–and all that it has revealed?
“Economic crisis” may be too euphemistic a phrase to describe what’s happened. The past 18 months have been about something deeper. Consider the death spiral of A.I.G., which was as powerful as any one factor in the collapse. As explained by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair, the company’s Financial Products unit reaped huge profits by splicing consumer debt with subprime mortgages. “It’s hard to know what Joe Cassano [the leader of Financial Products] thought and when he thought it, but the traders inside A.I.G. F.P. are certain that neither Cassano nor the four or five people overseen directly by him, who worked in the unit that made the trades, realized how completely these piles of consumer loans had become, almost exclusively, composed of subprime mortgages,” Lewis writes. Cassano indeed deserves blame for his greed, but he’s hardly alone: For average consumers as much as for Cassano, easy debt, the kind offered by such products, was a road to larger consumption.
It was also a road to disaster. Our unquenchable thirst for material goods proved predictably unsustainable. If we are to emerge from the current morass as not merely a prosperous nation once again, but a better one, we will have to confront the crisis underlying the economic crisis: one of meaning, of which the economic crisis is but a symptom. We have shirked the most profound questions for the sake of a vulgar materialism. To the extent that it can restore a sense of meaning and begin to chip away at the hollowness of our shared lives, organized religion may be an ideal candidate to step into the breach.
There are two widely held assumptions about the state of religion in America today. The first is that our approach to it is shallow. It is said that our myriad and diverse worshippers are well-meaning but superficial, hardly comparable to their predecessors in terms of study and devotion. The second assumption is that American religion is on the decline. While the nation remains devout, the degree of influence religion enjoys has waned. Both assumptions are true, to a point. But they don’t tell the whole story.
For one, these assumptions neglect the religious and spiritual yearning that lurks in unexpected corners. The bestselling book of recent years, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is in one sense a screed against organized religion. Yet organized religion ought not be confused with false shibboleth, which is what the book–and the movie it spawned–purports to debunk. Indeed, the popularity of the book is only part of a broader trend, in which Americans have left churches but remain believers in the supernatural. A 2006 study by Baylor University, “American Piety in the 21st Century,” declared that it is time to look “beyond denomination” when assessing the state of religion. Fully 62.9 percent of Americans who find themselves unaffiliated with a place of worship still consider themselves believers in “God or some higher power.” The study also showed that while members of non-Judeo-Christian religions were the most likely group to have read Brown’s book, all readers reported higher levels of belief in the “paranormal” than non-readers. The paranormal and religion aren’t synonymous, but those who subscribe to the paranormal school are nevertheless telegraphing an interest in looking beyond traditional sources for explanations to the great unknowns of the universe. The success of The Da Vinci Code is a signal of widespread disillusionment with the traditions and tenets of organized religion, but not belief itself.
That Americans are looking outside organized religion for answers is in part a testament to the poor state of religious leadership. Joel Osteen is a best-selling author with a television show watched by nearly 20 million people each week. He nearly sold out Yankee Stadium last April. Yet Osteen’s philosophy is pure narcissism, similar to a self-help regimen far more than engagement with questions of the divine. God wants you “to take your family to the next level,” Osteen recently told Steve Waldman of Beliefnet. God wants you to “have enough money to send your kids to college,” he continued–a worthwhile goal, certainly, but a far cry from Pascal, or even Michael Harrington. Likewise, most offensive about President Barack Obama’s selection of the Reverend Rick Warren as a speaker at his inauguration was not Warren’s homophobia–though that surely grated–but Warren’s utter vapidity as a thinker. It’s not just a problem for Christianity; the rabbinical talent of Judaism has largely dried up, as more people at the top of the class opt against the occupation of their ancestors. The great rabbis–think of those who served at the forefront of social movements in the 1950s and 60s–are a distant memory.
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