BIG CARS, BIG STEAKS, BIG CHURCHES
As a young adult, I liked revolutionary rhetoric. It was more sophomoric rebellion than careful conclusion, but it was enough. In my eighteen-year-old mind, I had plenty to rebel against. I was born and raised in Amarillo, a place on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle so isolated we thought our town of 150,000 was the big city. Three icons capture the flavor of Amarillo better than an entire essay. It is bounded on the west by the Cadillac Ranch—ten Cadillacs planted nose down in concrete, their tail fins neatly in a row—and on the east by the Big Texan Steakhouse, a restaurant where you can get a seventy-two-ounce steak free if you can eat it in one hour. In between are a bunch of really big churches. In four blocks of downtown Amarillo, for instance, the First Baptist Church, the Central Church of Christ—where my best friend went—and St. Mary’s Catholic Church together claimed more than twelve thousand members.
In between these parking-lot-happy congregations sat our church, First Presbyterian. It was smaller than the others, but with its quasi-Gothic architecture, gray stones, and red tile roof, it looked like a country-club church—a problem exacerbated by the fact that it was
a country-club church. Our congregation heard few hard lies from the pulpit—and even fewer hard truths.
It was a comfortable church, a church that found the culture wars unseemly.
But things changed when I entered junior high and came under the sway of a firebrand youth pastor, Darren Clark. Clark was a divorced former Southern Baptist (a core Presbyterian constituency in Texas) who had an uncanny knack for illustrating Bible stories with lyrics from the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. I wasn’t always sure if his lessons owed more to the Beatles or the Bible, but they were easy to remember.
He was always railing against nuclear weapons, war, and the indifference of Christians to poverty. Whether Jesus died for our sins was less of a priority. In any case, he must have railed a lot against the evils of wealth, because I remember the Bible verses on those topics better than any others: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” “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.” “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
New thoughts entered my mind: Is it right that some should be so rich while others remain poor? Should hordes of people have to work in unsafe conditions, barely getting by on their meager salaries, while their bosses grow fat and complacent? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone had as much as they want, or at least as much as they need? Shouldn’t we do whatever is necessary to get rid of such injustices? These questions bothered me. I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do about poverty or nukes other than feel really bad about them, but still, to a teenager in a conservative Texas town, this was heady stuff. Clark offered me a rare commodity: a chance to rebel against authority and feel self-righteous doing it.
EXIT STAGE LEFT
The seeds sown in junior high and high school were reaped in college. I attended a small liberal-arts school north of Austin, Southwestern University. The college had a tenuous tie to the Methodist Church, but whatever Christianity remained had long since been converted to Protestant Liberalism—think of the New York Times editorial page laced with Bible verses. To a freshman weaned on George Strait and chicken-fried steak, the ambiance seemed smart and sophisticated.
I had already decided to study political science, so I found myself right away in “Introduction to American Politics,” taught by a soft-spoken professor, Suk Kim, who had immigrated to the United States from Korea. In one of his first lectures, Kim asked the class to name the most disagreeable jobs we could think of. Someone said garbage collector, another said sewer repair, then hard laborer in extreme climates, and so forth. He then asked for the most agreeable jobs, which, everyone agreed, were movie stars, professional athletes and musicians, CEOs of large corporations, bank presidents, and so forth. Kim then asked us to rank the pay scales of the various professions. With few exceptions, the jobs voted most disagreeable were also the lowest paying. Kim asked to great effect if anyone thought that was fair. No one raised a hand. I certainly didn’t. The lesson was obvious.
Professor Kim’s lectures were reinforced by the reading assignments. He required a standard textbook describing the bicameral legislature, the separation of powers into the judicial, legislative, and executive branches, and all that other stuff I had already learned in high school civics. But we had two other, quite memorable books. The first was a short work by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—The Communist Manifesto.
Written in 1848, it describes history as a series of struggles between oppressors and oppressed, each struggle punctuated by a social upheaval in which one system gives rise to another. According to the Manifesto,
the original state of man was a primitive communism without private property. The mass slavery of Egypt and other ancient cultures represented the fall from this primeval state of
innocence. The slave system eventually gave way to feudalism, with poor serfs caring for large tracts of land owned by nobles. And feudalism eventually gave way to capitalism, with its highly productive urban industrial centers.
In modern capitalist societies, Marx and Engels argued, the business owners—what they call the bourgeoisie—seek above all else to increase their profits. So they pay workers as little as possible while taking the “surplus value” produced by the workers as profit. With those profits, they then invest in tools and factories to extract more from the labor of fewer laborers, which again creates more surplus value. The capitalists compete to produce more and more with less and less. Workers become more and more alienated from the fruits of their labor, as capitalists skim more and more of the surplus value of their work without giving them just compensation.
The bigger and better capitalists inevitably beat out the smaller ones. These big businesses can then produce far more with still fewer workers. In this way the few remaining business owners inevitably grow fatter and richer, while a growing pool of laborers grows poorer and poorer. Capitalism thus sows the seeds of its own destruction, by creating a large oppressed population that will eventually revolt against its oppressors. The workers, Marx and Engels predicted, would usher in the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” where the people—that is, the state—would own all industry. But for those afraid of big government, don’t worry. This would be merely a temporary socialist way station on the road to full communism, where the state would wither away into a brotherhood of man, and milk and honey would flow through streets of gleaming gold, or something like that.
Although Marx and Engels claimed that such a revolution is inevitable, they wrote The Communist Manifesto to help the inevitable along. They concluded with a call to arms:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The
proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Workingmen of all countries, unite!
This worked well alongside the other required text, Democracy for the Few, by American socialist Michael Parenti. With Parenti’s book, Professor Kim offered students a great deal: read it five times and get an “A” for the course.1 For me, it was an easy assignment, since the book was filled with facts I couldn’t refute and moral fury I couldn’t resist. On almost any page, Parenti offered hard evidence of the perverse inequalities of American life:
The top 10 percent of American households own 98 percent of the tax-exempt state and local bonds, 94 percent of business assets, and 95 percent of the value of all trusts. The richest 1 percent own 60 percent of all corporate stock and all business assets. True, some 40 percent of families own some stocks or bonds, but almost all of these have total holdings of less than $2,000. Taking into account their debts and mortgages, 90 percent of American families have little or no net assets.
By the end of the semester, I had highlighted practically every line in the book. Parenti’s point seemed undeniable: Just as Marx and Engels had predicted 150 years earlier, American capitalism had produced gross inequalities between rich and poor. A rich oligarchy controlled more and more of the wealth and left the vast majority of Americans with very little. The only way to balance the scales was for the national wealth to be owned and controlled by the people as a whole.
My five trips through Parenti’s book gained me zeal and an “A” for the course. I had a grid for interpreting pretty much everything. Suddenly, the materialism and greed of American life started popping up everywhere. I noticed all the BMWs and Saabs on campus. And I was surprised how many guys in my dorm had the same poster of Garfield the cat. On the poster, Garfield was covered in jewels and leaning against a Ferrari,
with a little proverb at the bottom: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” That pretty much summed it up. That was capitalism. I could imagine what Jesus would do if he ever showed up. He’d bring the whip he used against the money changers and put it to good use. Nobody cared about the poor more than he did. And the Bible speaks over and over about a time when the rich and haughty would be brought low, and the poor lifted up:
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil….
He raises up the poor from the dust;
and lifts the needy from the ash heap. (1 Sam. 2:5, 8)
Marx’s atheism was still problematic for me, but I figured it wasn’t essential to Marxism. I mean, the rest of the communist picture seemed to fit nicely with the early church in Acts, where “the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44–45). I concluded that Marx had gotten it right in spite of his atheism, not because of it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Marxist utopia—a messy little thing called reality. That reality is different in ever particular from the practice of the early church in Jerusalem.
THE SPACE BETWEEN REALITY AND RHETORIC
It was 1985, and the Cold War between the Western democracies and the communist Soviet Union was in its final stages, though no one knew it at the time. The news media were wringing their hands about the nuclear arms race, made-for-TV movies like The Day After were forecasting the dismal fate of the earth in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, and just about everyone except Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher thought the Soviet Union was here to stay.
Oops: “Can economic command significantly…accelerate the growth process? The remarkable performance of the Soviet Union suggests that it can…. Today the Soviet Union is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States.”
Lester Thurow, 1989
A humane leader had emerged in the Soviet Union, a man named Mikhail Gorbachev. He was implementing policies that would soon lead to the collapse of the Soviet empire. While his predecessors had preferred varying degrees of secrecy both with Soviet citizens and with the outside world, Gorbachev promoted “glasnost” and “perestroika.” Suddenly, Soviet history since the 1917 communist revolution was open for all to see. It wasn’t pretty.
Of course, communist crimes weren’t exactly a well-kept secret before this. At one time in the mid–twentieth century, almost half the human race was subject to a grand Marxist experiment. So half of humanity knew the truth firsthand, even if much of the other half chose to ignore it. Already by the 1970s, the results were in for anyone willing to do a little homework. But it was not until the Gorbachev era that the Soviet regime began to admit to the world what many had known all along: whatever idealistic vision may have inspired it, the commune in communism was one nasty neighborhood. This made it much harder for apologists in the West to keep up the charade.
Marx had predicted that the contradictions in capitalism would eventually cause the workers to revolt. He was quite clear that the growth of wealth and industrial productivity in capitalism was a crucial stage on the way to future stages of social evolution. Only after capitalism’s tensions grew to the breaking point would the workers revolt and usher in a socialist state, where private property would be abolished. Even in Marx’s lifetime, however, his prophecies clashed with reality. He spent his
later years in England writing, but never completing, his masterwork, Capital.
And while he scribbled away in ...