Some leading economists are calling Christians to remember whose image they are supposed to bear.
For 17 years, Jim Huthmaker worked as a smokejumper for the U.S. government, parachuting into forests to douse fires around the Pacific Northwest. He spent years pursuing the thrill of a career that catered to his skillset and whet his appetite for adventure.
It was his best life.
Then, in the middle of his exhilarating career, he “woke up.”
Huthmaker’s wake up wasn’t so much a realization as a confession. For years, he had been “deeply unsatisfied,” and he was finally admitting it.
“I did feel like I was pursuing and had attained some sort of American dream,” Huthmaker said during a conversation earlier this year, “only to find that what I thought was ‘it’ still gave me no satisfaction or peace.”
The American dream didn’t deliver, and economist Brian Fikkert isn’t surprised. Because despite its promises, the American dream can only form desires. Not fulfill them.
The Rise of Unhappiness
In 2015, a startling headline started popping up in the news — the death rate was rising, not decreasing, for middle-aged white Americans. And the spike wasn’t due to natural causes.
The New York Times reported on a study by Angus Deaton and Anne Case that concluded that the rising death rate was not from heart disease or diabetes, but rather from substance abuse and suicide. They correlated results like chronic pain, trouble socializing, and mental illness.
Interestingly, the husband and wife duo who discovered these results are economists, and they were initially looking into whether states with higher happiness levels report lower suicide rates. They do not.
The latest studies on how Americans feel about their economy paint two paradoxical pictures. On one hand, national and global poverty is decreasing, Americans are feeling increasingly optimistic about their finances, and the economy is lower on the list of Americans’ political priorities than it has been in two decades. On the other hand, many Americans are facing crippling debt, stagnant “real” wages, an unstable housing market, unaffordable medical care, and a tidal wave of federal debt.
These factors, naturally, challenge American Christians at the same rate as their secular neighbors.
Polls show that the economy is currently not the top political issue for Americans, as they feel mostly recovered from the Great Recession. In fact, according to an early 2019 Gallup study, Americans are more optimistic about their personal finances than they have been in 16 years. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they expect to be financially better off at the same time next year.
The Story of Homo Economicus
Economists have long referred to the capitalist-driven person as homo economicus — an independent, self-interested, materialistic individual. In a Christian worldview that holds to original sin, homo economicus makes sense.
Homo economicus could be considered simply an academic term for a concept that most Christians already believe about mankind’s most basic tendencies. Capitalism and free markets work well with homo economicus, after all. We are motivated by security, and captured by money.
While from a theological view this might be true, some economists are challenging this concept. Fikkert, founder of the Chalmers Center and co-author of When Helping Hurts, and Michael Rhodes, director of community transformation and an assistant professor at the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, are two academics who warn against assuming that homo economicus simply describes the way things are.
Instead of accepting homo economicus as inevitable and unchangeable, they believe Christians should focus on improving the economy by trading homo economicus for homo imago Dei. Mankind may be naturally selfish and motivated out of self-preservation, but they are also made in the image of God. Humanity’s basic nature matters because, as Grove City economics professor Shawn Ritenour has pointed out, “the foundation of economic law is rooted in the Christian doctrine of man.”
What if the market-bred creature of homo economicus is not an academic caricature, but is actually a false god? Fikkert and Rhodes argue just this in a 2017 article in the Journal of Markets and Morality.
If people are made in the image of God, and then are placed in an economic system where institutions, policies, and practices fundamentally serve homo economicus, the result “can be profoundly deforming and contrary to true human flourishing,” they write. Humans are naturally relational and multidimensional, making decisions collectively from the mind, heart, will, and body.
“Human beings are transformed into the image of whatever god they are worshiping and then create culture in that same image,” Fikkert and Rhodes write. If that god is a person shaped by the market, that will affect how humans view themselves in a “radically different way” in relationship to God, self, others, and creation.
While the authors admit there is not a conclusive test to their study, they point to empirical evidence to support their hypothesis. Materialistic messaging, individualistic values, greater unhappiness, among other factors, contribute to a devolving of the imago Dei into homo economicus.
It hardly needs to be said that Americans live in a culture that is built upon marketing, advertising, and pushing us to the “next best thing.” What is hard to grasp is how much materialistic ideology subtly sneak into our environment to influence and even form us.
Americans — millennials especially — care almost as much about the appearance of being successful as they do about actually being successful. A 2018 Chase Slate survey found that 77 percent of millennials made purchases that they would go on to post pictures of on Instagram, including food, vacation, and clothing.
Forget the advertising and marketing world — we need no help in adopting a materialistic outlook on the world. The relentless social media vortex continues to push us toward dissatisfaction with our lives and toward a constant desire for “bigger and better.”
Like most marketing instructors would say, advertising agencies and marketing companies are not selling you products, they are selling you stories and values. If our world is selling us on the values of materialism and financial success, its marketing plan is working.
What Fikkert and Rhodes argue is that it does not need to stay this way.
Individuals and the ‘American Dream’
When the drafters of the Declaration of Independence named as unalienable the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they enshrined in the United States an ideal, an American dream. While there’s no official version, per se, most Americans take as axiomatic that personal success looks like increasing liberty and increasing happiness. Attaining an independent nature and autonomous lifestyle is a virtue.
Economically, being a self-sustaining individual with no need for family, community, or government is a first step in achieving the American dream.
Most Americans believe that educational and economic achievements are the most important milestones of adulthood, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with marriage and parenthood ranking lower than in past decades. Economic security ranks second — about half of adults value holding a full-time job and financially supporting a family as important milestones.
In the pursuit of what appears to be the freedom of career choice, many Americans are taking the chains of student debt. Collectively, Americans owed more than $1.3 trillion in student loans in the first half of 2017 — almost three times as much as a decade earlier, according to a Pew Research analysis.
And it’s not just college loans — credit cards and mortgages are the leading source of debt, followed by educational and car loans. Millennials and baby boomers are carrying an average of $36,000 in individual debt.
Factors like race and geography also play prominently, adding nuance. For example, millennials of color are “worse off” financially than their white counterparts, due to greater unemployment, lack of credit history, or being less likely to have benefits even while employed, according to Marketplace Morning Report. In 2017, the Associated Press reported on outrageously unaffordable housing costs in Silicon Valley, even for families considered middle class. Some university teachers were sleeping in their cars due to the cost of living.
“The bottom line is that there are a whole lot of people of who are crushed by the dysfunctions of our systems,” Rhodes said in an interview with Common Good. “If what we want is a more just society, that requires us to listen to what Scripture has to say to us in relation to economic justice.”
Poverty, despite its slow decline, is still a very real issue. An estimated 13.4 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, according to a 2017 U.S. Census report.
When marks of the American dream are not hit, the person formed by homo economicus suffers.
While poverty is an obvious contributor toward anxiety and general unhappiness, a U.S. Census report that studied the changing economics of “young adulthood” from 1975 to 2016 found additional factors toward economic insecurity in adults ages 25 to 34.
While fewer young women were homemakers (43 percent in 1975 versus 14 percent in 2016), young men were plummeting to the bottom of the income ladder. Forty-one percent of young American men make less than $30,000 annually, compared to 25 percent in 1975 (salaries both in 2015 dollars). In addition, 2.2 million young adults live at home with their parents and are considered “idle;” they go to neither school nor work.
These economic realities have significant impacts on individuals’ well-being, even for older generations. Reporting in The Economist suggests that suicide rates are highest among poor, white men — especially those between the ages of 45 and 64.
Rhodes points out in his book, Practicing the King’s Economy, co-authored with Fikkert and Pastor Robby Holt, that nearly 43 million Americans experience some form of mental illness each year. He observes that substance abuse, mental illness, and depression seem to be rising along with rising incomes.
Where Do We Go from Here?
People commonly think capitalism itself is morally neutral. But Rhodes says this idea ignores the formative effect of institutions on people — both in positive and in negative ways.
Don’t think Rhodes wants to get rid of capitalism. Instead, he believes it is possible to develop a Christlike economy, a Christlike capitalism. And that’s what he wants Christians to discover.
“If everything is informed by capitalism, capitalism is forming me,” Rhodes said. “How do Christians use capitalism, not be used by it? How can we use markets and market exchanges and bend them toward kingdom purposes? ...
“Most Christians need to spend less time saying, Theoretically, which political economy should I put down on a whiteboard? And they should spend more time saying, How do we bend our economic lives and systems toward an economy that reflects God’s kingdom?”
Basically, you can’t be informed all week long about profit maximization and expect that not to shape your thinking and desires in ways Christians historically reserved for theology and spiritual disciplines.
“We don’t actually have a framework for Christ to be Lord over our economic lives,” Fikkert said. “We default to the only story we know — Western capitalism. The only story we know to live out is the American dream.”
What’s needed, Fikkert says, is a thoroughly Christian way of approaching the economy.
When a Christian understands the full mission of Jesus Christ on earth, he is saying, it helps to create a framework for the kingdom of God and how the Christian can be a contributing member of promoting that kingdom here on earth. Without that framework, Fikkert says Christians default to the story they are told by their culture and society.
Wheaton College assistant economics professor Enoch Hill agrees with the formation of capitalism when its participants are passive. Capitalism is not “completely morally neutral,” he said. “Left unchecked, it leads toward a materialistic focus — but it doesn’t require a materialistic focus.”
There seem to be several ways forward in order to avoid sliding into a culture of homo economicus. While difficult and counter cultural, each one is rooted in biblical principles and a hope in redemption rather than defeat to sin.
These pathways to homo imago Dei include integrating virtue in work, changing the way churches interact with their congregations, having biblical hope that change is possible in this life, pursuing social innovation and increasing generosity.
“We can practice Christlikeness in all of these systems, and can transform them,” Hill said.