Christmas is always a good time to ponder our collective confusion between money and religion. This year it’s been prominently displayed in the advertising for Juneau Fest. It was described as six nights of celebrating the spirit of Christmas under the banner of “Free Giveaways – Over $25,000 in Gifts and Prizes...” But the claim by event organizers that it wasn’t part of their religious revival meetings deserves equal attention. Because that follows our cultural denial that money, materialism and the economy interfere with the true spirit of Christmas.
The Juneau Fest organizers may have claimed that the evening giveaway events were totally different from their morning religious gathering. But the evidence definitely suggests they intended to use it to lure people into their holy revival. Even as the events were underway the ministry’s website stated that while giving away gifts and prizes they’d be preaching to people “that Jesus is the reason for the season. Many will get blessed materially and, most importantly, many will receive the free Gift of Salvation..”
It’s hard to believe it’s possible to keep Christ in Christmas by “blessing” people materially with very expensive electronics games such as Xbox and Wii. These represent needless excess that also contradict the legendary spirit of St. Nicholas, who followed Christ’s teachings by using his wealth to give relief to the poor and needy.
But if we turn to another of Christ’s greatest ideals we’d recognize that criticizing any group for spinning such a lure is to cast the first stone without considering our own transgressions. And the difficult truth is that we’ve put our faith in a consumer driven economy which is dependent upon us acquiring more than we need. It’s become the accepted norm, and many of us and our government have been borrowing too much money to attain it.
Political historian Kevin Philips calls this borrowed prosperity. In his 2006 book titled American Theocracy he lays out how, since the mid 80s, our growing debt helped the financial, insurance and real estate sector overtake manufacturing as the main engine of economic growth. The problem is these businesses don’t create any tangible material wealth. They do little more than move money around.
Philips warned about the real estate bubble two years before it collapsed. It was fueled by low interest rates which increased mortgage lending by the nation’s banking industry. On the lower end of the borrowing ladder credit card lenders used tricks like cash back, airline miles, and zero introductory interest rates to entice us to borrow more. Our rapidly growing debt gave rise to financial instruments like debt/equity swaps which, without producing an ounce of goods or an hour of services, increased profits earned by trading on the stock market.
The economic gains generated by gimmicks derived from debt were never real. So when the bubble burst the banks were on the verge of collapse. Congress passed the first bailout legislation while George W. Bush was still president. Another bailout and large government stimulus bills were passed after Barack Obama took over the White House. Basically, the country tried to resolve its disastrous pile of debt on the private side by adding to the already unmanageable debt on the government side. It brought us to the so-called fiscal cliff by continuing the cycle of creating artificial wealth.
Of course it wasn’t always this way. America began with a simple, independent farming economy. Even after the industrial age ushered in the era of manufactured goods, American workers were still making products which served everyday life. But somewhere along the way the country shifted from a necessity-based economy to one where gimmicks became commonplace. It reached the utterly ridiculous in 1975 when the worthless idea of a pet rock turned an everyday advertiser into a millionaire in just six months. It’s gotten worse since then.
Yes, it’s the wrong religious message to mix material excess with the meaning of Christmas. And it’s wrong to entice people to join a religious ministry with such gimmicks. But the Juneau Fest organizers definitely aren’t alone for not being able to differentiate between the true religion of the season and the everyday artificial one that falls under the guise of our national economy.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.