Part of America’s history has been a tale of increasing prosperity for both the nation as a whole and for the average American. Among Christians in particular, it might seem likely that along with the rise in personal wealth would come an increase in generosity. The data, unfortunately, demonstrates that this has not been the case. Why hasn’t greater income led to greater giving? Why doesn’t the equation add up?

In the context of the United States, the question of financial stewardship is especially relevant. From colonial times through the present day, money has been a defining object for Americans, including Christians. Early in the country’s history many Christians embraced the opportunity uniquely afforded by the new nation to pursue the rapid accumulation of wealth. Notable exceptions were marginalized Christians, such as religious African slaves, and those Christian sects that willfully shunned the larger American economic system, such as the Amish. Yet even those Christians who did capitalize on America’s fortunes in the first half of the nation’s history were concerned with more than just making money. They also were mindful of how they used their money.


In the 19th century, Europeans were regularly amazed when they traveled to the United States. While many elements of the new nation intrigued visitors from the Old World, they often marveled at American industriousness. The commercial drive that animated Americans was unmatched on the other side of the Atlantic.

Charles Dickens recognized that drive with scorn during his visit to the United States. In 1842 he wrote of Americans, “Healthful amusements, cheerful means of recreation, and wholesome fancies must fade before the stern utilitarian joys of trade.” The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville was less judgmental than Dickens, but in his famous 1835 book Democracy in America, he still observed, “The love of wealth is… to be traced, as either a principal or an accessory motive, at the bottom of all that the Americans do.”

Dickens and Tocqueville may have accurately described the American temperament for accumulating money, but the causes behind this American disposition are harder to discern. What caused Americans to be so industrious? The truth is that most Americans never paused to consider the “why” of their commercial energy. The benefits of industrial efficiency and growth were taken to be self-evident. Most commentators were less interested in explaining why Americans worked hard and focused instead on the virtues of industriousness.

Even Christian leaders sounded much like entrepreneurs. Presbyterian minister Ashbel Green (1762-1848) served as the third chaplain of the United States Congress and the eighth president of Princeton University. In God and Mammon, historian Mark Noll records how in an 1830 address, Green exhorted his audience to consider the wealthy men they knew. Who were they? According to Green, they were the men who “began the world with little – often with nothing but their hands and their industry.” For the most part, Americans followed that model of accumulating wealth, acting out the maxims of the archetypal American entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac explained, “God helps those who help themselves.” From that perspective sprang the most famous of American economic maxims, “Time is money.” Thus, Americans used their own hands and their own time to make ever more money.

But in the early American context, money was not only for getting, it was also for using. Historian Leigh Schmidt describes the early American impulse to steward wealth in his book Consumer Rites. He says, “The way to wealth and prosperity was to rationalize time, to save it and spend it wisely, to make good use of it.” Americans did just that. Following the trend, American Christians, too, put their time and money to good use.

In More Money, More Ministry, historian Gary Smith explains the link between Protestant evangelical Christians and stewardship around the turn of the century. “In the period between 1880 and 1930 evangelicals by and large strongly emphasized the biblical concept of stewardship and insisted that Christians should earn and control as much money as possible to further the spread of God’s kingdom on earth. They argued that the faithful practice of stewardship would enhance spiritual growth and the development of character.”

Well into the 20th century, many Christians were preaching and attempting to practice stewardship in response to the wealth generated by American industriousness. Several studies summarized in Passing the Plate, by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, examine the financial giving data of 11 denominations from 1920 to 2003. The results reveal that, as a whole, Christians were more financially charitable in the first half of the 20th century than in the latter half. The authors point out, “Despite the massive growth in real per capita income over the twentieth century, the average share of income given by American Christians not only did not grow in proportion but actually declined slightly during this time period.” Perhaps the most revealing historical record for Christians in the United States is that as a percentage of personal income, believers gave more during the Great Depression than they give today.

Yet modern-day American Christians are the most prosperous believers the world has ever known. By Smith and Emerson’s estimates, calculating the net income of all American Christians today suggests that they bring home $2.4 trillion in personal income. Hypothetically speaking, if Christians in America (differences aside) constituted their own democratic nation, they would be entitled to a seat at the G8 summits.

The decline in Christian giving during the 20th century occurred over a time period of great financial prosperity. Christians kept contributing to their churches and to charities, but total Christian monetary gifts did not even remotely keep pace with the growth of the U.S. economy or Christians’ incomes. While money was being made like never before, it was no longer being used in the same ways. How did this great shift occur? It followed changes in the American economy and in what it meant to be a consumer.


The day after Thanksgiving, on Friday, November 28, 2008, the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) met by conference call to confirm that the United States economy has been in recession since December of 2007. The NBER is the national non-governmental body that officially dates the beginning and end of recessions in the United States.

Just two weeks before the NBER’s announcement, and just in time for holiday shopping season, Newsweek editor Robert J. Samuelson wrote a cover story contemplating the slow economy. Samuelson posited that for the first time in memory, the next generation of Americans might not grow in affluence. By affluence, Samuelson refers to the outward display of wealth. The next generation of Americans might not be able to show off their economic progress for their neighbors and the world to see. That sobering thought can be averted, says Samuelson, but only with steeled minds. His solution is worth quoting at length:

“Whatever happens, the future of American affluence will be a state of mind as much as a state of production. So much of our national identity is wrapped up in economic progress that the failure to achieve it in palpable quantities would sap America’s self-confidence. There have been other moments when the outlook seemed grim, but enduring American strengths – a widespread work ethic and strong entrepreneurial spirit – asserted themselves and disproved the conventional wisdom. After World War II, there were widespread fears of another Great Depression or, at best, a future of meager economic growth. What actually happened was just the opposite: a great boom that involved mass suburbanization and a prodigious outpouring of consumer goods – cars, appliances, televisions. Perhaps today’s anxieties will prove equally misconceived.”

Robert Samuelson’s solution for recession panic – buck-up and buy more things – follows the dominant American economic play book for the last 60 years. In A Consumer’s Republic, historian Lizabeth Cohen documents a strategy that “emerged after the Second World War for reconstructing the nation’s economy and reaffirming its democratic values through promoting the expansion of mass consumption.” Through a concerted effort by business, government, media, and other sources, the American attitude about mass consumption changed. The economic model of industriousness and stewardship exemplified by Benjamin Franklin, who said, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” no longer made economic sense.

In 1944, economist Robert Nathan described the new formula for national economic success in his book Mobilizing for Abundance: “Only if we have large demands can we expect large production. Therefore… ever-increasing consumption on the part of our people [is]… one of the prime requisites for prosperity. Mass consumption is essential to the success of a system of mass production.” That prevailing postwar attitude turned stewardship into a vice and consumer spending into a virtue. By their giving habits, American Christians appear to have followed the American public in embracing that modification of the country’s economic ethos.

Smith and Emerson found that the earlier American impulse to make good use of the enormous wealth generated by industriousness has waned. Multiple data sources show that one out of every five Christians in America give “literally nothing to church, para-church, or nonreligious charities.” That finding is even more striking considering that people commonly over report their financial generosity when taking surveys. Nevertheless, in multiple surveys, whether theologically conservative or liberal, about 20 percent of all American Christians said that they give no money at all.

Most Christians who do give, however, are not much more generous than those who contribute nothing. The exception is a small percentage of very generous Christians. Though not all generous givers are wealthy, Smith and Emerson found that the top 10 percent of charitable Christians give the vast majority of donations. When the overall figures are adjusted, “The median American Christian giver… gave only 0.62 percent of the median Christian annual income.”

As they conclude their study, Smith and Emerson attempt to identify what has caused this massive shift in the charitable behavior of American Christians. “The first and perhaps most formidable rival to generous financial giving of American Christians… is America’s institutionalized mass consumption.” The truth is that each year Christians take home trillions of dollars in personal income in the United States and only give a fraction of a percent of that money away.

The assessment that consumerism frustrates stewardship has not been lost on more recent Christian observations of the American economy. Publisher Rodney Clapp pointed out in his 1998 book Christianity & Consumer Culture that American-style consumerism creates unquenchable personal buying habits. “Unique to modern capitalism and consumerism are the idealization and constant encouragement of insatiability – the deification of dissatisfaction.” Generosity toward others becomes more difficult when individuals feel like they are in a constant state of need. Money is used for therapeutic personal expenditures that do not feel selfish.

Christians, like Clapp, who at the end of the 20th century questioned the values of consumerism, had to contend with changed attitudes about the virtues of consuming. By the 1990s, Americans had been inundated for decades, not only by tempting advertising for consumer goods, but also by propaganda telling them that when they indulged in excessive consumer buying, they were good stewards of their money. Cohen describes a 1947 Life magazine article titled, “Family Status Must Improve: It Should Buy More for Itself to Better the Living of Others.” She summarizes the gist of the article, quoting the main point from the article at the end, “Mass consumption in postwar America would not be a personal indulgence, but rather a civic responsibility to provide ‘full employment and improved living standards for the rest of the country.’”

Americans received this same message from multiple sources, including the government. Cohen observes, “Beginning with Roosevelt’s first cautious request in 1938 for an emergency appropriation for economic stimulus, government spending began to aim at expanding mass consumption to restabilize the American economy.” That emphasis on consuming as the activity that generated prosperity was radically different than the earlier priority industrious Americans gave to production as the way to a healthy home and national economy. Consumerism replaced America’s production economy. The 2008 economic stimulus passed by Congress and the Bush Administration demonstrates that government-sponsored consumption is still the main answer to a questionable economy. Even more recently, with National Public Radio reporting President Obama’s calls for a trillion dollar economic stimulus that includes consumer incentives, it seems clear that, at least in terms of the nation’s reliance on consumer spending, little will change in 2009.

The shift of the American economy from production to consumption altered the meaning of stewardship. Stewardship came to signify buying more quantity or better quality of consumer goods. Essentially, to be a good steward of money meant getting a good deal.

That change in what was implied by the word stewardship trickled down and affected the expectations most Americans had for what constituted a reasonable standard of living. In her book The Overspent American, sociologist Juliet Schor echoes Rodney Clapp’s assessment that consumerism creates discontent. Schor finds, “Overall, half the population of the richest country in the world say they cannot afford everything they really need.” That includes more than a quarter of the Americans making over $100,000 a year who claim they cannot afford their basic needs. Those inflated lifestyle expectations help explain a New York Times finding that in 2007, the average American household only put $449 into savings. Americans, including American Christians, use the lion’s share of their incomes to buy things for themselves.


The 20th century witnessed a shift in the economic climate of the United States. Americans went from being industrious stewards of money to affluent consumers of things. For the most part, Christians in the United States followed the wider economic trend of the nation. It was hard not to. Business, government, and the media forcefully pressured Americans to consume. In Living Justice, PLNU professor of sociology Jamie Gates warns, “It is important to realize that there is a well-organized, well-educated, focused, culture-shaping machine out there reaching for you and your money, and they aren’t going to take no for an answer.” The proprietors of consumerism got a resounding “yes” throughout the 20th century. Today, despite a recession, there continue to be murmurs of affirmation, hopes that the country’s economic troubles will subside and consumers will get back to spending.

Identified by what they own and aspire to buy, many will do all they can to purchase their way into an apparent lifestyle of affluence. Unfortunately, Christians are not immune to this consumer way of life. For, in our time, consumerism has become a defining activity for Americans.

Though Juliet Schor’s book is not written with a religious focus, her conclusion is startlingly compatible with a Christian understanding of worldly possessions. She says of modern-day Americans, “We are impoverishing ourselves in pursuit of a consumption goal that is inherently unachievable.”

The souls of many in America are impoverished by consumerism, and today, what sense of stewardship Americans once had seems mostly lost. Despite all the material possessions acquired, an honest inventory would have to conclude that much remains lacking.

By Dave Bruno

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.