October 9, 2000
Wealth and Spirituality
-- Martin E. Marty
We do our sightings in all kinds of corners of American life. Anyone who stays in a hotel receives, willy-nilly, *USA Today*. Whoever receives *USA Today* will find little colored graphs in the lower left-hand corner of a section page. Recently one drew on a source: "Gallup for the John Templeton Foundation."
The caption is a question: "Does Money Affect Spirituality?" The Gallup people know enough to ask not about faith or religion but "spirituality." Today that term covers more, including the religious outlook of people who do not identify with a particular faith. And the answers? That depends upon the income of the polled people.
Those who have income of less that $15,000 see money as leading to spiritual growth or decline on just about even terms, 47 percent for the former and 48 percent for the latter. The second largest spread among four income groups was indicated by the $15,000 to $29,999 tier, where only 30 percent thought wealth advanced spirituality but 53 percent saw "decline." In the $30,000 to $49,999 class, 39 percent thought wealth helps spirituality and 49 percent mentioned "decline." The most significant finding was that, of those with $50,000 or more in income, only 25 percent of these mid-middle, upper-middle, and wealthy people conceived of wealth as promoting spiritual growth; 62 percent connected it with decline.
Before eyes glaze over in the face of statistics without the cute little colored graph, let's speculate, making a bit more of this bit of data than it might be able to carry under closer examination. We must assume that the $50,000 people are speaking both autobiographically and after having looked around among their kind. Our only point today is that people do connect wealth with the inner life, the soul, and the spirit, positively and negatively.
So do the sacred writings of most religious traditions, including the scriptures to which the American majority, Jewish and Christian, are devoted. Recently we were asked by a speechwriter to suggest a positive-toward-wealth passage from Torah or Talmud, or anywhere else in this literature. Before we get accused of misreading, say, the Bible, let us say that its books often portray the prosperous as God-fearing, and prosperity as a blessing. But there were more passages among the prophetic writings and in the gospels which are at least ambivalent; most warn of the spiritual distractions of wealth that can lead to decline.
Prosperity was usually described as a blessing on God's people more than on the individuals. As religious leadership ponders the new market economy into which we have moved, it is keeping one eye on these scriptures and one on the little graphs that measure how citizens measure soul and money.