Acton Institute Powerblog

Does your 401K make you an idolator?

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Here’s today’s offering from Jim Wallis’ Rediscovering Values for Lent on the Sojourners website:

Today, instead of statues, we have hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s, and mutual funds. We place blind faith in the hope that the stock indexes will just keep rising and real estate prices keep climbing. Market mechanisms were supposed to distribute risk so well that those who were reckless would never see the consequences of their actions. Trust, security, and hope in the future were all as close to us as the nearest financial planner’s office. Life and the world around us could all be explained with just the right market lens. These idols were supposed to make us happy and secure and provide for all our needs. Those who manage them became the leaders to whom we looked, not just for financial leadership, but direction for our entire lives. That is idolatry. (page 29).

Last month, Fidelity Investments reported that the average 401(k) balance reached a 10-year high at the end of 2010 — two years after the financial crisis and recession. It also pointed out that “the majority (53%) of participants in 401(k) plans … earning between $20,000 and $40,000 do participate, and 71 percent of participants earning $40,000 and $60,000 participate.” That’s a lot of lower-income idolatry.

This is not a picture of the stock market
According to a report (issued in 2008) by the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, “ownership rates for equities and bonds across U.S. households grew dramatically between 1989 and 2001, but have since tapered off. In the first quarter of 2008, 47 percent of U.S. households (54.5 million) owned equities and/or bonds. The overall ownership rate in 2008 is still much higher than it was in 1989.” The report noted that “ownership of these investment assets has declined since 2001, as increasing market volatility has reduced Americans’ tolerance for risk.” But, most likely, those investment funds will be saved somewhere or moved into lower risk vehicles.

Of course, if you are afraid that investing in the stock market, a mutual fund, a money market account, etc., makes you an idol worshipper, the cure would be to stuff your cash into the mattress or bury it in a coffee can. But would that be good stewardship?

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Denny

    I am sadden to read these nonsensical comments from Wallis and how they are supposed to pass for thoughtful political/spiritual “advice”. So in Wallis mind should we not have a 401K and just live off social security when we are old? Should stop contributing to our savings, give it all to the poor and asks the government for help when we need money? What silly nonsense.

  • Roger McKinney

    This is the kind of nonsense I see from Wallis all the time. Saving is evil and people who save are idolators! What a moron!

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, one thing I could never get the socialists at Sojourners blog (before I was banned) to admit is that it’s evil 1) to claim to know the motives of others (only God has that power) and 2) to then judge those motives harshly. Most of what Wallis does is attribute evil motives to others.

  • Good point, Roger. Not only does Prophet Wallis discern the motives and spiritual condition of others, he also knows the mind of God, i.e., “What Would Jesus Cut?”

  • Ken

    Wow. I wondered what happened to all the straw. Now I know.

  • Roger McKinney

    Ken, you don’t know what the straw man fallacy is. The straw man fallacy is claiming that someone’s arguments are false because his character is bad. That’s not what I’m saying at all. His arguments are false because their illogical, violate economic science, and contradict the facts.

    I’m saying he is committing the sin of attributing to himself God-like powers by claiming to have the knowledge of people’s motives. And because he thinks he has that power he then claims the authority to judge the motives of others, which he doesn’t have.

  • Kevin

    I read Wallis to be saying not that having a 401k makes one an idolater, but rather having “blind faith” in the market, and in market devices, such as a 401k, and their managers, as tools to mitigate risk and ensure future safety and security. In this sense, Wallis is echoing Christ in Luke 12 and the parable of the rich fool who believes his physical resources, and his knowledge to manage them, will isolate/protect/save him from a final reckoning. There is no doubt that the Bible teaches stewardship (Proverbs) but there is also a warning that the trust placed in anything, whether it be one’s self or God’s good creation and His natural laws, which is not properly oriented toward an ultimate trust in God, will be disappointed. Thus, our current disappoint begs the question: are we misplacing our trust in the free-market?

  • Kevin: Your “sense” about Wallis’ Lenten message is nowhere to be found in the plain language he used. To answer your question, no we are not misplacing our trust in the free market. However, we are not living with a free market but a mixed economy with large burdens of taxation and regulation. The policy debate is how much of this burden is necessary and to what extent this burden is a brake on economic growth and human flourishing.

  • Roger McKinney

    Kevin, keep reading Wallis and you’ll understand him better. Wallis is anti-economics and anti-market. He calls economic science the “gospel of scarcity” and pleads with his minions to abandon it for the “gospel of abundance”, or socialism.

    Because good economics teaches that free markets do good while state intervention does harm, Wallis twists the science and claims that economists worship the market. That’s just dishonest. We could as easily say that Wallis worships the state, which isn’t too far from the truth.

  • Roger – do you think the market can be the object of idolatry?

  • Roger McKinney

    Luke, no, I don’t, because the market is not a thing. The market is a process whereby people discover and create prices for goods and services. A free market is nothing but free people. And free markets are nothing more or less than the implementation of property rights.

    God sanctified private property with “though shalt not steal.” But without free markets, they’re just words. Putting the words into action mean creating free markets.

    And doing God’s will is worshiping the one true God.