Acton Institute Powerblog

The New Christian Consumerism

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Young people everywhere are attracted to the idea of doing good as they consume products and services. Tom’s Shoes appear on the feet of students all over my campus. The shoes come with a promise that a pair will be distributed in the underdeveloped world each time a pair is purchased. The same is true of Warby Parker glasses. I own a pair, though I bought them for affordability and quality rather than because I wanted to see a pair distributed. Young people are also busy buying “fair trade” coffee, t-shirts, and other goods. The idea is that through our buying habits, we can achieve a greater good than the one that comes from a straightforward exchange of money for products and services.

This concern for those who are less well-off or who live at a disadvantage to ourselves is, of course, nothing new. Certainly, the desire to aid the poor, the widow, and the orphan is a core element of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In my own generation (and really a generation or two before me), Francis Schaeffer criticized Americans (comfortable Christians included) for their addiction to “personal peace and affluence” and their “noncompassionate use of wealth.”

The buying practices I have mentioned are aimed at curbing the tendency of well-off westerners to consume too casually and perhaps too enthusiastically. There is an attempt to encourage thoughtfulness about the way one acquires consumer items. Buy the shoe that results in a pair being delivered to a poor person in Africa at the same time. Purchase the goods that have been produced in a more humane fashion than the ones that belch forth from a sweatshop. Good ideas.

However, I would suggest another consideration in the way we consume. Instead of merely thinking more carefully about things like the production ethics of things we purchase, maybe we should reconsider our list of things we buy. At any given time, we may have items such as tablet computer, smartphone, new car, bigger flatscreen television, new pair of shoes that accomodates each toe separately, new earphones, new trendy jacket, etc. on our list of wants. What if we reconceived our list to include such things as helping someone pay for their car to be repaired, paying money into a scholarship fund for needy families at a local private school or college, giving a Target or Walmart gift card to a young single mother whom you know is having trouble with her bills, assisting a family with the costs of an adoption, and giving a used car to someone who could really use it instead of trading the car in? The list could be as long as one’s imagination, but the point is really to be sensitive to the opportunities as they occur.

The picture I am trying to paint here is one of a new model for consuming. Rather than thinking about the things we would like to buy (even the ones that will be replicated through a buy one, give one model), why not expand the list to include buying things that other people need? In the same way that one saves up money to purchase an iPod, it would be possible to save up a couple hundred dollars and then to ask the Lord to show you what to do with it. I think that this way of living, call it a new Christian consumerism, would go far in building up the church, the spiritual strength of the people in it, and the bonds of friendship between people.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. serves as contributing editor to The City and to Salvo Magazine. In addition, he has written for The American Spectator, American Outlook, National Review Online, Christianity Today, Human, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a number of other outlets. His scholarly work has appeared in the Journal of Law and Religion (“Competing Orthodoxies in the Public Square: Postmodernism’s Effect on Church-State Separation”), the Regent University Law Review (“Storming the Gates of a Massive Cultural Investment: Reconsidering Roe in Light of its Flawed Foundation and Undesirable Consequences”), and the Journal of Church and State. In 2007, he contributed a chapter “The Struggle for Baylor’s Soul” to the edited collection The Baylor Project, published by St. Augustine’s Press. He has also been a guest on a variety of television and radio programs, including Prime Time America and Kresta in the Afternoon. As a law student in the late 1990s, Hunter Baker worked for The Rutherford Institute and Prison Fellowship Ministries where he focused primarily on defending the constitutional principle of religious liberty. Prior to beginning doctoral studies in religion and politics at Baylor University in 2003, he served as director of public policy for the Georgia Family Council. While at Baylor, Baker served as a graduate assistant to the philosopher Francis Beckwith and the historian Barry Hankins. He assisted Beckwith in the editing of his landmark book Defending Life which has now been published by Cambridge University Press. He also provided research assistance to Hankins in his forthcoming biography of Francis Schaeffer. Baker currently serves on the political science faculty at Union University and is an associate dean in the college of arts and sciences. He is married to Ruth Elaine Baker, M.D. They have a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Grace.


  • Gisela

    This would really be good for South Africa.