A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that “religion is less likely to be central to the lives of individuals in richer nations than poorer ones” (HT).
Given the Bible’s many warnings about the danger presented by wealth, specifically the temptation to no longer rely on God and his providential care, that probably isn’t surprising. But what might be more surprising is that “the United States, the wealthiest nation, was ‘most notably’ an exception, scoring higher in religiosity than those in Europe. The level of religiosity in the United States was found to be similar to less economically developed countries such as Mexico. Americans tend to be more religious than the publics of other affluent nations, the survey stated.”
But what upsets the seeming iron law connecting wealth to irreligion?
If wealth is less of an idol in the United States than elsewhere, it’s due in large part to the penetration of the Gospel message into people’s hearts and minds. An example of this message is clearly evident in a recent CT column by John Piper, “Gutsy Guilt.”
Piper takes apart the myth of prosperous comfort that Satan propagates. Piper writes with regard to sexual sin, perhaps the most difficult class of sins to conquer, “The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.”
Material prosperity can be an occasion not only to stop relying on God for the provision of earthly goods, but can also be an opiate that dulls our awareness of even greater grace, the gift of justification. “Therefore, God, out of his immeasurable love for us, provided his own Son to do both. Christ bears our punishment and performs our righteousness. When we receive Christ as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of our lives, all of his punishment and righteousness is counted as ours (Rom. 4:4-6; 5:1; 5:19; 8:1; 10:4; Phil. 3:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21). Justification conquers fornication,” writes Piper.
Here we hear echoes of Martin Luther: “At once a righteous one and a sinner! Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”
If the Pew survey is reliable, it speaks greatly to the cause of Christ in America that great wealth has not resulted in the level of apostasy and practical atheism present in other countries. Only when rightly and appropriately valued does wealth occupy a morally praiseworthy place in the world, as a means of glorifying God through service to our neighbor.
Folks like John Piper and Craig Gross (whose efforts in an anti-pornography ministry is profiled at length here) have done a great deal to keep American Christianity from accommodating sexual guilt that lies unforgiven in cultural appeasement. We are of course and by no means blameless or perfect, and our “success” relative to other countries is less important than our failure relative to God’s demands of holiness.
But what these things do show is that the Gospel and the extent to which God remains a vital reality in the lives of people does matter greatly in this world, not least of which in how it affects the way we relate to the culture around us and begin to use penultimate things rightly.