Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rick Santelli and the Gospel of Greed

I’ve been thinking about stockbroker Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC this week (here). About Rick Santelli’s sermon on CNBC this week, to be more precise. Because that’s what it is: a rootin’, tootin’ reaffirmation of the core principles of old-fashioned hard-line American Puritanism in the face of the current economic crisis and federal attempts to address that crisis.

The message is loud and clear. In fact, Santelli shouts it, in case we don't get it, sounding every bit like a fire-and-brimstone preacher struggling to get us to the mourners’ bench: God prospers the good and punishes the bad. Poor people are bad. Rich people are good. Taking from the rich to give to the poor reinforces the immoral behavior that got the poor into their mess in the first place. It’s righteous to ignore the needs of the poor because otherwise we’d be implicated in their immorality.

Santelli’s sermon-rant is replete with all the old Puritan buzzwords: “bad behavior,” “losers,” “prosper,” “reward,” “moral hazard.” Moral language. Religious words. Dressing up a message that is essentially economic, but masquerading as theological. Listen to it—again, if you’ve already done so—and listen for those words. Imagine you’re hearing a sermon. Because you are hearing one, one as old as the nation itself.

And one’s that at the very heart of our current economic crisis, which is as much a moral crisis as an economic one. We are where we are now economically and morally because we have let ourselves believe lies for years now—lies about how people get into poverty and how people achieve wealth. Remember Reagan’s welfare queen? The woman who engaged in “bad behavior” and created a “moral hazard” for our nation?

The one who took without giving back, who wanted to be “prospered” and “rewarded” without going through the hard work of earning and saving? The immoral woman who did not do what righteous folks do, but wanted to cut moral corners?

The woman who never, in fact, existed, but whom we needed to invent to justify our callousness towards the poor and our greed? The mythical person Reagan made up to assure us that we do not have to apologize for our greed, because greed is the oil that causes the economic machine to turn smoothly, so that it will magically produce wealth for us while spitting out enough resources to take care of those we ignore if we focus unashamedly on our own advantage . . . .

The economic philosophy underlying the Reagan revolution, the revolution that has now brought us to our current state of economic collapse, is rooted in a mythical theological system in which selfishness is honorable and good and blessed by God, and wealth is a sign of God’s blessing on the selfish. And poverty is a sign of God’s curse, a sign that one has not given oneself to the virtuous life of hard work and scrimping, and therefore does not merit prosperity. What Rick Santelli is seeking to do in employing that loaded religious language is to get us to create new welfare queens, in the midst of our current crisis: to imagine that those we are bailing out are lazy, immoral parasites taking hard-earned money out of the pockets of the righteous.

It’s all so neat. It’s all so clear. And so simplistic. And so cruel. And so twisted. And so very American. So it’s no wonder what Rick Santelli’s rant-sermon has now run like wildfire through the media and pop culture. That’s what it was designed to do, after all. This sermon emanates from a group of people—the very stockbrokers who have worked hardest of all to place us in economic crisis, who have been the most brazen about their greed—who are adroit about using quasi-religious language to whip up our indignation about the “bad behavior” of the lazy, immoral poor.

So that we don't recognize what is really going on in our economic system: that it never benefits all of us in that magical way Reaganomics promised, but only the rich. So that we don't recognize that the folks we have already been bailing out (and the ones who always get bailed out) are those at the top who keep telling us that God placed them there due to their virtue, and that they deserve what they get, unlike the immoral poor at the bottom of society.

These folks—the greedmongers of our culture—and their allies in the churches have been working fast and furious to refashion the scriptures of faith communities to turn them into messages about the virture of wealth and the immorality of poverty. They have done all they could to undercut movements within faith communities that remind us of our solidarity with each other—that we are all in it together, that the downfall and failure of my neighbor implicates me. That we cannot live morally while ignoring the needs of the less fortunate.

And to our shame, we keep listening, even as the sermons blare out at us from the trading floor. From the lips of those who have profited most largely from our willingness to believe their lies and to pretend that greed is honorable and morally admirable, and will save the world.