If the mark of the mature mind is its ability to make distinctions, then we should make a distinction between two terms that often get lumped together: consumerism and capitalism. Consumerism has come under some fire from the left (and right) as the greedy offspring of capitalism, as though the two have a direct relationship and are impossible to separate. Capitalism, of course, also gets blamed for all sorts of the world’s problems, mostly the “unjust” separation between the rich and the poor and the “evil” of globalization. (Too many people have written a moral defense of capitalism; for me to do so at length would be repetitive. "The Road to Serfdom" and "Free to Choose" would be good reads. I would hyperlink, but I'm not sure Safari will let me!)
Both accounts are wrong, but I cannot defend both terms equally. Though I agree with some criticism of consumerism, I am very careful not to confuse it with capitalism. Capitalism is a conduit, a vehicle even within another conduit. Capitalism is a “mere” system, a system that can only properly function within a just government, bound by rule of law and property rights. No other sort of government can foster genuine capitalism. So this is the first vehicle which is the prerequisite for capitalism.
Then, the system of capitalism can serve as a conduit for free trade. Capitalism inherently makes no moral stance and endorses no moral code. It may assume one, but it does not promote one. It is a slave to the market, which itself is a slave to the whims of consumers. Some have argued that free trade, and thus capitalism are inherently moral simply because they survive on the free and voluntary choices of men. True, in that sense, capitalism is, by its nature, more “moral” than communism, which relies on coercion and force. But capitalism is not a religion, and prescribes no law on its own, but only with the help of the even bigger conduit, just government, does it earn a sense of morality.
So if that’s what capitalism is, what is consumerism, and why do the two so easily get confused? Well, they get confused because those who confuse the terms have no interest in keeping them straight. But also, the caricature of capitalism is that it is fueled by greed. Indeed, haters of capitalism as far back as Marx confuse the conduit of capitalism with greed. But in fact, capitalism makes no such moral stance on greed. That’s not its job. It is the job of religion, and religion has every right, and at times obligation, to be critical of a consumerist mentality, which indeed, may rightly be connected with greed.
I suppose when I think of consumerism, I would have to admit I think of the caricature of it: being in love with an abundance of “stuff,” buying goods as a solution for joy, and caring more about material possessions than our neighbor. And I cannot help but think this is a bad thing, taken to extreme. This is even more than simply purchasing things; it’s a way of life, like when people “church shop” for the church that bests suits them.
The message of the church, though, is often in contradiction to the mindset of consumerism. Instead of church shopping, we speak of service. Instead of affluence, we speak of poverty, or at least, poverty of spirit. Instead of marketing, we speak of humility. Instead of buying, we speak of giving away. Instead of wanting, we say, “Thou shall not covet,” so that even the coveting of another’s things is forbidden.
And this 10th commandment is the strongest rebuke of the consumerist mentality: we are not to live as people in constant want of things of the world, but as people who love God (and consequently neighbor) above all other things. This is the most legitimate critique of a lifestyle that has become marked by consumerist tendencies above all things.
But the church fails in its understanding of the market when it criticizes all who are consumers in the capitalist vehicle. Simply being a consumer is not inherently evil, or even wrong. In fact, it is participating in the free exchange of goods in the most moral way possible. But when consumption, even if in a moral way, overtakes our desire to look to others, we have to ask if our consumerist tendencies are still moral. And this is the very tricky line the church must walk: defending capitalism and defending the right of the producer as well as consumer, but calling for a voluntarily service-oriented and humble dwelling within the conduit of capitalism. Distinguishing between the two terms would be a step in the right direction.