This post began with my attempt to understand what seemed to me a contradiction: Why can some people both firmly believe that they’ve “earned” and “merited” their income or status, and yet still proclaim in church that God has given them everything? In search of answer, my thoughts turned home.
As I thought about the fundamental difference in attitude that one of my parents and I have towards money and the possible causes of that difference, I gained more understanding of the variety of views that can exist among equally successful and generous people on the three topics we’re never supposed to talk about: money, politics, and religion. So ignoring that wise advice, here goes nothing . . . .
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” John Adams
My parents had their wedding reception at my grandparents’ farm. I’ve been told that my grandparents were so poor that they couldn’t give them a wedding present. So my parents started married life with practically nothing. Over the next ten years they worked multiple jobs and took out loans until they eventually became quite well off. They were not mega rich. They’d consider themselves middle-class. But they had far more than most Americans by any statistical measure.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and maybe as a result of this upward mobility story, one of my parents strong believes that they earned their money and that others should do the same. While they give generously, one objects philosophically to governmental redistribution of wealth.
By contrast, I grew up benefiting from the wealth that they had earned. We consumed and vacationed in ways that I didn’t realize were abnormal until I reached college. My parents sent us to private school and later to elite colleges where I had the luxury of majoring in something useless because I had never needed to consider costs. In my rich ward, I heard occasionally how Jesus didn’t really mean you had to give away money–it was all just a metaphor. People struggled to reconcile the immense wealth in my neighborhood with the plain language of The Bible.
Unsurprisingly, my views of money are quite different from my parent’s: Having been handed so much, I don’t believe that I have “earned” my successes. I see economic or other success as part individual effort, but even more the effort of others–of the people and systems who got me where I am. I can’t help but see trust fund babies and welfare babies as similar in a fundamental way–they both live off the wealth of others. That I’ve been an economic parasite in the past makes me uncomfortable: I constantly feel guilty knowing that over my life I’ve consumed far more than I’ve contributed.
Today, my own family works just as hard for our income as my parents did, even though our start was, thanks to them, much easier. But my attitude towards what I earn is different. Because taking from others has made me who I am today, redistribution of wealth doesn’t bother me. I want others to benefit from the same systems and opportunities I had.
Although both hardworking and both striving to be generous, the difference between my parent’s view and my view is profound: Whereas my parent sees individual effort as central to success, I view systems, opportunities, and other people as more central. We both agree that effort and opportunities both matter. But we weigh their centrality differently. This translates into differences in political views. But does this also translate into differences in religious understanding?
I think it can. My parent who believes that they have earned everything still believes God is ultimately responsible for all. But sometimes I sense that this parent also believes in a model of God in which people earn blessings from God by following his commandments–the classic prosperity model that we see in The Book of Mormon.
By contrast, this is a model of God that I’ve never been able to accept, because God seems to bail me out even when I don’t deserve it. Because I see agency as intertwined with the systems we exercise it in, I don’t always see people as entirely responsible for their choices and fates. So as I aspire to be like God, I feel a moral duty to look out for others even if they haven’t earned it. That said, I know my parent does the same, and undoubtedly does a better job than me.
Both views are valid, and both can be expressed by intelligent, hardworking people. Our different experiences seem to have made us prioritize different aspects of the picture. But in the end, it isn’t worth letting our differences overshadow how intertwined and similar our lives and views actually are. I hold the views I do today largely thanks to what my parents accomplished. We’re two sides of a coin.
But because these differences do lead communities to contend with each other, I found it useful to pause and reflect upon how different experiences can shape our attitudes. Of course, people with the same family dynamics I have might adopt a different range of philosophical beliefs. And that is why, in the spirit of cultivating understanding, I invite you to share how your experiences with money influence your view of God.