I propose that instead of the noble eagle, the symbol of the United States should be a large, juicy hamburger. Instead of the stars and stripes—a bowl of ice cream. Replace the national anthem with a Coca Cola advertising ditty and instead of “the land of the free and the home of the brave” we’ll promote the burger selling slogan, “Have it Your Way.”
Americans have been subtly conditioned to see themselves not primarily as patriots or serious citizens, but as customers, and if customers, then consumers. They have happily endorsed the mantra that “the customer is king” and have enthusiastically embraced the idea that therefore each and every one of them is a member of the American royal family which includes everybody with a dollar in their wallet and the desire to buy. With happy faces they flock to have the royal experience at Burger King and Dairy Queen, crowning their experience with a procession if not down the Mall then to the shopping mall.
Without even thinking about it we have gotten used to having it our way. Because excellent customer service is ubiquitous we believe it must be part of the natural order. The service in the restaurant is always friendly, efficient and courteous to a fault. The menus are perfectly written and professionally designed not only to inform, but to whet the appetite in a pleasing way. The re-fills on your drink are free, the food is tasty and reasonably priced, the decor is interesting and the ambiance carefully constructed. Is there a complaint? The footman-server will take the blame, the butler-manager will offer you a free dessert and quietly slip you a gift card to soften the price of your next visit as the porter opens the door.
The same delightful experience awaits you at the big box hardware store, the supermarket, the appliances store and every other major chain. Indeed, even the doctors, nurses and dentists have been trained in customer care. Communications with the customer are superb. You will receive thank you emails and polite enquiries about your experience. If you fill in a questionnaire you might win a free vacation or a hamper of other goodies. Pampering you further is not a nuisance. It becomes an exciting little game in which you might win a prize, for remember the customer is king and Everyman in America must be coddled and cuddled in one big Fantasyland where everything is wonderful all the time and everybody is always happy.
The problem with this consumerist nirvana is that it is unreal, and like all artificial pleasures, it does not really satisfy. Because it does not satisfy it becomes addictive. Should anything go wrong in our perfect world our disappointment is disproportionate. We assume everything will not only work perfectly, but we also assume that everything must be to our liking instantly. If not, spoiled children that we are, we will stamp our feet, put out a pouting lower lip and demand that the instant gratification start up again.
Those with money often blame the poor for being indigent and dependent. We talk of the “entitlement culture” in which those who are less well off feel entitled to certain privileges and pleasures. In fact all of us in the consumer culture are addicted to privileges and pleasures. Middle class people feel just as entitled to be pampered by all those whose goods and services they purchase as the under class. Does the fact that one class have paid for their privileges and pleasures make that much of a difference? Is not their egotistical and self indulgent attitude the same?
Furthermore, we have come to expect the same level of “customer service” from the organizations we once joined in order to be part of a community of service to others. So good Christians treat their church as yet another outlet to get what they want as they want it, when they want it. Catholic priests used to schedule seven masses on a weekend in order to cope with the large numbers coming to worship. Now they schedule seven masses on the weekend to give people consumer choice. Parishioners who once volunteered and found in the church a way to serve God and others now demand instant service from the church and school. Faithful believers who once came to church with an attitude of obedience, worship and a willingness to serve God and neighbor now come to get something: an inspiring talk, an uplifting experience, a spiritual poke or a clerical joke. If they don’t like the pastor, the company, the music or the gospel message they will complain and move to another church to have it their way.
These behaviors are the symptom not the disease. The deeper disease is the dispiriting greed that first drives, then destroys a nation. That greed is, in turn, the symptom of a deeper deprivation—the deprivation of the divine. Put simply, souls starved of God must feed on lesser gods, and those lesser gods are money, comfort, pleasure, food and drink. Forever sated but never satisfied, we are poor spoiled souls cut off from God because of our worship of lesser gods. Consumer service professionals may treat us as royalty, but our royal status is no more real than the cardboard crown they hand out at Burger King or the sweet, melting soft ice cream from Dairy Queen.
This is not what we really want. Instead we want the solid joys and lasting treasure that come with self discipline. We do not really want to be spoiled. We want to be saved. We want not so much to be consumers as to be consumed with the fire of a greater love. We want not so much to be served as to serve. We do not want to be spoiled children, but responsible adults—serving with simplicity, giving with generosity and living with dignity.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is adapted from a chapter in Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Published by Thomas Nelson.