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Protesting For All the Wrong Reasons

by Fred Block
Religious conservatives have been attacking giant retail firms for dropping Christmas from their holiday greetings. But Santa might have other reasons to put Sears on his list of those who get a lump of coal in their stockings this year.

Religious conservatives are currently threatening boycotts of several of our largest retail chains because employees are directed to wish customers a general “Happy Holiday” rather than the religiously correct “Merry Christmas”. This mobilization to defeat the “war against Christmas” is no laughing matter. It is part of an effort by the right to turn religion into mere words and rituals, stripping it of its deeper ethical meanings. Given the real problems at our large retailers, these religious conservatives are making a fuss about the wrong problem.

Most Americans are disgusted with corporate corruption and greed. A recent survey of investors (New York Times, Dec. 9) found that only 2% of respondents felt that Fortune 500 CEO’s were “very trustworthy” and 90% thought that big companies have too much power in Washington. These findings reflect the long series of financial scandals and the out-of-control growth in CEO pay. Large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Sears have been among the poster children for this bad corporate behavior.

Look, for example, at the case of Sears–the parent company of two of the retail chains (Kmart and Sears) that are being denounced for their un-Christian greetings of shoppers. Sears’ Chairman is Eddie Lampert who is also the head of one of the world’s largest hedge funds. Lampert is probably the first “one billion man” since his hedge fund job paid him $1.02 billion of compensation in 2004.

Think of this: Lampert earned in one year about the same amount as 62,000 of his retail workers. If we compare him to the world’s poorest people who live on less than $1.00 per day, he makes the same amount as 3 million of those souls. How can we reconcile this with Christianity’s teaching that every human being is equal before God ? Differentials like this are a throwback to the era of the Pharaohs when a handful of people owned everything and the rest scrambled for crumbs. In those days, at least, nobody preached the gospel of equality.

To make matters worse, observers suspect that Mr. Lampert has little interest in Sears or Kmart’s future in the retail business. He has been slashing payrolls and resisting pressures to renovate aging stores. He could be planning to sell off the firm’s assets, including real estate holdings and other businesses, with the idea that selling these pieces would generate more revenue than staying in the retail business. But, of course, that path would mean unemployment for thousands of Sears and Kmart employees and retirees would lose benefits.

But why should religious conservatives worry about any of this? In their view, his outrageous level of pay is simply what the divinely inspired “invisible hand” of the market has dictated. And if Sears were to exit the retail marketplace, sending thousands to the unemployment line, that, also, is just one of those storms of “creative destruction” to which people must learn to adjust. These religious conservatives are focused laser-like on the really important moral issue—how do you greet your customers in December.

Ultimately, the issue is not putting “Christ” back into Christmas; it is putting moral values back into our economy. The truth is that a market economy cannot survive and flourish without shared moral values and limits on the extent of economic inequality. Sure, the failure of the Soviet Union taught the lesson that it is dangerous for a society to attempt to equalize everyone’s income. But that doesn’t mean that we must return to the inequalities of ancient Egypt. In fact, Orwell’s withering satire of the Soviet Union can now be turned against our current situation. In Animal Farm, the slogan was that: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” When Eddie Lampert’s salary equals the earnings of 3 million of the world’s poor, surely he is now “more equal than the others.”

There is an alternative. Society can place limits on the amount of inequality that we are willing to tolerate. We can raise up the poorest people and put a ceiling on what any individual can earn. The choice, in short, is clear. We could follow the religious right and adorn all of our public places with crucifixes and let inequality soar to historically unprecedented levels. Or we could create a genuine “moral economy” governed by the principle that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.

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