Essayist Lance Morrow’s cerebral new book God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money generally examines the drama of money in American society, thought, and self-identity. Money, he shows, is human, paradoxical, and absolutely essential to understanding our country and ourselves. Through the stories he tells and the thoughtful—and thought-provoking—commentary with which he infuses them, Morrow’s book addresses how the American idea has worked itself out in the universal, sometimes-ruthless, and always-personal language of money.
So God and Mammon covers philanthropy in particular, too. Morrow, a longtime contributor to Time and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, asks, “How was American money to organize itself for good?”
He answers. “Two schools of thought take shape. The first of them sought the moral redemption of American wealth by philanthropy,” according to the historically and religiously informed Morrow. “The second model sought to achieve that goal by means of government.
“The philanthropic model amounted, in effect, to Christianity’s reply to Charles Darwin,” he writes. “In the raw Darwinian dreams of capitalism, John D. Rockefeller would accumulate money—sinful dollars in the millions. Ida Turnbull and other views of progressive American Virtue would assail the Malefactors of Great Wealth, just as Jesus assailed the money-changers in the temple.
“But,” Morrow continues,
if all went well in the American scheme, the fortune would be purified and returned to the people, in Christian love—for John D. was a pious Baptist—in the form of hospitals and universities and museums and libraries. John D. Rockefeller the Son, “Mr. Junior,” as the family staff called him—a man as different from his father as Jesus Christ was from the God of the Old Testament—would preside over an astonishing public benevolence. He would accomplish the redemption—of his father, of the family, of capitalist America itself—through Good works that would hint, in this world, of the Kingdom of God to come.
The moral journey of money from sin to virtue would recapitulate the immigrant story—a passage across the waters from the sinful world of the old dispensation to the redemption of the new.
Then comes the second school of thought. “In the emergency of the Great Depression that followed the Great Crash, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and the rest attempted to rationalize the national benevolence, in most human essentials, through government bureaucracy. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away was the idea,” according to Morrow in God and Mammon.
“The IRS takes money away and bureaucracy returns it, in various forms of public good,” he goes on. “The workings of justice in such distributions are imperfect and sometimes corrupt, big government’s duties being more diverse and comprehensive than those of philanthropy.”
Well, that all certainly makes for quite an overarching contextual overview. Worth mulling, actually.
But wait, there’s more. Morrow returns to philanthropy at the end of the book. “The philanthropic model that was judged to be outmoded in the emergency of the New Deal returns, with a certain pertinence, and even a moral purity, in the globalized context of the 21st century,” he writes.
“In the absence of a worldwide system of relief of the kind that Franklin Roosevelt invented for America, the global, supra-governmental designs of philanthropist billionaires like Bill Gates makes sense,” Morrow goes on. “They operate, at their best, with a flexibility and global range that is impossible, or far more difficult, for government aid programs or United Nations agencies.
“The Gates model—pooling billionaires’ enormous contributions to do targeted good on planetary scale—might globalize Cotton Mather’s American principle, the idea of two oars rowing to heaven,” he concludes. “Gates’ notion is the enlistment of big money—the biggest—in a global performance of entrepreneurial good. If the model worked, the conflict between God and Mammon would wither away.”
Would that it would wither, in whatever way.