Commodifying the Child: a historical look at the idolatry of the market and the Truth we have to tell

[1] This edition of JLE is devoted to an ethical consideration of the relationship between consumerism, advertising and young people in the first third of life. Consumer advertising can be viewed from many different ethical angles. Perhaps the most obvious ethical questions relate to areas such as the social, political and environmental limits of consumerism, or the psychosocial methods of advertising. Some historians, psychologists and sociologists have devoted their life to understanding the methods that influence a person's decision to buy a 'good' product. This kind of ethical reflection is valuable because those methods may be 'good' or 'bad' in themselves. But those methods are the logical result of a more basic assumption. Advertisements are based on the assumption that you, as a human being, are naturally a 'consumer' of goods whose fundamental ethical task is to make a decision about which product you will consume. That basic assumption about the nature and purpose of a human being is theologically significant. So while it is important to ask ethical questions about the methods of consumer advertising, the perspective of theological ethics compels us to ask a more fundamental question. What does consumerism assume about the nature or value of the human being? From the perspective of historical theology, this essay will critique the anthropological basis upon which consumerism operates.

Commodifying the Child: a historical look at the idolatry of the market and the Truth we have to tell by Chad M. Rimmer

[2] In order to be a bit more precise about the focus of this essay, let me begin with a brief observation about the term 'consumer advertising'. The term itself is complex. The words 'consumer' and 'advertising' imply two ethical perspectives. The word 'consumer' implies a person who has some agency, and makes decisions about what products he will consume. Secondly, the word 'advertising' implies that this person is in some way vulnerable to or dependent upon external forces to make decisions regarding what products they will choose to consume. The goal of advertising could be seen as a purely social, in the sense that people are dependent upon advertisements to know what products are available to serve their needs. The goal could also be manipulative. Advertisers can employ methods aimed at altering the rubrics by which people decide whether or not they need a product or whether the product is in itself 'good' at all.1 If we understand consumer advertising as a neutral enterprise (in other words, if we suspend for a moment the reality that advertising can be used to manipulate the person's methods of decision making2) then 'consumer advertising' operates on the premise that every person possesses a degree of moral agency and at the same time depends on external forces to inform the decision-making process. Agency and dependency have always defined the ethical being. The ethical human being, homo sapiens, makes moral decisions based on the natural, religious, and social/political goal of wellness. However, generally speaking, consumer advertising is not based on this notion of the human being. It is based on the notion of an economic being, homo economicus3, who will base decisions based on economic worth as defined by the market. This economic conceptualization of the ethical being is neither neutral nor timeless.

[3] In order to evaluate theologically this anthropological basis on which consumerism operates, it will be helpful to understand the historical context in which 'consumer advertising' began. To that end, this essay will first identify the historical context in which consumerism emerged. Secondly I will critique the concept of 'exchange value' as one of the notions that provides the theoretical basis for consumerism. Thirdly I will consider consumerism's affect on children, and conclude by suggesting a theologically sound way to respond to the basic anthropological claims of consumer advertising.

The Advent of Advertising and the Origins of Consumer Behavior
[4] At what point did 'consumer advertising' begin? Many theses have attempted to answer this question. Most have become highly specialized with regard to specific types of advertising. For instance, the advertising of children's toys, women's clothes, and household goods each emerged at different times relative to evolving social factors. While the prevailing thesis relates focused advertising to post-industrial societies, print advertisements first materialized in the newspapers of seventeenth-century England. Given the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and the rise in literacy,4 it would be easy to suppose that print advertising was the natural consequence of combining printing press technology with the Reformation period's educational emphasis on literacy. But by the 1600s, reformers and pamphleteers had been using print media as an established form of distributing influential ideas for at least a century. Even if the printing press was the material cause for the appearance of advertisements, a technological explanation for the advent of advertising is not sufficient.

[5] According to Carole Shammas, consumer behavior actually began to change in the seventeenth century in response to a drastic increase in the availability and diversity of goods. This influx of goods was a product of the burgeoning mercantile trade of the sixteenth century.5 In the late 1500s, trade with other nations including the Americas flooded European markets with new foods and domestic products. By the mid-1600s pre-industrial markets were flush with household and personal goods such as textiles, sugar and tobacco. Through personal inventories and diaries of people living in urban centers of trade, Shammas demonstrates that people began to purchase goods based on style, luxury, and surplus. In the new economic context of the seventeenth century, it was no longer viable for sellers simply to trade goods in the local commons. Sellers now had to market them to a discerning public. While Shammas' thesis is broader than a mere technological explanation, this kind of explanation is still limited. It only introduces the trade mechanisms by which consumer advertising became a means for sellers to hawk luxury goods in the marketplace. I want to suggest that in the midst of the post-Reformation technological and economic revolutions, there was a shift taking place which is even more fundamental to our ethical concern.

[6] In his 1520 sermon on Trade and Usury,6 Martin Luther is writing in the midst of the market changes described above. He has seen the influx of new goods, specifically from England, Italy, India and the Americas, along with the abundance of gold and silver money that have flooded the German markets. He has also witnessed the staggering rates of inflation that continued into the mid-1600s, and subsequently came to be known as the price revolution.7 In his sermon, Luther laments the development of a new kind of market economy. As the title of the sermon suggests, one of his main complaints relates to the availability of money and the growing usurious practice of lending money at interest. Luther employs many well known biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments against these practices, not the least of which is his amazement that money could be used to create more money. After all, money is sterile. But a full half of his sermon focuses on the changing trade practices, and specifically the shift towards a monetary basis for assigning value to goods. His issue with the new monetary metrics was that the value of goods no longer seemed to be related to the intrinsic worth of the object, land, or animal from which it came. Rather, the just price of an item was based on the capital risk involved in buying raw materials to make a product, which was based on the price at which a landowner rented the land for farming and so on. Allow a brief example: Our neighbor's need to eat bread and the reality that a loaf of bread could provide nourishment to our neighbor's weakening body kept the baker's profit relative not only to the cost of wheat, but to our neighbor's need. However, in this new market economy, the whole logic of assigning value was reversed. Our neighbor's need for bread was no longer a reason to lower the cost of bread. Demand was seen as an opportunity to raise the margin of profit. This was because natural items such as wheat no longer derived their worth only from their intrinsic ability to become bread. Rather, wheat was priced according to the money it took to buy the necessary amount of wheat to make a loaf of bread. Luther was observing the commodification of goods, and he was baffled by such nonsense. In his mind, money should simply represent the intrinsic value of some part of creation — a field, a brick, corn, a cow, a precious stone, or a loaf of bread. Luther lambasted this new market economy that would value natural items and goods based on how much money could be received in exchange for the item. In other words, Luther thought it unnatural to commodify things according to any value other than what they were intrinsically worth. He notices that "merchants act as if God's creatures and God's goods were created and given for them alone" to price as they choose.8

[7] In the course of his sermon, Luther critiques many other complex economic practices related to the emerging market economy, such as credit lending, charging interest, insurance, speculating and leveraging risk. But in relationship to our present inquiry, it is important to see that Luther saw a particular definition of 'value' taking center stage in this new market economy. He was witnessing the ascendancy of 'exchange value'. By the end of the seventeenth century this concept of 'exchange value' would become the primary means by which goods were valued. Luther was witnessing the early stages of commodification. While wielding his theological might to oppose this economic trend, he wrote 'I suppose that my writing will be quite in vain, because the mischief has gone so far and has completely gotten the upper hand in all lands'.9 And as we will see, by analyzing how commodification developed into the seventeenth century, he was right.

[8] I have suggested that the seventeenth century shift in consumer behavior corresponds to the advent of a new mechanism by which the developing market economy measured the value of marketable goods. While this brief look at Luther's sermon suggests there are several theological issues at stake in commodification, I will now focus on the 'idolatry' of the market as a way to frame a few ethical questions for our critique of the effects of this new kind of consumerism.

The Idolatry of 'Exchange Value'
[9] I am going to frame a few key ethical issues that are at stake within consumerism according the charge that the market is basically idolatrous. But in order to understand the reason that this new market perspective might deserve to be called idolatrous, we first need to establish a working definition of idolatry.

[10] Idolatry is essentially the act of mistaking the sign for the thing to which it refers. It is as if a family saved up all their money for a trip to Disney World, and upon seeing an exit sign on Interstate 95 which read, "Disney World," stopped on the side of the road, gathered around the street sign and thought they had arrived. Consider the case of the golden calf. Beholding a calf, which is part of creation, should refer us to the Creator. But when we worship a calf as a calf, we are confusing the creation with the Creator. So, if confusing the value of an object with the value of the object that it signifies is idolatry, an economic market in which the exchange value of money determines the value of goods would be idolatrous.

[11] There is a complex historical argument to be made about the evolution of money, which can not be treated fully in the space of this essay. However, I will briefly outline the heart of the issue. When gold and silver money was first used as a medium of exchange in European markets, the exchange value of money was based on the fact that gold and silver were also part of creation's abundance. Because gold and silver were metals which came from the earth and could presumably be used for things like knives, jewelry, or dishes, they could be exchanged for other things that had a commensurable amount of worth due to their usefulness. Silver inherently had some valuable qualities. You could trade a piece of silver for some amount of wheat that had an equivalent amount of worth. However, by the end of the the seventeenth century, gold and silver coinage had flooded the markets and the price revolution ended with exponential inflation.

[12] By the seventeenth century, people knew by the inflated cost of goods that money's value as a means of exchange had far surpassed the limits of any real intrinsic usefulness of gold and silver. David Hawkes demonstrates that in 1690 Nicolas Barbon was the first to suggest that gold and silver money's role as a medium of exchange was no longer based on the worth of the metal's intrinsic quality, but rather on the relative scarcity of gold and silver in the market. Barbon writes, "It is only Scarcity that keeps up Value, and not any intrinsick Vertue or Quality in the Metals." Barbon was suggesting that money had an exchange value that was now unrelated to its created, intrinsic worth. Hawkes suggests Barbon's was the first full blown justification for money being valued relative to the market.10 And Barbon's theory was so powerful that one year later, John Locke was able to confidently suggest that:


For Mankind, having consented to put an imaginary Value upon Gold and Silver by reason of Durablenes, Scarcity, and not being very liable to be Counterfeited, have made them by general consent the common Pledges, whereby Men are assured, in Exchange for them to receive equally valuable things to those they parted with for any quantity of those Metals. By which means it comes to pass, that the Intrinsick Value regarded in these Metals made the common Barter, is nothing but the quantity which Men give or receive of them...The intrinsick Value of Silver and God used in Commerce is nothing but their quantity.11

[13] By the time of John Locke, the notion of qualitative, intrinsic worth had no bearing on the value of gold and silver. Hawkes adroitly recognizes that for Locke, and everyone after, the quantitative exchange value of money has in fact become its intrinsic value.

[14] For our purpose, the significant feature of this seventeenth-century economic development is that the sign had finally replaced the reality to which it points. From the time of Aristotle until the sixteenth century, real things such as wheat, land and cattle had real value because they were able to fulfill a certain telos — a goal toward which their inherent qualities directed them and therefore made them valuable for life. Land could be used to grow food and build houses, wheat could be used to make bread, and cows could provide milk. Likewise, in the traditions of Jewish and Christian economic logic, things derived their worth by virtue of being part of creation, and fulfilling their appropriate role in contributing to the flourishing of life. We valued goods according to their ability to fulfil that goal — land for agriculture or grazing, wheat for bread and cows for milk or meat. But now that money had its own exchange value, we started to relate the 'worth' of land, wheat, or cattle to the value of money. The problem with this twist of market logic is that the means had become the ends. Goods were no longer valued for the worth of their natural teleological purposes. Now the market determined the value of created things. The valuable creation had become the Creator of value. The market was created to represent the value of goods. Goods had become commodities that were measured according to the value of money. The sign had become the referent. This twist of logic is the root of the market's idolatry.

[15] Incidentally, this idolatry of market-based valuation did not stop twisting with the commodification of goods. Within various forms of political economy, as demonstrated in John Locke and Adam Smith, human labor itself became a commodity which could be exchanged for money. Once we valued human labor based on the intrinsic nature of that work. Now, based on the same market inversion of intrinsic worth and exchange value, labor was valued by the amount of money that work could be exchanged for.12 The point is that a person's value, in economic terms, is not related to his human dignity, but how much money a person could earn by selling his time and work. People and their ability to work were not ends in themselves, but means to create wealth. We hear echoes of this phenomenon today: Job creation is not an end in itself, pursued for the sake of helping people find meaningful employment. Rather, job creation is a means of economic stimulus. If more people can find jobs (not have meaningful work, mind you, but find jobs), then they will create more wealth to spend and market will see more money being used. Once again, the value of a person is not related to her teleological relationship to the Creator, but replaced by the amount of wealth she can create through her work. We can see that the foundation for this idolatrous inversion of logic was set long before industrialism, and a full century before Adam Smith.

[16] Even if consumer behavior had begun to change according to the commodifiction of goods during the seventeenth century (and I believe Carol Shammas is correct about this) there is an equally significant kind of commodification that occurred in this age. Modern market logic assumes that the buyers are not moral agents who make decisions based on what they determine is valuable, rather the consumer responds to the value which has been created by the market. According to market logic, not only is the value of goods determined by the market, but human beings derive their value from the role that they play as consumers of goods that the market has valued. In the consumer market, even the human role is commodified for its economic value.

[17] Further now to the second point, we can see that this seventeenth-century, idolatrous twist of market logic led to an ethical twist in the human being's economic role from that of moral agent to economic consumer.

Consumerism's Effect on Theological Anthropology
[18] Even though John Locke and Adam Smith are some of the earliest economic theorists of this new market economy, they likely would never have imagined the logical extension of this inversion of value. John Locke always assumed that the money economy would be sufficiently held in check by a society's commitment to natural law. Accordingly, the natural limits of production and a moral obligation to meet the needs of the neighbor would maintain some modicum of justice with respect to the value of commodities and money in relationship to human dignity (even if not that of creation).13 Likewise, Adam Smith's theory of capitalism always assumed that a political economy would be held in check by shared political or social moral sentiments about decency.14 However, Todd Whitmore suggests that in our modern form of neo-liberal economics, both natural law and moral sentiment have been displaced from the science of economics, and most modern societies and nation state governments have completely lost their ability to deploy moral arguments for setting boundaries to the market's metrics. Whitmore writes that when the moral restraints of theological, natural law and political ethics give way to mathematical calculations, the market economy is free to overextend social and ethical boundaries of goodness and decency.15

[20] The overextension of the market logic looks like the following. If the exchange value of money is allowed to be the foundation upon which the health of the market is measured, then everything that participates in the market is valued according to its ability to contribute to the positive growth of that market. We have seen how goods were commoditized according to the value of money. We have seen how labor was commoditized. In the end, the human being is commoditized. Whitmore, among many others, demonstrates that in the market economy, the human being is only valuable to the market as a consumer who can purchase commodities and inject money into the economy, or as a producer whose labor or products can be sold for money in the market. People are valued as consumers or producers, and if they are neither, then they are not participating in the economy at all. They have no value according to the market. They are literally worthless.

[21] This new way of assessing the value of the human being is, at its heart, a new anthropology. It is what Whitmore calls a 'capitalist anthropology' which defines the human being as homo economicus. For our purposes, we can see that this market anthropology, or consumer anthropology, is an idolatrous way of defining the human being. The worth of the human being is related to its role as an economic functionary. Once again, the ends (the created being) have become the means. And the sign (the market economy) has become the referent (the benchmark of value). In our age of neo-liberal economics in which the market is allowed to extend past the boundaries of natural, social or theological moral constraints, this idolatry completely disregards any biological or theological anthropology. The human being does not have any real identity with respect to the simple fact of its being alive. The value of a human being is not defined by any theological notion of intrinsic worth with respect to its Creator or the goals of flourishing to which every human being can contribute regardless of economic potential.

[22] This modern shift away from theological anthropology towards a consumer anthropology has major ethical consequences. The loss of intrinsic worth ultimately results in a loss of moral agency. If we can no longer contribute to the flourishing of life by virtue of our dignity as part of creation, then we are reduced to economic functionaries. And if our participation in this economy is only that of fulfilling our role as defined by economic science, which does not reflect any biological or theological notions of worth, then we have no moral decisions to make. One may object that we do have moral decisions to make about what products to buy, what kinds of markets to invest in or what products to produce. But these decisions are ultimately decisions that we make as a consumer or a producer. They are still decisions regarding how to use our economic value, not decisions based on whether or not we choose to have our worth defined by the mathematics of the market economy. Once again, our worth, or our ability to inject some morality into the market, is based on the fact that we are either producers or consumers of goods and wealth. According to the idolatrous twist in the logic based on a 'capitalist anthropology', human beings have no worth or moral contribution to make other than that of the producer or consumer. A way to demonstrate this point is to note that those who have no economic value have no way to impact the morality of the market. And we see this reality demonstrated most in the case of children.

[23] It should be noted that the title of Todd Whitmore's influential essay was "Children: An Undeveloped Theme in Catholic Teaching." His entire emphasis was on the way in which the disintegrating forces of the market economy affect the dignity of children. Whitmore demonstrates that when children are categorized as producers, consumers or otherwise worthless, there are really only two options for them. Children cannot produce economic wealth or goods which are valued in the market outside of the occasional lemonade stand or flea market stall, except in extremely rare and outstanding cases. Children are viewed either as worthless and a drain on a family's economic worth, or they are consumers who can at least contribute through their consumption of goods. And have they ever.

[24] Daniel Thomas Cook has written a wonderful book that chronicles the way in which marketing and advertising have developed since the industrial age. He is specifically concerned with the way in which the clothing industry has capitalized on this notion of children's potential consumer value to the economy. His is a valuable case study into the phenomenon, which touches on one important aspect at the heart of the problem. He calls it 'Pediocularity'. This is the notion that things which a child sees largely define their sense of reality.

[25] The way that we adorn or stock our homes with trinkets, toys and expensive things, otherwise known as urban interiors, has changed significantly since the Victorian age. And the things that adorn a child's life teach them about what is valuable. What they see advertised on television, in malls or on billboards shapes their definition of worth and value at an early age. Of course, screen time can be monitored by parents, but sadly, studies in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics over decades show that television screen time continues to increase.16 And given the ascension of smart phones and more portable computers, exposure to consumer advertising is no doubt increasing exponentially. The cumulative affect of these visual images is that children are constantly receiving the message that they are incredibly valuable — as consumers of these advertised goods.

[26] According to the recent boom in the marketing of goods towards babies and mothers-to-be, we can see that children receive this message from the earliest age. Even babies can consume. And this narrative has real consequences. The most recent report from the United Nations on the Well-Being of Children is based on a survey of children's opinion of their overall well-being. Out of 25 industrialized nations, the Unites Kingdom and the United States, the two arguably most consumer-oriented societies in the world,17 are ranked numbers 24 and 25, respectively in the overall well-being of children. In societies where the market is allowed to have an equal, if not disproportionate, opportunity to define a child's worth, our children are telling us they are not happy. In terms of today's market economy, a child cannot really be a valuable producer. In order to exercise their moral agency within the economic narrative, a child must choose to become a consumer, or wrestle with the feeling of worthlessness.

[27] The most saddening part of this consumer narrative is that it is all based on a lie. As demonstrated above, this economic definition is based on a system of logic that is simply not telling the truth. This economic system does not tell our children the truth about their natural, social or theological dignity. But in this tragedy, we have a clear path for an ethical corrective.

Showing Our Children the Truth about Their Worth
[28] In an age where children are valued for their consumption, education is valued primarily for its ability to generate new qualified producers, teachers and those who work in caring professions live far too near the poverty line, and daily political discourse consistently defines the human being's role in society as either a producer, a consumer, or a socio-economic burden, our message must ultimately be rooted in our theological anthropology. Towards that end, the task for theological ethics becomes clear. We must continue expose the idolatry of market definitions with the light of truth that values the intrinsic worth of land, goods, labor and human dignity. Intrinsic dignity comes from being creatures that contribute to the flourishing of life in ways often completely unknown, unrecognisable and worthless to economic metrics.

[29] I began this essay by suggesting that the fundamental shift in our notions of 'worth' and 'value' began in the seventeenth century. In the seventeenth century lived a notable poet and theologian named Thomas Traherne. Growing up in the English Civil War, he served as an Anglican priest in the countryside and in London, and he attended university at Oxford during the age of the scientific and price revolutions. He was a witness to those seventeenth century categorical shifts in the way we evaluate the worth of creation and children.18 His reaction to the advent of an economic anthropology is instructive for those of us living in its fullness. Traherne increasingly came to believe that the evolving definition of value was fundamentally flawed. As a child, he knew that the things of nature were valuable, and he laments the affect of those in high society who taught him rather to value 'baubles' and 'jewels' and 'hobby horses'. On the riches and wealth that he saw as a child he wrote:

I thought within myself : God being, as we generally believe, infinite in goodness, it is most consonant and agreeable with His nature, that the best things should be most common. For nothing is more natural to infinite goodness, than to make the best things most frequent; and only things worthless scarce. Then I began to enquire what things were most common: Air, Light, Heaven and Earth, Water, the Sun, Trees, Men and Women, Cities, Temples &c [sic]. These I found common and obvious to all: Rubies, Pearls, Diamonds, Gold and Silver; these I found scarce, and to the most denied. Then began I to consider and compare the value of them which I measured by their serviceableness, and by the excellencies which would be found in them, should they be taken away. And in conclusion, I saw clearly, that there was a real valuableness in all the common things; in the scarce, a feigned.19

[30] His basis for assigning 'value' to the things of creation was more than a pre-modern theological narrative. In his own childhood, he spent a great deal of time in creation, and the childlike sense of wonder taught him not only about the inherent worth of creation, it taught him the truth about his own human dignity. Spending time in creation:

taught me that I was concerned in all the world: and that in the remotest borders the causes of peace delight me, and the beauties of the earth when seen were made to entertain me : that I was made to hold a communion with the secrets of Divine Providence in all the world.20

Being out in creation as children can help us form our true identity, and therefore form a moral sense of our ethical duty, as well as our ability to help life flourish. In the face of new scientific metrics about how to be economically valuable, Traherne affirmed a simple truth that:


The world therefore serveth you abundantly in teaching you your duty. They daily cry in a living manner, with a silent and yet most loud voice, We are all His gifts. We are tokens and presents of His Love. You must therefore esteem us according to the beauty and worth that is in us, and the love from whence we came. Which to do, is certainly the most blessed thing in all the worlds, as not to do it is most wicked and most miserable.'21

[31] Traherne believed that we can help children form a truthful anthropology about their own inherent worth and that of creation by helping them literally to go out and see it. 'By an Act of the understanding therefore be present now with all the creatures among which you live; We infinitely wrong ourselves by laziness and confinement...You are never what you ought till you go out of yourself and walk among them.'22 A walk in nature reveals a truth that television advertisements cannot. From the very age in which the effects of consumerism were first truly felt, Traherne reminds us of the simple things that we can do to help our children see the truth about the inherent value of nature and their own value as creatures. To that end Traherne leaves us with this message from the seventeenth century:

and those parents that desire Holy Children learn to make them possessors of Heaven and Earth betimes; to remove silly objects from before them, to magnify nothing but what is great indeed, and to talk of God to them, and of His works and ways before they can either speak or go. For nothing is so easy as to teach the truth because the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine. [For to teach them otherwise is to] dissettle [sic]his foundation, render him uncertain in all things, and divide him from God. To teach him those objects are little vanities, and that though God made them, by the ministry of man, yet better and more glorious things are more to be esteemed is natural and easy.23

[32] The articles that are contained in this edition of JLE will, in their own way, explore this thesis as we all search for ways to help our children (as well as adults) rediscover their identity and moral agency in our consumer age. For my part, I have tried to suggest that our ethical critique of consumerism be not merely concerned with methods of consumer advertising or marketing strategies based on our identity as dependent beings. Neither should we focus solely on consumer behavior and our ability to make ethical choices as consumers and investors. Rather, I have focused on a more fundamental ethical concern with the veracity of the system by which we derive our notions of worth. In the face of a political economy that wants to define worth according to the market, we have a truth to tell.

[33] But I will conclude with the suggestion that this task is not only one of narrative, but of formation. Equipping our children with a proper theological sense of the dignity of creation is not only about what words we use to construct a narrative as the traditions of the Reformation have historically tended to suggest. Rather, our task is to help focus the 'pediocularity' of our children on that which is true. Literally, we need to help our children see what is true by the way in which we decorate our homes in ostentation or simple creativity. The food we buy and the way we eat teaches our children about making choices with respect to the ecological impact of participating in local food initiatives and the consequences of eating healthy, fresh and cooked food rather than individually wrapped energy intensive food.24 The wonderful truth is that by helping our children explore their local ecology through environmental education, grow their own vegetables, visit local farmer's markets, create art, make toys, play outside, sing, play instruments and spend time in the evenings in inter-generational conversation rather than screen time does far more than tell a child that they have intrinsic worth. They are engaged in morally significant activities that affirm their primary identity as based on something other than economics. These methods of moral formation create an integral and authentic relationship between the truth that we tell our children and the reality they experience.

[34] We can tell children every day that all that they see was created by an all-powerful God, but that means nothing if we don't equip them to critique the notion that the market can truly assign value to that creation. We can tell children Christ's teachings about the value of the sparrows and the lilies of the field, but if children actually see us make consumer decisions based on the market's definitions of value, those words may fall on dry ground, and the Word may not find the place to enliven that child with a real sense of dignity, worth and moral agency.

[35] Ultimately, this reality is a sacramental one. At the table children are valued for the very fact of their being present. Through participating in that meal they can intuitively grasp the ultimate truth about real worth. Here, wheat, grapes, the human labor that it takes to transform them into bread and wine as well as the time that we 'spend' gathering together are valuable not because of the amount of money for which they can all be exchanged in the marketplace. Rather, the value of all of these created things, individually and in relationship, comes from the Creator whose Spirit uses these things towards their actual purpose — to create a life-giving community that nourishes our bodies and orders our lives towards the well-being of each part of that good creation.

The Rev. Chad M. Rimmer, M.Div, M.Th, is a Ph.D. Candidate, New College, University of Edinburgh.



1. Michael Phillips makes this helpful distinction in his book. Michael J. Phillips, Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising: Answering a Flawed Indictment (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997).

2. This distinction between manipulative advertising and advertising for social well-being is an important distinction to keep in mind. This distinction is explored in Phillips.

3. This term, homo economicus, finds its first expression in the 19th century around the world of John Stuart Mill. However, the nascent concept of homo economicus is present a century earlier in the work of Adam Smith, and in the seventeenth century work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

4. Adamson demonstrates how and why boys and girls were instructed to read in English Grammar Schools from the late fifteenth century. However, during the time of Henry VIII, laws against women reading the Bible in public demonstrate that literacy rates had increased significantly to the point that women were reading the Bible in public. J. W. Adamson, "The Extent of Literacy in England in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries: Notes and Conjectures," The Library, s4–X (1929), 163–193.

5. Carole Shammas, The Pre-industrial Consumer in England and America (Clarendon Press, 1990).

6. Luther, Martin, Trade and Usury. LW:45, Walter Brandt, ed. Muhlenberg Press, 1962.

7. For more exposition on this theme, I would suggest E. L Glaeser and J. Scheinkman, "Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be: An Economic Analysis of Interest Restrictions and Usury Laws," Journal of Law and Economics, 41 (1998), 1–36 and P. C. Gordon Walker, "Capitalism and the Reformation," The Economic History Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Nov., 1937), pp. 1–19. R. H. Tawney, "Religious Thought on Social and Economic Questions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," The Journal of Political Economy, 31 (1923), 637–674.

8. LW, 45: 262.

9. LW, 45: 245.

10. David Hawkes, Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature, 1580–1680 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. 203.

11. Hawkes, p. 203.

12. This assessment follows a basic Marxist critique of eighteenth century political economy, and has been restated in various forms by the likes of Karl Polanyi, Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and Roman Catholic Social teaching, but at this point, John Locke and Adam Smith would not disagree.

13. John Locke, ed. Ian Shapiro, Two Treatises of Government: And a Letter Concerning Toleration (Yale University Press, 2003).

14. These theories are at work within Adam Smith, Amartya Sen and Ryan Patrick Hanley, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Penguin Books, 2010) and, The Wealth of Nations, Penguin UK, 2003).

15. Todd Whitmore makes this case citing the expression as used by Don Browning in an earlier essay, which can be found in Maura A. Ryan and Todd Whitmore, The Challenge of Global Stewardship: Roman Catholic Responses (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), p. 163.

16. A. B. Jordan and others, "Reducing Children's Television-Viewing Time: A Qualitative Study of Parents and Their Children," Pediatrics, 118 (2006), 1303–1310.

17. Here I am following Schudson's thesis as presented in,Michael Schudson, Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society (Basic Books, 1986).

18. In his treatment of the seventeenth century's market idolatry Hawkes explores the economic nature of Traherne's writings as discussed above. However, in my own doctoral studies on Thomas Traherne, I suggest that his concern with value was not simply economic. Rather, his ultimate defence is of the worth of being itself, and its relationship with the Creator, which I am pursuing in the present essay.

19. Traherne and Margoliouth, Centuries, poems, and thanksgiving, 3.53.

20. Traherne and Margoliouth, Centuries, poems, and thanksgiving, 3.23.

21. Traherne and Margoliouth, Centuries, poems, and thanksgiving, 2.28.

22. Thomas Traherne and Herschel Maurice Margoliouth, Centuries, poems, and thanksgiving (Clarendon Press, 1958), Second Century, 76.

23. From the eleventh paragraph in the third century of his meditations in, Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations (Cosimo, Inc., 2010).

24. This point is demonstrated in, S. M. Connor, "Food-Related Advertising on Preschool Television: Building Brand Recognition in Young Viewers," Pediatrics, 118 (2006), 1478–1485.



© January 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 1