Consumer Christians in An Age of Plastic: The College Years

Before the blogosphere brought debate-p07n to your lap, you had to go to a church or college to get in ideological fights to affirm your superiority over others. Back in the 80s, the Religious Right was something of a phenomenon, which meant it was an object of general scorn on Christian college campuses–not always for imaginary reasons, but one got the impression that real facts were only collected by happy accident.

Back then Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was a Bible for the cool socially conscious Christian college student who wasn’t smart enough to get a computer or business degree but wanted to feel like he was making the right choice.  And then came out David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators which allowed students like me to feel the same. The blogosphere was still stuck in book publishing back then.

So there were sides drawn on some Christian college campuses: Evangelicals for Socialist Action versus Ugly Americans for Christ or something like that. And the debates and arguments provided great entertainment over minimum wage law, welfare, and the legitimacy of the profit motive, etc.

And we discussed this stuff not just in class, or on bulletin boards (literal real space bulletin boards where we posted notes made of real paper), or in the school student newspaper–but often while eating Pizza in a dorm room, or while eating chicken wings at the campus fast food joint. Or we would discuss it in the car while we were going out to a rock concert or a restaurant (even that was a mini-road trip where I went to college).

We paid for food on many an evening, even though we were all on the meal plan.

None of us had plastic yet, then in the second half of the eighties. I remembered being amazed at all the direct mail we were sent right before graduation telling us to buy a new car on credit.

But our behavior was rather interesting.

I have good authority that Ron Sider lived what he preached. He wanted everyone to live on $38k in 80s dollars, if I recall correctly, so that they gave everything else away. This feat required low-budget living and careful planning. It meant living on a severe budget and thus tracking expenses.

And I opposed this ESA agenda with a message about persistence in labor, patience, saving, risk-taking, and responsibility for one’s life and the lives of one’s dependents.

And we argued about this over pizza.

It never occurred to me to point out that none of my leftist student friends seemed to be even slightly prepared for a life of austerity and budgeting so that they could give away the excess. And it never occurred to me that the money I earned in college was for any other purpose other than to spend on immediate wants–my needs were taken care of along with tuition.

Saving and all the rest were for other people in another life. As long as I worked at graduating with a decent GPA, nothing else mattered. I was free to spend and consume. Real economic initiative and responsibility beyond that one duty would wait for when I was in the real world with a real job.

I lived in a bubble–to use a pregnant financial term.

I and my ESA friends lived exactly the same sort of economic life.

And Dave Ramsey and Ron Sider have more in common with each other than they did with either group of students.

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