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The Connection Between Materialism and Militarism

Editor’s Note: This excerpt from a 2/8/03 address by African American Catholic priest, Rev. Bryan Massingale, documents the relationship between materialism and militarism, using the two key security documents of the current US Administration - “The National Strategy for Homeland Security” and “The National Security Strategy of the USA.” Both documents are accessible at the official White House website.  The last half of Bryan’s address focuses on the alternative view of security from the Jewish-Christian Scriptures.  The full address is available via email from IPJ.



By Rev. Bryan Massingale

…What is our “national security” agenda?  The often-repeated goal of “national security” is to protect “American interests” and defend “our way of life”–a way of life that our enemies seek to destroy.  What is “our way of life” that we seek to promote abroad and defend from hostile attack?  It is usually described in a couple of typical phrases, for example, “our democratic way of life and our economic prosperity;” (1)  or, “freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” (2)  In yet another place, the Administration states, “We will seek to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets and free trade to every corner of the world.” (3)  Thus “American interests” are described as a triad of democracy, prosperity, and free markets.

[Of these] it is clear that the fundamental “American interest” that is key to “our way of life” is economic prosperity: free trade, free markets, free enterprise. Our “National Security” makes this crystal clear: “Free markets and free trade are key priorities of our national security strategy.” (4)  The United States goes so far as to elevate free trade into a central and defining “moral principle”:

The concept of “free trade” arose as a moral principle even before it became a pillar of economics.  If you can make something that others value, you should be able to sell it to them.  If others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it.  This is real freedom, the freedom for a person–or a nation–to make a living. (5)

Thus our core American value, the freedom we seek to defend, is the freedom to buy and sell, the freedom to acquire and consume, the freedom–dare I say it–to shop.

Now we can see what is central to our “security” concerns.  For a primary objective of our military strategy is to protect “our way of life,” that is, first and foremost, our economic prosperity.  America’s economic well-being is dependent upon our military dominance: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” (6)  The preservation of our military dominance is so central to our security and the protection of our “interests” (defined principally in terms of economics and trade) that we declare that we will act preemptively and unilaterally, with crushing, overwhelming power, to maintain it (7)            

Let us sum up our journey thus far.  Underlying the American pursuit and understanding of “security” is a deep sense of fear and vulnerability felt in the aftermath of the homeland attacks of 9-11.   Our policy documents constantly play upon and remind us of the threats we face and our vulnerability to cold-blooded evil.  Our way of life, a life of undisputed military dominance and unfettered economic prosperity, is under attack from nefarious enemies, both known and unknown, seen and unseen.  Our fear and vulnerability demand that we maintain and bolster our military preeminence, in order to insure our continued economic prosperity and consumer lifestyle.  Indeed, our national security strategy makes clear the connection between military might and consumerism in ways that we seldom articulate.  American national security policy is a concrete example of what some have called a worldview of military consumerism. 

Thus the “underside” of consumerism is the belief that having a disproportion of goods is appropriate, and that using force or violence to get or keep these goods is both necessary and legitimate.  This attitude is concretely illustrated in the statement of an American woman who had just purchased a low mileage SUV during the Afghan conflict: “She believes that Americans have a right to do what we want and to buy what we want. [She asks,] Isn’t that why we are fighting?” A consumer society–the American way of life–depends upon violence, or the threat of violence, to maintain itself. 


1  “Homeland Security,” 7

2  “National Security,” Introductory Presidential Letter

3  “National Security,” Introductory Presidential Letter

4  “National Security,” 23

5  “National Security,” 18

6  “National Security,” 30

7  “National Security,” 6, 15


Questions for Reflection & Discussion

1. What evidence or examples would you use to support or refute his final sentence – “…the American way of life depends upon violence, or the threat of violence, to maintain itself”? 


2. What’s the connection that Massingale asserts between consumerism and foreign policy, between materialism and militarism?  Do you agree with his analysis?  Why or why not?


3. How important has SHOPPING become for our nation? For you? 


4. What can we do – as individuals, families, schools, and faith communities – to challenge the hold that materialism has on us?  The hold that it has on US public policy?