The Common Good
May 2005

'Tis a Gift to Be Simple

by Johnathan Taplin | May 2005

Our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions.

Many of us (

Many of us (Republican and Democrat alike) were drawn during the Ronald Reagan eulogies last summer to the image from our country’s Pilgrim heritage: America as John Winthrop’s "City Upon a Hill." These lines spoken by Winthrop in 1630 to the 700 colonists about to depart for the New World give a sense of their mission: "We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities." Winthrop believed the secret of America would be that each person could live a simpler, less wasteful life and the commons would benefit.

But today America sails blithely towards the greatest economic and spiritual crisis of a generation and has gone through a presidential election without once debating one of the most serious issues of our times. Quite simply, America is living beyond her means, spending more than she is earning. We are awash in Winthrop’s "superfluities," on a global credit card binge, dependent on the "kindness of strangers" in China and Japan to not call in the loans. As Stephen Roach, chief economist of Morgan Stanley, wrote recently, "In my view, the U.S. economy is an accident waiting to happen."

THE CRISIS IS not just economic, but spiritual as well. Modern secular consumer society—embodied by the classic bumper sticker "The one who dies with the most toys wins"—has redefined the meaning of a worthwhile life. The consumption of material goods as a way to define ourselves has left the average family with no savings, high levels of stress, and a gnawing sense that the whole American culture is on the wrong track.

It is that missing spiritual dimension in modern life that has increasingly called people of faith to revisit what is important in their lives. In the Evangelical Environmental Network’s Care for Creation statement (, we are reminded that "our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, and therefore we urge followers of Jesus to resist the allure of wastefulness and overconsumption by making personal lifestyle choices that express humility, forbearance, self restraint, and frugality."

Ultimately the task of tackling the burden of our overconsuming, undersaving economy should come to the forefront of the national dialogue. What is needed is a citizen’s movement of simple living that would go on irrespective of which party is in power. It would tap into the power of local experimentation to find solutions to the urgent problems of education, conservation, and a crumbling infrastructure. It would harness the creative power of the digital revolution to increase the efficiency of local government and business.

Whether we think it’s morally right to live a simpler life or whether "the market" forces the discipline upon us, we are going to have to get less wasteful. Our challenge is to rebuild this city upon a hill with a notion of stewardship, which is embedded in almost every religion. The notion is simple. We are here for a reason: to be stewards of our culture and our planet. In that sense we must walk as lightly on the earth as the Native Americans who founded this place.

Years after Winthrop asked his followers "to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God," the Quakers started singing a hymn that could be our anthem: "’Tis a gift to be simple, ’Tis a gift to be free. ’Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be."

Jonathan Taplin, who has produced films and music for Bob Dylan and The Band, George Harrison, Martin Scorsese, and Gus Van Sant, was a professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California when this article appeared.

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