WASHINGTON — American history abounds with apparent contradictions, but few loom as large as this: We are a people wedded simultaneously to materialism and spirituality, mostly (though not exclusively) religious. In a recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans said religion is “very important” in their lives. This same nation, of course, has now unleashed history’s greatest acquisitive binge. From 1995 through 1999, Americans purchased, among other things, 77 million cars and light trucks, almost 8 million new homes, 57 million personal computers and 64 million mobile phones.

The contradiction shapes our culture. Popular obsession with the stock market has reached almost psychotic proportions, but some of the new superwealthy are so uneasy with their fortunes that they succumb to what therapist Stephen Goldbart calls “sudden-wealth syndrome,” characterized by “excessive guilt” and “identity confusion.” As for ordinary Americans, they view the country’s greatest problems as moral. In a 1999 survey, people listed their four top concerns as: crime, wrongdoing by elected officials, drug abuse and family breakdown.

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