Behind every great fortune there is a crime. —Balzac
Mario Puzo (paraphrasing Honoré de Balzac), epigraph for The Godfather, 1969
Smuggling. Possibly others along the way, but centuries ago it seems it began with smuggling. No criminal enterprises underway now, pinky swear. Commercial real estate these days.
I see a dilemma. On the one hand, I want to use this blog to tell you about what it’s like to be rich and religious and why a sense of belonging is thus so hard to achieve in a religious community, or indeed most communities. I don’t intend to do this in a scholarly way; I’m not a social scientist. So I’m going to have to rely on my memories, impressions, and anecdotes and hope they reveal my truth to you. Inevitably, then, the blog will have a confessional quality to it, and you’ll need some biographical information about me if I’m to be understood. On the other hand where I have different fingers, for my safety, peaceful personal relationships (more on that later) and my own mental health I want—need—to maintain my privacy and anonymity.
A bit of what I think I believe (for now)
Let’s start with my assumptions. It will be fun to see if they stand up as the blog goes on. To me, Unitarian Universalism, and particularly its embrace of human dignity and thoughtful religious inquiry, are indeed a religion in which one, as Rev. A. Powell Davies put it, has a “chance to grow a soul;” contrary to an often expressed opinion, UUism is not a spirituality in which we “can believe whatever we want” but one in which we learn to want what we can believe and to then form those desiderata into a personal integrity. More on that in a later post, very probably.
I think that the freedom inherent in our religion is most appealing to those prepared to undertake a religious journey that combines intellectual and spiritual rigor, and so we will always attract people who value education at a premium. I think that it’s unsurprising that people who value education highly often attain high academic achievements, and I think that these achievements are one of the gateways to the Upper Middle Class. Thus perhaps UUism will of its nature always tilt towards the Upper Middle Class. I think that the value of intellectual pursuit is too often conflated with academic and economic achievement, and maybe that’s what the “class conversations” causing so much angst are about. More, very likely, on that in the future.
I think that definitions of the term “class” or better, “social class,” usually rest on people’s occupations and incomes. While money and role in the labor market may be good markers for grouping people together, once grouped together there are intangible, impalpable things about that group which are both more characteristic and harder to define. Let’s call that culture. I think that people know less than they think about classes that aren’t immediately adjacent to their own. I think the three to five labels usually used (lower class, middle class and its divisions, upper class) aren’t descriptive enough to be useful and prefer to reference a system of four super-claves comprising thirteen classes. More on all of this, too, in the future: likely the near future.
A bit of who I think I am (for now)
I am an American woman in my thirties. I was born into a family that, on my father’s side, has been rich and Upper Class for centuries. I do not want to be too specific but I don’t think it gives too much away to say my ancestors are written about in history books and have historic sites, national parks and monuments named after them. It’s likely that I will share more on that, but vaguely, in posts to come. I prefer the term “rich” as a more direct descriptor than other vocabulary like wealthy or fortunate or privileged, so when I do use those terms in the future you can assume that I’m being more specific. My mother was born into an immigrant family; her parents became middle-class business owners and she, I think, would have become upper-middle-class if not for marrying my father. My family is socially and politically to the left of center, to varying degrees. That’s my background.
I live in a city in the eastern United States. I grew up mostly in a single-family home on a third-acre corner lot of a good neighborhood inside the city limits of a major city. I am the middle of three siblings. My parents are both still alive. They have two vacation homes and a large pied-à-terre in New York City, and I think of myself to be as much “from” those places as from my primary childhood residence. I guess we’ve now established that the eastern city I now call home is not New York, but oh well. I have lived significant parts of my life outside the United States. I am married to my best friend, a man who I met while we were in high school. We went on together to the same college. I went to a private Catholic high school exclusively for girls. More on that, for sure, later on. The college we attended was, in fact, an Ivy League college, and an education from one is often proposed as a class marker of the Upper Class, in my opinion erroneously. More on that or maybe not, we’ll see, another time. We have no children. A younger extended family member lives with us. Both my husband and I have health and disability issues, and his are significant. More about that is definitely to come. That’s my family life.
My family’s net worth is in the low-to-middle nine figures. My personal net worth is in the low eight figures. My husband, independently of me, has amassed a net worth in the upper six figures, minus our home. We own our home, a large condominium that recently appraised for more than two million dollars, but not outright: it is mortgaged to my parents. I own two automobiles. There are valuable things in my home, including artwork and antiques (more on that later) that are insured for more than the value of the real estate. I have a cleaning service that comes twice a week, and my building has luxury services like a concierge and doorman, but I don’t directly employ any “servants.” More on service and my relationship to it is definitely to come, count on that. I travel internationally often, for business and pleasure. No, I don’t have obnoxious hobbies like dressage or polo or formula one racing. I hope that gives you a sufficient picture of my lifestyle and wealth.
I work for a multi-family office, and the reason I have linked a Wikipedia article to describe that is that it’s a term I find that I often have to explain. I work for my family rather literally, inasmuch as I directly report to my parents and my job is mostly about managing the spending and investments of my family members rather than managing the businesses which are the sources of that money. Most of what I make each year is from dividends of and, to a lesser extent, capital gains on investments. Last year our household tax returns reported a bit over $500,000 in earnings, and we gave more than 25% of that to charity, but that’s not the whole story. I am paid a salary for my work and this is the take-home pay over which I have the most direct control (and I will explain control in a later post). That salary is $3,700 a month gross. While I’m aware that’s a lot more than I could make in fast food, nevertheless to me it feels often feels small and difficult to work within. More on that, and on how you can be rich and still experience personal sacrifice, to come. Last year I spent $2825, or 6.36%, from that salary on charitable giving. Now, obviously charitable spending from my salary isn’t the whole of my philanthropy, because there are family charitable trusts that I can in part direct, but it is the portion of my giving over which I had full, direct discretionary control. Again, more on cash flow and personal control of wealth to come. That’s my income explained.
I said I grew up Catholic. From an early age I had an interest in religion. I loved reading biblical stories and I loved my religion classes in school. The Catholic church of my childhood was fairly liberal and concerned with social justice, but it grew steadily more conservative as I got older. By high school, it was obvious that I was academically interested in religion and theology—my teachers loved me—and unlikely to stay Catholic. Via my husband’s stepmother and a chaplain, I discovered Unitarian Universalism in college and it felt like a homecoming. My parents were concerned at first with my abandonment of Catholicism but they were having their own disillusionments as the clerical sex abuse crisis grew and as they increasingly felt like mistreated major donors. It wasn’t hard for them to accept my “conversion” to UUism. I became very active in my UU congregation as an undergraduate. I applied to a Masters of Divinity program before graduation and was accepted. At the time, I thought I wanted to become a UU minister. I decided against that after my first year of divinity school as I felt a growing exclusion from congregational life, mostly centered on issues of class assumptions and money. I finished my graduate degree and began working for my parents instead. I have been a member of four UU congregations. I am now a member of zero. And more, a lot more, nearly all of what is more, on that later. And that is a chunk of my religious biography.
I think I’ve shared quite a lot about myself without being too specific. I hope it gives us a basis for discussing class and religion going forward. If there are details I left out that you’d like to know, please ask about them below. If I can answer them while preserving the essential anonymity I need, I will share more. Later on.