Friday, November 13, 2009

Christianity and the Crash

There's a very interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled "Did Christianity Cause the Crash", by Hanna Rosin. The article asks a very important question: in what way may the 'prosperity gospel' been complicit in encouraging the type of financial irresponsibility which led to last year's economic crisis?

"The message that Jesus blesses believers with riches first showed up in the postwar years, at a time when Americans began to believe that greater comfort could be accessible to everyone, not just the landed class. But it really took off during the boom years of the 1990s, and has continued to spread ever since. This stitched-together, homegrown theology, known as the prosperity gospel, is not a clearly defined denomination, but a strain of belief that runs through the Pentecostal Church and a surprising number of mainstream evangelical churches, with varying degrees of intensity."

"Many explanations have been offered for the housing bubble and subsequent crash: interest rates were too low; regulation failed; rising real-estate prices induced a sort of temporary insanity in America’s middle class. But there is one explanation that speaks to a lasting and fundamental shift in American culture—a shift in the American conception of divine Providence and its relationship to wealth."

As it relates to the Gospel minorities were particularly vulnerable to both the pull of the materialism of the past 10 years and the push of the prosperity gospel's call to 'have faith'.

"Nationally, the prosperity gospel has spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations. This is also the other distinct pattern of foreclosures. “Hyper-segregated” urban communities were the worst off, says Halperin. Reliable data on foreclosures by race are not publicly available, but mortgages are tracked by both race and loan type, and subprime loans have tended to correspond to foreclosures. During the boom, roughly 40 percent of all loans going to Latinos nationwide were subprime loans; Latinos and African Americans were 28 percent and 37 percent more likely, respectively, to receive a higher-rate subprime loan than whites."

"In June,
the Supreme Court ruled that state attorneys general had the authority to sue national banks for predatory lending. Even before that ruling, at least 17 lawsuits accusing various banks of treating racial minorities unfairly were already under way...One theme emerging in these suits is how banks teamed up with pastors to win over new customers for subprime loans."

"The idea of reaching out to churches took off quickly...The branch managers figured pastors had a lot of influence with their parishioners and could give the loan officers credibility and new customers..."

"The plan was to send officers to guest-speak at church-sponsored “wealth-building seminars” like the ones Bowler attended, and dazzle the participants with the possibility of a new house. They would tell pastors that for every person who took out a mortgage, $350 would be donated to the church, or to a charity of the parishioner’s choice. “They wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, Mr. Minister. We want to give your people a bunch of subprime loans...They would say, ‘Your congregants will be homeowners! They will be able to live the American dream!’” "

Again, this is a very interesting read.

Many of us who preach and pastor have been saying throughout these boom years that its a dangerous thing to equate economic prosperity with 'blessing' or 'God's Will for your life'.

The assumption that faith, or faithful produces material goods and cash is a distortion of Biblical truth. It leads to the type of 'faith' that congregant mentioned in the article, "...the rich are closer to God." Such a twisted notion of faith is fraught with all kinds of spiritual pitfalls.

Secondly, its not surprising that pastors, especially minority pastors would get assaulted by these get rich schemes that will really 'help your members'. I wish I had a dollar for every phone call or visit I used to get with a plan that was 'guaranteed' to increase our finances, help our members and put money in my pocket at the same time!

But finally, I think it is proof that churches have to take great care in getting absorbed into our country's political and commercial culture. There is a great danger (and some churches have succumbed to the pressure) in failing to be the 'alternative culture' which church members and this world needs. Too often churches get co-opted losing the vitality of their mission: salvation, spiritual nurture, social justice, prophetic critique of culture and ministry to the poor. The results, in our country's case: God becomes an American free market capitalist; a Republican, Democrat or Libertarian and He sanctions public policy based on the ideological bent of His believers. In other words, He becomes the god of the American empire.

The 'get rich god' of the prosperity gospel, is symptomatic of a deeper problem - man's propensity to shape God in his own image, rather than vice-versa...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gerald, I just read the Atlantic article. Thanks for pointing us to it.
I am reading the new Barbara Ehrenreich book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, and it really takes this whole issue on -- in a big picture kind of way.

This prosperity gospel is obviously very, very popular. Your main point is right, and valid -- we do shape God after our own image. But it's also more than that -- we listen to what we want to believe, not to what we need to hear. (Amos would have never made the cover of People magazine, or the Larry King show). Scripture warned us of this: "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear."

Thanks for good writing.

Randy Mayeux