Many of us have been struggling to understand the nature of our current economic meltdown. Was it greedy bankers, who made unscrupulous loans while passing the risks on to others? High-rolling hedge fund managers who resold the risky bundled securities and reaped millions? Politicians and political activists who pressured banks and lending organizations to make risky loans to minorities and low-income customers or be castigated as racists and bigots? Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the FHA?
Let the confusion end: The Atlantic has hit the news stands with a breaking revelation: It’s the Christians! To wit: Did Christianity Cause the Crash?
… recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:
Narratives of how “God blessed me with my first house despite my credit” were common â€¦ Sermons declaring “as your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “God can do”, little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM.
In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home’, or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home’, he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”
Whew! That was easy! Who knew? But is it really that simple? What are the facts on which this startling conclusion is based?
…Kate Bowler found that most new prosperity-gospel churches were built along the Sun Belt, particularly in California, Florida, and Arizonaâ€”all areas that were hard-hit by the mortgage crisis.
Makes sense: these were rapidly growing areas of the country; with rapid growth and cheap credit, lots of homes were getting sold. And lots of new churches and churchgoers would be expected. So, these Sun Belt areas grew quickly, had a lot of new churches (some of which were the “prosperity” variety) and ended up with a lot of foreclosures. But surely there has to be more evidence than that…
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.
So, a lot of foreclosures occurred in the Hispanic and black communities — and the prosperity gospel was increasingly popular among these groups as well. Pretty damning, I’d have to say. Pretty much nails it down, don’t ya think?
Seriously, there’s really not much more to the “evidence” in this article than that. Sure, they mention that some of the banks were marketing to prosperity Gospel churches, and some pastors were a bit cozy with the banks as well, and seemed to be encouraging debt. But really, that’s about it. Perhaps some numbers would be nice: how many of these churches’ members actually ended up foreclosed or financially destitute? What percentage of foreclosed homes were purchased by these church members? If you’re going to make the claim that the prosperity churches are a major factor in the housing meltdown, wouldn’t some hard facts and numbers be, you know, reasonable to provide?
Oh, and here’s a little mental exercise for you: imagine their cover blaring forth: “Did African-Americans and Hispanics Cause the Crisis?”
Sigh. From a once-great magazine to garbage journalism, chasing Newsweek to the bottom of the literary barrel. What drivel. This is their cover story? Jeez.
Where to begin? The prosperity Gospel churches and their televangelists have always been favorite targets of the mainstream media and pundits who want to get a handle on “Christians” and what they think. They are easy targets because they have such high media visibility, and their preachers often have an ostentatious lifestyle which almost begs the accusation of greed and hypocrisy. And sometimes, as happened with Jim and Tammy Baker and Jimmy Swaggert, they hit pay dirt.
What seems to go unnoticed is the the “health and wealth” churches, although culturally highly visible, are very much a fringe movement in Christianity, bordering on cultic at times, and are regarded by most mainstream evangelical and Catholic theologians and scholars as being heterodox at best, if not outright heretical — the antithesis of the core Christian doctrines about concern for the poor, the spiritual benefits of suffering, the dangers and bondage of debt, excessive materialism, and an unhealthy focus on wealth. They are widely ridiculed and little respected among most Christians in my experience, and I suspect their stated numbers of followers is inflated more than Obama’s “jobs created or saved” stats.
True, there will always be an appeal for a message that promises you wealth in the now and joy in the hereafter, and so it is no surprise that their congregations are often large. But neither is the teaching of these prosperity preachers solely devoted to wealth acquisition; there is a strong emphasis by most on morally upright living, self-discipline and spiritual development, and they often have ministries to the divorced, victims of domestic abuse, the homeless, and drug and alcohol recovery. Not everyone in the pew on Sunday is looking to cash in on God.
No, the real motivation behind this article has nothing at all to do with any serious attempt at understanding the housing crisis and its causes; it is a gratuitous slap at conservative Christians, and the nefarious politicians and preachers who supposedly exploit them:
Few of Sarah Palin’s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they’ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce.
They just can’t help themselves, can they? What does Sarah Palin have to do with the housing crisis? And precisely what are these “extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies”, etc., etc.? Facts and hard numbers don’t matter when your proffering a political and religious hit piece. Or this:
There is the kind of hope that President Obama talks about, and that Clinton did before him: steady, uplifting, assured. And there is [Pastor] Garay’s kind of hope, which perhaps for many people better reflects the reality of their lives. Garay’s is a faith that, for all its seeming confidence, hints at desperation, at circumstances gone so far wrong that they can only be made right by a sudden, unexpected jackpot
The real “desperation” comes not from sincere-if-misguided congregants of some prosperity gospel churches, but rather from a dying journalism industry, which having lost all objectivity and the respect of their readers, have become naught but petulant, pathetic harpies hoping to score a journalistic jackpot at the expense of religious conservatives.
It’s not working, fellas — nobody’s listening to you or reading you anymore.
Perhaps the money we gullible Christians save by canceling our subscriptions to your sad rag can go towards a bigger home someday.