Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Prosperity" Churches, and the Recession

Did Christianity Cause the Crash?
America’s mainstream religious denominations used to teach the faithful that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. But over the past generation, a different strain of Christian faith has proliferated—one that promises to make believers rich in the here and now. Known as the prosperity gospel, and claiming tens of millions of adherents, it fosters risk-taking and intense material optimism. It pumped air into the housing bubble. And one year into the worst downturn since the Depression, it's still going strong.
[...] America’s churches always reflect shifts in the broader culture, and Casa del Padre is no exception. 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. In Garay’s church, God is the “Owner of All the Silver and Gold,” and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above. Even in these hard times, it is discouraged, in such churches, to fall into despair about the things you cannot afford. “Instead of saying ‘I’m poor,’ say ‘I’m rich,’” Garay’s wife, Hazael, told me one day. “The word of God will manifest itself in reality.”

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.

In his book Something for Nothing, Jackson Lears describes two starkly different manifestations of the American dream, each intertwined with religious faith. The traditional Protestant hero is a self-made man. He is disciplined and hardworking, and believes that his “success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan.” The hero of the second American narrative is a kind of gambling man—a “speculative confidence man,” Lears calls him, who prefers “risky ventures in real estate,” and a more “fluid, mobile democracy.” The self-made man imagines a coherent universe where earthly rewards match merits. The confidence man lives in a culture of chance, with “grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God.” The Gilded Age launched the myth of the self-made man, as the Rockefellers and other powerful men in the pews connected their wealth to their own virtue. In these boom-and-crash years, the more reckless alter ego dominates. In his book, Lears quotes a reverend named Jeffrey Black, who sounds remarkably like Garay: “The whole hope of a human being is that somehow, in spite of the things I’ve done wrong, there will be an episode when grace and fate shower down on me and an unearned blessing will come to me—that I’ll be the one.”

I had come to Charlottesville to learn more about this second strain of the American dream—one that’s been ascendant for a generation or more. I wanted to try to piece together the connection between the gospel and today’s economic reality, and to see whether “prosperity” could possibly still seem enticing, or even plausible, in this distinctly unprosperous moment. (Very much so, as it turns out.) Charlottesville may not be the heartland of the prosperity gospel, which is most prevalent in the Sun Belt—where many of the country’s foreclosure hot spots also lie. And Garay preaches an unusually pure version of the gospel. Still, the particulars of both Garay and his congregation are revealing.

Among Latinos the prosperity gospel has been spreading rapidly. In a recent Pew survey, 73 percent of all religious Latinos in the United States agreed with the statement: “God will grant financial success to all believers who have enough faith.” For a generation of poor and striving Latino immigrants, the gospel seems to offer a road map to affluence and modern living. Garay’s church is comprised mostly of first-generation immigrants. More than others I’ve visited, it echoes back a highly distilled, unself-conscious version of the current thinking on what it means to live the American dream.

One other thing makes Garay’s church a compelling case study. From 2001 to 2007, while he was building his church, Garay was also a loan officer at two different mortgage companies. He was hired explicitly to reach out to the city’s growing Latino community, and Latinos, as it happened, were disproportionately likely to take out the sort of risky loans that later led to so many foreclosures. To many of his parishioners, Garay was not just a spiritual adviser, but a financial one as well. [...]

I was skeptical about this article at first. The title alone seemed alarmist. But the article itself is more subtle, and fair. It deals with the "prosperity" churches in particular, and acknowledges the good these churches can do, as well as examining their more... "questionable" or contradictory teachings.

I'm not against prosperity teachings; you have to have a vision of something better in order to transcend whatever adversity you may be facing in life. But even optimism has to be tempered with a healthy dose of pessimism, as a "grounding" influence. Emotions, however fervently felt, need to be balanced with reason. This article points out well how those lines can be blurred sometimes.

I would not say Christians caused the Crash. That's way too simplistic. The crash was caused by too many bad home loans, in which some Christians may have been caught up in. I still hold the LENDERS responsible, AND the people in Congress who pushed to have those bad loans made, despite all the warnings at the time. And I also blame all the bail-outs of banks over the past decades, banks that should have been allowed to fail. Instead, the bail-outs just protected them from the consequences of their irresponsible actions, which in turn just encouraged them to be even more reckless, and to continue making risky loans.

Even now, bailed-out banks are continuing to make loans to people who aren't able to pay them back. Protected from consequences, the banks have learned nothing. Where is the accountability? Who is more irresponsible, the people who take the loans, or the banks that make them, and then expect the taxpayers to bail them out when the loans go bad? And what about the politicians who insist that banks must make high risk loans available?

     

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