Friday, December 18, 2009

Bankrupt for Jesus

     Warning: do not drink (communion wine) and invest.


     I just heard an interview on The Freedom from Religion Foundation's Freethought Radio of author Hanna Rosin concerning her latest article in The Atlantic entitled "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?"

     The article and interview provide a fascinating investigation into the "prosperity gospel" churches, whose particular brand of Christianity promotes the belief that god will bless believers with material wealth.  I can not go into enough depth in this blog post to do Rosin's research justice, but here are some highlights from what hit me about what I see as hypocrisy: preaching Jesus' attributed words to amass one's own wealth.

     These prosperity gospel preachers take scripture literally (well certain passages, anyway), including these words:
     Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Mt 7:7-8 and Lk 11:9-10)
     Jesus said to them in reply, "Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive" (Mt 21:21-22)
     In my opinion, the prosperity gospel's preachers seem to ignore passages such as the parable of the sower, the parable of the house built on sand, the parable of the rich man and the harvest, etc. that speak against the vein pursuit of amassing and storing wealth on earth, as opposed to heavenly wealth.  However, it seems to me that the prosperity gospel has equated earthly wealth with the indication that one will receive heavenly wealth/salvation, a very Calvinist notion.


     The prosperity gospel preaches a brand of faith marked by overzealous optimism that it encourages great financial risks with the promise that god will provide even greater wealth as a reward of one's faithful financial leaps.  Optimism and success are viewed as proof of faith, and pessimism and failure viewed as sin.  In other words, as quoted from a "believer" in the article: "'the rich are closer to God [sic].'"  (Reminds me of Unapologetic Me Prayer, Bargain Prayer, and I Got Mine Prayer.)

     Once banks got wind of the prosperity gospel's message, a symbiotic relationship developed between banks and prosperity gospel preachers, who like parasites began bleeding the faithful by making arrangements to mix church and banking.
     The idea of [banks] reaching out to churches took off quickly, Jacobson [star witness for Baltimore City’s recent suit against Wells Fargo] recalls. The branch managers figured pastors had a lot of influence with their parishioners and could give the loan officers credibility and new customers. Jacobson remembers a conference call where sales managers discussed the new strategy. 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,” Jacobson told me. “They would say, ‘Your congregants will be homeowners! They will be able to live the American dream!’”
     Who doesn't want to live the American dream?  What pastor doesn't want to help their flock?  What pastor doesn't want to increase donations to the church and to charity?

     This kind of self-serving pastor talk led prosperity gospel pastors to sacrifice their financially strapped followers to the mortgage gods.   However, prosperity did not follow, as the housing bust, credit crisis, and subprime-mortgage blowup unfolded. 

     Even so, the prosperity gospel thrives:
     It is not all that surprising that the prosperity gospel persists despite its obvious failure to pay off. Much of popular religion these days is characterized by a vast gap between aspirations and reality. 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. As Garay [Fernando Garay prosperity gospel preacher of Casa del Padre in Charlottesville, Virginia] likes to say, “What you have is nothing compared to what you will have.” The unpleasant reality—an inadequate paycheck, a pregnant daughter, a recession—is invisible. It’s your ability to see beyond such things, your willing blindness to even the most hopeless-seeming circumstances, that makes you a certain kind of modern Christian, and a 21st-century American.
     There is the kind of hope that President Obama talks about, and that Clinton did before him—steady, uplifting, assured. And there is 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.
     Once, I asked Garay how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”
      Rosin's conclusion on the Freethought Radio podcast was that the prosperity gospel didn't cause the crash, but that it helped accelerate it.  If this blog post has interested you in the hypocrisy that involves the prosperity gospel and loaning institutions please read Rosin's article, AND don't invest your real and hard-earned money because a preacher tells you it will get you into some imaginary heaven.