I’ve been reading this (lengthy) article the last two days. (HT: Dom Benninger, via Facebook) The title, Did Christianity Cause the Crash?, is actually a bit of a misnomer. The author, Hanna Rosin, is actually interested only in the relationship between the “prosperity gospel” and the sub-prime mortgage collapse, or crash. She begins by introducing us to Pastor Fernando Garay, pastor of Casa del Padre in Charlottesville, VA. To give a flavor of his church, consider this snippet about the conversation Rosin had with one of his parishoners:
It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales’s pastor talked only about “Jesus and heaven and being good.” But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!”
What?! Where in the gospels is the support that Jesus loved money? Everywhere I read Christ talking about money it is warnings about its dangers and the potential liabilities of dealing with it poorly.
What does this have to do with the mortgage collapse? A lot. Rosin makes connection after connection between the two. The first is that the prosperity gospel naturally sets up its adherents to be more willing to take risks and over extend themselves because they believe that God will provide the funds. Thus, even if they don’t know how they’ll afford the payment with their low income, they trust that God will raise their income, provide more work, or give them a more lucrative position soon, and that will cover it.
The other, and perhaps worst, is that banks got pastors in on the deal, and particularly preyed on minority populations, like Garay’s own, largely Hispanic, church. In his case, it was worse than that:
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.
Most connections were not this oblique, but Rosin does address what was the general trend:
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.
This breaks my heart. Why would a pastor agree to team up with a mortgage company? The pastors were promised that for each mortgage gained from their church a small donation would be made to their church, or another charity. Really? That is all it took for them to literally sell the soul of their message? The job of a pastor, in my view, is to shepherd the congregation to live more like Christ. Didn’t the one example in the gospels of Christ literally “cracking the whip” teach us that He wasn’t so fond of mixing financial gain with worship of God? Blech. The other disturbing underlying issue is one of race, and economy. If the lenders were preying on the minorities and immigrants, that is despicable, and pastors being willing tools in this is a travesty that goes directly against the gospels. This is the opposite of caring for the least of these.
While it sounds absurd, this kind of message can have a positive influence, according to Tony Tian-Ren Lin, a researcher at the University of Virginia who has made a close study of Latino prosperity gospel congregations over the years. These churches typically take in people who had “been basically dropped into the world from pretty primitive settings”—small towns in Latin America with no electricity or running water and very little educational opportunity. In their new congregation, their pastor slowly walks them through life in the U.S., both inside and outside of church, until they become more confident. “In Mexico, nobody ever told them they could do anything,” says Lin, who was himself raised in Argentina. He finds the message at prosperity churches to be quintessentially American. “They are taught they can do absolutely anything, and it’s God’s will. They become part of the elect, the chosen. They get swept up in the manifest destiny, this idea that God has lifted Americans above everyone else.”
Later Rosin continues to talk about her conversation with Lin:
Along the way, they become assimilated. “While they’re trying to be closer to God, instead they become American,” he says, from their optimism and entrepreneurialism to the very nature of their dreams. … Tony Lin is careful—and of course correct—to say that neither immigrants nor Latinos caused the crash; adherents of every stripe exhibited the same sort of magical thinking about finances, as did millions of nonbelievers. Still, he recalls, “I wasn’t very surprised when the whole subprime-mortgage thing blew up. I’m sure a loan officer never said, ‘God wants you to have a house.’ But you’ve already been taught that. Now here comes the loan officer saying, ‘Sign here, and this house will be yours.’ It feels like a gift from God. It’s the perfect fuel for the crisis.”
And on talking with one of the parishoners (Billy Gonzales again), in his beat up apartment, about his job cleaning a rich man’s $4 million house:
He told me he feels pity for his employer. He assumes the man must have been close to God at one point, or at least his family must have been, “because the rich are closer to God.” But now the man has lost his way. He laughs when Gonzales talks to him about Jesus, and he wastes his money, buying $500 birdhouses and hiring Gonzales to clean them.
I hope we can all agree that “the rich are closer to God” is horribly un-scriptural. Let’s just move on. As Rosin finishes, she makes this observation about the thought process that the prosperity gospel seems to lead to:
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.
I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but I can’t find much of a way to discount her theories. I know, as a statistician, that this is simply an observational study, and no causation can be concluded from the connections, such as the areas of the country where the prosperity gospel is most prevalent are also the areas where the crash was most severe. Still, with the added background stories, and natural exploration of where the thought process inherent in the theology would lead, do make for a convincing, and disturbing link. I do not believe that it is coincidence. Perhaps both the churches and the banks got caught up in the “American Dream” and in the money that seemed to be rolling in with no strings attached. That does not excuse the theological mistakes that made the problem worse for many. Her concluding paragraphs about the financial state of several current and former members of Garay’s church are a sobering reminder that bad theology has consequences, even if it appears to work for some. The fact that it tends to prey on the weakest, and new immigrants and minorities with big families and few extended relatives in this country are surely that, is horribly un-Christ-like.
Perhaps my biggest issue with this theology is found in the statement that what this makes you is a certain kind of modern Christian, an American. (I recently blogged about my faith and the American Dream and the ease of American Christianity.) Here’s the problem: it doesn’t work everywhere, while the true gospel does. The body of Christ is global. Can a persecuted believer in Iraq, having abandoned home and business for fear for their own life, and that of their family, really “by faith” expect God to put everything perfectly right and bless them with finances and all the “stuff” that they dream of? I do believe that they can expect God to be with them and sustain them, provide them with a peace that passes all understanding, and never forsake them. In fact, I expect that they have made their faith real in this decision in a way that I may never understand. I would say that choosing to abandon all for the sake of their faith is more true faith than any prosperity gospel adherent displays when taking out a mortgage based on their expectation that God will provide for them. The same issue can be brought up about many of our brothers and sisters in the family of God in China, India, Malaysia, Sudan, etc.
Honestly, I know that I need more faith in my own life. I feel, far too often, like the father who tells Christ that he believes, but wants help with his unbelief. Seeing the effects of the prosperity gospel type of theology makes it harder for me to take more steps to trust God, because I do not want to end up with this warped theology in my own life. I do know that God is all powerful. He does have infinite resources, and He does choose to use them to bless us. I’m just not willing to buy in to the idea that blessing me with financial resources for me to spoil myself with is high on His agenda. If He should choose to bless me financial, it is primarily for the benefit of others. Also, being rich is not a sign of God’s favor. Hugh Hefner has certainly gotten himself plenty rich from pretty much nothing, and I don’t think anyone would claim that as a sign of God’s blessing. Finances are a horrible measuring stick, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t one God uses. Re-read the beattitudes in Matthew 5 sometime. (See my reflections on this from a couple of years ago.) There is nothing there for the prosperity gospel to hang on to, as I read it. Those who are blessed are those who mourn, hunger, thirst, are reviled, etc. They are promised that it will be worth it, but not necessarily on earth.
I do believe that most, if not all, of the adherents, and even proponents, of this “gospel” are sincere. I believe that they are really trying to draw close to God, and live in true relationship with Him. I just don’t believe that they are right. Their reading of Scripture is incomplete, and their theology is misguided. I have, throughout my life, had good friends who I respected and loved who believed in this theology. I pray that God will reach out to those who are trapped in this error in their thinking, and help them to see how the Kingdom economy really works. I also pray that God will reach out to me and help me to approach Him with true humility and trust, and to live out what I know, that I must rely on Him moment by moment and obey if I want to be acceptable in His eyes. I’m sure there are errors in my theology as well. I’m not perfect! I pray that God will continue to guide me in my journey as well, and that my theology will continue to be refined and shaped by His Spirit and His people as long as He provides me with breath here. Thanks to the many who play that role for me, and help to keep me walking with our Lord.