“Christianity” and the Crash

The Atlantic—a magazine clearly of the left, though a much more thoughtful variety than the knee-jerk Kool-Aid drinkers you see these days in most of the MSM—has a story in its December edition that asks a rather provocative question:

“Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”

My short answer: Being a secular publication, it asked the wrong question. It should have been:

“Did Heresy Cause the Crash?”

The story in a nutshell: The so-called prosperity gospel is alive, well, and infecting the Body of Christ in this country at an alarming rate, and while it may not have directly caused the crash, it certainly contributed. Some items of interest in the piece:

An expert on the prosperity gospel identified three of the 12 largest churches in the country, and 50 of the 260 largest, as prosperity. While the prosperity gospel is popular among professing Christians in almost all racial and ethnic groups, the story stated that it had “spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations.” As an example of how it’s spread in those communities, a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey found that 73% of religious Latinos in the U.S. agreed with the statement “God will grant financial success to all believers who have enough faith.” This is where the connection to the crisis comes in.

According to the piece, “Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots.” It has spread the most in the types of far-distant suburbs and poor urban neighborhoods that have been hit hardest by foreclosures, and the bulk of new prosperity-gospel churches have been built in the Sun Belt, especially in hard-hit California, Florida, and Arizona.

“Financial empowerment” and “wealth building” seminars are apparently rampant in prosperity churches, generally paying lip service to sound practices while playing up big houses and luxury cars to the hilt. We’re definitely NOT talking Dave Ramsey here! Along these lines, a common theme in the recent rash of predatory lending lawsuits is that banks have been in cahoots with prosperity-preaching pastors, going so far as to offer pastors donations to their churches or favorite charities for each person in the church who took out a new mortgage.

The story also features a Hispanic prosperity preacher in Virginia—who, while building his church, was also a loan officer with two different mortgage companies, one of them Countrywide—who has to be seen to be believed.

The story also had a memorable quote from Rick Warren:

This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?

Actually, I’d use “heresy” instead of “baloney”, but otherwise he nailed it on the prosperity gospel. I certainly don’t agree with everything he preaches, but I’ll give him all the credit on this one.

To sum it all up: When you have, as Amir so aptly put it, “scam artists cross-dressed as Christian ministers” who preach to the basest wants and needs of people and not to our life after we’re gone from this earth, you get a complete Charlie Foxtrot.

9 thoughts on ““Christianity” and the Crash

  1. Thanks, Cubbie, for an interesting and thoughtful post.

    I graduated from college during the deep and severe recession of the early 1980’s. For several years afterward I was a volunteer at a Christian coffeehouse. The two couples who ran the coffeehouse ministry embraced the prosperity doctrine. One of the couples eventually purchased a sub shop, and I worked there for several months until getting a new job which relocated me to Northern Virginia.

    I can still recall the poster above the cash register containing language about how successful, prosperous, and blessed we were. In fact, the shop never made money and went out of business less than a year after I left, saddling the owners with lots of debt. When I spoke to one of the owners after the business went under, she expressed dismay as to why God allowed this to happen. I hope her eyes have opened in the twenty-plus years since.

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  3. Amen. Preach it!

    1. The prosperity message works every time it is tried… for the preacher. There is a direct financial motive for the preacher to tell his congregation “give me your money, which I will use to live life big, or you don’t have faith in God”.

    2. The connection between the crash and prosperity christianity is weak at best and ideologically tied, but not spiritually tied. The prosperity message “get rich quick” is every bit as alive in the athiest elements of those communities as it is in the churches.

  4. @Professor Hale
    This is a case that demonstrates that correlation does not equal causation.

    The issue is whether the megachurches in question helped (a) cause the subprime mortgage spike, (b) make the subprime bubble worse, or (c) managed to grow as a byproduct of the mortgage spike. Even then, it would be important to actually quantify the extent to which (a) and (b) would apply, if at all.

    Personally, I think (c) applies, with a little bit of (b). The megachurch manias in those regions were a byproduct of the boom, and tangentially may have fed some of the boom in some specific cases.

    Still, the megachurch culture has some culpability, as they were preaching “blab-it-and-grab-it” when they should have been preaching about the dangers of seeking to be rich.

  5. the mega church i was in did not preach the prosperity gospel, but it did do some other subtle things:

    1. the senior pastor said straight out that since there was a need to reach people, and there wasn’t enough income to build the buildings to house those people, then debt was required to build more new buildings to house the people.

    2. at the senior pastor’s something anniversary, 20 yr perhaps, i can’t remember, he was given a brand new sailboat … which they brought INTO the auditorium and displayed on stage for all the world to see. (though i have no doubt this was the gift of a small few). that’s a tough pill for those who struggle to feed their kids from week to week.

    3. this is the same church that couldn’t help me thanksgiving week several years ago when, as a single mom, i had little girls throwing up with week-long-stomach-viruses backto-back and was beyond exhausted with no help at all. oh, they said they would give me money to have my house cleaned.

    i must say that this church does have wonderful ministries, many of which have benefited both myself and my children, for which i am eternally thankful.

    perhaps, it’s not so much what churches, in general, have done to promote such behavior … but it’s what they haven’t done. they haven’t taught and modeled being financially responsible, being thoughtful of how you spend your money. not that it’s wrong to spend three hundred dollars on a dress, per se, but that one’s choices reflect their heart.

  6. @Ame
    Whether or not they were preaching the prosperity pseudo-gospel, the fact remains that the church in question was playing into that culture.

    When churches are going into debt–especially in obscene amounts of it–and cross-dressing their rationale in terms of “ministry” and “missions”, that is the mother of all bullshit plays.

    Shame on the leaders for foisting that agenda on their members, and shame on the members for not having men with sufficient balls to call them on their pseudo-sanctified bullshit.

  7. the leaders of the church were prospering financially, so why would they encourage their leader to preach against what they are benefiting from. sad.

    i once said, years ago (and a different church, before i had kids) to a group that i think it’s best that if one has enough money to build a huge house, that they should pay off their house and build/buy another one for someone who needs a house. people thought i was looney.

    my money, my time, my talents, my abilities, are all gifts from God to be used as He desires. it’s not that nice things are bad – there are many wealthy people in the bible, and they are not scorned by God. it’s the condition of the heart, my heart. everything i do and speak is a reflection of my heart.

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