Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

Here’s a rather provocative idea that may have a certain amount of merit, perhaps not as a “cause” of the crash per se, but another contributing factor in terms of the “magical thinking” promoted by so-called prosperity gospel — the perfect fuel for the crisis.

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.

From the Atlantic article by Hanna Rosen:

More 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 … Sermons declaring “It’s your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “what 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.”

For whatever it’s worth, Rosen points that demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots.

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45 Comments

Filed under Economy, Religion

45 responses to “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

  1. Omar

    Grift in the name of God. I’m sure Jesus would be impressed.

  2. Quite the perversion, isn’t it?

    I loved the comment by one guy quoted in the article that “rich people are closer to God.” Wow.

  3. The prosperity gospel is part of the American religious scene, but it’s found mostly in black and Pentecostal congregations. Even mainstream right-wing evangelicalism deemphasizes it.

    The areas that crashed the hardest: Phoenix, Las Vegas, Southern California, Pacific Northwest, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., are not exactly hot spots for prosperity gospel theology.

    You’d find that belief system in the rural south, which wasn’t as hard hit.

    I think it’s a stretch.

    I still think the cause was greedy bankers.

  4. That said, I think Anglo-Saxon culture has always had an undercurrent of Calvinism back to the 17th Century. The extreme version of Calvinism embraces the doctrine of predestination whereby God has foreknowledge of which people are the elect and who are the damned before we are even born. The elect are thought to bear the fruits of their status by being prosperous and holy on earth and the damned show their status by being unsuccessful.

    I think much of the current “War on the Poor” you see in the U.S. today has its basis in this Calvinist legacy. “The poor are poor because they deserve to be and the rich are entitled to their wealth.”

  5. Ti-Guy

    There’s plenty of blame to go around. I think the triumphalism and the exuberance at the end of the Cold War really should have been managed better.

  6. TofKW

    I loved the comment by one guy quoted in the article that “rich people are closer to God.”

    No kidding, I almost fell off my chair when I came up to that. So how do these dingbats explain this dandy?…

    Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:23-24

    Sorry, don’t mean to sound like a bible thumper here, just that this is one of the few verses from the bible that I actually remember. Hey RT, any word on how that new Conserva-Speak bible is coming along? Interesting to see how they re-write that one.

  7. Ti-Guy

    So how do these dingbats explain this dandy?…

    I’m not sure, but I believe “trickle down economics” enters into it at that point; that by becoming rich, one also ends up helping the poor.

    These people can rationalise anything.

  8. Makes sense to me…. People need something to cling to.

  9. Ti-Guy

    People need something to cling to.

    Especially when “basic common sense” has abandoned them, eh?

    By the way, nice blog (*snort*).

  10. TofKW — I think the message of Jesus (such as the one you sited) is pretty unequivocal when it comes the accumulation of wealth not being a guarantee of passage into Heaven.

    The Conservative Bible… LOL. I’d forgotten about that. Apparently, they’ve got about 30% of the New Testament “translated” into Conservaspeak now.

    I like this one from Mark 1-25:

    KJV: “And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him.”

    PCT: “Jesus then scolded the spirit, and said, “Stop moaning and pull out of him.”

    If I had more time it would be fun to find more such dull-witted and unpoetical revisions.

  11. Meh. This thinking is mostly built into American capitalism, the notion that if you have found yourself wealthy, God (or the invisible hand of the market in secular language) loves you especially. Mega-churches (read malls), televangelists (read TV advertising) and holy water you can buy online (read consumption) all parallel and reinforce the American way of life nicely. The Bible is then read and interpreted through a lens of rational self interest and you get the prosperity gospel. Matt Taibbi’s blog entry on Goldman-Sachs claiming Jesus would approve of their machinations illustrates this pretty well: http://is.gd/4TwVN

    Evangelical Christianity is the religious standard bearer for the American way of life, and is basically a Christian window dressing for American exceptionalism and nationalism. That’s why the Republican party of the wealthy elite get along so well with the “moral majority” despite the fact that their interests and socio-economic worlds are so different. So no, “Christianity” (as if that is some term that describes a homogeneous movement, group or mentality) itself has little to do with it.

  12. KOL

    “Jesus then scolded the spirit, and said, “Stop moaning and pull out of him.”

    Oh great. The wingnuts are turning the New Testament into thinly-disguised gay erotica.

  13. Ti-Guy

    Matt Taibbi’s blog entry on Goldman-Sachs claiming Jesus would approve of their machinations illustrates this pretty well:

    I’ve been trying to forget that example of astonishing elite moral corruption ever since I was first made aware of it.

    I’m happier with the Illuminati conspiracy. I’d rather believe these people are concerned about being secretive.

  14. TiGUy
    “Especially when “basic common sense” has abandoned them, eh”

    Im not saying its right… im just saying that common sense left awhile ago for them to get into the predicament.

  15. I’ve been trying to forget that example of astonishing elite moral corruption ever since I was first made aware of it.

    I agree it is sad and people will go to whatever lengths to justify their position. But there is no need to link ideology into this. Both sides of the isle are guilty of this ie Hollywood elite & Wall Str.

  16. What dont you like about our blog? (snort*!)

  17. Ti-Guy

    But there is no need to link ideology into this. Both sides of the isle are guilty of this ie Hollywood elite & Wall Str.

    There’s that Manichean dualism we’re all so fond of.

    You can stop the “Hollywood elite” by simply not going to movies anymore and getting rid of your cable teevee. Tell me, how do you undo Wall Street?

  18. Same way as hollywood… simply stop supporting corporate america.

  19. Ti-Guy

    What dont you like about our blog?

    Ask me what I *do* like about it. It’ll be shorter.

    I can’t bear American “conservatives” anymore. Even the serious ones. Especially the serious ones. Ann Coulter is a breath of fresh air, compared to them.

  20. Ti-Guy

    Same way as hollywood… simply stop supporting corporate america.

    And how do you propose to do that?

  21. Can’t bear conservatives anymore? huh must be a tough life. How to stop supporting corporate america? um use private and local companies for anything you need…

  22. Ti-Guy

    um use private and local companies for anything you need…

    And how’s that working out?

  23. Im not worried about the elites like you, remember…. so i enjoy cable teevee, movies, and any products manufactured out of corporate america.

  24. Oh the “elites” meme. Groan. How tiresome.

  25. Ti-Guy

    You’re a vanguard, Timmy, that’s for sure.

    Anyway, I loved this quote from Taibbi, from the link provided by Ryan:

    Absolutely the dumbest people in the world, always and without fail, are intellectuals. Anyone who has ever sat in with a bunch of Yalie grad students while they discuss Kafka– they’ve read every book in the world about him, right down to the nineteen different Marxist critical interpretations of The Castle, but it’s somehow eluded them that Kafka’s stories are funny — knows what I mean.

  26. philosoraptor

    Red,

    You just convinced me to watch some more MSNBC video (in particular, featuring Mika…..). In so doing, I came across the Carrie Prejean interview on Larry King. If you haven’t seen the clips, you should. It’s magically ridiculous.

  27. Sadly, 4 years of undergrad in an English language and literature program means critical theory circle-jerks like that on Kafka are far to familiar to me. 😉

    Mind you, still more stimulating a connected to the real world than an MBA.

  28. TofKW

    “This thinking is mostly built into American capitalism, the notion that if you have found yourself wealthy, God (or the invisible hand of the market in secular language) loves you especially.”

    You summed this up very well Ryan, and the phenomenon of how the Protestant Reformation went on nurture the modern capitalist world economy has been a topic of immense study since Weber  first wrote about it in 1904. Indeed there was a whole series presented on PBS (I wish I could remember the name) on this very topic only a few months past.

    What has surprised me (though it really should not) is that some would take the next logical step and assume that the more prosperous one became in this world, the closer they would be to the Kingdom of God. I attribute my lack of deductive reasoning to years of Catholic school indoctrination, where it was drilled into us that suffering, self-sacrifice and service to God brought you closer to the sweet afterlife. Funny as I figured out fairly quickly in life that such a line of thinking was an excellent way for the masses to be controlled by religious leaders. Dubious as it is, at least the Catholic church has the actual biblical scriptures on their side. I’m still trying to wrap my head around these Evangelical half-wits thinking the way to heaven is via exploitation of the poor …or worse, the working poor who believe this.

  29. philosoraptor

    Oh the “elites” meme. Groan. How tiresome.

    Indeed. I’m especially bemused/frightened when “elites” is confused or combined with “intellectuals”. The end of the world may not be nigh, but the end of the Enlightment certainly seems to be.

  30. Ti-Guy

    Sadly, 4 years of undergrad in an English language and literature program means critical theory circle-jerks like that on Kafka are far to familiar to me. 😉

    The worst thing, though, is to go forth from that experience intent on applying that learning to every situation you come across after that. I think that’s what Taibbi is criticising most about intellectuals, especially of the credentialed variety (intellectuals can be all kinds of people…it simply means people more animated by ideas rather than things). It leads to knowledge unencumbered by experience and manifests itself eventually in a dangerous lack of wisdom, the aged Alan Greenspan being, I believe, the worst example of that Western civilisation has ever produced.

  31. The Bible isn’t on anyone’s side, that is to say that the Bible doesn’t just “say” anything for itself. Anyone can take a book imbued with such multiplicity in meaning and read in such a way that reinforces ideological or cultural stances. Another thing I recall from critical theory classes in my undergrad and writing well-graded Marxist interpretations of everything from Beowulf to Mark Twain.

    Americans do it with evangelicalism to reinforce capitalism while Canadians did it in the first half of this century (the Social Gospel movement) to reinforce a social-democratic positivist liberalism that until recently had a lot of currency in this country.

    The point is that the only metaphysical or spiritual language many Americans know is a particular form of Christianity. If you can communicate that the universe is on the side of American capitalism with it, you get the prosperity gospel and other incarnations like Cotton Mather’s “City on the Hill.”

  32. The new elites – the business of religion and mega-churches.

    These folks supposedly take the Bible literally.

    Hmm….

    Corporate Greed and the Religion of Wealth: In the temple courts [Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep and doves and other
    sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle;
    he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. [John 2:14 & 15.] Watch out! Be on your guard against
    all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. [Luke 12.15.] Truly, I say unto you, it will
    be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 19:23] You cannot serve both God and Money. [Matthew 6:24.]

  33. Ti-Guy

    Oh the “elites” meme. Groan. How tiresome.

    I’m not tired of the discussion of elites. We do however, need a new debate about them, to break from the tiresome class struggle dialogue elite leftists have burdened the rest of us with for so many decades.

    I propose a something like The Proper Care and Feeding of the Elite: A handbook for true democrats.

  34. TofKW

    The Bible isn’t on anyone’s side…

    Sure enough Ryan, and a poor choice of words on my part. I was attempting to show that the traditional Christian teachings about impoverishment originated from clearly written verses within the bible, and Sandy had quoted a few above. They are fairly unequivocal about the relationship between wealth and the afterlife.

  35. Ti-Guy — I meant the cartoonish version of “elites” that’s often synonymous to some people with anyone in least bit educated, who likes to read books, perhaps enjoys art, likes to drink a glass of wine now and again, or prefers Starbucks to Tim Horton’s… You know, as opposed to the down-to-earth, NASCAR lovin’ common folk that bullshit “conservatives” like to imagine themselves as being…

    Speaking of elites, check this out: http://billionairexchange.com/

  36. False Prophet

    There are over 200 passages in the Bible decrying the wealthy and commanding that the poor should be taken care of. But religious conservatives would rather focus on the half-dozen sketchy passages against homosexuality and the zero passages against abortion, and as this story notes, sometimes defy Scripture. Yet they proclaim the Bible is the unaltered, unequivocal Word of God.

    The cognitive dissonance astounds me.

  37. rabbit

    Recessions happen. They always have happened, and so far as I can tell they always will happen.

    Recessions likely occurr due to a confluence of many factors. It’s a bit silly to pick out the rhetoric from black preachers and blame it on them.

  38. Ti-Guy

    Recessions happen. They always have happened, and so far as I can tell they always will happen.

    Recessions likely occurr (sic) due to a confluence of many factors.

    Brilliant! Give that commenter a Nobel prize in economics.

  39. rabbit

    Ti-Guy:

    You’re right. The vacuousness of my posting was only outmatched by yours. When you’ve got something substantive to say, give a holler.

  40. Ti-Guy

    Try reading the whole tread and participating in the discussion instead of expelling your little pellets and then hopping back to SDA all the time, Rabbit.

  41. RedTory,
    An interesting take, and probably one of the many factors that contributed…… I have heard Joel whats-his-nuts speak a handful of times, and never heard such irrational backwards christian style speak as this lady is proclaiming. Alas, i dont doubt the sheepish followers for a second, especially in districts or areas who twist the faith and lack common sense and/or values.

  42. “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

    someone famous said that.

    KEvron

  43. I’m completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.
    – George Carlin

  44. Rochana

    Christianity has had dueling views on material rewards almost since its inception. Allegorically, they are symbols of God’s love and grace. But as the housing bubble illustrates, there is a difference between a blessing and a bubble.

    You can read more about this on my blog at:
    http://blogs.journalism.cuny.edu/interactive2010/2009/11/13/the-celestial-city-meets-kansas-city-the-role-of-christianity-in-the-economic-collapse/

  45. Brian in Calgary

    A number of years ago (25 to 30) my father and I went to a special church service in Saskatoon because the church in question had paid off its mortgage, and was holding a special “mortgage-burning” service. It wasn’t the church we normally attended, but it was the congregation where my oldest brother and his wife were married in 1973, so it held a special place for us. Everything we heard was okay to good EXCEPT the main message itself from the guest speaker: the message seemed to be lifted straight from the “Prosperity Theology” catechism. My father was rarely openly critical of anything he heard in a church service, but he sure was that evening.

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