Is the Mortgage Crisis a Spiritual One?
Time has an interesting article today on how the Prosperity Gospel has led some followers into the subprime mortgage mess. Jonathon Walter (University of California at Riverside) and Anthea Butler weigh in on how this theological focus on prosperity led many to believe that religious reasons were paramount in the approval of their risky mortgages. God, it seems, wanted them to have these homes despite their individual economic situations. The reaction from churches that promote the Prosperity Gospel will prove interesting as the financial tumult continues. Here's an excerpt:
Has the so-called Prosperity Gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants — and hence, victims — of the current financial crisis? That's what a scholar of the fast-growing brand of pentecostal Christianity believes. While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California Riverside, he realized that Prosperity's central promise — that God would "make a way" for poor people to enjoy the better things in life — had developed an additional, toxic expression during sub-prime boom. Walton says that this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe "God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house." The results, he says, "were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers."
Others think he may be right. Says Anthea Butler, an expert in pentecostalism at the University of Rochester in New York state, "The pastor's not gonna say 'go down to Wachovia and get a loan' but I have heard, 'even if you have a poor credit rating God can still bless you — if you put some faith out there [that is, make a big donation to the church], you'll get that house, or that car or that apartment.'" Adds J. Lee Grady, editor of the magazine Charisma, "It definitely goes on, that a preacher might say, 'if you give this offering, God will give you a house. And if they did get the house, people did think that it was an answer to prayer, when in fact it was really bad banking policy." If so, the situation offers a look at how an native-born faith built partially on American econoic optimism entered into a toxic symbiosis with a pathological market. ...
But Walton suggests that a decade's worth of ever-easier credit acted like drug in Prosperity's bloodstream. "The economic boom 90's and financial over-extensions of the new millennium contributed to the success of the prosperity message," he wrote recently. And not positively. "Narratives of how 'God blessed me with my first house despite my credit' were common. Sermons declaring 'it's your season to overflow' supplanted messages of economic sobriety," and "little attention was paid to.. the dangers of using one's home equity as an ATM to subsidize cars, clothes and vacations."
With the bubble burst, Walton and Butler assume that prosperity congregants have taken a disproportionate hit, and are curious as to how their churches will respond. Butler thinks that some of the flashier ministries will shrink along with their congregants' fortunes. Says Walton, "You would think that the current economic conditions would undercut their theology." But he predicts they will persevere [sic], since God's earthly largess [sic] is just as attractive when one is behind the economic eight ball.