Monday, November 23, 2009

Hanna Rosin on the Role of the Prosperity Gospel in the Crash (With a Focus on Charlottesville!)

Last week I drank a delicious peppermint hot chocolate at Barnes and Noble and read Hanna Rosin's article in the current Atlantic, "Did Christianity Cause the Crash" (here). (Re: the peppermint hot chocolate, it's definitely starting to feel like the holidays, but the plan is to hold off on playing Christmas music until the car ride back from Thanksgiving).

This was one of the most insightful magazine articles I've read this year. It was an example of journalism and thinking at its best: explaining the way social/cultural/economic phenomena are linked, and illustrating big picture ideas with concrete examples of real people.

To make it even better, Rosin's real-life focus was Charlottesville!! I was completely unaware of Casa del Padre and Fernando Garay, and now I'm fascinated by both the church and the man.


Rosin's thesis is that the prosperity gospel (as articulated by Oral Roberts, and currently preached by T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and many, many others) was a significant cultural force that underlay the consumptive overreach (my phrase, not hers) that caused people to purchase homes they couldn't possibly afford.

The prosperity gospel, as I understand it, teaches that God wants us to be rich in material things and rewards the faithful with those riches. Rosin says that Oral Roberts focused his theology on a verse from Third John: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health. Even as thy soul prospereth.

Osteen and a number of other preachers (many of whom are, institutionally, non-denominational) have turned the prosperity gospel into a very influential (and lucrative) theology. Rosin perfectly captures the sense I've gotten of Osteen's message when I've watched him on television:
Osteen is often derided as Christianity Lite, but he is more like Positivity Extreme. “Cast down anything negative, any thought that brings fear, worry, doubt, or unbelief,” he urges. “Your attitude should be: ‘I refuse to go backward. I am going forward with God. I am going to be the person he wants me to be. I’m going to fulfill my destiny.’” Telling yourself you are poor, or broke, or stuck in a dead-end job is a form of sin and “invites more negativity into your life,” he writes. Instead, you have to “program your mind for success,” wake up every morning and tell yourself, “God is guiding and directing my steps.” The advice is exactly like the message of The Secret, or any number of American self-help blockbusters that edge toward magical thinking, except that the religious context adds another dimension.
370. Have any of the major denominations talked to Osteen and tried to "bring him on board" with their church? To what extent does he talk (and bounce around ideas) with other major religious (or philosophical) leaders? Is he well-read, either about religion/theology/philosophy or other topics?

371. Oprah has been in the news a lot this week - she announced she's stopping her show in the fall of 2011. To what extent do Osteen's and Oprah's listeners/viewers overlap? What percentage of Oprah's viewers are evangelicals? Were they ticked off when she endorsed Obama?

372. Has The Secret continued to sell, or was that a relatively short-lived phenomenon?


After providing the historical and theological context, Rosin explains that the prosperity gospel became a particularly compelling message for Americans during the boom years before the crash.

She says that African American and Latino communities were particularly fertile ground for prosperity preaching ("the prosperity gospel has spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations"). Rosin uses Charlottesville's Fernando Garay - the leader of Casa del Padre, which meets in Belmont Baptist Church (on Monticello Avenue) - as an illustration of both how and why the movement grew so popular:
During the boom years, Apostle Garay, as he is known in church ... spoke in very specific terms during church services, promising that a $100 offering would yield a $10,000 return: “This is not my promise. It is God’s promise, and he will make it happen!” he would say.

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.”

Garay is a particularly interesting figure because at the same time that he was building up Casa del Padre he was employed in the mortgage industry, writing loans (some of them to his parishioners), at least some of which went to individuals who could not afford them:
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.
Rosin says that Jonathon Walton (a professor of religious studies at Cal-Riverside) and other writers have previously posited the connection between the prosperity gospel and the economic crisis. The brief explanation is this: preachers like Garay instilled in their parishioners (many of them lower or lower middle class, and many of them recent immigrants) wildly unrealistic expectations of what they could accomplish financially, and this contributed to their willingness (eagerness) to take out loans that they shouldn't have.


One question that Rosin does not sufficiently address in the article is whether the banking industry consciously targeted church communities to find new groups of subprime borrowers -- I see how the prosperity gospel could have caused borrowers to overreach, but what's the connection on the lender side?

I guess Rosin's point about Garay being employed in the industry is that there was a conscious decision by banks and mortgage companies to make inroads into religious communities, but this thread of her analysis needs more fleshing out.

Rosin's article is susceptible, I imagine, to a liberal critique that she lays too much of the blame for the housing crisis on immigrants who bought houses they couldn't afford. Perhaps proving this point, when I googled her article one of the first references was to a white supremacist website, on which the writer applauded her focus on immigrants' role. At one point in the piece Rosin disclaims the "blame the immigrants" interpretation of her analysis, but by focusing on Garay and his primarily Latino congregation, you do come away from reading the article with a focus on the prosperity gospel's effect in immigrant communities, rather than its broader national effect.

Overall, though, this was a fantastic piece of writing. I love the way it has made me think about the relationship between theology and economics in contributing to the boom and bust of the past ten years. I am going to be looking for other articles that build on the analysis or approach it from other angles.

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