Maybe We Should Blame God for the Subprime Mess

David Van Biema, Time, October 3, 2008

{snip} While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside, he realized that Prosperity’s central promise—that God will “make a way” for poor people to enjoy the better things in life—had developed an additional, dangerous expression during the subprime-lending 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: “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 a native-born faith built partially on American economic optimism entered into a toxic symbiosis with a pathological market.

Although a type of Pentecostalism, Prosperity theology adds a distinctive layer of supernatural positive thinking. Adherents will reap rewards if they prove their faith to God by contributing heavily to their churches, remaining mentally and verbally upbeat and concentrating on divine promises of worldly bounty supposedly strewn throughout the Bible. Critics call it a thinly disguised pastor-enrichment scam. {snip}

But Walton suggests that a decade’s worth of ever easier credit acted like a drug in Prosperity’s bloodstream. “The economic boom ‘90s and financial overextensions of the new millennium contributed to the success of the Prosperity message,” he wrote recently on his personal blog as well as on the website Religion Dispatches. 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.”

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