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Maybe we should blame God for the subprime mess

October 13th, 2008 12:00 am by Staff Report


Has the so-called Prosperity gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants - and hence, victims - of the current financial crisis? 

According to a report by Time 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 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. Other experts, like Walton, note that for all its faults, the theology can empower people who have been taught to see themselves as financially or even culturally useless to feel they are "worthy of having more and doing more and being more." In some cases the philosophy has matured with its practitioners, encouraging good financial habits and entrepreneurship. 

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