Who caused the recession? The latest Hanna Rosin article in The Atlantic (recommended by my Episcopalian friend Mr. Price) suggests part of the blame may lie with the prosperity gospel, the warped theology of many American Christians who conflate Jesus with Santa Claus:
Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots. Both spread in two particular kinds of communities—the exurban middle class and the urban poor. Many newer prosperity churches popped up around fringe suburban developments built in the 1990s and 2000s, says Walton. These are precisely the kinds of neighborhoods that have been decimated by foreclosures, according to Eric Halperin, of the Center for Responsible Lending.
Zooming out a bit, Kate Bowler found that most new prosperity-gospel churches were built along the Sun Belt, particularly in California, Florida, and Arizona—all areas that were hard-hit by the mortgage crisis. Bowler, who, like Walton, was researching a book, spent a lot of time attending the “financial empowerment” seminars that are common at prosperity churches. Advisers would pay lip service to “sound financial practices,” she recalls, but overall they would send the opposite message: posters advertising the seminars featured big houses in the background, and the parking spots closest to the church were reserved for luxury cars [Hanna Rosin, "," The Atlantic, December 2009].
Read Rosin's full article for some insight on the God=Mammon mindset that pervades too many American churches. Only in the prosperity gospel could a pastor happily moonlight as a loan officer for subprime lender Countrywide. Only in the prosperity gospel could craving a really big house be seen by mega-preachers like Joel Osteen as God's calling to goodness.
Fortunately, not all of the faithful are fooled by filthy lucre. Rosin points to a 2006 Time interview with Rick Warren (no poor preacher himself), who rightly laughs at the prosperity gospel:
This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn't everyone in the church a millionaire? [Rick Warren, quoted in David Van Biema and Jeff Chu, "Does God Want You to Be Rich?" Time, 2006.09.10].
The next time you hear a preacher telling you that wealth is a sign of God's favor, remind him of Matthew 19:24—you know, the camel and the eye of the needle.
Here endeth the homily. Go forth and proclaim the good news... and hold the materialism.