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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Prosperity Theology and the Credit Crisis

RELIGION & ECONOMICS - Can we blame a Christian branch of evangelicalism for the U.S.'s subprime crisis?

According to some commentators in the United States, a burgeoning offshoot of Pentecostalism that promises adherents worldly blessings, as well as spiritual ones, may have led congregants to believe that God wanted them to own their own homes, leading them to take out risky loans.

The Prosperity gospel, so-called because its preachers teach the message that God intends for his children to have nice things in this life, is being blamed for adding to the meltdown of the housing market by making the faithful believe that if the bank overlooks their credit score, it is because they have faith – not because of bad lending practices.

Also known under the names of Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, and Name It and Claim It, Prosperity is a reinvented form of the money-positive strand of televangelism that was disgraced with the scandals involving Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. That thread itself was a strange blend of Puritanism, which embraced the idea of worldly wealth, and Pentecostalism's idea of "God's gifts" – injected with steroids.

Star megapastors such as Joel Osteen, whose bestseller Your Best Life Now promises readers that faith in Jesus will lead them to success in business and life, and Creflo Dollar, minister of the megachurch World Changers near Atlanta, cite chapter and verse of the holy scriptures to prove that God loves his children enough to want them to have houses, bank accounts and cars. John 10:10: "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" is a favourite.

Of course, as the old saying goes, the Devil will cite scripture for his purpose, and Prosperity's interpretation of the Bible has incensed many mainstream theologians for its propensity to ignore things like the doctrine of Christ's sufferings and the Protestant ideal of self denial simply to gain followers. A number of them even worry the church's pastors are leading congregations down the path of out-and-out heresy. After all, it only takes a look at some of Jesus's sayings ("It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" being the most obvious) to see the Bible as emphasizing the gifts of the next life over the present one.

Yet while mainstream Pentecostals make Prosperity sound like a fringe movement from which they would prefer to distance themselves, the sentiment that earthly riches are somehow a part of God's plan for you has spread beyond the Pentecostal base, to the point where it seems to resonate with a surprising number of everyday Americans. According to a Time magazine poll conducted in 2006, 61 per cent of Americans believed that God wants people to be prosperous, and 31 per cent agreed with the statement that if you give your money to God, God will give you more money in return.

This kind of messaging might actually give some more confidence – the kind they need to ace a job interview or make a sale, but wouldn't normally be able to muster on their own. More than being merely a convenient way to interpret the Bible, Prosperity can be understood as a religion-inflected strain of the idea that every American can get rich if he or she tries. It is the notion that all you need is hard work and you will prosper – except in this case, "hard work" gets replaced with prayer and large donations to your church.

Seen that way, Prosperity lies somewhere on the same spectrum of fashionable, particularly American optimism as the 1990s self-help movement, Tony Robbins-style motivational speaking, and the kind of ultra-positive thinking stressed by bestsellers like The Secret, all of which teach that you should "fake it until you make it." Think Oprah and How to Make Friends and Influence People, but guaranteed by the love of Jesus Christ, and you've got an idea of the doctrine's seductiveness.

It's a seduction that may have landed thousands of congregants in financial turmoil. Churchgoers who truly believed that God would bless them with a house – poor credit or not – may have seen the fact that they got a house as proof of Prosperity's truth that they are "worthy of having more and doing more and being more." J. Lee Grady, editor of the magazine Charisma, recently told Time: "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."

Old Proverb: A fool and his money are easily parted.