Monday, December 07, 2009

The Prosperity Gospel and the Financial Crisis -- Sightings

Martin Marty is back from a month long absence -- traveling the world it appears -- and wrestles with the question of how a certain form of Christianity may have contributed to the current crisis. Much of the problem is rooted in the collapse of a housing bubble, created in large part by people who overbought. Although not everyone who entered into risky home purchases did so at the urging of their preachers, apparently many did, fueled by a prosperity gospel that suggests that God blesses those who will only believe big dreams.

Although God is a God of abundance and not scarcity, does God want us to extend ourselves beyond our means? Should we buy $500,000 homes, when realistically all we can afford, based on income, is $150,000? I invite you to consider Marty's essay and offer your responses.


Sightings 12/7/09

The Prosperity Gospel and the Financial Crisis

-- Martin E. Marty

To explain my disappearance during November: I was enjoying and lecturing on an “Around the World in a Private Jet” tour with alumni from several schools. Machu Picchu, Tibet, and other high points were high points on our 33,000-mile odyssey. Now I am glad to be back issuing Sightings on “Public Religion in America” themes.

The current issue of The Atlantic features as a cover story Hanna Rosin’s “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” She writes not in the spirit of the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris “New Atheists,” who blame anything they do not like on religion of any and all sorts. Instead she focuses on one kind of Christianity that has one kind of bearing on one aspect of “the Crash.” Trim the implications of the misleading headline down to size and you will find that she is describing the ways a certain sector, a vast and growing sector, of the church demonstrably played a part in the part of the crash we know as the “subprime mortgage” scandal and the “foreclosure follow-up”

These are best observed in connection with what is now known as “the prosperity gospel.” Talk about multi-million-dollar sales of religious books, multi-thousand-member churches, multi-hundred-thousand-dollar pastors’ incomes, and you are likely to be focusing on proponents of such a gospel. At its heart is the seizure by its preachers of a theme from a few lines of the Bible, a motif then magnified to encompass and exhaust all other biblical emphases. As Rosin tells it while focusing on some of those proponents, this Gospel assures that people who give hugely to an evangelist’s cause and church will prosper and may well soon own a “huge” house. “Huge” is a huge word in the dreams of the victims of the Prosperity Gospel.

Rosin shows how many pastors of this school of thought served as agents of unscrupulous lenders and home-sellers, guiding their parishioners to implausible, burdensome, certain-to-fail investments that did turn out to help occasion the Crash. While she is careful and as fair as possible to the Prosperity Gospel leaders, is sympathetic to the gullible, and resists being simply snide, it is impossible to read her accounts without giving at least a passing thought to the comparison of this Gospel with the vast majority of biblical texts. Some do talk about a loving and provident God, and do tell stories about some characters who prospered. However, most pages in the library called the Bible tell of people who, despite their best efforts, do not prosper; who suffer often-horrible diseases, and all of whom die. It is a book that describes evil but does not finally account for it. All of the dark sides, including those of the God of the Bible, get suppressed or explained away by the exploiters, some of whom, no doubt, sincerely believe the gospel they have invented.

It is hard, however, to write about what seems manifestly to be “a stench in the nostrils of God” without being accused of elitism, condescension, classism and racism. Most of the people about whom Rosin writes are African-American or Latino/Latina, people who were not born to comfort and privilege, for whom reasons to hope are few.

Rosin holds back from making final judgments on her subject. She does not quote Jeremiah or Jesus to make the point. Her stories make the point. Will the Prosperity Gospel outlive the worst times and features of the crash? She sees it as limited by the new economic realities, but not easily suppressed among gamblers and hopers.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


In the November 2009 edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Mark Scott of Concordia University strives to develop a paradigm that frames "new trajectories for research in theodicy in religious studies." He develops an analogy--"Theodicy as Navigation"--"a ship caught in a violent storm at sea"--for the function of theodicy within religious experience. In this way, according to Scott, the conversation may diverge "beyond the 'what' of theodicy . . . to the 'how,'" thus moving to a level of analysis that illuminates "the personal experience of suffering and the effort to render it meaningful." With formal responses from Charles Long (UCSB, emeritus), Sally Stamper (University of Chicago Divinity School), Kevin Taylor (Boston University), and Bryan L. Wagoner (Harvard University).

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said...

Well, I guess there were plenty of churches that did the same, and now are being foreclosed upon.

Wow, you added spell check, or is this because I switched to Firefox?

Anyway, I bought a small house with only one bathroom 10 years ago. I thought it was more responsible. Funny how people were always surprised about it. "It's cute, like a cabin". I'm glad I decided on it, but I have to admit, I remortgaged it when the value went up. I wonder if those prosperity churches got their "cut". David Mc

Anonymous said...

I am no fan of the prosperity gospel, but lets face it.. it just plays to our sinful nature. What caused the financial crisis.... good ole fashion greed. Lenders who needed to lend more money, people more than happy to spend it for more "stuff". We all cheered the economic prosperity and were patted on the back on how smart our decisions were by economists saying house values "never go down".

As for the prosperity gospel, well it tells people of limited means that they can have it all. The term "rich" is defined by having more stuff vs God's definition. Just like those commercials for the lottery, or the lights of Vegas.. it all plays to our sinful desire for more. If the prosperity gospel is the root cause of the financial crisis, I cry FOUL on that. Its too small to influence the global economy, sound more like blame deferral. (blame those Christians for your problems, Hitler did something similar) Could it have contributed, sure.