Not so prosperous
The cover of the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic is a cheeky photo illustration of a wooden cross that doubles as a real-estate signpost marked “foreclosure.” Alongside it, this headline: “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”
Is it just me, or have magazines like The Atlantic and Harper’s been getting more sensationalistic lately with their religion-baiting cover stories? This one is obviously intended to provoke, and Hanna Rosin, who wrote the article, is likely not responsible for that headline. Jonathan Walton (whom Rosin quotes at length in the piece) calls it “a classic case of great article, horrible title!” Walton’s response is insightful, particularly in picking apart why headlines like this one are so infuriating. But I don’t agree that the article is “great,” and worse, I’m not sure the title misrepresents it. Rosin is not, of course, actually arguing that belief in Christ, broadly speaking, is responsible for our present economic troubles. But if you take away the provocative framework suggested by the headline, she’s not making much of an argument at all.
This is a pity, because the subject is important. Walton says, “Hanna Rosin carefully makes the appropriate connections between the sort of hyper-consumerist, greed-induced, Mcmansion sensibility that fueled both the housing crisis, and the explicit and implicit messages of the prosperity gospel in America.” I agree with all of that except “carefully.” There is good reporting in here, and with care it could have generated an excellent story. But Rosin’s article is unfocused and unsatisfying, and in the end not much more thoughtful than the cover suggests.
First of all, as you’ve probably noted, the “Christianity” in the headline refers not to belief in Christ in general, but rather to the perversion of Christianity known as the “prosperity gospel”—a predatory money-making scheme that fools people by telling them what they want to hear and pretending the Bible backs it up. Rosin knows, on some level, that actual Christianity has little to do with what her case study, Pastor Fernando Garay, is preaching to his Latino congregation in Virginia. In her second paragraph she quotes a Mexican immigrant and “parishioner” of Garay’s explaining, “Jesus loved money too!” The quote is there because it’s transparently ludicrous. The question it raises is, why does anyone fall for this nonsense, and what happens when they do?
Rosin doesn’t seem sure what questions she wants to ask. “America’s churches always reflect shifts in the broader culture, and Casa del Padre is no exception,” she writes. So maybe the problem isn’t “Christianity” after all; maybe it’s America that’s at fault? She explains that she picked Garay’s church because it “is comprised mostly of first-generation [Latino] immigrants. More than others I’ve visited, it echoes back a highly distilled, unself-conscious version of the current thinking on what it means to live the American dream.” I guess. But it’s the next paragraph that jumps off the page at me, suggesting that the story Rosin ought to be telling is much more specific:
One other thing makes Garay’s church a compelling case study. From 2001 to 2007, while he was building his church, Garay was also a loan officer at two different mortgage companies. He was hired explicitly to reach out to the city’s growing Latino community.… To many of his parishioners, Garay was not just a spiritual adviser, but a financial one as well.
Once you’ve learned that little detail, it’s hard to have patience for Rosin’s generalizations about the American dream, or her respectful accounts of Garay’s side of the story. Most prosperity-gospel-style preaching involves some obvious conflict of interest: the preacher tells people that God will bless them if they send him money. But this is even more outrageous: Garay is explicitly profiting from the bad advice and bad religion he’s dispensing to his congregation, and his profits are directly, not just ideologically, tied to the real-estate bubble. And for some reason, the article Rosin wrote about him opts for the fuzzy sensationalism of “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” instead of a fact-based expose: “How Banks used God to Fleece the Poor.”
The article is full of contradictions Rosin doesn’t seem to notice. She’s apparently asserting that the prosperity gospel motivated people to take out loans they couldn’t afford, which (according to the headline) “caused the crash.” But it seems just as likely, based on what she writes, that the prosperity gospel benefited from the housing bubble. Correlation is one thing, causality is another. Meanwhile, the evidence keeps mounting against preacher/loan officers like Garay, suggesting that the prosperity gospel was in fact a particularly reprehensible tool used by predatory lenders to exploit the poor. And she keeps ignoring it. When Garay insists that “The recession has not hit my church,” Rosin correctly notes that, “in a church where failure is seen as a kind of sin,” his reliance on self-reported unemployment statistics “seems credulous at best.” But elsewhere she seems inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it is she who sounds credulous a few paragraphs later: “I asked Garay many times about a connection between the mortgage crisis and the gospel, but he does not really see one.” I’ll bet he doesn’t. And then there’s this:
Tony Lin [a researcher cited earlier] is careful—and of course correct—to say that neither immigrants nor Latinos caused the crash; adherents of every stripe exhibited the same sort of magical thinking about finances, as did millions of nonbelievers. Still, he recalls, “I wasn’t very surprised when the whole subprime-mortgage thing blew up. I’m sure a loan officer never said, ‘God wants you to have a house.’ But you’ve already been taught that. Now here comes the loan officer saying, ‘Sign here, and this house will be yours.’ It feels like a gift from God. It’s the perfect fuel for the crisis.”
Trying to spell out the many ways those few sentences undermine the entire article is making my head hurt.
As for why the prosperity gospel survived the economic crash—a question Clint Rainey examined earlier this year for Slate—Rosin offers this:
It is not all that surprising that the prosperity gospel persists despite its obvious failure to pay off. Much of popular religion these days is characterized by a vast gap between aspirations and reality. Few of Sarah Palin’s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they’ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce. As Garay likes to say, “What you have is nothing compared to what you will have.” The unpleasant reality—an inadequate paycheck, a pregnant daughter, a recession—is invisible. It’s your ability to see beyond such things, your willing blindness to even the most hopeless-seeming circumstances, that makes you a certain kind of modern Christian, and a 21st-century American.
Can you spot the fallacy? I’m generally not interested in defending Sarah Palin against charges of hypocrisy. But for heaven’s sake: it’s not a paradox to have a pregnant, unmarried teenage daughter and still believe that premarital sex is wrong. Having moral convictions despite the existence of sin and human weakness is not “willing blindness.” On the other hand, believing that a preacher like Garay is sincere, or that “Jesus loved money” is a Christian message, is clearly a form of self-deception, motivated by a complicated mix of ignorance, vulnerability (especially among poor immigrants), and greed. Investigating those dynamics would be worthwhile, but it would require a genuine interest in religion — and a willingness to abandon a cutely contrarian framework once it proves unsupportable.
Rosin has put her finger on something genuinely scandalous in her focus on Garay and the prosperity gospel’s ties to the economic crash. But when serious analysis is called for, she falls back on generalizing about “popular religion these days” — and the results are neither careful nor edifying. The article can’t quite prop up that sensationalistic headline. Unfortunately, it can’t make up for it, either.