Thursday, November 19, 2009

Prosperity or deceit?

The December 2009 Atlantic Monthly has a very interesting article by Hanna Rosin titled Did Christianity Cause the Crash? -- well, not just any kind of Christianity, but specifically those churches that preach the so-called prosperity gospel, the idea that God showers material wealth on those He favors. That if you aren't doing well economically, it's because you aren't faithful enough. That going into debt for a dream is a sign of trust in God's promise of blessing.

Rosin focuses her attention on Casa del Padre, a Latino non-denominational Christian church in Charlottesville, VA pastored by Fernando Garay. But her broader theme centers on how these prosperity gospel preaching churches led Hispanic home buyers to taken on mortgages that they could not afford and she even cites instances of direct collaboration between churches and subprime lenders where the lenders gave "kickbacks" to the churches for referred clients from their congregations who ended up signing a mortgage.

A sample quote from the article:
Among Latinos the prosperity gospel has been spreading rapidly. In a recent Pew survey, 73 percent of all religious Latinos in the United States agreed with the statement: “God will grant financial success to all believers who have enough faith.” For a generation of poor and striving Latino immigrants, the gospel seems to offer a road map to affluence and modern living. Garay’s church is comprised mostly of first-generation 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.

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, and Latinos, as it happened, were disproportionately likely to take out the sort of risky loans that later led to so many foreclosures. To many of his parishioners, Garay was not just a spiritual adviser, but a financial one as well.

What is relevant for us is that the same Pew survey shows that 79% of Hispanics who characterize themselves as charismatic Catholics believe in the prosperity gospel. This means that we have some work to do because the prosperity gospel is NOT the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While God does not want His children to live in penury, He also does not want His children to focus exclusively on material wealth or accumulating treasure on this earth, especially when other children are hungry and homeless while prosperity preachers drive Mercedes Benzes (the Garays) and live in multimillion dollar homes (the Osteens) paid for by the tithes they demand from their poorer parishioners. Nor does the Catholic Church teach that a person is poor because they don't have enough faith. There are many socioeconomic structural reasons for the huge gap between rich and poor -- inability to pray or failure to tithe are not among them.

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