The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Faith & Financial Crisis

Want to blame someone for the financial mess we’re in? Well, join the club and get in line. Folks on the right are hell bent on blaming blacks. And if that doesn’t work, they can always blame gays for our economic downturn. (Okay, okay! I confess already. it’s all my fault. I’m not sure how I did it, and I don’t know what I did with the $1 trillion that’s likely to be the total we’re in the hole.)

Christian fundamentalists are suggesting gays and lesbians are to blame for Wall Street’s woes, a frequently made charge in the wake of national calamities.

In a September 25th blog post titled ‘The Nation Will Right Itself If It Fixes Sex’, Christian Civil League of Maine Executive Director Michael Heath writes that the financial crisis facing Wall Street is a symptom of America’s sinful sexual culture, including the acceptance of gay unions.

“Our crisis is a symptom, not the cause,” writes Michael Heath. “I am not saying I know whether this financial crisis is God’s judgment or not. It is not for me to know that definitively.”

Heath goes on to list policy changes that would make God “crack a smile,” including: End abortion rights and defund non-profit groups supporting it, amend state constitutions to ban gay marriage and eliminate domestic partnerships and civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and end discrimination against private religious schools and homeschools.

A related post by Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian at the National Review’s website pushes a similar theme, this time focusing on Friday’s failure of WaMu.

Krikorian suggests the big bank failed because it was too accommodating to minorities, including gays, African-Americans and Hispanics.

In his September 26th post titled ‘Cause and Effect?’, Krikorian writes, “I really thought this was a joke, but it’s not. WaMu’s final press release, before it sank beneath the waves.”

I’ve heard some people suggest — in response to the above — that if Jesus did have something to say about this mess, he’d probably take a swipe at the “moneychangers” again, and repeat the parable about the rich man, the camel, and the eye of the needle. Jesus would run the moneychangers out of the temple, and denounce the worship of wealth, right?

You’d think, but you’d be wrong. From at least one perspective, they moneychangers actually are the “chosen people of God.” Their money is proof that God wants them to be rich, and thus must have a good reason.

I think George Lakoff hit the nail on the head when he said one of the beliefs of the conservative mindset is that well being — in this case, financial well being — is a sign of moral virtue. The lack of well-being — again, financial well-being — must then be a sign of moral failing. The better off are better off because they are better people. Those who have less would be better off if they were better people.

Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.

… The role of government is to:

* Promote unimpeded competitive economic activity so that both the disciplined moral people and the undisciplined immoral ones are able to receive what they each deserve, based on their own choices;

… The Economy and Business: Promoting unimpeded economic activity means favoring those who control wealth and power, who are seen as the “best people,” over those who are unsuccessful, who are seen as morally weak. Corporations are more heavily favored than non-corporate businesses, because big businesses (like wealthy people) have gotten big precisely through working hard and being disciplined.

I’m not saying it makes sense, or that it’s anything that Jesus would recognize as even remotely related to his teachings, but it goes a long way towards explaining things like the response to Katrina and the financial meltdown. It also could explain the strange union between religious fundamentalists and “market fundamentalists.” Toss in the “prosperity gospel” and you’ve got the beginnings of a world view.

Back during the Katrina debacle, I took my best shot a paraphrasing it.

The better off are so because they are better people. Thus if the poor were better people they would be better off. Therefore, there are very few good people who are poor, and probably even fewer well-off people who are bad.

And — as I pointed out earlier, it’s nothing new, but goes back as far as Norman Vincent Peale and his “power of positive thinking.”

Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman – he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials – has called Narnia “one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read”.

Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America – that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peale in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis’s view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis’s earth.

For that matter, it goes back as far as manifest destiny, if you accept the basic premise that might equals right.

It’s appealing, for sure, to be told that “God has made you rich” because of your righteousness. It’s even more appealing to be told that “God wants you to be rich” and that all you have to do is believe and wait for the blessings to hit your bankbook.

…But that’s the power of belief, and the power of distraction. As long as the Anderson’s believe that God bestows wealth on the faithful, and that wealth is a sign of moral virtue, their failure to achieve the same wealth as others is as much a sign of their “backsliding” or character failings as the wealth of others is a sign of their moral and character strength. Not to mention God’s favor. So, they have only themselves to blame. Or possibly Satan. But never any other factors. Know what I mean?

(It reminds me vaguely of the “ex-gay” ministries, which claim “God wants you to be heterosexual” or “God can make you heterosexual,” but if you don’t succeed in becoming heterosexual it’s because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe hard enough, or are so deeply flawed that God has “given you up” to “unnatural desires.” Maybe it’s because in both scenarios, only one party is required to change, and it isn’t the one that holds the most power.)

It’s called the “prosperity gospel.”

It is a theology that is excoriated in many Christian circles but is becoming increasingly visible in this country, according to religious scholars. Now, it is beginning to establish a foothold in New York City, where capitalism has long been religion.

…Asking the faithful to donate is a part of virtually all religions. Outside of Christianity, Muslims pay zakat, and Jewish synagogues have membership dues. Conservative Protestants see tithing – offering a portion, usually a tenth, of one’s income back to God and the church – as a biblical mandate.

Many Catholic churches suggest that tithing be divided between the local church and a charity of their choice. Most teach that believers can trust God to take care of their needs.

It is the connecting of religious faithfulness, especially in giving, to material riches that causes many Christians, including other evangelicals, to accuse prosperity teachers of verging on heresy.

…The theology taps into the country’s self-help culture, said William C. Martin, a professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University in Houston. “One of the goals of America is for you to become prosperous,” he said. “For the church to put a blessing on that and say, ‘God wants you to be rich,’ is quite appealing.”

While prosperity preachers were largely discredited in this country in the late 1980’s with the rash of scandals involving religious broadcasters, the booming television ministries of a coterie of new prosperity kings, including Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn and Mr. Dollar, demonstrates its staying power. Mr. Dollar, 41, a former college football player, started World Changers Church in Atlanta in an elementary school cafeteria in 1986.

And a least some people think the “prosperity gospel” played a role in the subprime debacle and the ensuing financial crisis.

Has the so-called Prosperity gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants — and hence, victims — of the current financial crisis? That’s what a scholar of the fast-growing brand of Pentecostal Christianity believes. While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside, he realized that Prosperity’s central promise — that God will “make a way” for poor people to enjoy the better things in life — had developed an additional, dangerous expression during the subprime-lending boom. Walton says that this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house.” The results, he says, “were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers.”

Others think he may be right. Says Anthea Butler, an expert in Pentecostalism at the University of Rochester in New York: “The pastor’s not gonna say, ‘Go down to Wachovia and get a loan,’ but I have heard, ‘Even if you have a poor credit rating, God can still bless you — if you put some faith out there [that is, make a big donation to the church], you’ll get that house or that car or that apartment.’ “ Adds J. Lee Grady, editor of the magazine Charisma: “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.” If so, the situation offers a look at how a native-born faith built partially on American economic optimism entered into a toxic symbiosis with a pathological market.

Although a type of Pentecostalism, Prosperity theology adds a distinctive layer of supernatural positive thinking. Adherents will reap rewards if they prove their faith to God by contributing heavily to their churches, remaining mentally and verbally upbeat and concentrating on divine promises of worldly bounty supposedly strewn throughout the Bible. Critics call it a thinly disguised pastor-enrichment scam. Other experts, like Walton, note that for all its faults, the theology can empower people who have been taught to see themselves as financially or even culturally useless to feel they are “worthy of having more and doing more and being more.” In some cases the philosophy has matured with its practitioners, encouraging good financial habits and entrepreneurship.

But Walton suggests that a decade’s worth of ever easier credit acted like a drug in Prosperity’s bloodstream. “The economic boom ’90s and financial overextensions of the new millennium contributed to the success of the Prosperity message,” he wrote recently on his personal blog as well as on the website Religion Dispatches. And not positively. “Narratives of how ‘God blessed me with my first house despite my credit’ were common. Sermons declaring ‘It’s your season to overflow’ supplanted messages of economic sobriety,” and “little attention was paid to … the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM to subsidize cars, clothes and vacations.”

It may even be key to understanding the otherwise perplexing partnership between market fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism under the umbrella of conservatism for the past few decades.

Well, what do your eyes tell you? Moral hazards do not get in the way of bailing out the Bear Stearns of the world, but then you have to understand why those entities (and the individuals who run them) are far more valued than the every day American family. I’ll refer you to George Lakoff for that, whose assertion that the worship of the wealthy is based on the tenet that material wealth is a sign of strength and virtue.

If you believe the market place is like a natural environment, then economic “might” makes right, in terms of “survival of the fittest.” However, markets are not natural environments or organic entities. They are man made. They operate according to the rules people make. A natural organism that made the decisions Bear Stearns and any number of financial giants have made would probably not be long for this world, but we change or suspend the rules of the market place to prop them up. Of course, the consequence is that we change also change the rules to the detriment of another species.

The flip side is the growing divide between the deserving and undeserving. (And it makes telling the difference between the two easier to discern. After all, the deserving are those who have the most, and their status is confirmed by their wealth. The undeserving are those who have the least.)

It’s hard to put it much plainer than that, except to add to it the notion that “god” is on the side of the strong — and not the weak — and the government should be as well.

Mix it all up together, stick it in an oven until it’s half-baked, and you end up with an ideology that people will eat up with both hands if they have any economic strength, or hope to have any because they are sure of their moral virtue and know they will be justly rewarded (even if it means buying another lottery ticket or two), because it at once elevates and absolves them. It elevates them above others who have less (or whom they deem less moral), and absolves them of helping the great many of the poor because the poor are right were they deserve to be. Heaven has mandated it so.

I didn’t say it made sense or that it holds together, just that an awful lot of people happily swallow it whole. Once they do it’s easy to see things as portrayed above and accept it as not just reality but as the way things ought to be.

If you accept all that, then depending on charities to deliver services to the poor isn’t “punishing the good guy.” The good guy has all he needs to take care of himself and his, and if he decides to reinvest his tax cut rather than donate it to charity, that’s his business. Besides, who are we to question the righteous?

It was a sentiment heard loud and clear from conservative talking heads like George Will and Bill O’Reilly in the aftermath of Katrina, even as people were stuck the stagnant waters, waiting for rescue: Let the poor drown; it’s no more than they deserve.

You don’t need glasses to see the frame. In fact, you see the frame before you get the picture. Again, the people standing on roofs in New Orleans (or floating face down in its flood waters) are right where they deserve to be. In fact, you can infer from his use of quotation marks that leaving them there for a while might just have been be the best thing for them; certainly better than wasting time in “caring professions” and taking money from the better off (better people) to help the less fortunate (less worthy).

Why? Because having the wrong values put them where they are, and removing or alleviating the consequences of those bad values merely reinforces them. Seen through that frame, the government’s failure to evacuate the poor or to send them relief after the hurricane becomes a kind of “tough love.” Maybe that’s the compassion in “compassionate conservatism.”

Got it? Let the poor drown. It’s their fault they’re poor anyway. It’s nobody’s job to save them. Besides, it might be the best thing for them. What happened in New Orleans is exactly what should have happened. That’s the way it ought to be.

And if you think that sentiment has waned since waters receded, back in November I posted a rant from Neil Boortz about Katrina victims.

BOORTZ: I like this: “Edwards’ campaign will end the way it began 13 months ago, with the candidate pitching in to rebuild lives in a city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Edwards embraced New Orleans as a glaring symbol of what he described as a Washington that didn’t hear the cries of the downtrodden.” Cries of the downtrodden, my left butt cheek. That wasn’t the cries of the downtrodden; that’s the cries of the useless, the worthless. New Orleans was a welfare city, a city of parasites, a city of people who could not and had no desire to fend for themselves. You have a hurricane descending on them and they sit on their fat asses and wait for somebody else to come rescue them. “It’s somebody else’s job to get me out of here. It’s somebody else’s job to save my life. Not mine. Send me a bus, send me a limo, send me a boat, send me a helicopter, send me a taxi, send me something. But you certainly don’t expect me to actually work to get myself out of this situation, do you? Haven’t you been watching me for generations? I’ve never done anything to improve my own lot in life. I’ve never done anything to rescue myself. Why do you expect me to do that now, just because a levee broke?”

What Will and O’Reilly merely implies, Boortz all but says outright: it’s not that the government can’t help people, especially the poor, who can’t get themselves or their families out of harms way; it’s that the government shouldn’t help them. Their poverty itself marks them as undeserving of help.

Like the fat cats of Wall Street, the fat cast of the pulpit have their share of victims.

The message flickered into Cindy Fleenor’s living room each night: Be faithful in how you live and how you give, the television preachers said, and God will shower you with material riches.

And so the 53-year-old accountant from the Tampa, Fla., area pledged $500 a year to Joyce Meyer, the evangelist whose frank talk about recovering from childhood sexual abuse was so inspirational. She wrote checks to flamboyant faith healer Benny Hinn and a local preacher-made-good, Paula White.

Only the blessings didn’t come. Fleenor ended up borrowing money from friends and guaranteed payday loans companies just to buy groceries. At first she believed the explanation given on television: Her faith wasn’t strong enough.

“I wanted to believe God wanted to do something great with me like he was doing with them,” she said. “I’m angry and bitter about it. Right now, I don’t watch anyone on TV hardly.”

All three of the groups Fleenor supported are among six major Christian television ministries under scrutiny by a senator who is asking questions about the evangelists’ lavish spending and possible abuses of their tax-exempt status.

Some have built empires and adopted lavish lifestyles that inevitably invites scrutiny.

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Meanwhile, the some of the faithful don’t fare as well.

Inside the envelope is 10 percent of the weekly pay Mr. Anderson takes home as an electrician’s apprentice – he earns about $30,000 a year – and a little more for the church’s building fund.

The Andersons, who live in the Bronx, are struggling financially. A few weeks ago, the couple, who have two young children, had no money to buy groceries. But they believe what their pastor, the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar Jr., said on this recent Saturday night about the offering time: “It’s opportunity for prosperity.”

“Remember,” said Mr. Dollar, a familiar figure across the country because of his “Changing Your World” television show and best-selling books, “if you sow a seed on a good ground, you can expect a harvest.”

Mr. Dollar, whose Rolls-Royces, private jets, million-dollar Atlanta home and $2.5 million Manhattan apartment, furnish proof to his followers of the validity of his teachings, is a leading apostle of what is known as the “prosperity gospel.”

…Mr. Anderson said he started to apply Mr. Dollar’s teachings on love at his job, trying to be more helpful to people. The couple also started to apply his teachings on tithing.

But just as they started to give, their children became sick, and the family began to fall badly behind on the bills. “Things went from bad to worse,” Mr. Anderson said.

A few weeks ago, they had no food and no money. A concerned neighbor, however, surprised them with groceries. Another friend offered winter coats for their children, ages 5 and 7.

The Andersons attributed the unexpected gifts to God’s provision and said they looked to the testimonies of others in the church for inspiration

It would be easy to look upon the believers whose checks support these ministries as dupes; the “suckers” P.T. Barnum once boasted were born every minutes. Indeed, if Barnum looked upon the antics of today’s prophets of profit — and the lifestyles supported by the donations they constantly solicit — he’d probably recognize them as kindred spirits. And then immediately start thinking about how he could get a significant piece of the action. Mega-church as “big top.” It’s not a far fetched idea when you think about it.

However, it would be a mistake to look upon them as fools who are are soon parted from their money through nobody’s fault but their own. Or, at least, it would be a mistake to think that we are somehow any different from them. As much as they identified with their prosperity preacher of choice, and his or her lifestyle of abundance, to some degree we bought into Wall Street’s success as though it was our own. It turns out, we literally bought it.

Myriad cultural historians have noted the American belief that success is a sign of God’s favor. Over the past couple of decades, He has had a downright lovefest with the already-rich — so much so that the richest 400 Americans now have more money stashed away than the combined bottom 150 million Americans. Some $1.6 trillion.

This was accomplished by selling off or shipping out every available asset, from jobs to seaports, smashing usury and anti-monopoly laws, raiding the public coffers and manipulating the medium of exchange and blackmailing the peasantry regarding common needs such as health care and energy to keep their asses warm, to name a few. The ultimate coup was to convince the entire nation that the well-being of the rich, meaning the well-being of Wall Street, was indeed the common man’s well-being.

All went well for a while. People went into credit card hock up to their noses in order to provide 26 percent credit card interest to Wall Street, etc. And when that became untenable, flimsy mortgages were cranked out by the millions, ensuring that every American who could hold a crayon could sign to purchase a home. To facilitate this, all sorts of shaky “mortgage instruments” were created — balloon (sign here Jeeter, you’re gonna flip it in a year and make a hundred K on this house trailer), interest only, and finally, negative-balance mortgages where you only paid part of the interest and the rest was rolled back into the principal balance. And joy of joys, you could refinance a couple of times while the inflated value of these houses was on the way up. Life was good for everybody.

…But there was a rub. Things reached the point where there simply was not anything left to defraud the public out of, nothing left to steal from the nation’s productive capability, no matter how much paper Jeeter and Maggie signed for that trailer house, no matter how secure Brian and Jennifer out there in Arlington, Va., and Davis, Calif., thought they were. So the only thing left to do was steal from future generations of Americans and accept an I.O.U., which the government would happily sign on behalf of the people and enforce. By the wildest coincidence, under the Bush administration this I.O.U. happened to tally up to about $700 billion.

It’s almost too believe. And far too much to pay. But pay, we will.

We will pay. We will pay because the European banks holding all that bad paper we wrote demand that we make good on it so even more of their banks will not fail. We will pay because the Chinese, the Japanese and everyone else will cut off the loan tap with which we pay the interest (not the principal) on our exploding supernova of national debt. We will pay because God loves the rich.

And like the shopper who looks around upon opening the latest bill, and can’t see anything to justify the balance due, the price will be much more than the amount on the bill. Like the donor to this or that prosperity preaching televangelist, the price of the bill will be what we’re not able do to with that money.

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