The prosperity gospel has been accused of many things, but being a significant cause of the financial crisis has not usually been among them—at least until Hanna Rosin’s much publicized cover story in The Atlantic magazine (December).
Rosin found that the areas most affected by the housing foreclosure crisis are often the same places, mostly in the Sunbelt, that are home to large churches preaching the message that God promises prosperity to faithful believers. She thus concludes that the teaching that wealth was within their reach led many struggling believers to take on high-risk loans and mortgages for homes that they could not afford. Rosin notes that many of the largest churches preach prosperity: 50 of the largest 260 churches in the U.S. are of this persuasion, according to research by Kate Bowler of Duke University.
Rosin also cites a Pew survey showing that 73 percent of all religious Latinos in the U.S. hold to some form of prosperity teaching, and many black Pentecostal churches preach the message—the same demographic groups effected by the foreclosure crisis. More significantly, Rosin shows that banks and churches had often teamed up on housing issues prior to the crisis, with the former often being invited to church financial empower seminars to counsel economic responsibility, but, at the same time, would encourage house ownership.
In Baltimore, Wells Fargo often sent its bank officers to speak at churchsponsored “wealth-building” seminars. “They would tell pastors that for every person who took out a mortgage, $350 would be donated to the church, or to a charity of the parishioners’ choice,” Rosin reports.
The Imminent Frame (Dec. 23), a blog on religion from the Social Science Research Council, asked several contributors to comment on Rosin’s article, with most claiming that the piece was thought-provoking, yet superficial. Sociologist Michelle Dillon argues that immigration and population instability may be more relevant than prosperity gospel churches in the high rate of foreclosures in such Sunbelt states as Florida and Arizona. “These factors make it harder for individuals to find protective buffers against many persuasive get-rich-quick sales agents and schemes in contemporary society.
In unsettled times, unsettled people are vulnerable to siren calls, however well veiled … [The prosperity gospel] is one among several elements in our entrepreneurial culture promising salvation through short-term investments and wishful thinking that defer the debts of accountability and responsibility toward others.”
(Atlantic Monthly, 600 New Hampshire, Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20037; The Imminent Frame, http://blogs.ssrc.org)