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.