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Hanna Rosin on the Prosperity Gospel and the Mortgage Meltdown
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November 11, 2009, 03:28 AM
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Hanna Rosin`s new article in The Atlantic"Did Christianity Cause the Crash?"— has a lot of helpful info on Rev. Ike-like Protestant cults that helped turn fatalistic Catholic Mexican peasants into financial high-rollers in America, with disastrous effects on our economy. She focuses on Fernando Garay, a minister and mortgage broker.

Now that I think about it, this explains a lot about why George W. Bush and Karl Rove were so convinced that the future of the GOP depended upon a combination of Hispanics and zero downpayment mortgages. As I reported about the lost 2002 exit poll that I retrieved and crunched:

Among Hispanics, for example, one-third of polled Catholics voted Republican. Among the one out of four Hispanic voters who were Protestant, however, the GOP won a small majority.

My lazy assumption had been that Protestantization of Hispanics would help them get rid of bad financial habits like blowing all their savings on fiestas, but it turns out that it instead means borrowing money they can`t pay back. If Cotton Mather were alive today, he`d be spinning in his grave.

Rosin writes:

Like the ambitions of many immigrants who attend services there, Casa del Padre`s success can be measured by upgrades in real estate. The mostly Latino church, in Charlottesville, Virginia, has moved from the pastor`s basement, where it was founded in 2001, to a rented warehouse across the street from a small mercado five years later, to a middle-class suburban street last year, where the pastor now rents space from a lovely old Baptist church that can`t otherwise fill its pews. Every Sunday, the parishioners drive slowly into the parking lot, never parking on the sidewalk or grass—"because Americanos don`t do that," one told me—and file quietly into church. Some drive newly leased SUVs, others old work trucks with paint buckets still in the bed. The pastor, Fernando Garay, arrives last and parks in front, his dark-blue Mercedes Benz always freshly washed, the hubcaps polished enough to reflect his wingtips.

It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales`s pastor talked only about "Jesus and heaven and being good." But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is "really important," and besides, "we love the money in Jesus Christ`s name! Jesus loved money too!" That Sunday, Garay was preaching a variation on his usual theme, about how prosperity and abundance unerringly find true believers. "It doesn`t matter what country you`re from, what degree you have, or what money you have in the bank," Garay said. "You don`t have to say, "God, bless my business. Bless my bank account.` The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!"

Pastor Garay, 48, is short and stocky, with thick black hair combed back. In his off hours, he looks like a contented tourist, in his printed Hawaiian shirts or bright guayaberas. But he preaches with a ferocity that taps into his youth as a cocaine dealer with a knife in his back pocket. "Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW!" he preached that Sunday. "More work! Better work! The best finances!" Gonzales shook and paced as the pastor spoke, eventually leaving his wife and three kids in the family section to join the single men toward the front, many of whom were jumping, raising their Bibles, and weeping. On the altar sat some anointing oils, alongside the keys to the Mercedes Benz.

Later, D`andry Then, a trim, pretty real-estate agent and one of the church founders, stood up to give her testimony. Business had not been good of late, and "you know, Monday I have to pay this, and Tuesday I have to pay that." Then, just that morning, "Jesus gave me $1,000." She didn`t explain whether the gift came in the form of a real-estate commission or a tax refund or a stuffed envelope left at her door. The story hung somewhere between metaphor and a literal image of barefoot Jesus handing her a pile of cash. No one in the church seemed the least bit surprised by the story, and certainly no one expressed doubt. "If you have financial pressure on you, and you don`t know where the next payment is coming from, don`t pay any attention to that!" she continued. "Don`t get discouraged! Jesus is the answer."

America`s churches always reflect shifts in the broader culture, and Casa del Padre is no exception. The message that Jesus blesses believers with riches first showed up in the postwar years, at a time when Americans began to believe that greater comfort could be accessible to everyone, not just the landed class. But it really took off during the boom years of the 1990s, and has continued to spread ever since. This stitched-together, homegrown theology, known as the prosperity gospel, is not a clearly defined denomination, but a strain of belief that runs through the Pentecostal Church and a surprising number of mainstream evangelical churches, with varying degrees of intensity. In Garay`s church, God is the "Owner of All the Silver and Gold," and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above. Even in these hard times, it is discouraged, in such churches, to fall into despair about the things you cannot afford. "Instead of saying "I`m poor,` say "I`m rich,`" Garay`s wife, Hazael, told me one day. "The word of God will manifest itself in reality."

Many explanations have been offered for the housing bubble and subsequent crash: interest rates were too low; regulation failed; rising real-estate prices induced a sort of temporary insanity in America`s middle class. But there is one explanation that speaks to a lasting and fundamental shift in American culture—a shift in the American conception of divine Providence and its relationship to wealth.

In his book Something for Nothing, Jackson Lears describes two starkly different manifestations of the American dream, each intertwined with religious faith. The traditional Protestant hero is a self-made man. He is disciplined and hardworking, and believes that his "success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan." The hero of the second American narrative is a kind of gambling man—a "speculative confidence man," Lears calls him, who prefers "risky ventures in real estate," and a more "fluid, mobile democracy." The self-made man imagines a coherent universe where earthly rewards match merits. The confidence man lives in a culture of chance, with "grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God." The Gilded Age launched the myth of the self-made man, as the Rockefellers and other powerful men in the pews connected their wealth to their own virtue. In these boom-and-crash years, the more reckless alter ego dominates. In his book, Lears quotes a reverend named Jeffrey Black, who sounds remarkably like Garay: "The whole hope of a human being is that somehow, in spite of the things I`ve done wrong, there will be an episode when grace and fate shower down on me and an unearned blessing will come to me—that I`ll be the one."...

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.

Many of the terms and concepts used by prosperity preachers today date back to Oral Roberts, a poor farmer`s son turned Pentecostal preacher. Garay grew up watching Roberts on television and considers him a hero; he hopes to send all three of his children to Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the late 1940s, Roberts claimed his Bible flipped open to the Third Epistle of John, verse 2: "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health. Even as thy soul prospereth." Soon Roberts developed his famous concept of seed faith, still popular today. If people would donate money to his ministry, a "seed" offered to God, he`d say, then God would multiply it a hundredfold. Eventually, Roberts retreated into a life that revolved around private jets and country clubs.

Actually, Father Divine (c. 1876-1965), a black preacher, was there even before Oral Roberts, preaching a prosperity gospel in Harlem. Strikingly, George Gilder, the brilliant and slightly demented high tech prophet who made so much money for himself and his followers in the 1990s and lost so much when the Tech Bubble popped, was heavily influenced by Father Divine. Gilder`s parents died, so he was raised as the ward of his father`s best friend, David Rockefeller, head of Chase Manhattan bank. Some of Rockefeller`s black servants were followers of Father Divine, so they took George, a lonely orphan, with them to Father Divine`s services. Gilder has always argued that Father Divine`s followers did well for themselves economically even net of their contributions to the Rev.

... But since that time, the movement has made itself over, moving out of the fringe and into the upwardly mobile megachurch class. In the past decade, it has produced about a dozen celebrity pastors, who show up at White House events, on secular radio, and as guests on major TV talk shows. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Methodist megapastor in Houston and a purveyor of the prosperity gospel, gave the benediction at both of George W. Bush`s inaugurals. Instead of shiny robes or gaudy jewelry, these preachers wear Italian suits and modest wedding bands. Instead of screaming and sweating, they smile broadly and speak in soothing, therapeutic terms. But their message is essentially the same. "Every day, you`re going to live that abundant life!" preaches Joel Osteen, a best-selling author, the nation`s most popular TV preacher, and the pastor of Lakewood Church, in Houston, the country`s largest church by far.

Among mainstream, nondenominational megachurches, where much of American religious life takes place, "prosperity is proliferating" rapidly, says Kate Bowler, a doctoral candidate at Duke University and an expert in the gospel. Few, if any, of these churches have prosperity in their title or mission statement, but Bowler has analyzed their sermons and teachings. Of the nation`s 12 largest churches, she says, three are prosperity—Osteen`s, which dwarfs all the other megachurches; Tommy Barnett`s, in Phoenix; and T. D. Jakes`s, in Dallas. In second-tier churches—those with about 5,000 members—the prosperity gospel dominates. Overall, Bowler classifies 50 of the largest 260 churches in the U.S. as prosperity. The doctrine has become popular with Americans of every background and ethnicity; overall, Pew found that 66 percent of all Pentecostals and 43 percent of "other Christians"—a category comprising roughly half of all respondents—believe that wealth will be granted to the faithful. It`s an upbeat theology, argues Barbara Ehrenreich in her new book, Bright-Sided, that has much in common with the kind of "positive thinking" that has come to dominate America`s boardrooms and, indeed, its entire culture. ...

Theologically, the prosperity gospel has always infuriated many mainstream evangelical pastors. Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life outsold Osteen`s, told Time, "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It`s creating a false idol. You don`t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn`t everyone in the church a millionaire?" In 2005, a group of African American pastors met to denounce prosperity megapreachers for promoting a Jesus who is more like a "cosmic bellhop," as one pastor put it, than the engaged Jesus of the civil-rights era who looked after the poor.

More recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:

Narratives of how "God blessed me with my first house despite my credit" were common … Sermons declaring "It`s your season of overflow" supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about "what God can do," little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one`s home equity as an ATM.

In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. "I would hear consistent testimonies about how "once I was renting and now God let me own my own home,` or "I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home,`" he says. "This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster."

Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots. Both spread in two particular kinds of communities—the exurban middle class and the urban poor. Many newer prosperity churches popped up around fringe suburban developments built in the 1990s and 2000s, says Walton. These are precisely the kinds of neighborhoods that have been decimated by foreclosures, according to Eric Halperin, of the Center for Responsible Lending.

During my last golf vacation, a weekend in 112 degree Palm Springs in June 2006, my golf partner pointed out that here in the Inland Empire, religious preaching stations made up about half of what we could pick up on the car radio.

Zooming out a bit, Kate Bowler found that most new prosperity-gospel churches were built along the Sun Belt, particularly in California, Florida, and Arizona—all areas that were hard-hit by the mortgage crisis. Bowler, who, like Walton, was researching a book, spent a lot of time attending the "financial empowerment" seminars that are common at prosperity churches. Advisers would pay lip service to "sound financial practices," she recalls, but overall they would send the opposite message: posters advertising the seminars featured big houses in the background, and the parking spots closest to the church were reserved for luxury cars.

Nationally, the prosperity gospel has spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations. This is also the other distinct pattern of foreclosures. "Hyper-segregated" urban communities were the worst off, says Halperin. Reliable data on foreclosures by race are not publicly available,

Oh, yes the data are:

They just haven`t been much publicized.

but mortgages are tracked by both race and loan type, and subprime loans have tended to correspond to foreclosures. During the boom, roughly 40 percent of all loans going to Latinos nationwide were subprime loans; Latinos and African Americans were 28 percent and 37 percent more likely, respectively, to receive a higher-rate subprime loan than whites.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that state attorneys general had the authority to sue national banks for predatory lending. Even before that ruling, at least 17 lawsuits accusing various banks of treating racial minorities unfairly were already under way. (Bank of America`s Countrywide division—one of the companies Garay worked for—had earlier agreed to pay $8.4 billion in a multistate settlement.) One theme emerging in these suits is how banks teamed up with pastors to win over new customers for subprime loans.

Beth Jacobson is a star witness for the City of Baltimore`s recent suit against Wells Fargo. Jacobson was a top loan officer in the bank`s subprime division for nine years, closing as much as $55 million worth of loans a year. Like many subprime-loan officers, Jacobson had no bank experience before working for Wells Fargo. The subprime officers were drawn from "an utterly different background" than the professional bankers, she told me. She had been running a small paralegal business; her co-workers had been car salespeople, or had worked in telemarketing. They were prized for their ability to hustle on the ground and "look you in the eye when they shook your hand," she surmised. As a reward for good performance, the bank would sometimes send a Hummer limo to pick up Jacobson for a celebration, she said. She`d arrive at a bar and find all her co-workers drunk and her boss "doing body shots off a waitress."

The idea of reaching out to churches took off quickly, Jacobson recalls. The branch managers figured pastors had a lot of influence with their parishioners and could give the loan officers credibility and new customers. Jacobson remembers a conference call where sales managers discussed the new strategy. The plan was to send officers to guest-speak at church-sponsored "wealth-building seminars" like the ones Bowler attended, and dazzle the participants with the possibility of a new house. 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 parishioner`s choice. "They wouldn`t say, "Hey, Mr. Minister. We want to give your people a bunch of subprime loans," Jacobson told me. "They would say, "Your congregants will be homeowners! They will be able to live the American dream!`"

Garay often tells his life story from the pulpit, as an inspiration to the many immigrants in his church, some legal, some not. He grew up an outsider—a citizen by birth, but living a marginal existence in a diverse, working-class neighborhood in Flushing, Queens. His mother left when he was 8, and he was raised mostly by two older brothers; he spent most of his time on the street. "I ate jars of peanut butter for dinner," he says.

Hey, I ate half a jar of peanut butter for lunch last week. I like peanut butter and it`s very convenient (except it tends to give you the hiccups if you eat too much in one spoonful.)

The story of how he became a Christian begins in 1989, when he was 28 years old, and involves a large sum of money. He`d been selling drugs in Miami, then started using, and owed some dealers $30,000 that he didn`t have, and they were going to kill him. He was on his mattress one night, in despair, when a picture of Jesus up on his wall "winked at me." ...

One day, for no reason, he quit his job as a social worker counseling addicted juvenile delinquents. "I almost hit him with a frying pan," Hazael, his wife, jokes. But the very same day, his mother-in-law walked into the house and said the bank was looking for a bilingual loan officer. He had no experience and had never used a computer. Yet he got the job and within a year was earning six figures. How did that happen? How did it all come together so neatly, one door opening the moment another had closed? When I asked him that, he smiled and pointed up at the sky.

... He often tells what`s known as Jesus` parable of the three servants, from Matthew. A lord gives three of his servants money. Two invest the money and double their profit, and a third hides his in the ground. When the master returns, he declares the third "wicked and lazy" and a "worthless slave," and casts him into the "outer darkness." "To receive God`s bounty, you cannot hide your head in the sand," Garay preaches. "You have to take a leap of faith."

... While it sounds absurd, this kind of message can have a positive influence, according to Tony Tian-Ren Lin, a researcher at the University of Virginia who has made a close study of Latino prosperity gospel congregations over the years. These churches typically take in people who had "been basically dropped into the world from pretty primitive settings"—small towns in Latin America with no electricity or running water and very little educational opportunity. In their new congregation, their pastor slowly walks them through life in the U.S., both inside and outside of church, until they become more confident. "In Mexico, nobody ever told them they could do anything," says Lin, who was himself raised in Argentina. He finds the message at prosperity churches to be quintessentially American. "They are taught they can do absolutely anything, and it`s God`s will. They become part of the elect, the chosen. They get swept up in the manifest destiny, this idea that God has lifted Americans above everyone else."At Casa del Padre, the celebration of consumer culture is quite visible, along with a sense of boundless opportunity. The people in the church, for instance, tend to have very expensive cell phones—never the free ones that come with a calling plan, nor the sort that can be bought cheaply at a convenience store. "They start wanting what`s considered the best and the most technologically advanced in this country," Lin says. Garay`s church, it seems to me, teaches them that they deserve these things, so they go about getting them, with few resources and infinite adaptability. Before the crash, one group of young men got a $12,000 loan to start a landscaping company; another man bought a $270,000 house. One of the church`s Bible-study leaders, who`d grown up in a remote village in Mexico with an abusive, alcoholic father, had become a very successful contractor by the height of the boom, managing 30 men on multiple jobs and winning contracts to paint luxury subdivisions in the exurbs.

The tenets of the prosperity gospel, and the practical advice that pastors often give their parishioners, help immigrants learn "not just how to survive but how to thrive; not just live paycheck to paycheck but handle money—manage complicated payrolls, invest in equipment," Lin told me. Along the way, they become assimilated. "While they`re trying to be closer to God, instead they become American," he says, from their optimism and entrepreneurialism to the very nature of their dreams.

... I asked Garay many times about a connection between the mortgage crisis and the gospel, but he does not really see one. From everything he says about his time as a loan officer, it seems he was involved in the kinds of subprime loans that led to so many foreclosures. He was hired in Countrywide`s emerging-markets division, which meant he was expected to target the growing Latino community in the area. Like Beth Jacobson, he had no previous experience, but was valued for his connections and hustle. He makes astute criticisms of the risky loans but, like many former loan officers, he does so with a curious sense of distance, as if he had been just a cog in the machine. Loans got "too easy," he says. "Mortgages would be $1,500 a month, and that was all [the loan applicants] made in a month," he recalls, "but they figured they would rent the basement." He says sometimes he told people the loans were going to kill them, but they would plead, "Please help me, please. I want a house." Because he was becoming an increasingly prominent pastor at the time, many people who came to see him assumed he was the president of the bank and could protect them, he recalls.

Garay says as far as he knows no one in his church defaulted. But at a bare minimum, some of his parishioners have run into intense financial difficulties, sometimes defaulting soon after leaving the congregation. The man who`d bought the $270,000 house threw a huge housewarming party and invited everyone from church. He gave a weepy testimony about the house God had given him, passing around the title for all to see. At the time, he was working as a handyman, putting up drywall, painting, roofing, and doing other odd jobs. Within three months he had three families living in the three-bedroom house, and he still could not keep up with the payments. After five months, he went into foreclosure and ducked out of the country. Tony Lin 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."

More

When I was at Rice U. in the 1970s, the Master of Rice`s Sid Richardson College, sociologist Bill Martin (a leading scholar of American religions and Billy Graham`s authorized biographer) brought Rev. Ike on campus for a lecture. Unfortunately, I missed it. He made quite an impression on those who saw him:

"If it`s that difficult for a rich man to get into heaven," he would often say, citing Matthew, "think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in. He doesn`t even have a bribe for the gatekeeper."

His full name was Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II and, like the Van Halen brothers, was Dutch and Indonesian on his father`s side. He was black on his mother`s side. He was an interesting looking fellow, rather resembling Little Richard.