That line in Hana Rosin's article, "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?", nearly ripped my eyes out of the socket. "America's churches always reflect shifts in the broader culture."
I don't think Rosin meant this as an indictment. In the article, the sentence serves simply as a transition between paragraphs.
But how woefully true that statement is. And with the force of a sledgehammer, I'm reminded this morning that churches are supposed to be other-worldly. There is supposed to be a pilgrim's attitude and dress adorning the church, a sojourners longing for home with Jesus where righteousness reigns.
It's too easy to beat up on the church for being materialistic. The evidence is too plentiful. We've reached the point where writers like Rosin can even ask if a worldwide economic crash isn't in fact fueled by "Christian" materialism and greed. Rosin writes:
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.
Greg Forster over at The American takes issue with the link Rosin draws between Christianity and the economic crash. Blaming Christianity for the crash may be too simplistic, but there can be little doubt that "a shift in American (global?) conception of divine Providence and its relationship to wealth" has occurred. And with that shift comes a fundamental shift in our conception of God himself. No longer does God work in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. Now God works on Wall Street, or at least at my local bank, and his wonders are performed for my personal account and net worth. No longer is God ultimately interested in His own glory in the redemption of sinners, but for many God is mainly interested in me, my prosperity, and my ambitions. Any salvation is a means to prosperity now, in this life. And that has deeply affected the personal decision-making and emotional state of millions and millions of people in the States and worldwide.
A "personal relationship with Jesus" isn't much different than a "personal financial advisor" for many professing Christians. Sure, Jesus is more powerful than your commission-working certified financial advisor; but in the end, it's basically the same line of work.
Rosin describes the pervasiveness of prosperity theology in America's churches:
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.
And yet, the negative economic effects of this theology, according to Rosin, occurs among poorer African Americans and Latinos. Case in point, home foreclosures and risky loans:
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, 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 this sense, the effects of false theology on the church is a tale of two churches--one significantly more vulnerable than the other. Rosin's final lines captures where this vulnerability comes from:
Once, I asked Garay [the pastor featured in her story] how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”
Pastors who promise great riches as God's will for your life, only to fall back on Russian roulette explanations for failures, are a cancerous pox on the lives of so many people. They shrug, "there always another this or that," and drive out to the suburbs or exurbs in their long Benz. There will be another sheep to devour at the next big money revival meeting.
How can you tell the difference between a wolf in sheep's clothing and a sheep?
By what they eat.