Did the Prosperity Gospel Cause the Subprime Debacle?

I had intended to leave the subject of Pentecostalism but then I was reminded of an article on the Prosperity Gospel I read a few years back. In some of my previous posts I had presented a pretty favourable view of the impact of the doctrine. This piece from the Atlantic by Hanna Rosin is a necessary reminder of why it can be such a problem.

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.

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, 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.

Depressingly a number of churches and pastors seem to have been more directly complicit:

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!”

P.S. This was a more negative note than I had intended to end my posting on Pentecostalism on. For the record, despite what I have written here I do think it’s a movement that should broadly be welcomed.

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