Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

33. Prosperity Gospel vs. Austerity Gospel

A bit of a digression for this holiday season post...

Mike Konczal (of the blog Rortybomb), links toa pair of articles in The Atlantic on two different religious movements that involve questions of ethics, economics and debt:

The first is an article by Megan McArdle on Dave Ramsay, who preaches his gospel of living debt-free in evangelical churches and to the secular world as well:

"On a fine summer day at the end of August, I paid $220 for front-row seats on the floor of a minor-league hockey rink in Detroit, just to hear Ramsey talk for five hours. The ostensible topic: getting your financial life in order. Afterward, my fiancé, who grew up in the Bible Belt, called me to ask what I'd thought.

'I think I just attended my first prayer meeting,' I told him.

There was, of course, a great deal of talk about money, and what to do with it. But the format was more tent revival than accounting seminar, with the first 90 minutes or so mostly devoted to Ramsey’s personal story of ruin and redemption. We heard how, during the second half of the 1980s, a young Ramsey built up a multimillion-dollar real-estate empire—then lost it all as the bank got nervous and called his loans, ultimately forcing him and his wife into bankruptcy. How, searching for help in his hour of need, he turned to the Bible and discovered Proverbs 22:7: 'The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave of the lender.' At that moment, he told an audience so hushed that we could hear the ice squeak, Ramsey decided to never borrow another dollar again."

The second is an article by Hanna Rosin on 'The Prosperity Gospel'

"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."

Reading the two articles, I was struck by how the two different approaches picked up different elements from the commercial set of ethics that Jacobs described in Systems of Survival: Ramsay emphasizes thrift, and investing for productive purposes while the prosperity gospel emphasizes optimism and the promotion of comfort and convenience. Neither one really seems quite right on its own. Ramsay's approach would cutoff prudent borrowing to fund a business venture while the prosperity gospel seems to just encourage imprudent borrowing in the belief that God will provide one way or the other.

Anyway, it's some interesting reading.

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