As an old newspaperman, I tend to bristle at the conventional charge that this or that sensationalist story was put out there “to sell papers.” Since World War II, virtually all American newspapers have been sold by subscription and delivered to homes. No single story can bump circulation, except perhaps in New York City, where there are still enough news stands on corners to make a difference. The same, however, cannot be said for mass market magazines, which do get a significant portion of their sales off the rack. For them, a sexy cover story matters.
Which brings me to “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”, Hanna Rosin’s cover story in last month’s issue of the Atlantic. Wherein the venerable periodical suggests that the Prosperity Gospel, purveyed from some of the biggest pulpits in the land, led people of modest means to buy homes they couldn’t afford–naming it, claiming it, and sending the economy into free fall because of it. Serving up the title as a question is, however, an old journalistic dodge, hinting to those who know how to take a hint that you don’t really have the goods. The most famous example of this on the religion beat is Time‘s notorious Easter 1966 cover, “Is God Dead?” In both cases, the actual answer is: “Some people think maybe.”
The verdict on the Rosin article from a panel of varied religion experts over at The Immanent Frame is mostly thumbs down: The Prosperity Gospel is not equivalent to Christianity, it’s not as new as Rosin pretends, American Christianity is far more compromised vis-a-vis capitalism than Rosin realizes, etc. Indeed, you hardly needed to be a devotee of the Prosperity Gospel to have contracted irrational exuberance for the pre-Crash cornucopia of American consumerism.
Yet, magazine overreaching aside, the article does offer food for thought. Hostility to the Prosperity Gospel may be the last respectable odium theologicum, but the P.G. is not without its Scriptural basis (at least if you’re an Israelite), and it’s big out there among the great Christian unwashed. That the doctrine made it easier for devotees to take out unaffordable real estate loans is a plausible hypothesis–made more plausible by Rosin’s discovery that at least some banks purveying subprime mortgages targeted churchgoers.
The real problem with “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” is that Rosin doesn’t actually manage to come up with any Prosperity Gospeler who followed the scenario. The closest she comes is a 24-year-old Guatemalan immigrant living in a rented home.
“I want to buy a house,” he confessed to me one evening this summer. It
turned out his lease was almost up, and he needed to move in the fall.
“Not a small one but a really huge one, a nice one. With six bedrooms
and a kitchen and living room. I know, it’s crazy! But nothing is
impossible! God, you saved my life,” he said, no longer speaking to me.
“You saved my life, and now you will give me a gift. Now I’m crazy!”
Last I heard, he and Garay [his pastor] were house-hunting together.
Not exactly the kind of exemplum that drives a thesis home.
So the Prosperity Gospel might have helped make the housing crisis a bit worse. I can live with that bottom line.