Religion December 2009

Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

America’s mainstream religious denominations used to teach the faithful that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. But over the past generation, a different strain of Christian faith has proliferated—one that promises to make believers rich in the here and now. Known as the prosperity gospel, and claiming tens of millions of adherents, it fosters risk-taking and intense material optimism. It pumped air into the housing bubble. And one year into the worst downturn since the Depression, it’s still going strong.
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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.

These days, Garay’s message is more subdued than it was at the height of the boom, but not substantially different. In a sermon on Father’s Day, he did not make specific claims of financial returns on investments but instead spoke vaguely about how his congregation’s prospects were “good and going to get better.” After church, I asked Garay about how the gospel was holding up in the recession. It was a hot summer day, and although he had just finished one of his feverish two-hour sermons, he seemed energized rather than drained. “Look,” he said, and rounded his hands as if to indicate a protective shield. “The recession has not hit my church.” He reminded me that when he had asked how many people were out of work, only four people out of about 100 there had raised their hands. But in a church where failure is seen as a kind of sin, it seems credulous at best to expect an honest response to that question. I later met at least one person—Billy Gonzales’s younger brother—who didn’t have a job but hadn’t raised his hand, because he thought he’d “have one lined up soon.”

Garay describes the recession as God’s judgment—for abortion, taking prayer out of school, bikinis on television, “Desperate Housewives, whatever.” But God is also giving us a two-year window to repent, he says. He calculates that we’ve had five years of extreme plenty and now the clock is running out, based on the biblical story of Joseph and the great famine—seven years of plenty followed by seven years of a failed harvest. If we don’t repent, we will experience “misery like we have never known it.” These days, if any parishioners or fellow pastors ask Garay for investment advice, he tells them to wait two years before making a move.

Like much of Garay’s advice, this recommendation is partly grounded in economic reality, and partly drawn from mystical notions about a biblical calendar. “I’m very real,” he once told me. “If you want to eat at Red Lobster, you better have a Red Lobster paycheck, and enough left over to pay your electric bill. But I’ve also seen miracles of God.” Later, during one of our talks over coffee, his wife echoed the sentiment. “If you can’t afford a house, you shouldn’t buy it,” Hazael said, when I asked whether the prosperity gospel might push people to take irresponsible risks. “But if the Lord is telling you to ‘take that first step and I will provide,’ then you have to believe.”

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.”

The guys who’d started the landscaping company also fared badly. They had a pretty good spring and summer in 2007, their first year of operation, and then business started to fall off. In church they kept giving positive testimonies, bragging about their success. But by October, they’d begun selling off their equipment; eventually they lost the business and had to go into hiding. The most interesting part of the story is the epilogue. One of the partners in the group, whom I’ll call Luis, eventually moved to Richmond, and an acquaintance from Casa del Padre told me that he’d recently run into him there. Luis hadn’t been embittered by the experience; he blamed the disaster on the fact that he’d started working on Sundays instead of going to church. Luis asked the man to come visit with some of the parishioners of his new church, to confirm that he had once been a great success. As they talked, he seemed happy and positive. “He wasn’t angry that things didn’t work out. He wasn’t angry at God. He looked back at those days and thought, ‘I can still have everything. Look what God gave me. That was a time when I had it all.’”

By many measures, Billy Gonzales does not have it all. He lives with his wife and three children in a tiny apartment on the back side of a development at the edge of town, where people hang out on the stoop until all hours. He works 45 minutes away and his car has been broken down for three months, and he does not have any money to fix it. Every day at work he is faced with a vision of what he does not have. He works for a man who just built a $4 million house—one of four the man owns. Gonzales’s job is to make sure every wine glass, garden statue, and book is dusted and in its proper place. Yet when I talked to Gonzales he was like a child hearing the ice-cream truck, or a man newly in love. “I’m crazy! Just crazy,” he said, meaning crazy for the Lord, and giving little jumps out of his chair.

I visited Gonzales one evening after he’d had a long day at work; his brother had given him a ride home. Gonzales has a wide, earnest face that can look like a child’s or, if he is tired, like an old man’s. He sat in his favorite squeaky leather chair with his Bible in one hand and a soccer ball at his feet. The sofas in the tiny living room are actually backseats ripped out of cars, with cushions thrown on them. He got the cushions from a man he once shared a trailer with, and they turned out to be infested with cockroaches. As we talked, the roaches crawled across the floor or on the sofas. Gonzales apologized but did not pay them much attention.

He told me he feels pity for his employer. He assumes the man must have been close to God at one point, or at least his family must have been, “because the rich are closer to God.” But now the man has lost his way. He laughs when Gonzales talks to him about Jesus, and he wastes his money, buying $500 birdhouses and hiring Gonzales to clean them.

Gonzales was once lost too. He came from a big family in Guatemala so poor “that the poor people would call us poor.” For a while after he came to the U.S., he sent money home, but then like many of his friends he lost the rhythm of work. Instead, he was snorting cocaine and getting drunk four nights a week. “I hated Americans. I hated them,” he said, and I had trouble believing him, given his now-innocent, open demeanor. He says that back then, he spent most of his days fantasizing about killing his brother-in-law, whom he hated for no reason he can remember. His conversion came two years ago, in the form of a sudden vision like Garay’s. One night, in a drugged-out haze, he saw a polished, shimmery stone. He later realized it was a jewel, one of the many treasures in God’s vast storehouse, destined for him. Eventually he made his way to Garay, whom he now calls his father.

When I mentioned Gonzales to Garay, the pastor praised him as a model congregant. Indeed, by any standard Gonzales is an admirable man. He is 24, married, works hard, and limits his extracurricular activities to Bible study and soccer. It took me a few visits to realize that two of the three small children in the house are not his. He married a woman with two sons and takes care of them. They call him Papa and he reads to them at night and speaks to them gently, exactly the way he speaks to his own baby son. He has every reason to be frustrated with his circumstances, but I never once saw him express anything but delight. The gospel obviously grounds Gonzales in a very concrete way. But I can also see how, one day, it might send him floating into the air.

“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 were house-hunting together.

A year or so after the crash, there are signs of a new sobriety—higher savings rates, for example, and a reduction in conspicuous spending. But it’s hard to imagine Americans reverting to frugality the way, say, the Japanese did during the “lost decade” after their economy crashed. If by stereotype the Japanese are savers, then Americans are consumers, and ever hopeful. Already, countless “entrepreneurs” are finding a silver lining in the mortgage crisis, buying up foreclosed lots—often sight unseen, based on Web listings alone—in desolate parts of Cleveland and Phoenix and other places where abandoned houses can sometimes be had for a few thousand dollars or less. The buyers pay these bargain-basement prices eagerly, in the belief that the houses must be great deals, when they are just as likely to be overtaken by mold, or have every one of their doors and windows missing and the roof caving in. In America there is always a next play, another opportunity, an “unearned blessing” that can make up for a lifetime of disappointment.

It is not all that surprising that the prosperity gospel persists despite its obvious failure to pay off. Much of popular religion these days is characterized by a vast gap between aspirations and reality. Few of Sarah Palin’s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they’ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce. As Garay likes to say, “What you have is nothing compared to what you will have.” The unpleasant reality—an inadequate paycheck, a pregnant daughter, a recession—is invisible. It’s your ability to see beyond such things, your willing blindness to even the most hopeless-seeming circumstances, that makes you a certain kind of modern Christian, and a 21st-century American.

There is the kind of hope that President Obama talks about, and that Clinton did before him—steady, uplifting, assured. And there is Garay’s kind of hope, which perhaps for many people better reflects the reality of their lives. Garay’s is a faith that, for all its seeming confidence, hints at desperation, at circumstances gone so far wrong that they can only be made right by a sudden, unexpected jackpot.

Once, I asked Garay 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.”

Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic contributing editor, the co-editor of DoubleX, and the author of God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (2007).
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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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