Christianity and the crashfrom The Immanent FrameIn the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin added to the ongoing debate over the causes of the current economic downturn by casting light on the role played by the prosperity gospel---a strain of Christian teaching tens of millions of believers strong, which proclaims that an unfaltering faith in God will lead to monetary and other material blessings in this lifetime. In light of the questions raised and conclusions put forth in Rosin's article, we asked a group of esteemed scholars and journalists about the relationship between contemporary Christianity and Americans’ economic attitudes, behaviors, and notions of responsibility. We are pleased to offer their responses below.
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.
In his book Something for Nothing, Jackson Lears describes two starkly different manifestations of the American dream, each intertwined with religious faith. The traditional Protestant hero is a self-made man. He is disciplined and hardworking, and believes that his “success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan.” The hero of the second American narrative is a kind of gambling man—a “speculative confidence man,” Lears calls him, who prefers “risky ventures in real estate,” and a more “fluid, mobile democracy.” The self-made man imagines a coherent universe where earthly rewards match merits. The confidence man lives in a culture of chance, with “grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God.”
The Gilded Age launched the myth of the self-made man, as the Rockefellers and other powerful men in the pews connected their wealth to their own virtue. In these boom-and-crash years, the more reckless alter ego dominates. In his book, Lears quotes a reverend named Jeffrey Black, who sounds remarkably like Garay: “The whole hope of a human being is that somehow, in spite of the things I’ve done wrong, there will be an episode when grace and fate shower down on me and an unearned blessing will come to me—that I’ll be the one.”
As the crisis gathered momentum in the last few years, I realized that all my readings in theories of globalization, Marxist analysis of capital, subaltern studies, and postcolonial criticism over the last twenty-five years, while enormously useful in studying globalization, had not really prepared me for making sense of this planetary conjuncture within which humanity finds itself today. The change of mood in globalization analysis may be seen by comparing Giovanni Arrighi’s masterful history of world capitalism, The Long Twentieth Century (1994), with his more recent Adam Smith in Beijing (2007), which, among other things, seeks to understand the implications of the economic rise of China. The first book, a long meditation on the chaos internal to capitalist economies, ends with the thought of capitalism burning up humanity “in the horrors (or glories) of the escalating violence that has accompanied the liquidation of the Cold War world order.” It is clear that the heat that burns the world in Arrighi’s narrative comes from the engine of capitalism and not from global warming.
By the time Arrighi comes to write Adam Smith in Beijing, however, he is much more concerned with the question of ecological limits to capitalism. That theme provides the concluding note of the book, suggesting the distance that a critic such as Arrighi has traveled in the thirteen years that separate the publication of the two books.7 If, indeed, globalization and global warming are born of overlapping processes, the question is, How do we bring them together in our understanding of the world?