O Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz? Thoughts on Prosperity and the “Financialisation” of Christianity (by Matthew Sharpe)

Religion and Political Thought

Matthew Sharpe

School of Humanities and Social Science, Deakin University, Australia

This is the third post in a series on religion and political thought in Australia.  See introduction here.

To paraphrase Bono with due apologies, “there’s been a lot of talk recently about a return to religion, maybe … maybe too much talk.”

International statistics bear out that there are two major stories here, in terms of growth on the ground: the first is the continuing rapid growth of Islam (6.4% per annum since 1989 around the world), and within Christianity (a 1.4% global growth rate in the same period), the disproportionate growth (a) in the global South, led by Latin America and Africa; and (b) the large degree to which this growth has been focussed in forms of neopentecostal or “third wave” pentecostal Churches.

Indeed, since the 1980s, the global growth of Pentecostalism, particularly in the developing nations has been so rapid as to amount to what critics have variously called a “restructuring of Christianity,” “the fourth great age of Christian expansion” (Poloma 2000), or even a “reshaping [of] the religion of the 21st century.” The figures attesting to this “second reformation” are indeed arresting. According to David Barrett, whereas in 1970 there were 74 million “Pentecostal/charismatic” Christians globally, by 1997 this figure had reached nearly 500 million, over quarter of the world’s Christians. While sociologist David Martin is more conservative about the figures, he agrees that the growth of Pentecostalism globally represents “the largest shift in the religious marketplace over the last 40 years.” Strikingly, while numbers of Pentecostals in first world countries have largely plateaued, by 2002 it was widely estimated that over two thirds of all Pentecostals live outside the developed West. According to the World Christian Database, whereas in Africa in 1970 less than 5% of the population was Pentecostal, by 2005 Pentecostals represented over 12% of the continent’s population, well over 100 million. The growth in Latin America is even more spectacular: from 12.6 million Pentecostal and charismatics in 1970, to an estimated 157 million by 2005 (75 million Pentecostals alone, or 13% of population), prompting some concern amongst Catholics that Latin America is becoming evangelical, and John Paul II’s denunciation of the ‘invasion of the sects’ (at Anderson ch. 4, Stoll 1990; Adogame 2010, 503). As of 2006, the Christian database estimated that Pentecostals constituted 73% of all Latin American Protestants, from less than 50% in 1980. The Holy Spirit is rising with the growth of megachurches and the return of prophetism, glossolalia and exorcism in the global South, although—despite a brief period of media-fuelled excitement after the events of 9/11— things remain considerably more clouded North of the international poverty line.

Meanwhile, since 2007 the Owl of Minerva has perched itself upon the branches of the GFC, pluming itself in a growing body of critical literature in political economics and related disciplines tracing the extraordinary growth of financial markets in the US and elsewhere, and the penetration of debt-funded consumption across the first world and beyond. Decades of critical literature had targeted “neoliberalism” as a set of ideologies justifying privatisation of state assets, deregulation of product and money markets, and the globalisation of production chains. This new literature tracks what increasingly appears retrospectively as the real or virtual underside to these political and economic changes as the global economy internationalised and deregulated since 1975: the conjunction of phenomena that commentators have gathered together under the condensation-term “financialisation.”

“Financialisation” condenses at least four registers which have come increasingly to define the economic and cultural setting in which we live:

  1. financialisation as the exponential growth, following deregulation of finance markets around the globe since the 1970s crisis –and in an accelerated manner since the 1990s, and legislation like the US Act rolling back the Glass-Steagall Act separating investment from commercial banking)—of trade in currencies, other virtual financial entities, up to and including “tranches” of consolidated individual debts and other highly reflexive “derivatives”;
  2. financialisation within companies, e.g. General Motors, who become increasingly dependent on their financial arms to return viable rates of profit;
  3. the financialisation “of everyday life” or, in one wit’s term, “the everyday life of global finance.” This includes ever-more prompts, expectations, and options for households to invest in the stock-market, (forced) choices regarding insurance and superannuation which is in turn invested for workers in the financial markets by brokers or advisers[1]; and above all, remarkably lowered standards required to access credit even for non-productive expenditure whose glittering face are the remarkably banking advertisements presenting these institutions as something like the benevolent grandparent you never had: at once intimately concerned with your most precious, uncommodifiable moments and gazing mid-range towards the dreams you haven’t had the courage to admit even to yourself;
  4. Finally, the financialisation of culture and politics: viz. the normalisation and increased visibility of finance (e.g.) in news media, where nightly reports beamed into people’s lounge-rooms describe the ups and downs and moods of markets as if they were either/both a natural, meteorological phenomena, or a kind of collective, all-bestowing subject in the sense that Tom Frank was intoned about “one market under God.”[2]

If we ask why this financialisation, Marxian political economics gives what the figures seem to bear out as a compelling explanation. By the end of the post-war boom, rates of profit in the productive economy across the first world were falling. With the advent of social unrest in the late 1960s, followed by a series of shocks to the global economy in the early 1970s crisis, the newly-animated, newly-politically organised Right, led by growing leagues of think-tanks and a newly regnant neoclassical economic paradigm in the universities, slated the crisis home to “excessive political demand” on the state (a “crisis of governability”) as a result of the coordinated political action of trade unions and the new social movements.

Accordingly and as we well know, the neoliberal period (still continuing, incidentally, as of 2014) has seen continuing attempts to decrease the costs of the social arm of the state (as against the repressive arm, spectacularly in the US), by often-highly elaborate attempts to shift the burden and risks associated with social reproduction onto individuals through selling or “privatising” public assets, and creating quasi-markets between private providers, so the state “does not row, it steers”—as Professor Paul Kelly has parroted American voices in Murdoch’s Australian. Meanwhile, deunionisation has been vigorously prosecuted, ideologically as contrary to enterprise; economically as a means to depress real wages (‘increase productivity’, excuse us!), organisationally by the advent of new auditing and managerial regimens which place workers in competition within their workplaces; and socially, by the casualization (excuse me again–the postmodern “flexibilisation”) of working conditions within the first world, together with the internationally-brokered removal (‘deregulation’) of national barriers to intra- and inter-firm trading and movement of goods enabling the exportation of low-skilled work to developing nations with lower costs of labour and the flood of lower-cost, internationally manufactured, Western-branded clothing, cars, computer technologies and the like which saturate the postmodern lifeworld.

The GFC, after a brief mea culpa, has led to the redoubling of these policies, most spectacularly in the form of the kinds of “austerity” measures imposed on the global South by the economistic NGOs for decades encroaching upon the European mainland, touring North via the Mediterranean basin.

Yet one thing it did do for the Left is draw much wider attention to the financial elephant in the room of the new global economic edifice, previously only stressed by a minority of critical voices, led notably by Magdoff and Sweazy. Since the 1990s, in fact, there has been stunning growth in derivatives trading in financial markets, while figures concerning real production globally (and rates of profit outside of the financial sector have widely slowed or stagnated).[3] From near zero in 1990, these markets were moving $600 trillion by 2008. In the US, upon which much of the literature has understandably focussed, the ratio of financial assets measured against GDP has increased from 4:1, by 2007 to around 10:1. Globally, in 1980, financial assets (bank deposits, securities, shareholdings) summed just 119% of global production; whereas by the 2007 crisis again, this figure had ballooned to a bullish, or ‘bubble-ish’, 356% (Smith 2010, 9).

Meanwhile, as neoliberal ideologists continue to shout public austerity, the neoliberal period has presided over a massive growth in total private debt as percentage of GDP across the advanced economies: a sure product of stagnating real wages, coupled with the need to maintain what the media calls “buoyant consumer sentiment.” The flagging-demand-gap has been ‘minded’ by the proliferation of credit cards and new “financial instruments” enabling consumers to take on unprecedented levels of unproductive debt and, in particular, to “leverage” the family home (or, via negative gearing and the like, “the investment property”) into a kind of virtual ATM. In the US, household or consumer debt had grown to over 11 billion dollars in 2005, relative to total disposable income of Americans of just over 9 billion; while in that country elsewhere, house prices have sky-rocketed (in Australia, from 4 to 7 times median income between 1986 and 2007, a 75% raise massively eclipsing that of wages), answering the new peaks of debt-enabled demand, and the fictive “wealth effect” (Bellamy Foster and Magdoff, “The Household Debt Bubble”).

Retrospectively, of course, the 2007 GFC brings together the different features of financialisation in a kind of fearful Blakean symmetry.

For after all, the crisis did not begin on Wall Street, whose commentators in January 2007, armed with good science, were beaming with what the Financial Times called “exuberant optimism.” The great unravelling begun with ordinary folk on Main Street: in low- and middle-income states like Ohio, Colorado, Florida, California, Nevada, and Michigan, where the number of defaults and foreclosures on home loans increased 51% between 2006 to 2007 to 405,000 households: in Las Vegas, up to 40% of home loans were foreclosed.[4] These foreclosures followed a decline in US house prices over the previous year, which made it impossible for lenders to refinance their loans.

And, if we ask what kind of loans were these that were so vulnerable to fluctuations in wider demand, the answer is of course they were largely the seemingly magical, “subprime” or “loc doc” loans. These are varieties of high-risk loans which, facilitated by declining regulation of financial providers in the previous decade, had made house purchasing seem accessible to previously-debarred, lower income people, down—in the cases of what have been humorously labelled as ‘NINJA’ loans to people with “No Income, No job, no Assets.” In many cases, for instance, these loans were so-called adjustable-rate-mortgages (ARMs). These allow the homeowner, as if by a miracle (you see where this is going), to pay only the interest (not principal) of the mortgage during an initial ‘teaser’ period. Then there are even more divinely liberal ‘payment option’ loans. In these, the homeowner is given the option to make monthly payments that do not even cover the interest for the first two or three year initial period of the loan. The Mephistophelian kicker is then that, after this ‘sweetener’ period, monthly payments double or even triple—and this is when the defaults inevitably occur.

What though has this to do with the Prosperity Gospel?

First of all, it hardly needs saying that a gospel that promises its devotees economic prosperity, as a sign of God’s blessings, is one that seems dispositionally well-suited to later capitalism. But the elective affinities between forms of Protestant practice—against those continually economically recalcitrant Catholic and Orthodox—and capitalism is a staple of social theory since Weber. And there is a long way between the forms of Lutheranism and Calvinism Weber extolled as valorising forms of virtuous, self-motoring productivity and Prosperity. So any meaningful argument about Prosperity and capitalism needs to highlight the specific forms of Prosperity that have made its evident success, especially in the global south, in the neoliberal-financial period.

Here, then, three hypotheses for the readers’ consideration:

First, Prosperity valorises conspicuous consumption as a sign of God’s Grace: not virtuous but dour-faced productivity and efficiency on the ’supply side’. To recur to the famous argument of Daniel Bell, Prosperity appeals less to the dourer virtues of reliable workers and long-term proprietors than the acephalous impulses of jubilant consumers, filled with an entrepreneurial spirit capable of looking flexibly at different ventures alike: each considered indifferently as potential, more or less immediate sources of God’s supernatural, yet very material blessings. The testimony of Nigerian Winners’ Chapel (sic.) Bishop David O. Oyedepo on his conversion is here illustrative, and in some ways says it all:

There was a time in my life when I was known as a failure … The only car my family had before then was stolen … But to the glory of God in October 2000, He gave me a Mercedes Benz car. I have also been able to dedicate a new mansion God blessed me with to the glory of His Name. To crown it all, another car was recently added to my family. I have every reason to celebrate the faithfulness of God.

Second, there is what is probably the most apparently bizarre, and distinct, feature of Prosperity worship: viz the practice of “positive confession,” the teaching that believers may claim whatever they desire from God, simply by speaking it in faith. Thus, Prosperity believers—in this seemingly profane version of the theology of grace—are encouraged to proclaim out loud, with inner conviction, what it is they want or are expecting by God’s super-natural beneficence: “I’ll never be broke another day in my life”; “I am expecting supernatural increase this week”; or, “I am expecting supernatural debt-cancellation this week.”

Underlying the belief in positive confession (or “name it and claim it,” as it is sometimes called) is a particular understanding of the importance of the spoken word (rhema), in contrast to what is written (logos). The key theological notion here draws on the observation that God’s creative power in Genesis is one of speaking things into being, and finding them Good. Just so, Prosperity theology reasons, since the Bible tells us that humans are made in the image of God, and believers are moreover parties to the covenantal relation with Him through Christ, the unique human capacity to speak—when this speech proceeds from true faith—allows believers to co-participate, instantaneously and individually, in the work of creation, exercising dominion over material, spiritual and perhaps even the medical realities of illness.[5]

The phenomenon of positive prayer—one which not only short-circuits any need for works or collective solidarity, but significantly reshapes older understandings of the theological virtue of faith—provides rich material for the kind of Hegelian analysis we want to suggest here.

Here, what Max Horkheimer decries as the characteristic “bourgeois” internalisation or idealisation of wished-for, but socio-politically impossible values (dignity, autonomy and equality) achieves a new pinnacle: in the fabulous supposition that to speak alone is able to bring something into being, as per what Kant himself called intellectual intuition. More specifically, in the period of low-doc loans promising people with nothing more than a credit rating instant access to houses whose average price, relative to median income, has been rapidly increasing for two decades, positive confession seems an uncanny theological reflection of what commentators have called the “wealth effect.” We mean the fabulous promise promoted by the marketing of banks that, indeed, all one has to do is sign on a dotted line, if not ‘speak the word’, to have that Mercedes Benz or mansion that marks you off ostentatiously (if only for two or three years) as economically elect.

And of course, this fabulous promise—that money can be created ex nihilo, trading only the calculation of the virtualities of risk without passing through anything as sordidly material as the production of goods requiring the requisition of ‘variable capital”—defines the operation of financial capital. Why trade in productive capitals at all (with all the flukes and politics of ‘variable capital’, which can organise and politicise), when more money can be made in investing elsewhere, even just in the movements of money itself across national borders, instant-by-instant? At its base, it is this highly ‘economically rational’ calculation made by increasing numbers that explains the exponential growth of the financial sector in recent decades.

In times when this mode of exchange has become unquestionably the model for all capitalist exchange, Prosperity’s conception of a Deity responsive to affirmative prayer seems inevitably to provoke a more this-worldly interpretation. We should be cautious about the German Ideology’s famous claims that theological doctrines represent camera obscura mystifications of really-experienced economic conditions. But sometimes, as in a period when the financial news naturalises stock-market trends like weather patterns, reality itself—including in newly-proliferating forms of Christian belief—can become economistically reductive, and vindicate Marxian political economy, despite all concerned.

Here, then, the third and final suggestion, and a second level of the neo-Hegelian hypothesis we want to present here. Part of the charm of Prosperity, which draws from its Pentecostal heritage, is to propose that we live in a time of wonders and miracles: a still-enchanted world like that of the Old and New Testaments. This world, Prosperity Gospel tells us,is governed by a set of invisible but calculable “spiritual laws” which believers can rely upon unfailingly, if their faith is true. We can, almost literally, “draw” or “bank upon” God’s blessings if we have the inner, affirmative attitude and prayerfulness to access them, rather than needing (as in older forms of Calvinism) to agonise continuously over whether we have been chosen. This openness to the supernatural, or what we might call “magical thinking,” is one cross-over point between Prosperity and forms of indigenous, pre-Christian South American and African religiosity, which also posit worlds divided between good and evil spirits, which faith can enable us to tame and conquer.

Assuming only the most basic human need to cognitively map the world in which they live, and the forces which shape their lives, can we not posit that the proliferation of such magical, non-rational explanatory frameworks reflects the unmistakable fact that financial capital is the most abstract form of capitalism, all-but-completely opaque to the economic laity not trained in the Priestly Latin of the financial jargon?

The fact is, that for all but an elite minority of economically trained elites who are able to decode what Magdoff and Yates call the “financial instrument alphabet soup” (ARCPs, CDOs, CLO, CDs, derivatives, futures, hedge funds, LBOs, SIVs, etc.), these ‘instruments’ for the generation of credit and wealth are every bit as inscrutable as the Latin mass for most medieval Christians.

Secondly, medium and larger companies trading in all kinds of goods and services are increasingly financed by shares tradeable on markets open to domestic and international investors. Here, they increasingly compete for funding with capitals in other sectors and national bases. In this environment, the success or failure of particular ventures, and thus the short- to medium-term fates of the employees whose livelihoods depend upon these, are increasingly prey to international “market forces” whose mapping and comprehension, again, demands expert knowledge far beyond the expertise (and the time to acquire it) of the vast majority. In drastic cases, like the 1994 Peso or “Tequila” crash in Mexico, the ordinary Mexican was faced by a situation in which, due to fluctuations in the American dollar based on a complex of factors about which most would have known absolutely nada, the Peso lost more than 30% of its value across two weeks, leading within 6 months to a 10% drop in economic activity, ballooning unemployment, and sharp drops in real wages.

In short, critics can and have rightly lamented the craven adaptation of Prosperity to the conditions of later modern, financialised capital. But an elementary sympathy with the needs of people living in almost-inscrutable conditions suggests we should not condemn them. Absent any more progressive social and political and theological options which speak to their living conditions, can we blame people for turning to a form of belief which—supercharged by charismatic, grassroots forms of worship, and a glitzy, colourful, upbeat sense that anything is possible—proffers them some mode of explaining this world in which they have been so completely disenfranchised?

The reign of markets alone, in both boom and bubble, suggest that Prosperity’s stocks remain set to rise for some time.

Bibliography

Adogame, Afe. 2010. “Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements in a Global Perspective,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion ed. Turner, Bryan S. Wiley-Blackwell: Hoboken.

Anderson, Allan. 2000. “Evangelism and the Growth of Pentecostalism in Africa,” at www-site http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/aanderson/Publications/evangelism_and_the_growth_of_pen.htm, accessed February 2002.

Bastian, J-P. 1993. “The Metamorphosis of Latin American Protestant Groups: A Sociohistorical Perspective,” Latin American Res. Rev. 28: pp. 33-61.

Bowman, Robert M. Jr. 2001. The Word-Faith Controversy Understanding the Health and Wealth Gospel. Baker Books: USA.

Chesnut, A. 1997. Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty , New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press .

Chesnut, A. 2003. Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy , Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Coleman, S. 2000. The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cox, Harvey. 1996. Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. London: Cassell.

Dempster , M. , Klaus , B. , and Petersen , D. (eds.). 1999. The Globalisation of Pentecostalism: A Religion Made to Travel , Oxford and Irvine : Regnum.

Foster, J. B. 2007, “Monopoly-Finance Capital,” Monthly Review 58, no. 7 (December 2007), 1–14.

Foster, J.B. & Fred Magdoff. 2009. The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences, Monthly Rview Press: USA.

Hackett, R. 1995. ‘The Gospel of Prosperity in Africa’, in Religion and the Transformation of Capitalism, ed. R. Roberts. London: Routledge

Hagin, Kenneth. 2007. Biblical Keys to Financial Prosperity. Tulsa, OK: Faith Library Publications.

Jenkins, Philip. 2006. The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, Oxford University Press: Oxford, NY.

Langley, P. 2009. The Everyday Life of Global Finance: Saving and Borrowing in Anglo-America, Oxford UP: Oxford.

Martin, R. 2002. The Financialization of Everyday Life, Temple UP: USA.

McConnell, Daniel. A Different Gospel: Biblical and Historical Insights into the Word of Faith Movement. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts.

Perriman, Andrew. 2003. Faith, Health, and Prosperity. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press.

Stoll, David. 1990. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth. University of California Press; USA.

Willems, E. 1967. Followers of the New Faith: Culture Change and the Rise of Protestantism in Brazil and Chile. Nashville, TN: Wandebildt University Press.

 

[1] Financialisation demands “new identities and forms of calculation from its citizens, [who] must now take individual responsibility for their financial futures” (Froud et al 2007, 340) ; “new investor subjects [Langley 2006, 2008], self-disciplined and appropriately attuned to the demands of a financialised capitalism.” (French et al, 1034)

[2] Since the 1980s, the presence of financial news, commentators, language, concerns and considerations into mainstream media, especially TV and radio, has almost completely “normalised” the terminology and concerns of the financial sector, as of intimate and pressing concerns to “main street” subjects: “To put it simply, in the 1980s finance became deemed more newsworthy than previously, in the 1990s programmes dedicated to finance and money emerged, and in the 2000s this dedicated finance programming has now mainly dispersed as neo-liberal economic discourses have been naturalized” Cathy Greenfield et al, “Financialisation, finance rationality and the role of media in Australia,” p. 5).

[3] The neoliberal period has, according to the figures, not led to increased growth in real GDP in the US (3.3% 1970s, 3.1% 80s and 90s, then 2.2% in the “boom” from 2000-2008); or globally (in free market nations: 1960s, 4.9%, 70s 3.93%; 80s 2.95%, 90s 2.95%, 2000-2004 2.76% [Smith 2010, 10]). Nor, more operatively for the “business community,” have overall rates of profits in US been restored to wartime and postwar boom levels. See Duménil, Gérard and Dominique Lévy, 2005, “The Profit Rate: Where and How Much Did it Fall? Did It Recover? (USA 1948-1997).”

[4] http://money.cnn.com/2008/01/29/real_estate/foreclosure_filings_2007/

[5] This emphasis on the primary, living and creative importance of the spoken word accessible to all believers, incidentally, marks one important difference between Prosperity and forms of fundamentalist Christianity. In the latter, emphasis falls on the unwavering importance of the “It is written …” of the Bible, rather than the ecstatic spoken word—however much commentators often conflate Pentecostal evangelism with “Christian fundamentalism” (Adogame 2010, 503-504).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Like what you're reading?

Join our mailing list to receive an email every time we post new content.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!