Monday, August 18, 2008

Sugar Daddy God

by Bill Bonner

"Daddy God," is how Victoria Osteen refers to Him. Honestly. We're not making this up. When Mr. Joel Osteen took a wife, it was Victoria that he got, for better or for worse. And now the two of them preside over a mega-church in a suburb of Houston. Mr. Osteen is the author of a super bestselling book, Your Best Life Now . God wants us to be prosperous, he argues, in front of thousands of worshippers. How does he know what God wants? He speaks "face to face" with God, says his wife, making him the first person ever to do so. (What did He look like? Has anyone asked?)

Over in Atlanta, the Rev. Creflo Dollar Jr., seems to be doing even better. He and his wife, Taffi, entertain at another huge church, drive around in a Rolls Royce, and have a private $5 million jet to move them from one speaking engagement to another.

Mr. Dollar, like Mr. Osteen, believes in the power of God to move mountains, but they trust in the Almighty Dollar to smooth out the little foothills in their way. Last year, for example, Mr. Dollar sent 100 of the local Fulton County police officers checks for $1,000 each – a month after two traffic tickets the Reverend Dollar had received had been downgraded to warnings.

And back in the Lone Star State, Kenneth Copeland and his main squeeze, Gloria, have done even better – with 4 jets at their disposal. Mr. Copeland, the subject of a MoneyWeek article last month, is also said to have a parsonage the "size of a hotel," probably more like a huge Motel 6 than a Crillon.

This might be just another part of the baroque spectacle that makes America such an amusing place. But there is more to the story, which is – as you might guess – the subject of today's column.

Gibbon blamed the fall of Rome at least in part, on Christianity; it encouraged a retreat from the battle for money and power, he said. Now, Kevin Phillips, in a new book, Bad Money, charges the pentecostal wing of American Christianity with undermining the U.S. empire in the opposite way. He argues that the evangelicals pushed the Republicans down-market. There, the yahoo voters brought them temporal power – 30% of Republican voters identify themselves with an evangelical sect. But they also hollowed out Republicans' traditional respect for sensible finances.

Among the many frauds of the Reagan-Bush II period, few were gaudier than the "prosperity gospel." Preached in America's gamy religious outposts, the concept does for religion what the neo-conservatives did to conservatism, what modern portfolio theory did for Wall Street, and what Keynesianism did to the economics profession – it a made a monkey of it.

In politics, the neos turned conservatism inside out. The old conservatives were wet blankets, do-nothings and naysayers. When news spread of Calvin Coolidge's death, for example, people asked, "How could they tell?" But the new conservatives are the life of the party. It is said that George W. Bush "doesn't even know the meaning of the word can't." (Of course, there may be other words he doesn't know the meaning of.) And the neocons' idea of political economy was similarly liberated from any residual notions of conservatism and common sense. "Deficits don't matter," said Dick Cheney, speaking for every wishful thinker since Caligula.

On Wall Street and the City, the old conservative doctrines were put away with top hats and spats. In place of prudence came derring-do. In the place of reasonable salaries came breathtaking bonuses. Mortgage lenders no longer studied a borrower's finances to make sure he was a good credit risk; they didn't even take his pulse. And they no longer seemed to care whether their takeovers, triple-A paper, and structured products made any real financial sense; it was enough that they paid a fee.

In economics, too, somehow, the world's leading economists bent the figures into a preposterous new shape so appealing that even a teenager could love it. An economy can get richer by living it up, they said; and the purpose of central banking was to encourage consumption rather than capital formation.

Was it any wonder that the pulpits sank into the honey too? Along came Jim and Tammy Faye Baker with a sexy new religion – spreading the get-rich gospel over the TV waves. Then, poor Jim got sent to prison for fraud, and when he came out he renounced the new doctrine. But other couples – for some reason these preachers seem to work in husband and wife teams, like Juan and Eva Peron – picked up the tablets. Soon, they had convinced millions to give up the hard-benches of the old Calvinists and sink their plump derrieres into some of the cushiest seats in Christendom.

Churchgoers at Mr. Dollar's World Changers church services wave envelopes full of cash, reports the Atlanta paper. On the big screen, they offer testimonial proof of the 'financial blessings' that came their way after they began sending the preacher 10% of their pre-tax earnings: "The congregants...yell in joy as ushers pass the white buckets down the row to collect the envelopes. After more singing, Dollar preaches... He relentlessly attacks the idea that Christians should limit material possessions. Christians have for too long let the 'devil's crowd' get all the money, power and real estate, he says. Then he tells congregants to say, 'I want my stuff.'"

"I want my stuff," they repeat, laughing.

Politics, money, religion – the flim flam was the same everywhere. It was the promise of something for nothing, gain without pain, Easter without Good Friday. But with America's housing prices falling and unemployment rising, the Pentecostals will find it harder to get their stuff than ever. Maybe God didn't want them to be wealthy after all. On the evidence, maybe He just likes a good laugh, like the rest of us.

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