Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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By now, everyone knows that Joel Osteen, the Prosperity Gospel preacher in Houston’s Lakewood Church, initially refused to open the doors to shelter the victims of Tropical Storm Harvey.

That’s certainly a good reason for people to hate Osteen.

Kate Bowler [ht: ji], the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, offers three other reasons for hating Osteen:

#1—Osteen represents the Christian 1 percent

From aerial views of his jaw-dropping mansion to the cut of his navy suits, he always looks like a man with a good reason to be smiling. He is a wealthy man who unapologetically preaches that God has blessed him, with the added bonus that God can bless anyone else, too. The promise of the prosperity gospel is that it has found a formula that guarantees that God always blesses the righteous with health, wealth and happiness. For that reason, churchgoers love to see their preachers thrive as living embodiments of their own message. But the inequality that makes Osteen an inspiration is also what makes him an uncomfortable representation of the deep chasms in the land of opportunity between the haves and the have-nots. When the floodwaters rise, no one wants to see him float by on his yacht, as evidenced by the Christian satire website the Babylon Bee’s shot Tuesday at Osteen: “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now.’ ”

#2—There is a lingering controversy around prosperity megachurches and their charitable giving

When a church that places enormous theological weight on tithes and offerings is not a leader in charitable giving, the most obvious question is about who is the primary beneficiary of the prosperity gospel? The everyman or the man at the front?

#3—The Prosperity Gospel’s answer to the question about evil in the world is not unlike the one offered by neoclassical economics

Its central claim — “Everyone can be prosperous!”—contains its own conundrum. How do you explain the persistence of suffering? It might be easier to say to someone undergoing a divorce that there is something redemptive about the lessons they learned, but what about a child with cancer? This week, the prosperity gospel came face-to-face with its own theological limits. It was unable to answer the lingering questions around what theologians call “natural evil.” There is a natural curiosity about how someone like Osteen will react in the face of indiscriminate disaster. Is God separating the sheep from the goats? Will only the houses of the ungodly be flooded? The prosperity gospel has not every found a robust way to address tragedy when their own theology touts that “Everything Happens for a Reason.”

For neoclassical economists, everything happens—good and evil, both prosperity and poverty—because of people’s choices.

I have offered my own reasons for questioning the Prosperity Gospel—what I have called the American Hustle—and yet for taking it seriously—especially in terms of support for Donald Trump.

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Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.

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Last year, as I reported the other day, I published over 800 new posts.

I’ve never done this before. However, I decided to look back over the year and choose one post for each month of 2016:

January—Liberal ideology

February—Who are the capitalists?

March—Yea, they’re angry!

April—Life among the liberal econ

May—Letting capitalism off the hook

June—Globalization, inequality, and imperialism

July—Trump and the Prosperity Gospel

August—The Mandibles and dystopian finance fiction

September—What about the white working-class?

October—Nobel economics—or why does capital hire labor?

November—Condition of the working-class in the United States

December—China syndrome

Enjoy!

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Many observers of the 2016 campaign have been surprised by Donald Trump’s popularity with Christian voters.

But they shouldn’t be.

Chris Lehmann, like Jeff Shalet before him, explains the key role the Prosperity Gospel has played in white evangelical Protestants’ making their peace with Trump.

Trump’s bromance with evangelicals looks unexpected only because we’re approaching it backward. It’s not so much that Trump has somehow hoodwinked or bullied the true-believing American right into an awkward set of ill-fitting cultural and political postures. It’s that a large part of the Protestant world has for decades now been embracing the brash capitalist gospel of Trumpism.

The key bulwark of faith-based Trumpism is the prosperity gospel — a movement rooted in Pentecostal preaching that holds that God directly dispenses divine favor in the capitalist marketplace to his steadfast believers.

As I explained back in May 2015,

Capitalism is not a natural phenomenon; it required a great deal of work, historically, to bring it into being, and it requires a lot of ongoing work, socially, to reproduce it over time. And part of that work, historically and socially, has involved the production of a whole set of identities and meanings that celebrates the winners and blames the losers, all the while creating the hope that everyone is a potential winner.

And that’s exactly the what the Prosperity Gospel does. Like much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it’s all about celebrating the winners and blaming the losers.

In my piece, “American Hustle,” which was published in the Journal of Cultural Economy, I tried to explain how that hustle works. Here are a few extracts:

the Prosperity Gospel movement has, against all odds, grown and expanded—from the wrong-side-of-town tent revivals and prayer meetings to mainstream religious, media, and even political status, at least within that vast landscape of nondenominational Protestantism. And it’s all because of an enormously successful hustle.

The movement is propelled by preachers who manage to convince people that, if they believe they control their own destiny, as long as their hearts and faith are in the right place and they fork over a large share of their income to demonstrate their commitment, they can overcome psychological and physical obstacles and achieve financial success. It’s a strategy that, of course, serves to line the burgeoning pockets of the Prosperity Gospel evangelists themselves. . .

And it’s as American as apple pie (or, if you prefer, extreme diets and beauty makeovers). What we have here is hustle that dates back at least to “40 acres and a mule” and continues through railroad speculation (which, when it went bust, brought on the First Great Depression, later renamed the Panic, of 1873), real-estate bubbles (remember the Marx Brothers’ movie The Cocoanuts) and “painting the tape” stock-market boom (which collapsed on Black Thursday in October 1929, ushering in what we now refer to as the First Great Depression), and, closer to our own time, the dot-com bubble (which had its origins in Clinton’s economic program, but which was subsequently blamed on Bush), the solution to which created the conditions for the next and most recent financial hustle: subprime mortgages and the derivatives that, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, represented the beginning of the Second Great Depression.

As we know, every hustle (like any game of Three-card Monte) requires three characters: a dealer (who places three cards face down on a table, often on a cardboard box, which provides the ability to set up and disappear quickly), a victim or “mark” (who is tricked into betting a sum of money, on the assumption that they can find the money card among three constantly moving, face-down playing cards), and a shill (who pretends to conspire with the mark to cheat the dealer, while in fact conspiring with the dealer to take advantage of the mark). . .

The basic structure of the hustle is also a reminder that it needs a third party, a supplement. It’s not enough that there are hustling dealers and ready-to-be-hustled marks, who are willing to face one another over the cardboard box. The hustle doesn’t work unless there’s a shill, which gives the hustle its allure and legitimacy.

And that’s what the Prosperity Gospel movement accomplishes for the economic system as a whole. It both signifies there’s a hustle taking place (otherwise why would anyone need a special relationship with Jesus to succeed?) and provides cover for the hustle (since it’s made out to be the only game in town, all we can do is make the appropriate spiritual and financial investment and hope to receive our just reward).

Which is exactly how American capitalism works. There’s a basic economic structure—of a majority of workers who are dependent on a small minority of capitalists for their livelihoods. And that’s important, since the workers’ pay is enough to allow them to consume the commodities they need in order to go back to work the next day but not so much that they don’t have to go back to work the next day. Thus, most people continue to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to their corporate employers on an ongoing basis.

Trump’s genius is, at one and the same time, to highlight the existence of an unfair hustle and to put himself forward as the leader who can help everyone—both those who have lost and those who are already winners—become winners within the hustle.

Just like him. And that, too, is as American as extreme diets and beauty makeovers.

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