“I Want My Stuff!!”

September 15, 2009 at 9:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As you may by now have determined, I read a lot. This blogpage could easily be called “An American Catholic Reader on the Margins of World Christianity.”

And I pay pretty close attention to what I read. But something I read this morning grabbed my attention to such an extent that I almost jumped up from breakfast and ran to the computer. (Almost. I love my oatmeal and banana).

What struck me so forcibly was an article in the op-ed section of this Sunday’s  New York Times, “The Recession’s Racial Divide,”  by Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammed. Ehrenreich and Muhammed begin by discussing the increasing sense of white grievance in the wake of the recession and the election of the first black president, then observe that nonetheless, it’s African Americans, far more than aggrieved whites, who are suffering from the economic downturn. Black unemployment is now at 15.1%, while white unemployment is 8.9%; here in NYC, black unemployment is rising four times as fast as white. As a result, foreclosures on black homes are also rising disproportionately.

As sobering as all this is, I did not find it surprising. What did make me sit up and take note was Ehrenreich and Muhammed’s linkage of the popularity of the “prosperity gospel” in some black churches in recent years with the severe impact of the recession on African Americans. They write:

“If any cultural factor predisposed blacks to fall for risky loans, it was one widely shared with whites–a penchant for ‘positive thinking’ and unwarranted optimism, which takes the theological form of the ‘prosperity gospel.’ Since ‘God wants to prosper you,’ all you have to do is ‘name it and claim it.’ A DVD from the black televangelist Creflo Dollar featured African American parishioners shouting, ‘I want my stuff–right now!'”

Ehrenreich and Muhammed draw on the work of religion scholar Jonathan Walton to argue that prosperity preachers “reassured people about subprime mortgages by getting people to believe that ‘God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and bless me with my first house.'”  This inclined a good number of African Americans to “substitute the individual wish-fulfillment of Norman Vincent Peale for the collective-action message of Martin Luther King.”

In the 1980s, I had occasion to reflect on Peale’s “power of positive thinking” because I worked in the office building behind the Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue in Manhattan where Peale had pastored for many years; I used to watch members of the congregation arriving for services in limousines.  It occurred to me that maybe the power of positive thinking has to do with who is doing the thinking.

In my book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, I explore the post-immigrant American Catholic turn to optimism in first half of the twentieth century, linking the Catholic sex/gender wars since Vatican II to the collapse of that optimism beginning in 1970. In the 1960s, white-ethnic American Catholics believed they were going to achieve the American dream their forebears had long struggled for, but in the 1970s, it all came crashing down, in the economic recession, conflict over Vietnam and integration, and the dashing of the Vatican II dream of a democratic church. Four decades of Catholic culture wars ensued. I pray that the impact of the death of the fantasy of prosperty is less devastating for African American brothers and sisters, though it’s hard to imagine how this would be the case.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America  will be published by Metropolitan Books in mid-October.

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