Disillusioned commentary on Australian financial sector, politics, business, media... with attention occasionally distracted to the world outside... and intermittent reminder that rage is a more life-conserving irrationality than despair.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The economics of prosperity

Charismatic Christian churches have seen their influence grow rapidly in the United States and, here in Australia, there are several that have attracted large numbers of adherents.

But what, exactly, is their attraction?

Julie Macken and Geoffrey Barker, writing in The FIN yesterday, explore:

Australians have given unprecedented amounts of money for the Asian tsunami relief effort. Unlike those killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars, the victims of the tsunami disaster are innocent, powerless and highly visible. Their narrative is not sinister, but simple: wrong place, wrong time. Increasingly, that seems to matter.

The recent federal election illustrated this shift in community values. Voters focused on themselves, their families and their mortgages. The rise of the
Family First party (Cameron Stewart's article in The Australian about the church is here) and the victory of a Liberal candidate linked to the Hillsong Church suggests many Australians now rank issues of private morality such as sexual preference, divorce and abortion as of equal or more importance than broader questions of social justice.

As one Catholic priest, who prefers not to be named, says: "Having privatised the airports and roads it's now time to privatise morality."

This push to privatise morality has strong links to what US theologians call prosperity theology. It teaches that God shows his approval by dispensing cash, success and good looks on those who obey his laws as interpreted by his preachers usually charismatic men attracting big numbers to new churches out in the suburbs.

Conversely, those who experience poverty, ill-health or violence do so because they have not followed God's laws again, as interpreted by his preachers and (at the extreme) church leaders in the mould of US-style televangelists.

This is the problem for the innocent civilians killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars. There is a sense that in some way they deserved their fate in a way no tsunami victim did. Certainly their plight and subsequent deaths did not galvanise the community as the tsunami's devastation has.
This realignment of privatised morality is more than just an exercise in theological rebranding. Economists, theologians and activists say it could have a huge impact on the nation's bottom line, reorienting the direction of public spending for a generation. By focusing on self-help rather than public support, they fear it may also accelerate a trend towards dangerous levels of narcissism.
Australian National University professor of economics Bob Gregory suspects this new God-wants-you-to-be-rich theology will be harnessed to help drive economic imperatives.

"Let's be clear about this: the federal government wants to reform welfare," he says. "The way to do that is to create the idea of the deserving and the undeserving poor.

"These new Christian churches help the government do this by creating the right social conditions and values. But they didn't start the process: the federal government has been wanting this for a long time. For the Christians it's a case of good timing." ...

Macken and Barker refer to the recent book, God Under Howard, by academic Marion Maddox, also discussed yesterday in
The Australian by Emma-Kate Symons, who wrote:

REPRESSIVE, racist, homophobic, sexist, a free market economic ideologue and downright nasty - that's the cruel and jealous God that John Howard, Machiavellian wolf in relaxed and comfortable sheep's clothing, has inflicted on Australia's collective soul.

At least that's the startling finding of Marion Maddox's inquisition into the religious-political state of the nation under our second-longest serving prime minister. God Under Howard, with its pointed subtitle, How the Religious Right has Hijacked Australian Politics, is a crusader's document worthy of a Methodist-raised religious studies academic. And woe betide any who dare question its dogma - that Howard is a rampaging heretic, re-creating the Australian political landscape in the image of the American Christian Right, and in the process destroying the fabric of Australian democracy.

The title and cover illustration leave readers in little doubt about the author's intentions to expose what she declares is "Howard's spiritual assault on Australian values". She casts herself and the mass of Australian people in a role akin to John Proctor in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, fighting nobly against the puritanical, sexually repressive witch-burning forces led by Reverend Samuel Parris. It seems weirdly out of sync with reality, proferring a theocratic dystopia of an Australia more like the Taliban's Afghanistan than the nation we inhabit.

Although unimpressed, as you'd expect from a commentator at one of Fox News's sibling organs, Symons ends her piece with the strange observation that:

[Maddox] is a different kind of evangelist, longing for a new synergy between religion and politics where "by legislating to bring out our best rather than our worst, governments can make us nicer".

No wonder Howard and his muscular Christian soldiers are winning the partisan battle for Australia's political soul.

Macken's and Barker's article then moves on to money, prosperity and God:

Louise Markus, a Hillsong employee, was elected to the House of Representatives as Liberal MP for Greenway. Markus acknowledged in her first speech that she had been "blessed to sit under the teaching and leadership" of Hillsong pastors Brian and Bobby Houston from Sydney's western suburbs.

Explaining the credo of his book You Need More Money: Discovering God's Amazing Financial Plan for your Life [a scary echo of 1960s fraudster Bernie Cornfeld's rallying cry, Do You Sincerely Want to be Rich?], Brian Houston says: "I don't believe God wants everyone to be richer. But I do believe that Christians need to think beyond themselves. Resourcing our lives enables us to look beyond our own needs. It's a matter of personal effectiveness." ...

When asked whether it was more important to attend to issues of personal morality or social justice, Houston says: "If we can build the individual with a code of morals and ethics that will strengthen their personal lives, their homes and their families, I believe this ultimately can only have a positive impact on a broader scale."

Michael Fallon, a Canberra-based Catholic priest and scriptural scholar, says such an approach is a dangerous nonsense. "The whole notion of private morality is a fiction," he says. "Morality can only exist when a person develops their personal morality in relation to the rest of the world."
He challenges the proponents of prosperity theology: "Feeling good and holy by remaining oblivious to the suffering of others is immoral. We have an obligation to be aware of suffering and to take action against it.

"For instance, there would probably be some Christians who would want to send money to help rebuild Iraq, despite the fact that they voted for a government that approved and supported the bombing of the country in the first place. That's an absurd and immoral position to be in."
A professor at the University of Melbourne's Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Tony Coady, agrees.

"A lot of the focus on highly personal and self-oriented issues of personal or family wellbeing can lead to the atrophy of sympathy for the wider community," he says. "For example, how people can be concerned about a debatable increase in abortion rates and ignore the fact that Australia is implicated in this disastrous war in Iraq that has ended the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people. Something has gone wrong with the moral priorities in Australia, and it has financial consequences."

Coady says he is concerned that voters consider the economy to be separate from moral evaluation.

"But given that the state of the economy has direct implications for just distribution of wealth, alleviation of poverty and disease, and financial corruption, it is fraudulent to try and separate them."

But why in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Australia, has targeting religious groups on the fringes of the mainstream become a political priority?

Harvard economists Glaeser, Ponzetto and Shapiro are on to the case.

In their
paper, "Strategic Extremism: Why Republicans and Democrats Divide on Religious Values", they argue that strong appeal by politicians to the religious, while only minimally affecting political policy outcomes, can be an election-winning strategy. They predict that the split is most likely to be effective in a society where, like the United States, around 50% of people are church-goers. Overall, far fewer Australians than this regularly attend churches, but the proportion may approach that in areas such as Sydney's Hills District "Bible belt" where the Hillsong Church has its headquarters.


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