It’s an old lesson: God rewards the enterprising. And that’s the case that several Market Masters, including Goldman Sach’s shameless leader Lloyd Blankenfein, who proclaimed sketchy trading practices as “God’s work,” have successfully made since Wall Street pushed the national economy into a pit some 18 months ago. I say successfully because, despite ample commentary about the travesties of current trading methods and the decline of Wall Street’s popularity among some segments of the public, there doesn’t seem to be enough popular anti-Wall Street sentiment to force necessary government regulation (if government can’t regulate corporations, via public impetus, who can?). We’re still in thrall to the mythology that market regulation is antithetical to America’s premise. Free markets, innovation and yes, God’s reward, all inform our long-time approach to unfettered capitalism. And provide gluttonous, well-connected institutions the cover they need to continue raping our national economy.
In October 2009, in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Goldman Sachs executive Brian Griffiths invoked Jesus Christ to defend the huge bonuses Goldman was doling out to its top traders: “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is a recognition of self-interest. . . . We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” (Quoted in 13 Bankers, p. 182)
While prosperity gospel, the church movement that gained a pronounced following during the 90s and teaches that God rewards the faithful with riches, may not be what guides Wall Street’s most egregious movers and earners, it does represent the tie in American minds between free enterprise, Godly works, and America’s economic success.
In a round-table at The Immanent Frame, responding to a December Atlantic Monthly cover article by Hanna Rosen which laid the burden for the U.S. financial collapse at prosperity gospel’s feet, Sarah Posner, who wrote the book God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, responded:
The prosperity gospel is a lot older than derivatives, credit default swaps, and other byzantine Wall Street “products” that leveled the financial markets. Moreover, the fact that humans—not God—dreamed up these contrivances doesn’t poke holes in the prosperity gospel at all, at least from its adherents’ vantage point. If you believe and sow your seed, God will reward you, even as the secular Masters of the Universe greedily orchestrate a global economic collapse.
Surely the prosperity gospel plays a role in persuading its followers to buy into risky financial schemes, including sub-prime mortgages. (You might not be able to afford this thing, but if you have faith and tithe, your mortgage payments will miraculously appear in your checking account.) But to argue that the prosperity gospel, no matter how prevalent it is in America’s mega-churches, brought enough sub-prime borrowers to the table that it “caused the crash” overlooks how our secular institutions can be just as faith-based as prosperity churches.
I don’t know whether yesterday’s Senate hearing or the upcoming SEC fraud case against Goldman will finally expose the extent of self-dealing involved in today’s financial marketplace, but it’s possible. And maybe they will also start to expose the extent to which corrupted markets and corrupted government are intertwined problems. That seems less likely, but it is still devoutly to be wished for.
Laarman looks at the vocalized discontent of Tea Party members as a promising — but “dangerous” — populist counter-balance to Wall Street’s excesses. I’m not so sure. The Tea Party’s rhetoric may be anti-elitist but it’s also scripted by well-financed organizations and media outlets that have a clear interest in maintaining the government’s hands-off approach to run-away financial actions (or rather, government’s encouragement of financial free-reign). Free enterprise, small government, less intervention, a warped advocacy for patriotism and Godly enterprise, not to mention a fat dose of racism and what Laarman calls “identity anxiety,” may all add up to a politicized ambush of meaningful regulatory intervention — and not the enforced regulations that are necessary to stop rampant Wall Street corruption.
We may be shocked by the lack of morality among the movers of Wall Street, but does our shock motivate us enough to press for government action — instead of relying on Wall Street’s conscience? That depends on whether we are able to reframe “Godly enterprise” as a service to all the people.