Preachers confront 'last taboo': Condemning greed amid Great Recession
The nation is being savaged by the Great Recession, but many pastors are afraid to talk about its causes, some say.
October 1st, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Preachers confront 'last taboo': Condemning greed amid Great Recession

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - Bishop Harry Jackson is a former college middle linebacker who can still hit hard.

He once described same-sex marriage as a satanic plot to destroy the family, called on Republicans to get “political Viagra” and said African-Americans needed to abandon what he called the Gospel of Victimization.

Jackson is not shy about stirring up controversy, but he stops short when it comes to preaching about greed. The Maryland bishop said he encourages his congregation to get through the Great Recession by saving and sharing. But he doesn’t want to alienate well-off members by talking about what’s behind the nation’s economic woes.

"I've got to watch it," said Jackson, pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. "I could get into some big teaching on greed, but the reality is that a lot of that teaching may wind up creating anti-economic-growth and anti-capitalism concepts (in people’s minds). ... I always talk about personal responsibility so we don't get into the blame game."

The Great Recession is more than an economic crisis. It has become a spiritual dilemma for some of the nation’s pastors and their parishioners, religious leaders say.

Three years after an implosion of the nation’s financial system helped push the country into its worst economic nosedive since the Great Depression, pastors are still trying to figure out how to address people’s fears from the pulpit.

But first they have to deal with their own fears, some pastors and scholars say.

Though millions of Americans are angry over the economy, little moral outrage seems to be coming from the nation’s pulpit, they say. Too many pastors opt for offering pulpit platitudes because they are afraid parishioners will stop giving money if they hear teachings against greed, said the Rev. Robin R. Meyers, senior minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.

“Money is the last taboo in church. It’s much easier to talk about sex than money,” said Meyers, who wrote about greed and the other seven deadly sins in his book, “The Virtue in the Vice.”

The anxiety from the pews has become so palpable for some pastors, though, that they now feel like they have no choice.

Andy Stanley, a prominent evangelical leader, said some in his congregation cheered when he launched a preaching series called “Recovery Road” to talk about politically touchy issues such as personal greed, the federal deficit and the sins of subprime loans.

The Rev. Andy Stanley says he took a risk preaching about greed to his suburban Atlanta congregation, but it has paid off.

The senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, north of Atlanta, told his church members they should look in the mirror before they start blaming politicians for the nation’s economic woes.

Any economic recovery “begins with me, not they,” Stanley said.

It continues when pastors ask how such a wealthy country can stumble into such a financial mess, Stanley said.

“Any time the entire country is talking about something, pastors should pause and talk about it,” Stanley said. “We know what Republicans and Democrats think, but what does the Bible and Jesus say?’’

Other ministers say an economic recovery also must involve pointing fingers. They say Jesus calls his followers to struggle against those people and policies that helped lead to the Great Recession.

Charity – feeding the poor, steering people to job fairs – must be accompanied by justice, said Meyers.

“It’s good to pull people out of the river when they’re drowning,” the Oklahoma pastor said, “but it’s also good to go upriver to see who’s throwing them in the river.”

Should pastors speak truth to economic power?

There was a time when American pastors routinely took stands on the big economic issues of the day.

During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister, inspired others to fight against the economic inequality of the time with the “Social Gospel.”
Social Gospel ministers helped inspire President Theodore Roosevelt to break up business monopolies and abolish child labor, historians say.

During the Great Depression, Father John A. Ryan built such a national following condemning the excess of capitalism that he was invited to deliver prayers at a presidential inauguration.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the last three years of his life focusing on poverty. When he was assassinated in 1968, he was on the cusp of leading a nonviolent, interracial army of poor people into the nation’s capital to demand a fairer distribution of wealth.

These ministers who took on the big economic issues of the day were inspired by the example of Jesus, who angered the powerful by condemning the economic exploitation of the poor, religious scholars say. His teachings are seen throughout the New Testament in parables such as “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”

“Jesus took sides – he said he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword,” said Vincent Miller, a Catholic theologian and author of “Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in Consumer Culture.”

Miller said pastors who are afraid of angering congregants by talking about touchy economic issues ignore the Gospel.

“You can’t preach the Gospel without alienating people.  That’s part of it. You’re not helping people if you’re not alienating them,” said Miller, the Gudorf  Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

The recession divides preachers, not just politicians

Preaching what Jesus would say about the Great Recession, though, is tricky. The Bible doesn’t record any instance where someone asked Jesus about the morality of a subprime loan or the best way to reduce the deficit.

That leaves pastors with the challenge of interpreting Jesus’ message for today’s economic woes. On that front, the pulpit is as divided as the nation’s politics.

Consider the cause of the 2008 economic meltdown. Was it primarily the result of Wall Street greed?

Jay W. Richards doesn’t think so. Richards is a senior fellow at the conservative think-tank the Discovery Institute and author of “Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem.”

Greed was a factor in the 2008 financial crisis but not it’s primary cause, Richards said. There were other major factors, including the tendency of Americans to live above their means and policies that encouraged banks to dilute mortgage lending standards. In addition, he said, large financial institutions were encouraged to engage in risky behavior because they knew the federal government would bail them out.

The causes of the 2008 crisis were so complicated that some of the smartest people in the world failed to anticipate it, Richards said.

The first thing pastors should do during tough economic times is “pray for, comfort and encourage” parishioners, he said.

“If a pastor suggests that the financial crisis happened because of a few greedy corporate titans and some Wall Street traders, that’s a sure sign that he doesn’t understand the crisis,” he said.

Neither should Christians condemn the growing gap between rich and poor, Richards said.

“Denouncing a presumed gap between rich and poor is, more often than not, a symptom of economic confusion, not prophetic wisdom,” he said. “It can also mask envy, and is usually invoked just before someone calls for the state to coercively confiscate the wealth of some and give to others.”

Bishop Harry Jackson says Americans can experience a miraculous economic recovery if they return to God.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income disparity in the United States has increased 40% in the past 30 years. In 2010 the nation’s poverty rate rose to a 17-year high, with more than 46 million people – 15.1% of the population - living in poverty and 49.9 million living without health insurance.

Despite these grim statistics, Richards said he believes people born in America today can still succeed if they work hard and get a good education.

“The American Dream is still alive,” he said. “The fact that millions of people from around the world still want to come here is a sign of that. … If someone works hard in school and develops good financial habits, they’re more likely to do reasonably well financially than most people were for most of human history.”

The Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent evangelical who has worked with Democrats, has a different perspective. He said it’s clear that greed was a major factor in the economic collapse and that a wide gap between the haves and have-nots is social dynamite.

“History shows that an increasing gap between the rich and the poor is a prime indicator of imminent collapse,” Wallis wrote in his recent book, “Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street.”

Wallis said he hoped his book, written right after the 2008 meltdown, would spark a movement among the nation’s churches to re-examine the country’s economic values. But he said many of the nation’s pastors operate like politicians, afraid to alienate their wealthy donors.

“We said the public is ready for this. The church is ready for this,” a weary Wallis said of his hopes for such a movement.

“Boy was I wrong.”

Where have all the prophets gone?

If pastors choose not to preach about the causes of the Great Recession, they can still talk about the issue through the prism of personal behavior. That’s what one of the nation’s most popular pastors does.

Joel Osteen is the senior pastor of one of the nation’s largest churches, the 40,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. His 90-minute services are broadcast nationwide each Sunday, and he’s just come out with a book, “Every Day a Friday,” which encourages people to have a “prosperous, victorious year” and be “dream releasers” by helping others realize their goals.

Osteen said some of his church members have been hit hard by the recession, but he prefers to preach about the cures, not the causes, for the nation’s economic ills.

Part of his message: Live within your means, don’t give away your power, live without crutches and travel light.

“We go through difficult times, and it’s easy to get trapped in the past thinking about what didn’t work out,” he said. “At some point, we gotta move forward. I’m not supposed to just endure my life. I’m supposed to enjoy it.”

Back in Maryland, Jackson said he tells his congregation that the nation’s economic problems are partly God’s way of encouraging the nation to return to a “biblical faith.”

He said there will be a “supernatural economic recovery” if Americans practice generosity.

“If you have a bowl of rice, why not share a quarter of that bowl with someone who is needy?” he said.

Those kinds of sermons annoy Meyers, the Oklahoma pastor. He said too many pastors have reduced Jesus to a “financial adviser, not a prophet.”

He said pastors should also call for justice. He said it’s a crime that no bankers or financial leaders behind the 2008 collapse have gone to jail.

“We’ll send an African-American teenager off to the slammer who robs a 7-Eleven, but we won’t do anything to a banker who helped cause the collapse of the entire banking system,” he said.

But most preachers won’t say that, he said, because much of the church is too captive to greed to address the moral challenges of the nation’s economic problems.

He doesn’t expect politicians or other leaders to step into that void because too many are beholden to the rich and powerful.

“There just aren’t that many prophets left,” he said. “A prophet is someone who is willing to tell us the unpleasant truth about ourselves. If we can’t bring unpopular messages, who will?”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Catholic Church • Charity • Christianity • Church • Church and state • Culture wars • Economy • Pastors • Politics • Poverty • Protest • Work

soundoff (2,075 Responses)
  1. Lost

    What if you're nosey and greedy?

    October 16, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  2. James

    Mat 6:24 "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

    These "pastors" need to read their Bibles.

    October 16, 2011 at 7:17 am |
  3. Kaci

    Charletan and false prophet. Paul never preached what was "convenient" or what would scare away those with big checkbooks. Another fraud. Waste of time.

    October 14, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  4. Crazy8

    Hey TheMostWise, I'm looking out my window from India and I'm not seeing a whole lot of prospering going on. I don't know where you live but come on over here and give it a shot.

    October 11, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  5. Deborah

    To all who take enjoyment in criticizing "preachers", I am one. I preach for the love of the Word of God and obedience to my calling. FOR FREE:) Not everyone wants your money, We just want you to have the best gift ever, God Himself, through Jesus the Son of God. Why should I care? I see so many hurting people and I like to share what has and is working in my life. Am I perfect? No way, but I am allowing the Spirit of God to transform me. You can too.... FOR FREE!

    October 10, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  6. Eric Folkerth

    Some of us are, indeed, confronting the greed of our time, and standing up for the "Occupy" movement. Here is a blog from yesterday's sermon I preached at our church: http://wheneftalks2.blogspot.com/2011/10/thursday-morning-i-chose-to-join-more.html

    October 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  7. Ricky Talwar

    'Greed is good'? No.
    Greed is God!

    October 10, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  8. Sir Poohalot

    Osteen preaching about traveling light? With a former arena as his sanctuary? Sheesh!

    October 10, 2011 at 6:34 am |
  9. extra medium

    I love it when black preachers target gays with the same venomous biblical rhetoric that once justified racism and slavery. Such hypocrites...

    October 10, 2011 at 12:54 am |
    • bighulawood

      Agreed. And then to take it one step further by "stopping short" of condemning greed (and, oh yes, I *do* believe it's because he doesn't want to bite the hand that feed him – ie, the wealthy members of his flock). Hypocrite and tax dodger too.

      October 13, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  10. sleepytime

    And here I thought the last taboo for preachers was rational thought.

    October 9, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • pockets

      Religion is poison.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
    • steve

      the scottish enlightenment was begun by francis Huchison a minister. rational thought is a christian idea.

      October 10, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • ndlily

      Rational thought is Christian . . . only in Scotland then.

      October 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  11. j mann

    These guys preaching against greed would be like Bill Clinton lecturing people on adultery.

    October 9, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      I think Bill Clinton would give a fine lecture on the finer points of committing adultery, just as religious charlatans (that would be all religious leaders) probably could give a fine sermon on "gimme, gimme, gimme!"

      October 9, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • K Mann

      @ j mann: Great point. I like the way u think.

      October 10, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • David, CA

      Or having Newt Gingrich speak at a "Values" convention....wait....

      October 10, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • LV

      Nicely put!

      October 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  12. Adam

    Does that mean these preachers are going to give back the 10 purple cadillacs?

    October 9, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  13. mike

    We will always have excessive greed at the top of the food chain. The purpose of government is to level the playing field and create policies that prevent excessive concentrations of wealth. America has an excessive concentration of wealth at the top of the food chain and the rich have been getting very favorable tax treatment for the last 30 years. In my mind the big mega churches have encouraged chasing the almighty dollar in recent decades. The likes of Joel Osteen are evidence of this kind of poisonous thinking.

    October 9, 2011 at 5:59 am |
    • hokahey

      Yeah Mike! You must have been the one other guy awake during Pol. Sci. 101. At least somebody knows what a government is for. Way to go.

      October 10, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • darrin grove

      nicely put

      October 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • twodaughters

      Good contribution. Articulate without the bitterness of some of the others posting here.

      October 14, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  14. jp

    Anyone who is afraid to speak the truth, preacher or otherwise, is either oppressed by external forces or in collusion with the falsehood(s). You figure it out.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  15. TheMostWise

    The "Preachers".....er hucksters have a lot to say about a lot of things .........in which they suffer enormous ignorance. China and India aren't prospering now because they "returned to god".....They are prospering because they are making far better economic choices than America. in China it's doubtful if much of its population even holds a "belief in god"....but they do hold a belief in reason and have enjoyed the fruits of "reasonable decisions".......not in prayer....Anyone who says otherwise is a "charlatan of reality." Of course this would be ....."the Preachers".......er....hucksters.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:02 am |
    • Paulo Friere

      "China and India aren't prospering now because they "returned to god".....They are prospering because they are making far better economic choices than America."


      China and India are "prospering" because massive numbers of their population are suffering in poverty and willing to work for $1 a day in sweltering, inhumane conditions. You need to get your head out of Faux News/Economist's derriere and do some independent research.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • TheMostWise

      Paulo Friere,
      Uhmmmm....Have you ever thought about taking ...say ....at least ..a beginning course....in the fundementals of reading comprehesion....If not......it may be that you are unable to "comprehend the need"......If you have.....you just might pursue a
      "do-over".....the first round wasn't helpful. Then perhaps your parents might be able to steer you toward some interest that doesn't require...."reading, thought, or other cognitive processes". The posting on these blogs does require 'minimum cognitive habits'.....and just to 'be nice' and help you along your way, I kindly suggest that at this point in time you seem to be a good bit remiss in these skills; you might try 'coloriing books"...by number..Tootles!

      October 9, 2011 at 12:18 am |
    • darrin grove

      christianity is the light

      October 10, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
    • twodaughters

      TheMostWise ^ incoherent.

      October 14, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  16. A W Messenger

    I don't think it is the professional obligation of a secular news agency to dictate what pastors choose to say in their congregations. I think that obligation is driven by some ONE with a little more clout.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • sleepytime

      The preachers' imaginary friend?

      October 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  17. Chris Collino

    I double dog-dare...no, I triple dog-dare Bishop Harry Jackson and Jay W. Richards of the Heritage Foundation to read and meditate on everything that the Bible says about riches, money and poverty in Proverbs and the New Testament and then tell me they're on the right path. They are not READING the Bible. Nor do they understand it. They seem to understand how rich people feel and how the conservative economists think, but they DO NOT understand the Bible.

    October 7, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • darrin grove

      belloc's "the servile state" says alot abour the unbalance of capitolisma and socialism.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  18. Mighty7

    False prophets and charlatans. The whole lot of them,

    October 7, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • darrin grove

      are you sure?

      October 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
  19. Dr. Rang

    Sounds like most of these preacher dudes are better Republicans than they are Christians.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Chris Collino

      I would have to agree on that. Like the Pharisees, .lovers of status, money and power

      October 7, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • blessings

      It's called the "Prosperity Gospel".

      October 8, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  20. MadSat

    Hey, the churches started preaching "greed is god", I quit going. I could care less what any preacher in the USA says about anything whatsover, I do not worship Mammon, and that is the focus of the modern church. I rarely meet an habitual church goer nowadays, and those I do meet preach the goodness of greed and relying only on yourself constantly (who needs the sermon on the Mount?). Church charity is nothing, most of the churches now don't even do a food pantry, they SAY they do but actually they just refer you to someone that does, the few that are left. Megachurches and Televangalism destroyed religion in the USA, by greed, and what's left is a hollow shell. No wonder we have preachers screaming about "war on Christmas" and other non religious trash talk (there is NO, repeat NO suggestion to celebrate the birth of Christ in the gospel, they do not even give a date), it's all they can talk about without losing money – and Mammon is their god.

    October 6, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • David Johnson


      The Jesus of today, is not your father's do unto other's god. The Evangelicals have morphed Jesus into a warrior who can't wait to get back and tear into everyone who isn't an evangelical. Oh, what a day that will be! LOL.

      Jesus, who use to love the poor and the downtrodden, now blames them for their plight. Apparently heaven will be filled with the well-to-do. Who would have thought?


      October 8, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
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