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

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    May 17, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  4. mandy

    After 3 months of searching the internet and you tube to decide if I wanted to come back to religion, I finally found someone who preaches from the heart, the way my Mama and Papa used to hear when they went to church, DR John Collins with the Church of Biblical Christians tells it the way it should be plus he does not accept donations, He preaches against todays prosperity preachers, My Papa said hes the only guy he has heard of lately not affraid to tell you what he thinks and use scripture to back him up. So I Listened to all of his sermons read all of his blogs and than decided to leave my number to see if he would really call as he says on his web site, With in 2 hours I recieved a call and DR. Collins never rushed me off the telephone answered all my questions, And After just that one call you can tell he loves and believes in what he does, He wont be for everyone, Because he does talk about damnation and what it takes to get to heaven, And its not from giving ministers our money> I watched the you tube videos of many and he is just for me, everyone has a choice but in listening to his sermons and reading his blogs and than the telephone call this guy is the real deal. The one on Gossip , wwjd hypocrites and the land of milk and honey not greed and money were right on, anyway if you get a chance listen to the guy you might be as glad as I am that I took the time. http://www.ucofbc.com/

    January 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • BigDaddyBlumpkin

      The internet and youtube....your whats wrong with the world

      July 28, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  5. AngryBob

    From 1950 to 1975 the United States enjoyed the greatest economic expansion the world had ever seen. It was the period when the middle class exploded. Home ownership rose to record levels. Schools were flush with cash and a solid education through college was within almost everyone's reach. Blue collar workers were able to enjoy a middle class lifestyle.

    The top income tax rate was over 70%.
    25% of the labor force was covered by a labor contract.
    Unemployment was considered high at 4%.

    Beginning with the Reagan administration, greed took over. Tremendous pressure to reduce taxes on the wealthy. At the same time labor unions were assailed, so called "right to work laws" were enacted, and "at-will-employment" became a favorite buzzword. Republicans and "moderate" Democrats caused this problem.

    To those who say taxing the wealthy is a job killer, I say, get real. History has shown just the opposite. Taxing the wealthy is spurs investment and promotes economic expansion.

    January 8, 2012 at 5:56 am |
  6. gerald


    January 7, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  7. Matt

    Stanley is a smart guy, no doubt about it. He has some tough ideas that people find hard to follow, but they certainly aren't in the wrong.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  8. Monbois

    Typical political today willing to bully anyone but the rich. I wonder how he handles gay millionaires? Pathetic bigot.

    January 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  9. Zanthros

    hate to say it, but Greed is what a lot of organized religion is about, look at the Catholic church, and how the pope is adorned and all the wealth that church has, disgusting.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  10. John Courtneidge

    I'm delighted to see this article and response – shared by a fellow Quaker – concerning our project:

    'Towards a Quaker view of Money'.

    If they are helpful, a set of articles – both concerning Jesus' teachings on economics and on policy analysis to help create a 'Fair, safe and Peceful World' – thy Kingdom come – by Tuesday! – please Google my name and the term 'wholosophy' to get to a PDF posted at the Network Project web-pages.

    My contact details are there.

    In love, for all, in all

    John Courtneidge

    January 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Faber

      I think this a GREAT article. But the most important part of church is to be spiritually filled, stable, good, to provide a shelter to those who are spiritually homeless. Money is something the church needs but, it's not the most important thing. A pastor that is called from God, would not worry about the economic situation of the church, because the one who called him (God) will take care of that. when you seek the kingdom of the lord everything else will fall into place.

      January 1, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  11. joe125

    The Bible condemns usury and dishonest weights and measures. They are evil tools used to exploit the poor and less fortunate. Someone needs to start addressing our entire banking system as evil. Fractional reserve banking is legalized theft. A system based on debt and interest steals from those who actually produce something of value in an economy. People get confused because they think we have a capitalistic economy. We don't, because debt creates money and drives this economy not real capital.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  12. Greg Powell

    Please read http://www.FindingLifeInJesus.com

    January 1, 2012 at 4:15 am |
    • PMS


      January 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  13. Greg Powell

    May you and I both have our best year ever of abiding in Jesus, being filled by the Holy Spirit, and resting in Abba's arms. May we love with God's love and patience, battle with God's power and courage, and walk in His ways and will. Since His desire is that every single human on earth be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth, may we pray and work to that end, trusting in His power, crying out for His grace and mercy. May we be more conformed to His moral likeness and less conformed to the world system than ever. May we bring more pleasure to God, more cause for celebration to the holy angels, and more frustration to the demons than ever. May this be our best year ever because God got so much glory from our broken, humbled, devoted, obedient lives; and because so many hurting, screwed up, sinful image-bearers experienced unmerited, non-judgmental, affectionate, and sacrificially practical love when they let us into their lives; and because we were more zealously focused than ever on the expansion of the Kingdom of Jesus, one heart at a time... starting with our own.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:14 am |
    • PMS


      January 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  14. LA-CC

    @TheBlood I honestly don't mean to offend and I'm familiar with this thought. However, I believe it is that very belief that has allowed so many to support politicians who would work against their economic interests. The religious and social issues are used as a wedge against the people – to divide those whose economic interests are at stake. The interesting thing is that not much ground has shifted on the social issues in favor of those who use it against you – abortion is still legal and gays are gaining the right to marry and it's become more acceptable. You cannot stop the progress of the world and you don't have to participate in those activities you don't believe in. In the meantime, those who pander to the Christian right have worked to keep the people suffering in this 'temporary' world.

    December 30, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  15. faye62

    A speaker who is afraid to teach what's in the Bible should step down from the pulpit. The Bible has a lot to say about the love of money(greed)...Worrying about who it's going to offend is a fear of man and the Bible says that "a fear of man is a snare. "If the Word of God convicts someone, so be it Here's a pastor walking in fear of losing the donations..

    December 30, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  16. Eddie Vanmeer

    He doesn’t want to alienate well-off members by talking about what’s behind the nation’s economic woes, but it is ok to throw gays under the bus. Thank you reverend, because it was hateful people like you (and so many other fine upstanding christians) that got me (a former christian reformed boy) thinking about religion. I found the truth, I am an atheist

    December 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  17. TheBlood

    True believers know that this world is not their home and that in this world they will have tribulation, but they can rejoice because Christ has overcome the world. It's not about the temporary, it's all about the eternal which will render the temporary obsolete.

    Thank you, come again.

    December 30, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  18. Tracy

    Pastors and teachers need to just start teaching through the Bible, the Word of God and that is what will change our nation. God's word will not return void and will get to the heart of every matter and will change lives.

    December 30, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • dougaussie

      the ears of men have become deaf, their eyes no longer see their sin. Not even for the preaching of billy graham and martin luther will they turn, they have set their souls on fire with compromise. Darkness creeps upon them. Drink DRINK, drink and become drunk, fill the belly of lusts till doom comes to gobble up all the world. Sing songs to God but He has stopped His ears.All men are judged hypocrites by hypocrites, liars they lie down in Sin. On the sea of judgement they will all give account where terror and grief will have no excuses and forever they will pay a heavy price....forgotten...cast out....no more...a blink of time ...they have become nothing.....

      January 2, 2012 at 4:08 am |
    • Monbois

      You need to get your nose out of the Bible. You sound crazy!

      January 2, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Secular Sanity

      You're the reason why America is in deep trouble.

      January 2, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Notmyrealname

      You do realize the Bible condones marrying a thirty year old to a ten year old, correct?

      January 3, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • PMS


      January 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.