Jean Simmons and Burt Lancaster in "Elmer Gantry"
The con man claimed to be a devout man of God: the title “visionary” figured prominently on his business card. Going door-to-door with promises of easy mortgage-refinancing deals and claiming to have a direct line to the Lord, Timothy Barnett wheedled his way into the houses of elderly homeowners in South Los Angeles. Scared, vulnerable, and without a safety net, his victims lapped up his God-schlock like mother's milk. Isolated in modest homes they'd owned for decades, they welcomed his call to prayer.
Like a nattily dressed inner-city Elmer Gantry, Barnett's hook was pitch-perfect: “Our Christian beliefs unite us in a common value system based on ethics and integrity. The nonbelief of non-Christians consigns them to immorality, making them more prone to duplicitous behavior and less worthy of your trust than I.” Kneeling in humble service to God and claiming the status of copilot, he stole the titles to five of his elderly victim's homes-and their “stake” in the American dream.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Barnett, a repeat felon subject to California's three strikes law, could be the first person in California sentenced to life in prison for a white-collar crime. Though his actions were reprehensible, one might ask whether the punishment fits the crime. None of the largely white CEOs of the big Wall Street banks at the center of the mortgage meltdown and its derivatives-fraud tsunami face jail time or even criminal charges for their multibillion-dollar malfeasance. Corporate America has suffered no penalty for hindering homeowners in their practice of the “secular religion” of the American dream.
As is oft noted, President Barack Obama's piecemeal initiatives for “underwater” homeowners have failed to put a dent in the nation's foreclosure crisis, which increasingly has a black or brown face. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, African-American and Latino homeowners have been disproportionately devastated by housing debt and foreclosure; their American dream is awash in negative equity in their segregated communities. Unlike whites, who are more likely to have a greater variety of financial assets besides their homes (savings, stocks, bonds, and other investments, retirement and college-savings accounts, inheritances), the wealth of people of color is mainly concentrated in home equity. Thus the collapse of the housing market has exacerbated the racial wealth gap. In addition, nationwide, blacks and Latinos were specifically targeted by subprime and predatory lenders. These lenders frequently offered higher mortgage interest rates and less flexible terms than they did to white borrowers with similar credit scores and income levels.
While the small-time faith predator woos with scripture and fake ethnic solidarity, the multinational faith predator seduces with byzantine contractual terms. The small-time faith predator's slimy hold over poor black folk exemplifies the historic symptoms of black economic underdevelopment-the ubiquity of religious dogma, the vise of the criminal justice system, and the intractability of residential segregation. In this regard, it is impossible to examine African-American religiosity without an assessment of blacks' relation to capital, for which Marxist analysis is instructive.
In Marx's view, social investment in the God concept is an inevitable stage, a symptom of “alienated” labor and inverted consciousness. Commodity capitalism alienates labor and dispossesses workers of their inner lives, such that the more “man puts into God, the less he retains in himself.” Institutionalized residential segregation, employment discrimination, overincarceration, and educational inequity have made African Americans one of the most economically alienated communities in the United States. This has resulted in a paradox: today, African Americans have less social mobility and less access to the so-called American dream than during the Jim Crow era. And in many urban black and Latino communities, capitalism has united the faith industry with foreclosure. While viable retail and commercial businesses languish and die on the vine, storefront churches proliferate. While living-wage job opportunities in the inner city evaporated during the post-Cold War era, property tax exemptions bolstered an urban megachurch development boom smack dab in the middle of some of the poorest communities in black America.
Riding the tide of this downturn, the prosperity gospel has become the preeminent creed and vehicle for capitalist enterprise: the more one prays, tithes, and submits to the will of God (or his shill, the pastor or faith predator), the richer one will become. Upward mobility is a function of how strenuously one hews to this formula, of which the faith predator, who possesses expensive cars, baronial estates, and elaborate tax shelters and takes lavish vacations, is the living embodiment. The “ghetto” or the collective good be damned.
The solipsism of the prosperity gospel as vehicle for commodity capitalism mires African-American communities in an endless spiral of dependence on the supernatural. While Barnett's chicanery has been exposed, one might consider how a door-to-door humanist would fare in the age of the looted American dream.
How would an urban “gospel” of the here and now play in the era of a freshly radicalized McCarthyist Christian Right, which stage-manages anti-Muslim witch hunts as an antidote for white angst? Secularists are always challenged to remember that the appeal of the God concept is its inexplicability. If it can be explained, it can't be God. And if there were no affinity between capitalist hierarchies of alienated labor and reactionary inward-looking religiosities, faith predators would have no purchase as puppet masters of the American dream.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.