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Monday, February 20, 2012

America’s Economic Crisis is also a Faith Crisis

It is the time of year when most Methodists (and maybe other protestant faiths) plan and conduct their annual stewardship campaigns. It is typically a multi-week process of study and reflection on the subjects of generosity, giving, and tithing. In the words of our Senior Pastor, no one really enjoys the season primarily because it involves discussing money. Discussing money is never easy, but it is even more challenging and sensitive given our economic struggles.

I applaud our church and more specifically, our Stewardship Committee, for finding interesting books to study that make the conversation easier and enables the process to become a blessing in and of itself. This year’s campaign is based on the book, Enough, by Adam Hamilton. Pastor Hamilton is the Senior Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

In February of 2008, NY Times columnist and noted economist, Paul Krugman, wrote a column, “A Crisis of Faith.” If you read much of Mr. Krugman’s columns, you immediately know that he is not using the word faith in a religious context. But in this particular column, he is discussing the collapse of faith Americans have in our financial institutions. Basically over the last 10-12 years, as different financial instruments have shown to be vulnerable or not credible, the “faith” of the American borrower and investor has been shaken.

It is my belief that our latest economic crisis has created a much broader faith crisis that has become a strangle hold on our nation and in some cases the global market. There has always been some level of distrust in any and all institutions. Our banks, the stock market, every form and level of government, even sports organizations have had moments throughout history that was less than stellar. Scandals come and go …some bigger, more severe, and last longer than others.

Remember Watergate, Enron, Iran-Contra, gas rationing in the seventies, the Savings and Loan crisis? And these are just a few. Why then are our more recent struggles causing so much more insecurity, hardship, distrust, and anger? I am sure the Sociologists, Psychologists, and Historians will study these times exhaustively. But even in the midst of all that is going on some key observations are worth noting.

Although our financial infrastructure in America is far from perfect, for most of our history our banks stood for integrity, honesty, and our currency was backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government. And our government as a leading world power could back up our currency and al that made America great. Our values, our freedom, our strength (militarily and otherwise), and the esteem others held for us – all gave credence that our money and our word meant something.

Fast forward to the last ten years, and the sub-prime mortgage debacle not only cost Wall Street, our entire banking system, and individuals who borrowed and invested – it shook our entire financial core. Banks failed not because of a few (or many) bad loans, they failed because the culture that brought us sub-prime mortgages indicated that many if not most were willing to throw all caution to the wind and pursue the American Dream built on Affluenza and Credititus.

How can we teach our children that living within our means and saving for the things we want are important values when the US Government has vilified those values for decades? If the full faith and credit of the United States means decades of spending more than you have, and that hard-work isn’t necessary because the latest and greatest entitlement program is just around the corner - why are we shocked when the American Dream is no longer relevant in a global economy.

If Americans are individually affected with Affluenza (the constant need for more and bigger stuff and the resulting effect that this need has on us), a strong argument can be made that our nation also suffers from the same. Because building an economy on fairness, hard-work, and sound principles take to long or prevent us from keeping up with the Joneses. We play fast and free with our free market economy.

We create burdensome regulations that pick winners and losers. We allow (and in some cases encourage) labor unions to artificially inflate the costs of American goods eventually causing US companies to move to other countries. We lower the cost of entrance to home ownership while enslaving our most vulnerable with mortgages they cannot afford for years often ending in complete financial ruin.

Credit has a place in a free market economy. But it must be fairly employed and conservatively utilized. All must borrow only what is reasonable and affordable. And returns on investment must be commensurate with sound financial planning and risks. But if overly extended, government or individual, the consequences touch and weaken all facets of life. Creditus (buying now – paying later) is a second disease caused by Affluenza.

Both Affluenza and Credititus are curable. But just as our culture and our values did not change overnight for the worse, they will not improve any quicker. It has been said that a good crisis should never be wasted. Although these times are extremely painful, we can learn valuable lessons from them. America and many other nations needed an economic day of reckoning. Just as we rebuild property after a devastating hurricane passes, we will need to rebuild our faith and confidence once this economic hurricane passes.

Our grandparents built much of this nation after suffering through the Great Depression. And we along with our children and grandchildren have an obligation to rebuild it once again.

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