Virtual Voices

Usury and Christian power

Religion

MotherJones Blog skewered Christians yesterday for obsessing over abortion and stem cell research while missing "one of the biggies" - the Biblical command to protect the poor by condemning usury. "In parts of the country where the Christian Right wields the most political power," Mother Jones claims, "usurious payday lending has flourished more than anywhere else in the U.S."

The sad thing is, it's true. A recent study by Christopher Peterson and Steven Graves looked at the concentration of payday lenders by state and measured Christian political power in each state. They found a stronger correlation between usury and Christian power than usury and race or usury and poverty. In fact, they state, "We can be 99% sure that about 56% of the time when the Christian Power goes up, then payday lending per capita also rises."

Payday lenders give short-term cash advances and then charge 400-500% interest rates. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, people who fall in the trap typically pay $793 for a $325 loan. Payday lenders cost American families $4.2 billion in excess fees each year.

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Graves and Peterson shied away from explaining the correlation, but in an interview with Newsweek, Peterson suggested that Christians abandoned some of their compassion for the poor when they linked forces with big-business conservatives: "Once that happened, around the country a lot of states started to deregulate, started to less aggressively prevent usurious loans."

That's the bad news. The good news is that Christians already have the political clout to make a difference in states where usury runs rampant. Jim White, editor of the Religious Herald has urged Christians to support anti-usury legislation. In 2007, the Baptist General Association of Virginia passed a resolution against payday lenders. Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center of Ethics, applauds these efforts and urges Christians to embrace their moral obligation "to protect the poor and marginalized."

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