• The Vicar of Wall St

    by  • May 15, 2011 • Fairfax NZ, Features • 0 Comments

    From the pulpit of his church in Manhattan, the Rev James Herbert Cooper has criticised the worst excesses of the global financial crisis. But can religion really help fix the economy?

    Wall Street is the world’s most famous thoroughfare, a street synonymous with great wealth, Gordon Gekko and the adage that greed is good. It is the street that tour guides in San Francisco, perhaps jealous of its splendours, describe as “the most crooked in the world”. It is the street where the global financial crisis originated.

    It also has a church. At the top of Wall St, amid the glittering towers of Goldman Sachs and the Bank of New York, sits Trinity Church, founded by Royal Charter in 1697. The rector of the church is the Rev James Herbert Cooper, a 66-year-old New York native who oversees Trinity’s activities as a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

    Cooper is in New Zealand this week to meet other church leaders from world financial centres, but also to talk about morality and the marketplace.

    Tomorrow, in a speech at Victoria University, he will say of those who caused the global financial crisis: “Your sins will come back to haunt you.”

    Cooper knows Wall St and its denizens well, having been raised in one of New York’s suburbs, Short Hills, in the 1950s. His father was for more than 40 years the local priest in the Episcopalian Church – America’s version of Anglicanism – “so I grew up in a church family”. At one stage Cooper considered a career as a Chevrolet salesman – “it’s an easier thing to sell than religion” – but the Church won out, although his decision to enter the seminary “came out of the blue, on a personal note”, he says.

    “I played baseball at college, and my catcher… was a year ahead of me, a big, brawny guy called Donnie. I said to Donnie one day, `What are you going to do next year?’, and he said, `I’m going to the seminary.’ I thought, wow, really? Hearing he was going to do it really gave me the impetus to think about it seriously.”

    New York City, Lower Manhattan, Financial District : Trinity Church, 1846.

    Cooper ended up spending the next three decades as a priest in Florida, before moving back to New York to take up the helm at Trinity. Since taking over, he has tried out some radical ideas including, in 2005, a “Clown Eucharist”, in which the service was mimed and parishioners dressed up in big hats and floppy shoes, on the basis that the unpretentious, underdog status of clowns holds a valuable lesson for all believers. The church was packed, he says, although some of his more cynical parishioners wrote him letters saying it was “sacrilegious”.

    Cooper likes the city life, even if New York is “kind of a big spot”, and sometimes a dangerous one, too. “I have been shot at a couple of times from family squabbles that I got in the middle of,” he adds, dryly. “You live in a city, stuff happens.”

    More pressing than gunshots, however, is the financial crisis. Trinity is in the unusual position of being not just a church but also a substantial landowner. Thanks to a royal land grant three centuries ago, the church owns 3.2ha of prime Manhattan real estate – enough to make Donald Trump jealous, Cooper jokes. Spread over 30 buildings are 200 companies, including big names such as Saatchi & Saatchi, with 15,000 employees.

    During the financial crisis, the church displayed “enlightened self-interest”, Cooper says, deferring rents and refusing to sack any of its staff (though it did have to carry out “some difficult programming cuts”). This gave it “a voice to encourage the practice of a high ethic in the financial industry”.

    But despite the church’s location, most of Cooper’s parishioners are not Wall St’s titans but its ordinary workers. And that’s the problem when you want to talk about the dangers of unrestrained greed: do the Masters of the Universe actually go to church? “Well, some do,” Cooper says. Most don’t, not on Wall St at any rate.

    Nor would they admit to behaving greedily, even if they did. “In my four decades as a priest,” Cooper says, “I have never had someone come to me confessing the sin of greed. Greed is so often disguised and subtle that we don’t even know it’s there.”

    In his speech tomorrow, Cooper will suggest that “we might think carefully about possessions… We live fuller lives when we are not possessed by possessions – either what we own, or by the pursuit of what we do not own”. He also suggests asking three questions: what would please God? What would please a generous person? And what pleases yourself? These questions help clarify whether we have let greed “run and ruin our lives”.

    Cooper does know personally some of New York’s political and financial decision-makers, including “two or three people who were senior partners in major firms that no longer exist” after the fallout from the financial crisis.

    He has had frank discussions with them about what went wrong, although in conversation he comes back to the principle of enlightened self-interest – the idea that profit shouldn’t come at the expense of your clients or customers, because eventually you’ll end up killing the goose that lays the golden egg – rather than going all-out on greed. So how do his friends respond to this line of argument? “[With] the ones who are personal friends, obviously, we’re still friends,” he says, cagily.

    One of the problems he faces is that there were plenty of Christians who contributed to the financial crisis. The chief executive of the financial behemoth Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, famously said in 2009 that he was “doing God’s work”. And it has long been clear that religion often provides a justification for amassing enormous wealth. This is the “Protestant work ethic”: the idea that in the absence of visible signs of their salvation, the faithful will use material success as clear proof that they have been blessed by God. Very soon the pursuit of that wealth becomes an end in itself.

    This points up a contradiction about the United States: although one of the most overtly Christian countries in the western world, and therefore theoretically committed to virtues such as thriftiness, self-denial and equality, it is also the home of some of the world’s greatest personal and financial excesses. (Even Cooper’s own church sports monuments donated by the extravagantly wealthy Astor clan.)

    Unsurprisingly, Cooper believes that this hyper-capitalism is a misuse rather than a fundamental consequence of religious beliefs. “People will reach into their quiver and take any arrow they like to achieve what they want. Lots of people use religious rhetoric to get their point – and this [rhetoric] may not be the basic tenet of the religion they are marshalling the forces of.”

    This sounds suspiciously like a description of televangelists such as the ludicrously named Creflo Augustus Dollar Jr, whose extravagant lifestyle, complete with two Rolls-Royces and a private jet, pay homage to the power of money. However, the most that Cooper will say of such men, in good Christian fashion, is: “It’s not a theology that I would embrace, though I would embrace the people.”

    A fundamental problem, however, with Cooper’s idea of enlightened self-interest – his belief that greed will ultimately undermine a business – is that it doesn’t always hold true. He cites the parable of the prodigal son, who didn’t repent of his wastefulness until he was eating with the pigs; and he claims that “certainly some people have taken a good look at life” after the crisis.

    But has anything changed? Bernie Madoff may be in jail, but not one of the chief executives of the firms that caused the financial crisis has been prosecuted. They have, as Cooper will put it in his speech tomorrow, “pull[ed] the rug out from under the worldwide economy”, and got away scot-free.

    “There has not been either a self-disciplining within that community or a governmental intervention or review or prosecution,” Cooper admits. Why not? He isn’t sure. But he is struck by the way that businessmen and women, unlike their counterparts in the law and medicine, operate without any explicit ethical code. What does business need, then – a kind of high-finance Hippocratic oath? “That’s a nice idea,” he says, laughing. “Maybe we could convene a few people to think about it!”

    Cooper knows, of course, that Trinity Church’s 86m-high Gothic spire was once the tallest point in New York, before it became dwarfed by skyscraper after skyscraper. But he refuses to take this as a sign of dwindling influence. Even if he doesn’t know what the post-crisis economy should look like, he is convinced that religion has a role to play in shaping it.

    “Every society has an economy, and spirituality is both a partner and a protagonist in that relationship.” Whether anyone will pay heed to the protagonist is another question.

    Was killing Bin Laden ‘justice’?

    St Paul’s Chapel, part of the Trinity Church parish, was so close to the World Trade Center bombings on September 11, 2001, that debris from one of the towers knocked down a sycamore in the churchyard. The chapel then became one of the hubs of rescue activity.

    So it was no surprise that on May 2, following the killing of Osama bin Laden, Cooper joined former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani at St Paul’s to commemorate those who died in the attack.

    But what does Cooper think of the killing, which has made the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Rowan Williams, “very uncomfortable”?

    “Well, certainly, we at Trinity never celebrate anybody’s death, and we are concerned a little bit about those who do,” Cooper says.

    “But there are times when intervention has the potential to stop fighting and save lives.”

    He adds: “Some would say there’s justice in that [the killing], given all the deaths in New York.” Does he agree with those people? “I’m on the side of capturing, interrogating, trying and sentencing,” he says.

    But, “it’s arrogant and irresponsible to make that statement [that bin Laden should have been captured alive] not knowing the circumstances of that situation”.

    Cooper believes the most important next step is reconciliation. To that end, he backs proposals for a Muslim community centre near Ground Zero, which have attracted widespread opposition from right-wing politicians and commentators.

    In a statement last year, Trinity Church described those behind the proposals as people who share “common values of compassion and understanding and a commitment to reconciliation and peace”.

    Cooper adds: “They are friends, and we support them in what [we hope] they end up doing.”

    First published in The Sunday Star-Times

    Max Rashbrooke


    Max is an author, academic and journalist working in Wellington, New Zealand, where he writes about politics, finance and social issues. Sign up to Max's mailing list.

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