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Press: Preachers’ sneakers show Mammon’s might

01 April 2021

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A COUPLE of delightful American follow-ups to my note last week about Cathie Wood (Press, 26 March), the fund manager so tight with God that her fund, worth a mere $3 billion at the beginning of 2020, is now worth $60 billion.

First, there is another high-flying investor, Bill Whang, who named his fund after an obscure Greek term for Jesus: to quote from the Financial Times, “Archegos describes itself as a ‘purposeful community of investment industry professionals’, according to an archived version of its website.

“Its name is a biblical Greek word meaning chief, leader, or prince, used in relation to Jesus. In a 2018 YouTube video, Hwang said his investments were ‘not all about money’, adding that ‘God certainly has a long-term view’.

“‘We love seeing in our little eyes what God is doing through investing and capitalism and how . . . it can be done better,’ he said.”

Perhaps he’d have done better to name it after Icarus. After a number of heavy bets went wrong, he had to sell $20-billion’s worth of shares at a substantial loss when the banks that had backed him demanded their money back last week. The banks closest to him appear to have lost between $6 billion and $7 billion as a result.

These figures dwarf the mere $44 million that Mr Hwang had to pay in fines after his previous hedge fund was caught cheating.

Then there was Tony Hsieh, who was left to scrape by on a fortune of $840 million in his early thirties, after selling his successful shoe-retailing business to Amazon. “As a business evangelist [that word again], the 2010 title of his New York Times number one bestseller said it all: Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion and Purpose,” according to Forbes magazine.

In the long, rather heartbreaking Wall Street Journal account of his decline — he died in a fire in a storage container, locked from the inside, to which he had retreated from his entourage to huff nitrous oxide in peace — the saddest note is the constant pretence that what he was leading was some kind of spiritual movement: “He envisioned a Mecca focused on mindfulness and personal growth, a spiritual journey fuelled, in part, by alcohol, nitrous oxide and psychedelic mushrooms.”

The paper reproduces some of the Post-it notes on which his disciples wrote down his teachings: “Enormous + positive Energy”; “Hold the Earth as progress through massive Paradigm Shift”; “Earth Warriors healers and transformation leaders”, three of them read.

Mr Hsieh’s method of recruiting disciples was simple and very effective. He would offer to double their previous salaries if they would come to work for him. The work was, of course, of the most nebulous nature imaginable.

 

THESE are not quite the incentives offered by more mainstream American spiritual leaders. None the less, The Washington Post carried an amusing story about @PreachersNSneakers, an Instagram account that follows the footwear of spiritual stories. It was started by Ben Kirby, a home-schooled Evangelical who was watching a performance of worship songs on YouTube when he noticed that the lead singers’ branded sneakers were worth nearly as much as his own monthly rent cheque.

“Kirby posted to his 400 followers on Instagram, ‘Hey Elevation Worship, how much you paying your musicians that they can afford $800 kicks? Let me get on the payroll!’

“With a friend’s encouragement, Kirby started a new Instagram account @PreachersNSneakers posting screenshots of pastors next to price tags and the street value of shoes they were wearing. Within a month, the account had attracted 100,000 followers.

“On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T. D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt.

None of them is an item that you will find in Wippell’s. I see that a Green lurex mitre there costs a mere £549, and there is nothing at all available in crocodile skin. Does this reflect the decreasing prestige of the Church of England, or is it something wider? Historically, of course, the bishop of a large English see was as rich relative to his flock as Kanye West is relative to his followers today.

But European Christian leaders still dress up to indicate their otherworldliness and the spiritual roots of their power. American Protestants, in contrast, strive to dress indistinguishably from secular billionaires. It’s almost as if they didn’t believe that God might be stronger than Mammon.

 

THE only meaningful English story this week was the looming confrontation at a school in Batley, in Yorkshire, where a teacher has been suspended after showing some of the Muhammad cartoons to a group of 14-year-olds.

This has the potential to turn very nasty. The Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has been arguing both that Muslims should suck it up when their children are shown pictures that they find deeply offensive — and that the BBC is wrong to adopt an insufficiently respectful attitude to the Union flag. This would be a dispute much easier to solve if it did not involve symbols meaningless in themselves, which can therefore be invested with any meaning that carries a sufficient emotional charge.

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