AUGUST 29, 2001
Giving Christians Credit
-- Jonathan Ebel
One needs to go no further than the mailbox to notice the current strength of the credit card industry. Offers for new cards pour in daily. Last week, Newsweek subscribers read the cover story "Maxed Out," a discussion of credit card spending and the problem of debt in American society. The story notes that American households carry, on average, eight thousand dollars of credit card debt. Very few of us ever leave home without credit cards, and many of us dig large financial holes with their help.
Credit cards came together with religion in our mailbox recently. An envelope from CapitalOne announced to my wife (who is Jewish) that she could now "carry the Platinum MasterCard that celebrates Christian Faith." Five full-color cards combined capitalist and Christian iconography. All cards bore the logos of CapitalOne and MasterCard. To represent the Christian faith, we could have chosen from among the cross set against a background of sand, the "Christian Fish" floating in a sunny sky, a stained-glass "Guardian Angel," and two nature scenes titled "Serenity" and "Guiding Light."
It was neither the offer of "no annual fee" nor the "low fixed APR of 9.9%" that saved this envelope from the grim fate that awaits all credit card offers we receive. It was, at first, the idea of the laughs we could share designing card offers for particular Christian traditions: a Lutheran card that offers payment of debts by faith alone, a Calvinist card that allows only the elect to repay, and a revivalist card that slides through card readers in only one direction (forward, not back).
For the real "Christian Platinum Card," CapitalOne has arranged to donate a percentage of all consumer purchases to support the work of the Christian Children's Fund. The CCF has for sixty-three years been creating "an environment of hope and respect for needy children of all cultures and beliefs in which they have opportunities to achieve their full potential." By all accounts it is a well-run charity that has done a tremendous amount of good.
According to industry figures, these "affinity cards" -- the term for such arrangements among lender, cardholder, and an organization with which the cardholder wants to be identified -- account for twenty-nine percent of credit cards held by Americans. They constitute such a large portion of the market because they offer something to everyone involved.
To lending institutions, affinity cards offer a targeted way of attracting and holding consumers -- and their debt. According to industry analyst Libby Wells of Bankrate.com, holders of affinity cards feel a higher degree of emotional attachment and loyalty to their cards, and tend to tolerate higher interest rates. The Christian Platinum Card, in spite of its below-average interest rate of nine and nine-tenths percent, will generate nearly eight hundred dollars of annual income for CapitalOne on the average American household's credit card debt of eight thousand dollars.
To charities and other "affinity institutions," affinity cards offer a source of extra funding. The average affinity card calls for the lender to donate one-half of one percent of all purchases to the affinity institution. Using that figure, the Christian cardholder who makes eight thousand dollars in purchases will ensure that CapitalOne donates forty dollars to the CCF. To cardholders, affinity cards are wallet-sized bumper stickers that not only trumpet loyalties, but also write charitable checks.
Is the symbolic mailbox marriage between Christianity and capitalism an unholy one? Some might see it as a cynical attempt to lure Christian consumers into a relationship that benefits the bank far more than the worthy charity. (The bank receives one dollar in interest for every ten dollars past due, while the charity receives one dollar for every two hundred spent.) Others might argue that if credit card use is inevitable, it is better to benefit needy children than to generate frequent-flyer miles. Both positions have merit. What is clear regardless of one's reaction to the Christian Platinum Card is that, like all cards, it can jeopardize the financial health of the average cardholder. When this occurs, more substantial giving to CCF and other affinity institutions may be hindered.
Banks won't stop lending, and charities shouldn't stop seeking new ways to fund their work. It is worth asking, however, whether the Christian Platinum Card satisfies the desire for charitable giving out of proportion with its effect, and whether the interest profits generated for CapitalOne are an acceptable price for Christian consumers to pay for witnessing to their faith. All parties but the bank might be better served under some other charitable arrangement.
-- Jonathan Ebel is the managing editor of Sightings and a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.