Evangelical preacher Johnny Gawn says his life’s work is to usher as many souls as possible through the Pearly Gates. And now he’s devised a way to guarantee success, at a very reasonable cost.
Through his Everlasting Love and Compassion of Christ Ministry, Gawn is selling shares in what he calls “collateralized afterlife obligations.” These “Heaven bonds” are modeled on the mortgage-backed securities and other sophisticated financial inventions that were devised in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Participants in Gawn’s CAO sign a contract agreeing to pool their sins and the resultant punishment in the afterlife. Like with financial securitization, CAO participants buy into the agreement at different levels of risk exposure, called tranches. As years in Purgatory or Hell accumulate in the shared pool, the first 90 years of torment go to the lowest tranche. The next nine years of lying in carnal filth while their hides are scourged and genitals seared with red hot iron go to those who’ve bought into the mezzanine tranche. The safest tranche gets only one year of punishment. Of course, the safer tranches are more expensive.
But no matter the risk level, Gawn guarantees that anyone who buys into one of his CAOs will eventually make it to the ultimate heights. The contract that forms the basis of the “Heaven bond” transmits both the moral culpability and credit of each person in the pool to every other bondholder. To ensure adequate righteousness in the pool, Gawn builds each new vehicle around an especially virtuous individual, usually a member of his church, called a tentpole. “The tentpole holds up the shelter for the good of all,” says Gawn.
Each participant in the CAO is evaluated for moral risk, and the cost of entry in the pool will vary based on the outcome of credit and reference checks. Gawn wouldn’t provide specific cost information, but he gave the example of a serial check kiter and reformed bigamist who bought into the mezzanine tranche of a recent offering for “a modest five figures.”
“That sort of expenditure is absolutely inconsequential—inconsequential, I say—compared to the ultimate guaranteed return. Going to Heaven, I mean,” says Gawn. “Our lord Jesus said, ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be, too.’ By buying a share in a CAO, you put your treasure and your heart where they belong.”
Gawn says the idea for the CAO came to him when a penitent investment banker told him his story. “This poor brother fell down on his knees, because although he had a Bugatti and a Cessna Citation, he realized that he had lost God and that his works were the works of the Devil.” The man explained how he had built sophisticated pools of mortgage debt that had later lost all their value and left investors destitute. “I saw what God wanted from me in a flash,” says Gawn. “I’ve always been blessed with a talent for turning the tools of the Devil to the glory of the Almighty.” Gawn first achieved notoriety when he trademarked the word “fornicate” in an effort, he says, to suppress the unfortunate act referred to by that term.
Gawn wasn’t initially sure that he could draw up a contract that would carry authority into the afterlife, but he found a raft of precedents in Church history.
“It turns out there used to be objections to the idea of selling indulgences,” Gawn says, referring to the practice of selling admittance to Heaven for large sums of money. Distaste for the practice was a key cause of the Protestant Reformation. “But this is not corrupt like that. We are sharing among a group of people, and in that sense, we are like the first Christians, when brothers and sisters had to stand together against persecution.”
Mary Allyn is a member of Gawn’s flock who has bought into a CAO. “Am I happy with it? You bet your hindparts I’m happy with it,” she says. “I feel so much more relaxed about things.” Allyn is in the safest tranche of her CAO, and says she paid for it with a second mortgage on her home and by dipping into the fund she had set up for her daughter’s college education. “I used to beat myself up if I felt like a glass of rosé while I watched Dancing with the Stars. I could hear my mother’s voice, ‘You’ll go to Hell! You’ll go to Hell, you horrid little slut, just like your whore sister with her lipstick!’ Now I don’t worry.”
That’s what financial engineers call moral hazard. “Anytime people don’t bear the downside consequences of their behavior, they will tend to take more risks,” says Lon Wilton, a hedge fund manager and former risk analyst at Lehman Brothers. “You want to avoid creating that situation in any new product.” Does that mean Reverend Gawn might be unintentionally incentivizing people like Mary Allyn to sin more? “I can’t comment on questions of right or wrong,” says Wilton. “But from what you tell me, it sounds like this might be good for alcohol distributors in the Southeast.”
We raised the idea of moral hazard and unintended consequences with Gawn. “Shmoral hazard. Shmumintended shmonsequences,” he said. “I’ve prayed on this. I don’t know why God chose me, but He did. He chose me to open the way to Heaven for everyone. There’s no risk when God is your guarantor.”
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