Faith, Finances, and Fantasy: The Prosperity Gospel at Work

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Faith, Finances, and Fantasy: The Prosperity Gospel at Work

December 30, 2009

"Did Christianity Cause the Crash?" asks the cover of the December Atlantic. Now there's a question I never thought to ask.

I'm not sure Hanna Rosin, who wrote the corresponding article, ever thought to ask it either. It sounds more like the marketing department to me. But Rosen's exploration of the connection between godliness and success in America should get us all thinking.

Rosin focuses on Casa del Padre, a Latino church in Charlottesville, Va., where there is a seamless connection between piety and prosperity.

The principle is simple: since ultimately God owns everything, the preeminent sign of God's blessing is material success with all the trappings—houses, luxury cars, and jewelry. God gives financial prosperity and good health to any of his children who will step out in faith and wholeheartedly believe.

Rosin writes:

This stitched-together, homegrown theology, known as the prosperity gospel, is not a clearly defined denomination, but a strain of belief that runs through the Pentecostal Church and a surprising number of mainstream evangelical churches, with varying degrees of intensity. In [Casa del Padre], God is the "Owner of All the Silver and Gold," and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above.

According to a Pew survey cited by Rosin, a whopping 73 percent of Latinos in America agree with the statement, "God will grant financial success to all believers who have enough faith" making the success of churches like Casa del Padre almost assured.

There is something fundamentally American here. This is, after all, "the land of opportunity" where "any boy or girl regardless of background can grow up to be president." And while the prosperity gospel may present a caricature American exceptionalism, it fits nicely with popular ideas about our country.

Rosin talked with Tony Tian-Ren Lin at the University of Virginia who has studied the prosperity gospel in the Latino community. Lin, she writes, "finds the message at prosperity churches quintessentially American. ‘They are taught they can do absolutely anything, and it's God's will. They become part of the elect, the chosen. They get swept up in the manifest destiny, this idea that God has lifted Americans above everyone else.'"

As Rosin and Lin point out, this is a particularly attractive message for immigrants from developing nations, but it is not limited to immigrants, the poor, or the uneducated. Rosin writes:

The doctrine has become popular with Americans of every background and ethnicity; overall, Pew found that 66 percent of all Pentecostals and 43 percent of "other Christians"—a category comprising roughly half of all respondents—believe that wealth will be granted to the faithful.

According to Rosin, Kate Bowler, a doctoral candidate at Duke University who has been studying the prosperity gospel, classifies 50 of America's 260 largest churches prosperity gospel churches.

By far the largest of these churches is Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. In fact, it is America's largest church, bar none. Rosin quotes Osteen:

"Cast down anything negative, any thought that brings fear, worry, doubt, or unbelief," he urges. "Your attitude should be: ‘I refuse to go backward. I am going forward with God. I am going to be the person he wants me to be. I'm going to fulfill my destiny.'" Telling yourself you are poor, or broke, or stuck in a dead-end job is a form of sin and "invites more negativity into your life," he writes. Instead, you have to "program your mind for success," wake up every morning and tell yourself, "God is guiding and directing my steps."

Then she concludes, "The advice is exactly like the message of The Secret, or any number of American self-help blockbusters that edge toward magical thinking, except that the religious context adds another dimension."

So did Christianity cause the crash? Was it the result of millions of Christians hyped up on the prosperity gospel believing? As one pastor's wife told Rosin "If you can't afford a house, you shouldn't buy it. But if the Lord is telling you to ‘take that first step and I will provide,' then you have to believe"? 

"Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots," writes Rosin. But correspondence never proves causality making this statement little more than an interesting factoid. 

Citing Tony Lin, Rosin notes that he "is careful—and of course correct—to say that neither immigrants nor Latinos caused the crash; adherents of every stripe exhibited the same sort of magical thinking about finances, as did millions of non-believers." (Italics added) 

"Magical thinking about finances" in America goes well beyond the prosperity gospel. Rosin herself notes "a shift in the American conception of divine Providence and its relation to wealth." 

Citing Jackson Lears' Something for Nothing, Rosin contrasts two types of people. The first is the self-made man, the Protestant hero who through discipline, hard work, and thrift believes he is cooperating with divine Providence to create wealth. The second is more reckless, "a kind of gambling man" not only willing, but strongly preferring to speculate, assuming that something good is about to happen, some gift of grace. 

What she doesn't say is that our popular imagination has moved away from the self-made man's discipline, hard work, and thrift toward the gambler's lottery tickets, quick-turn-around investments, and loans with nothing down. We seem to believe in "a simple rule that every great man knows by heart: that it's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart," as a song from the musical Pippin puts it. 

While the prosperity gospel is part of the problem, it is only a small expression of a much larger American ethos.  New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in his book On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense: 

Born in abundance, inspired by opportunity, nurtured by imagination, spiritualized by a sense of God's blessing and call, and realized in ordinary life day by day, this Paradise Spell is the controlling ideology of American life.

Brooks goes on to conclude, "Americans have a nobility syndrome. We have trouble adjusting to the reality situation." And that is as true in a prosperity gospel church as it is across America. 

Congress, for example, can't pass debt limit increases fast enough these days. CBS News reported that on December 17, 2009 the national debt was nearly $12.135 trillion in spite of a debt ceiling of $12.104 trillion. If that wasn't bad enough, they noted, "The White House projects a record $1.5 trillion dollars deficit this year alone, and a 5-year deficit total of $4.97 trillion." To be paid back… by magic, I guess.

This is a secular version of name-it-and-claim-it that will sink our national economy as surely as a new BMW 750i or a $270,000 house with a sub-prime mortgage will sink a Christian (or anyone else) who, while he believes, "God will provide," only makes $24,000 a year. Both are examples of "magical thinking about finances" and, as someone once said, no matter how thin you slice it, it's still bologna. It's also, to mix metaphors, as American as apple pie. 

Make no mistake, I enjoy the health and prosperity I have from God's largess and pray they continue. But Jesus never promised health and wealth to any of his followers. "In this world," he insisted, "you will have trouble" (John 16:33). 

That's an idea that, my very American brain has a great deal of trouble digesting even as I reject the teaching of the prosperity gospel. Perhaps I should try rejecting that teaching a little harder.