Evangelicals and the Prosperity Gospel

Andrew Sullivan is right.

I thought my hand would wither when I wrote this, but I must confess he is right.

There has been a spate of interesting stories in the last week about the prosperity gospel. The Guardian has a nice piece on the indictment on fraud charges by Brazilian prosecutors of the king of the prosperity gospel preachers, Bishop Edir Macedor. And writing in The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish column discusses the existential mindset of the Republican Party. He offers his readers the ‘prosperity gospel’ as one explanation for its militant mood.

But let us first define our terms. What is the prosperity gospel?

In a 2006 Time Magazine piece entitled “Does God want you to be rich?”, David Van Biema and Jeff Chu offered an overview of the movement whose headliners include Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer and Paul and Jan Crouch.

For several decades, a philosophy has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves.

In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke. Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

In his piece entitled, “Republicanism as Religion“, Sullivan draws upon a web essay written by Mike Lofgren to argue the prosperity gospel movement controls the Republican Party:

..the GOP, deep down, is behaving as a religious movement, not as a political party, and a radical religious movement at that. Lofgren sees the “Prosperity Gospel” as a divine blessing for personal enrichment and minimal taxation (yes, that kind of Gospel is compatible with Rand, just not compatible with the actual Gospels)..

The essay continues with a political analysis of the GOP arguing that this new “religion has replaced all” of its prior beliefs, “reordered it, and imbued the entire political-economic-religious package with zeal. And the zealous never compromise.”

He closes with a warning that if the Republicans “defeat” Obama in 2012, this religious zealotry will lead to blood in the streets.

I fear we will no longer be participating in a civil conversation, however fraught, but in a civil war.

There has always been a épater le bourgeois quality to Sullivan’s work, and I do not find his political explanations persuasive. Nor will his description of the prosperity gospel as “idiotic” win him friends and influence people among the ranks of its devotees. But he is right to speak of the importance of this new gospel amongst Christians. From its American roots it has spread across the globe and is a powerful religious and social force in South America, Africa and South Korea.

The Christian Left and the Religious Right have largely rejected the movement. Scott Paeth of DePaul University called it a “truly mind-boggling perversion of the message of the Gospel, and in fact turns the entire notion of Christian love on its head. Whereas Augustine said that the essence of sin was the human person turned in upon him or herself, Osteen’s version of Christianity is all about turning inward on ourselves.”

For Evangelical theologian John Piper the movement is heretical. It is “another gospel”, not the Christian one.

Andrew Sullivan’s instincts are right, but he applies his analyses to the wrong field of study. Prosperity gospel practitioners like Osteen are relentlessly apolitical and avoid the hot button issues of the day. Simply put, its bad for their business.

Reporting on this phenomena has seen mixed results. This ABC news video  is an example of the trepidation many reporters have when approaching the subject. Or, the ABC team may just be woefully ignorant of the topic they are seeking to address. ABC mentioned criticisms of the movement, but tossed Osteen a softball when asking him to respond or explain his work.

Oh, by the way, Osteen has a new book out: “Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week.” This cringe inducing news story comes across as a six minute commercial for Osteen’s book, not a serious look at his church or this world-wide phenomenon.

The Guardian does a much better job with the prosperity gospel’s appearance in the news. Two articles by the British daily’s Rio correspondent examines the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God headed by Bishop Edir Macedo. They also show a growing awareness that the prosperity gospel cannot be pigeonholed as another manifestation of the evangelical right.

Last week the Guardian’s Tom Phillips wrote an article entitled “Brazil charges church leaders with embezzling millions from poor.” He reported:

Three leading members of one of Brazil’s most powerful churches have been accused of laundering millions in church donations and using worshippers’ money for personal gain.

The charges, unveiled on Monday by São Paulo’s public prosecutor, relate to 404m reals (£150m) allegedly obtained from mostly impoverished churchgoers by leaders at Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. ..the prosecutor behind the case, claimed followers were tricked into handing over money to the church through “false promises and threats that spiritual and economic assistance would only be bestowed upon those who made financial sacrifices for the church”.

Prosecutors claim that although the church claimed to have received around £1.85bn in donations between 2003 and 2006, the actual sum could be much higher.

The article gives a summary of the church’s teachings in a neutral tone, offers Macedo a word of response, and refers to a 2009 story by Phillips that reported on claims that donations were used to buy luxury goods and property. Being the Guardian, a cynic might have expected this statement:

The church’s preachers are also notorious for their open hostility towards Brazil’s gay community and African-Brazilian religions.

While I would have preferred this point to have been developed further to substantiate the claim, and would have questioned the “notorious” – “hostility” pairing, it is a fair statement. However, one can never tell how much a sub-editor has applied the scissors to a story and I am loathe to jump on omissions for that reason.

One difference between Phillips’ latest story, and his previous reporting on Macedo is the absence of the word “evangelical”. The lede sentence in his 2009 story begins with “the leader of one of Brazil’s largest evangelical churches” and also includes “evangelical” in the title. This latest story omits the word entirely. The move away from tagging prosperity gospel preachers as evangelicals can also be seen in the AP’s coverage of Macedo. While the AP’s English language story on this item includes the “evangelical” descriptor, its more detailed Spanish language story also omits the word from the body of its story.

Why does this matter? Because the prosperity gospel is not part of the evangelical movement nor does Macedo’s church claim to be evangelical. I applaud the increasing sophistication the Guardian and other quality papers have brought to reporting on this neo-Pentecostal movement. I hope others will soon catch on.

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  • Dave

    Explaining the current posture of the Republican party as an epiphenomenon of the prosperity gospel is a serious case of reductionism.

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com Aaron

    What exactly do you mean when you write that the “prosperity gospel is not part of the evangelical movement”?

    Certainly there are evangelicals who preach the “prosperity gospel” that is rejected as a false gospel by evangelicals such as Piper – Pentecostal evangelicals and non-Pentecostal evangelicals.

    Are these prosperity gospel-preaching pastors not really evangelical and not part of the evangelical movement/American evangelicalism?

  • Michael

    This is just another way to pretend that hucksters and thieves and unpleasant characters are not really “Christians.” As when we are told that Westboro Baptist Church is not really a Baptist Church. Or that NO Christians are in favor of executing homosexuals. So these purveyors of the prosperity gospel are not really Evangelicals. Give us a break.

  • Bennett

    Well, Michael, it’s not as easy as saying that a corrupt police officer is still a police officer, despite acting contrary to the aims of police work. That’s a job, not a philosophy. If I claimed to be a post-modernist, yet made exclusive claims to truth and posited an objective reality, you’d say I wasn’t really a post-modernist. Likewise, if I claimed to be socialist, but was against taxes or aid to the poor, you’d say I wasn’t much of a socialist. If your actions are antithetical to the core values of the philosophy, you can’t very well be used as an example–ergo, this isn’t like the “No true Scotsman” parable.

  • Michael

    Bennett, I suppose Roman Catholics may still contend that Lutherans are not really Christians, and Lutherans may still contend that Roman Catholics are not really Christians. But I think journalists are constrained to say that Westboro Baptist Church is a Baptist Church (though not all Baptist Churches agree with it or with each other). Similarly, we know that many Dominionist Christians have called for the execution of homosexuals. Mollie Hemingway to the contrary, this is not a novel Christian idea. Similarly, many Evangelicals do believe in the prosperity gospel even if John Piper believes their views antithetical to HIS view of Evangelical orthodoxy. Journalists should not appoint themselves the arbiters of theological disputes.

  • Dan Crawford

    The prosperity gospel is a form of christian social darwinism which is why it is no surprise that wealthy preachers prey on the poor. The Republican Party has found the perfect ally to support its own decades-old form of social darwinism. What is surprising that only Andrew Sullivan of the journalism tribe seems to recognize this.

  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin

    “Many Dominionist Christians have called for the execution of homosexuals.”

    Bluff called. Please list leaders, denominations, pastors, and while you’re at it, define “Dominionist.”

    As for Sullivan, he is not right as much as he blindly swung the bat and hit the Tee. Sullivan’s use of guilt-by-association to arrive at his conspiracies sort of falls apart rather quickly. Rarely mentioned in his (or other media’s) scary rants about Dominionists and “Christianists” is that Obama has had some rather well-known prosperity Gospel teachers in his corner. Juanita Bynum is a starter, Jamal Bryant is another. Even Eddie Long hosted a Presidential Inauguration celebration at his church — complete with worship service beforehand.

    The Guardian does much better, although I agree that Prosperity teaching is something that most Christians rarely fully understand, much less the press covering those Christians.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Again, the reporting of polls runs into problems.

    I completely agree that the prosperity gospel is heretical, BUT it’s also true that faithful Christians tend to be hard-working and tend to prosper. Check out the history of monastic communities and see what happens to them: founded in poverty and fervor, they live communally, work together, eventually grow rich, and the fervor goes out the window. Moreover, if you asked me the right question, I would say that “you can’t out-give God”, and then point out that when I’ve been faithful to give, I’ve never done without.

    All of which is to say that real life is more complicated than polls, and certainly more than the reporting of polls.

  • Michael

    Justin, the most influential of the Dominionists has been John Rushdoony. Current members of the movement are people associated with the New Apostolic Reformation. Warren Throckmorton has blogged about these people here: <a href="http://wthrockmorton.com/2011/08/29/what-would-dominionists-do-with-gays/"What Would Dominionists Do With Gays"

    Are you denying that Dominionists are Christians?

    Should journalists be empowered to decide who is and is not a Christian or an Evangelical?

  • Michael

    In the post above, I somehow mangled the url to the Throckmorton article by trying to make a link out of it. Here is the url again: http://wthrockmorton.com/2011/08/29/what-would-dominionists-do-with-gays/

  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin

    You’d have to do a lot of impressive linguistic gymnastics to come to the conclusion that I implied anywhere that Dominionists were not Christians.

    You’d have to do the same to imply that a high number of “Dominionist” leaders distancing themselves from the notion of putting homosexuals to the death in fact suggests that they actually do favor putting homosexuals to death. It’s even harder when the article says as much.

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com Aaron

    It would be great if the author of this post would take a moment to stop by and back up (or explain) his assertion that “the prosperity gospel is not part of the evangelical movement.”

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Well, the Black Panthers were part of the Civil Right Movement and the Weather Underground was part of the anti-war movement.

    The bloggers here from time to time have noted the difficulties with the term “evangelical”. Personally, if anyone wants to put Robert Tilton and Bennie Hinn in the same group as Billy Graham or J.I. Packer (or anyone on this list), knock yourself out.

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    Two observations:

    1. Those who think that the Neopentecostal prosperity theology is driving the political process have got it exactl;y the wrong way round. Prosperity theology is rather a contextualisation of the gospel to fit in with the values of Western society, which the West is trying to sell to the rest of the world. Prosperity theology also comes in many forms and degrees, ranging from a mild case of realised eschatology to full-blown syncretism with the established religion of the West, namely Moneytheism.

    2. It’s a pity that there was no mention of the South African media, which have been much exercised recently with the controversial appointment of Mogoeng Mogeong as Chief Justice. Mogoeng is a pastor in a denomination that espouses prosperity theology, the Nigerian-based Winners Chapel.

  • John Wickey

    I haven’t noticed in the Sullivan article or in the discussion of the article here the extent to which television is the vehicle that promotes this approach to Christianity and is the major basis of the financial resource that keeps it in the news. Is this primarily a tv preacher approach to Christianity?

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector

    Re: I completely agree that the prosperity gospel is heretical, BUT it’s also true that faithful Christians tend to be hard-working and tend to prosper.

    Passing By,

    I totally disagree with that. It’s true, of course, that a good Christian will be hard-working, but it is simply not true that a hard working person is going to prosper. That has never been the case, not under any economic system whether feudal, capitalist, or socialist. (And I might add that Christians are supposed to be generous with what they have, which often prevents people from becoming rich). Jesus was very clear that the earthly results of leading a Christian life are very often not pleasant, and that the rewards will come only in heaven.

  • northcoast

    Did I miss it, or did the TIME 2006 article leave out Reverend Ike?

  • http://realclearreligion.com American CPA

    A Seed must die before it can grow and give fruit again.
    Jesus was the first seed, and the fruits of God’s gift to
    mankind have manifested in the exponential.

    To give to get is not prosperity. God’s prosperity comes
    from behind and catches up to you. Your motives must be
    of a higher motivation than just to get from God.

    Jesus didn’t die because he wanted to. He simple obeyed
    a higher calling than his human side.

  • Harris

    The analysis seems to be slightly off-track and so misses Sullivan’s larger point. Specifically, it is Lofgren who raises the issue of Prosperity Gospel; Sullivan’s point is broader, that Republican thinking is best understood as a kind of religious thinking. What links them both, and what Conger could have noted, was that whether taken broadly or narrowly, this religious or sectarian turn in today’s conservative movement represents a species of syncretism. And the recent portrait of believers as migrating to middle class and such, certainly make plausible a wedding of the socio-economic and the religious, a lower-case “prosperity gospel” if you will.

    As a matter of politics, a religious nationalist movement is disposed to underweight various policy concerns in favor of supposed principles. This has been the persistent critique advanced for the uncritical embrace of the libertarian tendencies of movement conservatives — a critique discussed earlier this year on GR.

    Seen as a religious or sectarian movement, the present-day religious republicans are subject to two possible outcomes (if the fate of other sectarian movements are any indication): a millennialist over-confidence or a turn to despair, itself the seedbed of violence, as Sullivan fears.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Hector -

    Note the “tend to” hedges I use. Not wanting to unduly burden a journalism site with theology or personal information, I didn’t hit all nuances. The point was that polls oversimplify what can be quite complex. Of course, serious Christians follow One who had “no place to lay his head” and who suffered a criminal’s shame. The heresy of prosperity teaching lies in the underlying value system, not in the dynamics of divine providence.

    Finally, I am generally considered to have a excellent work ethic, but no one would link me in any way to prosperity. :-)

  • mdb

    I have twp points that I’d like to make.

    One, the writer of the article says that proponents of the prosperity gospel are apolitical. While this may be true for some, such as Joel Osteen, it is not true for all. One could hardly call Benny Hinn apolitical, for example. In addition there is often a very strong pro-Israel stance, i.e., only those who support Israel, no matter what, will prosper.

    Two, while we certainly would like to dismiss certain groups as not being truly Christian – a rightly so – there is a limit to this. I disagree with the prosperity gospel enough to say that they are not preaching the Good New of Jesus Christ, but I can’t say, especially from a social perspective, that they are not Christians. They may be heterodox Christians; Christians in error, but they are Christians by those very statements. The same logic that says that proponents of the prosperity gospel are not Christians must say that Osama bin Laden was not Muslim.

  • Sean P

    The problem with prosperity theology goes beyond the prosperity theology, most proponents of prosperity theology also believe in other heterodox doctrines.