Is the “Prosperity Gospel” Real Liberation (for Oppressed Minorities)?
This week I visited a mainline Protestant seminary and sat in on several classes. Teachers should do that from time to time. Being an observer of one’s own profession can be very eye opening. I learned some things to do and not to do. I learned that eighty minutes is a long time when you’re just sitting and listening! I learned that it’s helpful when professors ask if students have questions and then take their questions seriously! I learned that some students have “better” things to do than listen, learn and take notes. I learned that sometimes playing games on one’s Ipad is better than paying attention—especially when the lecture is vapid.
According to one lecturer, a church historian, the so-called “prosperity gospel” is regarded by many African-American and Hispanic Pentecostals as “true liberation.” The professor didn’t exactly compare it against liberation theology, but the implication was clear. The professor is a Hispanic Pentecostal and seemed to me favorable to the chosen topic and the claim that it is “true liberation.” (But, it’s difficult to tell; the professor may have been playing the devil’s advocate.)
I’ve blogged here before about the prosperity gospel. But let me be clear about what it is and what it is not. This is important because even some sociologists of religion I know think it’s simply the beneficial effect of a conservative Protestant work ethic on poor people who join Pentecostalism—especially in the Global South. They do tend to prosper—at least more so than before they became Pentecostal. (John Wesley observed the same phenomenon among his Methodist converts and worried that the newly acquired prosperity tended to dampen spiritual enthusiasm.)
No, the real prosperity “gospel” is not simply the fact that people who convert to Pentecostalism tend to save and invest money and work harder instead of wasting money on alcohol and gambling. It is also not merely that some Pentecostal preachers and evangelists give their followers good advice on financial matters. The real prosperity gospel is what the Hispanic church history professor was describing with many stories drawn from hands on research in African-American and Hispanic Pentecostal congregations. (A recent Time magazine issue featured a cover story on the growth of Hispanic and Latino Pentecostalism in the U.S. but hardly mentioned the emphasis on prosperity gospel in many of them. The professor rightly mentioned it as a feature of many Hispanic [and African-American] Pentecostal churches—especially newer and non-denominational ones.)
The real prosperity gospel is the teaching that: 1) God wants his people to be financially prosperous—usually beyond merely having “enough,” and 2) financial prosperity, like physical healing, is available through positive faith that is spoken without doubt. These two points well summarize the prosperity gospel as it is taught in many Pentecostal churches. (To the best of my knowledge it has been pretty much kept within Pentecostal circles.)
First, there’s nothing really that new about this prosperity gospel. It has roots in nineteenth century “New Thought”—especially as taught by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, founders of Unity. They taught that financial prosperity, like physical healing, is every person’s potential blessing available through a spiritual technology called “Affirmations.” Some New Thought adherents call it “prayer,” but it’s really magic. What’s the difference between them? Prayer is supplication to a personal, sovereign God that acknowledging God’s freedom and greater wisdom. Magic is any attempt to create a different reality through manipulation of spiritual forces by means of gestures, words, thoughts, chants, etc. Clearly the Pentecostal prosperity gospel builds on New Thought. The connection is E. W. Kenyon, a New Thought inspired Pentecostal (or proto-Pentecostal) teacher of about a century ago. Kenneth Hagin was steeped in Kenyon’s teachings and passed them on to other Pentecostal prosperity preachers and evangelists.
Of course, New Thought did not invent “the power of positive thinking.” That goes back at least to Phineas Quimby if not to Anton Mesmer (in modern times). What New Thought teachers like the Fillmores added to the “power of positive thinking” was the power of positive speaking. Healing and financial prosperity can be spoken into existence through “affirmations”—positive sayings. Kenyon picked up on that, added it to his healing ministry, and Hagin later discovered it and worked it into his “Word-Faith” ministry and teachings. (Of course, Hagin claimed that he learned this technique through revelation—both the “logos” and the “rhema.” That distinction is a subject for another blog post.)
What might surprise many people is that the prosperity gospel also has African-American religious roots. To what extent “Father Divine,” “Daddy Grace,” and “Reverend Ike” borrowed from New Thought is unclear, but I believe they were influenced by it and packaged it for their African-American and mostly poor followers. Reverend Ike was a phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s. Anyone who has lived long enough to remember him will be struck by the similarities between his “gospel” and that of several leading African-American Pentecostal television preachers.
I want to note very carefully, however, that the Pentecostal prosperity gospel is not limited to African-American, Hispanic or poor people. It flourishes as well among people of majority cultures and affluent people of all races. However, it seems to be having a special appeal among some African-Americans and Hispanic people.
Second, this prosperity gospel, the one the church history professor was talking about and that I am talking about here, is not liberating. It is giving false hope to people who are in some sense desperate. They may not be desperate in the sense of financially stricken; they may be desperate in the sense of feeling profoundly a need of financial security—in the face of illness or impending retirement or whatever. (Admittedly, some followers of the prosperity gospel simply want luxuries.)
What poor people and people struggling with financial insecurity need is not magic; what they need is concrete help and justice. (I’m not talking about people who choose to be poor; I’m talking about those who are poor or financially insecure through no fault of their own.) They need to be liberated from purveyors of false hope including prosperity gospel preachers and teachers.
The church history professor told the class they could not possibly understand the prosperity gospel and its appeal to African-American and Hispanic Pentecostals because they, the students, are “rich white kids.” It may be true that one has to be in an oppressed community fully to understand the appeal of false hope, but many of the students are struggling with financial pressures, too. I would be willing to bet (!) that more than a few of them have purchased lottery tickets out of a feeling of desperation.
Nothing I have said here or elsewhere or before discounts the power of prayer. I have myself experienced God’s financial provision in times of need in response to prayer (my own and others’). Years ago, when I was just starting my teaching career and was severely underpaid by an evangelist whose name the university bore, my car broke down and the repair was very expensive. My wife and I prayed for divine intervention in the form of financial assistance. That very week a colleague gave me a check for the amount needed to fix the car.
But the fact that God does sometimes answer prayers for financial assistance in time of need has nothing whatever to do with the prosperity gospel. First, the difference between magic and prayer is essential. We prayed; we did not “confront God with his word” and “call into being that which was not” (etc.) or “affirm” our prosperity in the face of poverty. Second, we did not assume that God wanted us to be wealthy even though I heard that in many chapel services at the university where I began my teaching career. Nothing in Scripture justifies believing that God wants all of his people to be wealthy in the sense the prosperity gospel teaches—luxurious abundance. Prayer for financial relief should be to meet the need, not the want.
I believe calling the Pentecostal prosperity gospel, the “Word-Faith” teaching of Hagin and others too numerous to name, “true liberation” is like calling the “cargo cults” of the south Pacific islands that. Structurally they are the same—false hope in something not promised by God (or anyone with the power to make it happen).
Finally, as I’ve said before here, the inexorable consequence of the prosperity gospel is believing that those who try it and remain in poverty are themselves solely responsible for their poverty. They simply don’t have sufficient faith or haven’t spoken the right words powerfully enough. Like some forms of belief in karma, believing in the prosperity gospel can be an excuse for not helping people suffering poverty. After all, if they just had enough faith and spoke financial prosperity into existence, they would be rich!
I’m not blaming the victims of the prosperity gospel; I’m pointing the finger of ethical indignation and theological accusation at its purveyors—many (not all) of whom also teach heretical doctrines that smack of Gnosticism (e.g., that Jesus “died spiritually before he died physically” and that he died a merely human “sin slave of Satan” so that he could descend into hell and overcome hell by the power of the spoken word of faith—an example for us).
This pernicious teaching is anything but liberating. It enslaves people to false hope and apathy (of others) if not blame. And, it doesn’t work.