Dis-Spelling the Prosperity Gospel

Dis-Spelling the Prosperity Gospel May 17, 2016

Nudie Jeans repair shop. Courtesy Nudie Jeans
Nudie Jeans repair shop. Courtesy Nudie Jeans

In high school, one day, I split my slacks. Mortified, I sidled into the school office with my backpack drooped strategically over my exposed backside. There, I asked to use the phone so my mom could drive to school and drop off an intact pair of pants. While I was waiting for my emergency delivery the school secretary expressed her praise for my excellent choices and good thinking. Clearly I was a “good girl”, unlike the other girl, last week, who had solved a similar predicament in a different way. This “bad girl” had left school property to go to the nearby mall to get her jeans mended.

My class analysis wasn’t very developed back then, but even so, I knew something was wrong with the school official’s judgement. I wasn’t “good” because I had a stay-at-home Mom. The other girl wasn’t “bad” because she handled her problem herself. Maybe her mom worked, or maybe she didn’t even have a spare pair of pants. Those were accidents of birth. These facts pointed to the privilege I enjoyed and that my dad worked to maintain.

As an adult I know that even he didn’t earn that privilege… He had it because his parents could afford to send him to college.

I remember that day often. The illusion that having options means you are “good” and Time Magazine covernot having options means that you are “bad” distracts us from the truth. Of course, I have other privileges, like skin privilege and education privilege and the US of A privilege, that give me options as well. We sometimes talk about these dynamics as intersectionality. This is a topic, many topics, for other days.

Once I started paying attention I started noticing all the ways that we equate “net worth” with “worth” in our capitalistic world. There’s even a religious group called “The Family” that explicitly preaches that those who have money are blessed by God. I don’t mean they just preach “thank God for what you have.” No, they preach that they can tell who is in God’s favor by looking at their bank account. This extremist group (look them up, their connection with U.S. Senators is truly frightening) is not alone. The prosperity gospel can be traced from Puritanism and permeates through much popular religion and Christianity. The idea is basically that God rewards your faith with success and prosperity. Poverty is a sign of lack of faith and God’s disfavor. Class dynamics and the poison of the prosperity gospel are laced throughout politics, business and white culture.

Then there are the ways that these dynamics play out in UU Earth-Relating communities. I have been asking myself for a few years now: why do I notice a tension between UU congregation leadership and Earth-Relating congregants around issues of money? Is there a class difference at play between UU leadership and Earth-Relating UUs?

Courtesy of Clipart Panda
Courtesy of Clipart Panda

In the 80’s I experienced the Pagan community in Portland Oregon as predominantly white, educated, and in large part “downwardly mobile”. I use downwardly mobile to describe those who were raised with economically privileged backgrounds (landed or educated or simply “comfortable”) who have chosen to do as little wage labor as possible. That decision could be based on a rejection of the values of their parents, a desire to ‘live lightly on the earth’, or to ‘drop out of the system’, or to focus on the values in Paganism that they most resonated with.

When I moved to Ithaca, NY the Pagans I met were true to the demographics I’d observed in Portland. The book “Voices from the Pagan Census”, published in 2003, indicates that the average income for Neo-Pagans is roughly the same as the income average for the United States. The same survey found that Neo-Pagans are significantly more educated than the national average. (92.2% have more than a high school diploma versus 43% of the US population.) This information is consistent with my observations.

I’m aware that Neo-Pagan doesn’t define or encompass the many diverse Earth-Relating religions. People of color, the working poor and other communities have robust Earth-Relating faith groups among them and many Earth-Relating faith paths gather diverse adherents. However, census data no longer includes religion information (as of 1936) and I was unable to find data that would show me average income for Earth-Relating religions more broadly. So many of my perceptions are anecdotal. I’d love to learn more from others out there. Please comment if you have information to share!

Invoking 7 principles at UU General Assembly 2012, Photo by Imari Kariotis
Invoking 7 principles at UU General Assembly 2009, Photo by Imari Kariotis

What I can and do offer is the observation that according to the book “One Nation Under God” published in 1993, Unitarian Universalism is ranked second only to the Jewish community in income, over 50% have a college degree and UUs are well above average in property ownership. This suggests that CUUPS members will find common ground with other UU congregants around education level but will, on average, have significantly less discretionary income. The book mentions one other thing about UUs. We have strongly been influenced by Puritan theology and the tendencies toward equating hard work with being good. The tenets of the prosperity gospel come with that. But… UU’s have the second principle: “Justice, Equity, and Compassion in Human Relations.” We have work to do here!

See more at http://www.uua.org/documents/idbm/multicultural_welcome.pdf
See more at http://www.uua.org/documents/idbm/multicultural_welcome.pdf

This suggests four things to me: 1) CUUPS may have a role in educating congregations to be welcoming to income-diverse people. 2) We need to pay attention to how class and means are at play when we find ourselves in conflict, and when we work together to be in relationship. 3) We all have work to do to discover and break the spell of the prosperity gospel that equates means with worth, and we can do that together. And 4) As we dive into class dynamics we must be in partnership with people of color and other marginalized groups, groups who often are economically marginalized, recognizing the other dynamics of intersectionality.

What might that look like? Here’s one idea. When we are among our broader religious communities, pay attention to what folks face economically. Then join the congregation’s membership team, the welcoming team, the greeters on Sunday (you get the idea) and put those observations into practice. Here’s another idea. Collaborate with UUA staff on improving this document that talks about the difference between welcoming and othering.  http://www.uua.org/documents/idbm/multicultural_welcome.pdf

I know this essay is only scratching the surface, and I don’t want us to over-focus so that we forget the impacts of intersectionality. My hope is that I am inviting us into further conversation. My hope is that we are individually and together, casting our banishing spells, in our own ways, on the curse of the prosperity gospel.

banishing spell kit from www.misi.uk.co
Banishing Spell kit from www.misi.uk.co


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