I have a tendency to say things aloud before I really think them through. I was talking with some friends and the topic of the Prosperity Gospel came up. The Prosperity Gospel, for those who don’t know, is a teaching popular in the United States, as well as places like South Korea and Nigeria, where God’s blessing upon the believer is economically quantifiable. Crassly put, you can count the cash as it descends from heaven.
Selecting a particular thread from the Bible, these folk teach that if a person is faithful, he or she should see tangible blessings in terms of financial gain. In South Korea, this teaching is part of the context of why the leader of the world’s largest church was arrested for embezzlement. In America the trend is less prominent, but no less pervasive, and may have contributed in a minor way to the mortgage crisis. In oil rich Nigeria, where half of the population are living on less than $2 per day, the Prosperity Gospel is the only hope for escaping poverty for millions of people.
In my best moments, if the topic came up, I might have responded with something like this:
I have actually attended a Prosperity Gospel church for more than a year and found the overall teaching there to be humble, well balanced, and personally enriching. We can’t judge this movement by a few über-leaders that sell their wares on television. Moreover, the best Prosperity preachers may help us see some things we missed.
However, I think the principle behind the teaching is wrong for three reasons. First, I think it focuses on a single thread in Scripture that is much more complex than they let on. Second, the Bible is premised upon a covenant with national Israel. We don’t have that covenant in the United States (or Canada, or Nigeria, or, you might have noticed, Botswana). And third, middle-class North Americans are among the richest people in all of history in any part of the planet. An American with a job and somewhere to live isn’t asking for blessing, contextually speaking; he’s asking for a windfall.
At this time when the topic came up, however, I wasn’t at my best. Instead of a nuanced critical answer, I said:
“The Prosperity Gospel isn’t Christian. It’s American.”
Now, before I am accused of anti-Americanism, I should say up front that I am a fan of the American project in many ways. I wish it were less militaristic and more self-critical, but otherwise we Canadians share similar blessings and curses. Plus, America is far cooler than Canada will ever be. It’s possible Canada may never recover from Justin Bieber on the international scene. Perhaps that’s some sort of judgment.
See, once again, I am not always at my best. But my own words haunted me. Was it true? Was it the case that the Prosperity Gospel was a new idea in Christianity, and really captured an American belief rather than a Christian one? In that sense, was it a cultural heresy?
It is a question beyond a single blog. But if you do some peaking around, you will see that when people speak of this movement in the U.S., they speak in post-WWII terms, especially in the 2nd Wave Pentecostal revivals and in the growth of televangelism and the mega-church movement. Although evangelicals are typically critical of the Prosperity movement, its recent growth among urban ethnic minority evangelical congregations is hard to dismiss.
There are lots of surface reasons why this movement could be seen as more American than Christian. The prominent role of the (most typically) male leader is a phenomenon that star-struck Americans know well in business, entertainment, and even politics. The most prominent leaders in this movement play well in the media of books and television, and work on multi-million dollar church campuses. At their best, these leaders make secure Max Weber’s thesis that Protestant self-discipline will lead to success in capitalistic economies. At their worst, they connect specific giving to their own ministries with specific results in the giver’s life.
Beyond this glossy surface, though, I have always had the suspicion that the Prosperity Gospel spoke to the central story of Americans—the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, Silicone Valley, Madison Avenue, the belief that you can cast off social and family restraints and find your way in a world with unlimited potential. Unlike some of its critics, I’ve always thought that the Prosperity Gospel wasn’t just a cheap ploy to a commercialistic generation. No, I thought the treachery was far deeper, and that these leaders were drawing from the taproot of American imagination. And recently, I’ve found someone who agrees with me.
Now, I should say that this person had no idea about the contemporary Prosperity Gospel movement. Reinhold Niebuhr was speaking and writing in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, in a world emerging from food rationing and the Great Depression. In The Irony of American History, a book that sets a self-critical foundation for living in a nuclear age, Niebuhr has a chapter on American prosperity. And this is where it all clicked for me. More than 60 years ago, Niebuhr says that,
“The prosperity of America is legendary. Our standards of living are beyond the dreams of avarice of most of the world” (45).
The root of that prosperity may lay in the rich land and the ingenuity of the people. But it is founded on a story (a myth) of prosperity woven in the earliest days of American identity. In the newness of the American project, where they were casting off the complex and problematic history of European systems, there was a feeling of a fresh start. But more than that: there was a feeling of destiny. In the wilderness of the New World, God had blessed them richly after the hardship of the first years. It seemed like God’s hand was upon the venture that we now call the United States.
Intriguingly, this myth of prosperity came not only from the Puritan settlers. It also came from Thomas Jefferson and his crowd, a more deistic approach to the same idea. America was a new Promised Land in a new compact with God, the new Israel that had the same opportunities as ancient Israel did in Deuteronomy: if they kept to the path of God’s righteousness they would be blessed with material richness and long life; otherwise, God would remove the blessing. And, alone in the universe, America wrote into its constitution that “the pursuit of happiness” was an inalienable human right.
In the religious frontier, it led to proclamations like this:
“Thou God hath blessed His poor people and they have increased here from small beginnings to great estates. That the Lord may call His whole generation to witness. O generation see! Look upon your towns and fields, look upon your habitations shops and ships and behold your numerous posterity and great increase in blessings of land and see. Have I been a wilderness to you? We must need answer, no Lord thou hast been a gracious God, and exceeding good unto thy servants, even in these earthly blessings. We live in a more comfortable and plentiful manner than ever we did expect” (Quoted in Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, 48).
And the logic of prosperity went like this: God blesses faithfulness, and we are obviously blessed in America. Therefore, we must be faithful, and the blessing is the confirmation of our merit. Notice how the direction switches, from God’s blessing to our faithfulness. While we can’t truly say that the American Dream is a Christian idea, it emerged from Christian ideas in the early days of America. It is this story that the Prosperity Gospel speaks so powerfully to.
Though Niebuhr did not know what would come after him, he noted some problems with the Divine Providence of Prosperity even in his early reading of American history.
First, he says that “the descent from Puritanism to Yankee in America was a fairly rapid one” (52). “Prosperity,” Niebuhr argued, “which had been sought in the service of God was now sought for its own sake” (52). In essence, they forgot the rest of Deuteronomy while focusing on the personal blessing. Watch TV preachers for a few hours and you’ll see this danger still lurks.
Second, the effect on American Christians was a rootedness to this world, to America, that betrayed the wider vision of the Gospel (both global and heavenly). In his 1835 study of America, De Tocqueville said that,
“American preachers are constantly referring to the earth. . . . To touch their congregations they always show them how favorable religious opinion is to freedom and public tranquillity; and it is often difficult to ascertain from their discourses whether the principal object of religion is to obtain eternal felicity or prosperity in this world” (53).
180 years ago this was an issue.
Third, Americans think the prosperity of their society is evidence of God’s blessing and thus there is merit and goodness among the American people. Niebuhr notes, however, that emerging economies still restless in the poverty of an Agrarian economy view this same prosperity suspiciously, “as evidence of injustice” rather than evidence of moral substance (57). I don’t think we can ignore this last point: what we see as a blessing, the people further down the capitalistic ladder recognize as a curse.
These points do not argue against the Prosperity Gospel, but warn of consequences. Asking the question, “how did it go for Jesus in his faithful walk on earth?” will critique the Prosperity Gospel without all these words. Here, again, perhaps I am not at my best, and the sarcasm threatens to crack the surface. But I wonder if even that point isn’t insignificant. Niebuhr ends his essay by suggesting that humanity must “‘die to self’ in order to truly live (61, ref. Galatians 2:20). The Prosperity Gospel, in taking up the American myth of Prosperity and Providence, must pass swiftly by this passage. Denying one’s self and taking up the path of suffering (Luke 9:23) sits in extreme tension with the guarantees of Prosperity theology.
Moreover, in Niebuhr’s view, the Prosperity Gospel cannot do the job. As it turns out, great comfort does not always lead to virtue, and security does not lead to piece. And in a passage very much like C.S. Lewis’ argument in Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, Niebuhr says it best:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must he saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” (63)
Perhaps my slip of the tongue wasn’t so far off the mark.