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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