For a while now, I’ve been watching a trend in Christianity that began before I myself was Christian. That trend is prosperity gospel. I see that trend intertwining with another industry entirely that has engulfed Christianity as a whole in America at least (and probably elsewhere): get-rich-quick schemes. A whole bunch of Christian leaders love the whole idea of prosperity gospel. Today, let me show you how far and how deep this teaching has burrowed into the religion, and what’s happened as a result.
Prosperity Gospel: A Primer.
Prosperity gospel, sometimes called prosperity theology, is actually an umbrella term for a whole host of terrible teachings:
- The Christian god rewards obedience in tangible ways with health, wealth, and other forms of success.
- The more obedient someone is, the greater the rewards are.
- Someone who disobeys loses out on those rewards.
- People can judge other people’s obedience levels by how successful they are.
- Unsuccessful people deserve their lot in life because they were disobedient somehow–thus making them fair targets for contempt and mistreatment.
- The Christian god allows his followers to pursue wealth.
- Christians who achieve success and wealth reveal their god’s power and majesty to non-believers.
- In fact, the Christian god encourages this pursuit!
- In-fact-in-fact, the Christian god gets soggy and hard to light when his followers refuse to engage in that pursuit!
- Ugh! What on earth is wrong with you?
As a control tool, few other teachings match prosperity gospel for success. Christian flocks bankrupt and oppress themselves and knock themselves out trying to live up to their leaders’ demands in a prosperity-gospel-driven environment. In fact, even after deconversion many ex-Christians fear disobedience.
And this teaching is, as one conservative writer opines over at the right-wing opinion site Federalist, “as American as apple pie.”
The Protestant Work Ethic.
[Jesus] picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.
Bruce Barton (1925), quoted by Christopher Evans
Prosperity gospel as a teaching hijacks people’s propensity for Just World thinking. In fact, this exact error may have played into the origin story of America itself. Certainly by the end of the 1800s, Americans had settled firmly into the mindset, which historians now call “New Thought.” In the hands of the architects of this philosophical movement, Jesus became the ultimate entrepreneur who’d forged the world’s most successful business–Christianity.
Gradually, the strict Christianity that had hobbled extreme pursuits and displays of wealth gave way to other flavors of Christianity–especially the form preferred by Baptists and Calvinists at the time. This newer, more American form of Christianity seems to me like it married the worst elements of Calvinism (like demonization of and contempt for the poor) with the worst of the other competing flavors (which equated one’s personal virtue with success).
In this way, capitalism itself became irrevocably fused to Protestantism and American nationalism. Christians grew to idolize entrepreneurs and the general spirit they associated with entrepreneurialism. They admired the go-getter attitude that spawned businesses, jobs, amazing new inventions, and even entire industries.
In turn, the qualities Christians reflexively assigned to entrepreneurs merged with the qualities Christians imagined as those possessed by TRUE CHRISTIANS™. The two roles became all but interchangeable.
The Power of Positive Thinking.
At the same time, Christians developed an affection for magical thinking. Christianity has always suffered from this error. (Then again, all religions do, hmm?) The term means thinking or acting in ways that have nothing to do with a desired outcome. That definition applies very well to prayer.
More than just applying the idea to prayer, though, Christians began to see their own mindsets as helping or hindering them in achieving the riches and happiness that they thought their god wanted for them. Someone who doubted that a miracle could happen was someone who would never see one. Those who couldn’t control negative thinking would, in turn, cut themselves off from their god’s blessings.
In 1952, a minister named Norman Vincent Peale published the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. It collided with the Red Scare, a Christian-engineered moral panic about Communism. To reach his stunning sales figures, Peale wove together American-style Christianity with capitalism itself. Then he twisted them together with the notion that one’s attitude had a lot to do with achieving success and with communicating with the divine spirit of the Christian god.
And Christians ate it all up with a spoon.
Pfft, Who Needs EVIDENCE?
Christian leaders pouncing on the opportunity contained in this new idea found plenty of help supporting it in the Bible. Its writers attributed thoughtcrime to Jesus himself. However, other folks–like psychiatrists and even theologians–objected to Peale’s total lack of verified, credible evidence for a single one of his claims.
Like that even matters to TRUE CHRISTIANS™! As we’ll see soon, the last thing they care about is getting factual information from real experts in any field. While rational thinkers lambasted the book, irrational people lined up behind it and Peale himself: Billy Graham, Donald Trump, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and Robert Schuller (of the Crystal Cathedral).
Alongside those paragons of dubious virtue, we find as well the creators of countless multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) as well as the sycophants who pander to them and their millions of victims: Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar, Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, and Robert Kiyosaki.
This thinking led straight to weird cash-grabs like “the law of attraction,” outlined in The Secret and other such books. It also led to the most egregious examples of blab-it-and-grab-it preachers like Creflo Dollar.
Rejecting Prosperity Gospel.
What’s hilarious is that a bunch of evangelical Christians act like they reject prosperity gospel–while continuing to embrace its main tenets.
A writer from The Gospel Coalition (TGC) outright (and extremely incorrectly) calls prosperity gospel “a quasi-Christian heresy.” His post on the topic condemns it in every conceivable way. He’s written books on the topic as well.
And yet evangelicals are the tribe that continues to overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. Trump, of course, shilled for two MLMs and professes himself a fan of both Norman Vincent Peale and “the power of positive thinking.” Evangelicals also catapulted MLMs into a billion-dollar industry. Without evangelicals, MLMs wouldn’t have gotten anywhere close to their current power. MLM shills couldn’t touch people without them buying into the underpinning beliefs involved in prosperity gospel.
If prosperity gospel is “a quasi-Christian heresy,” then it seems to me that evangelicalism is, too. And so is the current state of the Republican Party. None could exist without the others.
Now, a bunch of people just said out loud “Well, DUH, Cas.” Fair enough! But remember: Christianity’s entire history reveals it to be one heresy after another. Each upstart idea gains dominance and then falls out of fashion. There is literally no truly authoritative, truly untainted flavor of Christianity, nor any such doctrine contained within it.
I don’t think many Catholics are buying shirts like this one, nor many Episcopalians. This sentiment falls squarely into evangelical laps. And the entire reason evangelicals don’t recoil en masse from this t-shirt’s message is, precisely, because of their religion’s incestuous relationship with prosperity gospel.
Success = Divine Approval.
And these same Christians who sniff disdainfully at prosperity gospel still buy into still other offshoots of the belief system. They always have.
When I was a Christian, my then-husband Biff decided that we’d begin attending a storefront church. Brother Gene, assisted by his lovely wife Sulane, led this church plant.
Gene had made the mistake of planting the new church in an extremely affluent, well-educated part of the Houston suburbs. This one was famous for its high number of rocket scientists and dentists. And they had little use for the arcane threats and weird promises of fundagelicalism.
That little church never grew beyond its initial flock of about eight people and three children. Gene himself bankrolled the rent and other expenses for the church. He enjoyed very little help at all from his tiny congregation.
In Pentecostal terms–in evangelical terms–that church did not enjoy Jesus’ favor. And it killed Gene that he’d started this church thinking Jesus wanted him to do it, and yet Jesus clearly hadn’t blessed it. Everyone knew that a blessed enterprise prospered. Therefore, the church’s lack of growth said some very damning things about Gene.
I know little of the church’s fortunes after Biff and I left for Japan. It closed, probably shortly after we left. Eventually Gene and Sulane relocated to another state. In fact, he died fairly recently. I wonder if he still beat himself up to the very end. So many pastors in similar straits do exactly that.
And they never stop.
Making Out Like Bandits.
It’s no wonder at all that multi-level marketing schemes (like Amway, LuLaRoe, Mary Kay, and literally hundreds if not thousands of others) became so inexplicably entwined with prosperity gospel and all its associated baggage.
These businesses were created by fundagelicals to prey upon their fellow fundagelicals. Non-fundagelicals typically get weirded out by how “religious” these businesses’ operating practices seem. And, too, non-fundagelicals typically know already that MLMs are bad news for all but a fraction of participants.
But the people MLM creators aim for will resonate with the MLM message:
- You deserve success.
- This is easy and fun!
- This business pays well for practically no effort, qualifications, education, or even paperwork.
- Your god wants you to succeed with this business.
- You just have to believe that you’ll succeed.
- Even if everything points to failure, with enough faith you can succeed.
The leadership of these MLMs, the leadership of the political movements that have developed to pander to right-wing Christians, and the religious leaders of those Christians themselves are by now more inbred than the royal houses of 17th-century Europe.
Set Up to Fail.
Of course, this mindset puts the Christians who fall into prosperity gospel at tremendous risk.
The same thinking leads the flocks to their infamous gullibility, their lack of concern about complete nincompoops advising them, the weird compartmentalization they practice around their own hypocrisy, and their strangely subjective “objective morality.”
And yes, the same thinking propelled right-wing conservative Christians into the politicized marching-force that they are today. When we think about the worst-of-the-worst parts of Christianity, it’s impossible to pry those parts away from the same mindset that led to prosperity gospel.
As long as hucksters can stand on stages and pray for “Jesus” to bless their enterprises, as long as Christians see success as a sign of divine favor (and failure as the price of disobedience to that same deity), and as long as Christians’ greed outweighs their common sense, the religion’s leaders will not be reversing that decline.
That’s why not a single survey in the past 10 years from a single reputable survey-house gives Christians a bat’s chance in Hell of recovery, you know. Evangelicals and their overwhelming lust for power and wealth have played a major hand in their religion’s decline in America.
These hucksters and conjobs count on those same Christians to fail to recognize that their leaders have been pandering to them–and callously manipulating them–for years. Nope. That ain’t going to happen.
No, the flocks would rather hear that success is right around the corner, that the creator of the entire universe wants them to get rich and retire at 30 to walk the beaches of the world–and oh yes, that their tribe is going to retake its former dominance any day now.
Any day now.
Through his loyal agents on Earth, “Jesus” tells them so–several times a week.
NEXT UP: Set your Wayback Machines for Portland: 1994! I’ll show you just how similar one MLM’s recruitment and marketing tactics were to the religion I’d literally just escaped. That similarity saved me from diving into the MLM–and solidified quite a few things about the religion so closely entangled with it. Join me next time for “The Ambot Who Loved Me.”
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