Does God want you to flourish financially? He does, according to the “prosperity gospel” movement. This gospel “preaches that an authentic religious belief and behavior, usually in the form of tithes and other monetary donations, will result in material prosperity,” says James Roberts in Shiny Objects, a new book that I introduced on Monday. “Conversely, the gospel contends that financial prosperity and success in your private and professional lives is evidence of God’s favor.”
At first, this sounds like a remake of the Protestant Ethic: Worldly success is a sign of salvation. But what Roberts is talking about is much, much more. The prosperity gospel promises that donating money to the church will result in financial success far above the amounts donated. Conspicuous consumption is also a part of the equation, and clergy who preach the prosperity gospel—often leaders of megachurches—tend to live large.
How common is faith in the prosperity gospel? Over 60% of Christians agree that “God wants people to be financially prosperous,” according to a Time magazine survey Roberts cites. By the late 1980s, one famous wave of prosperity preachers—including James Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart—was largely discredited. But this style of preaching is so popular that many others have taken up the doctrine. The most popular prosperity preacher today is the best-selling author and TV personality Joel Osteen, who also runs his own huge church in Houston.
No question, it’s a popular message that isn’t going away. But here’s the problem: Faith in the prosperity gospel can easily lead to overspending, bolstered by the belief that wealth is sure to come. It may also have been a cause of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, according to a study by Jonathan Walton, a professor of religion. As Roberts summarizes, many prosperity gospel adherents believed that God caused lenders to overlook their poor credit, bad debts, and insufficient income, making them fair game for unscrupulous lending practices.
What do you think of the prosperity gospel?
Do you think its influence has a broad impact on our consumer culture?
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.