It’s said in the Gospel of Matthew that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
But what happens when the rich men are the pastors?
Today, the Prosperity Gospel has conflated Christianity with capitalism – the business model is to sell access, success and salvation… and if you don’t buy it, you get… well, hellish damnation.
Host Ross Ashcroft is joined by economist Mary Wrenn to discuss the Prosperity Gospel
TV viewers in America who surf the cable channels for any prolonged period will almost certainly come across charismatic televangelists whose Rapture’s and baptism’s are the mainstay of their ‘performances’.
But in line with the imperatives associated with capitalism, there is a dark side of exploitation and cynical manipulation of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society that underpin these performances. Many of the congregants who get swept up in the hyperbole are so desperate, they will cling to any promised remedy to their problems.
At the heart of the pastor and evangelist movement is the prosperity gospel. Predicated on individual responsibility and an individual relationship with God, the prosperity gospel preaches that both eternal salvation and material wealth in the here and now are accessible through faith embodied in positive confession.
The accumulation of material wealth is unashamedly celebrated by the evangelists precisely because it is seen as an endorsement of God’s will and a reinforcement of their method. Money and wealth are not regarded as the root of all evil but instruments in the spreading of the gospel.
Mary Wrenn contends that there is a significant amount of overlap as well as complicated differences that exist between the prosperity gospel preacher and the evangelical and mega church sects. This makes for a contested religious landscape where the different groups each claim that their specific interpretation of the gospel is the truest to the message.
The personal wealth of some of the most prominent preachers and pastors such as David Oyedepo, T.D Jakes and Kenneth Copeland, are at stratospheric levels. The net worth of the latter, for example, is estimated at 760 million dollars.
The pernicious aspect to this multi million dollar industry is the false sense of hope these preachers engender. What Wrenn describes as the “sowing of a seed” is premised on the notion that faith in God through tithing will eventually result in the congregant reaping financial rewards. Wrenn highlights an example of how congregants stuck in mortgage debt traps often justify their actions on the basis that their plight is said to have been undertaken in God’s favour.
The historical context that underlines the conflation of Jesus with capitalism (an integral part of the prosperity gospel narrative), dates to 1936 when the founder of the Unity Church, Charles Fillmore, rewrote Psalm 23 to read, “The Lord is my banker, my credit is good.”
What the preachers are selling is the law of attraction which, as Wrenn points out, is part of a long tradition of the power of positive thinking. From the early 19th century, the power of positive thinking began with transcendentalism and mesmerism. From this emerged the New Thought ‘mind over matter’ tradition. This is the notion that wealth accumulated by an individual is determined by the extent to which he or she is able to tap into a higher power.
This tradition was followed into the early 20th century by the development of the Pentecostal movement and their use of health-based faith cures. With the publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s best selling and influential book, The_Power_of_Positive_Thinking in the 1950s, health healing began to pivot towards promises of financial wealth. By the 1960s, counter culture experimentalism led to the theatrical and concert form of worship typical of the charismatic movement.
The prosperity gospel, as recognized today, really started to take off in the 1970s with the emergence of the televangelists. Their entire schtick is the mental capture and exploitation of the congregation under their control which could reasonably be described as akin to that of an abusive relationship.
Wrenn points to the ideological underpinnings of the prosperity gospel:
“It is essentially a spiritual articulation of neo liberalism. It’s a reinforcing institution that teaches that if you are poor, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. You didn’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You don’t have the work ethic. You haven’t earned it.”
It’s no coincidence that US president, Donald Trump, whose childhood sermons were often built around stories of entrepreneurs as moral heroes of his narratives, is playing really hard to audiences with these messages.
Wrenn compares Trump to a televangelist:
“He’s not our first neo liberal president, but he is absolutely our first prosperity gospel president. You can see why Trump has been popular with evangelicals and he has brought in a lot of them into his cabinet”, says the economist.
Currently, America is in a position where it isn’t just Goldman Sachs who’s doing God’s work. It’s now the president who is doing his work. And actually, God is on his side.