How will Prosperity Gospel ride out the hard economic times?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 8 2009 1:11 PM

God and the Recession

How will Prosperity Gospel ride out the hard economic times?

(Continued from Page 1)

A decade ago, this pursuit was equated—not for unfounded reasons—with upward social mobility by the black churchgoing community, which was alternately feeding off and fostering entrepreneurship and mutual patronage that bound congregants together. In the lead-up to subprime lending, black church members served fellow believers as mortgage brokers and real estate agents, trying to apportion heavenly goods. In the end, it was a cruel double whammy: To save face and friendships, many ex-subprime celebrants, now jaded victims, wouldn't admit to being flimflammed by either predatory lenders or faulty interpretations of biblical teachings.

This "absolute unaccountability," in Harrison's words, may be shielding the theology from a brutal crucible in the current economic climate. Popular portions have been co-opted by non-Prosperity pastors and a vanguard of half-evangelical, half-Prosperity hybrids—T.D. Jakes, Kirbyjon Caldwell—further obscuring the line. Jakes' use of the Prosperity Gospel in particular has always seemed primarily a conceit for upward social mobility; he preaches that homeownership is a rite of passage while in fact warning of iffy transactions like subprime loans. He and Caldwell both have bankrolled and erected massive Prosperity-friendly neighborhoods, exporting the movement's message on the meta-level. Jakes' Capella Park, on a lake near the Potter's House in Dallas, melds the Book of Acts' community ethos with the aesthetics of New Urbanism—and, in doing it, perhaps facilitated the unloading of unknowable numbers of subprime loans. It hasn't had any foreclosures yet (it opened in 2007, at the tail end of the subprime bonanza), but the Potter's House itself has worked closely with the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, whose sponsor Wells Fargo is said to have plied captive attendees with gimmicky subprime-loan presentations, one of many incidents leading the NAACP to file a class-action lawsuit against its alleging predatory lending practices. (Baltimore is also suing Wells Fargo to recoup millions of dollars the city says it's had to absorb because of defaults on mortgages the bank knowingly pushed on blacks.) Prosperity's impact in Kirbyjon Caldwell's Corinthian Pointe, a south Houston community the city labeled "affordable," on the other hand, is clearer: According to the Houston Association of Realtors and RealtyTrac listings, more than 30 of its 454 homes currently face foreclosure.

Detractors wonder how this neo-Pentecostal offshoot became evangelical kudzu, snaking its way even into Baptist churches. When did Max Lucado and Pat Robertson, two mainstream evangelicals, start producing fawning blurbs for Your Best Life Now? And of the top 15 spots on Outreach magazine's largest megachurches, how did Team Prosperity get to control No. 1, No. 6, No. 10, and No. 14? Assemblies of God church leaders, whose Pentecostalism some tag as Prosperity ground zero, tried uprooting the theology, even resurrecting a 1980 position paper, but this has been ineffectively and self-destructively like using prescribed burning to eradicate kudzu that's already taken over the yard.

Advertisement

This movement is, if anything, durable. Neither incredulity of its methods nor bad publicity, like the cadre of TBN televangelists under Senate investigation for their Robin Leach-voice-over-worthy lifestyles, affects its salability. After all, Osteen's sunny view is that his message has "increased relevancy in a time of economic uncertainty." His church Lakewood generated $76 million last year, the most in the United States. He says attendance is up since the economy tanked. Hard-on-their-luck audiences are more likely to buy in to the message's fire-insurance appeal—the very "too big to fail" clout that attracted traders to AIG or Lehman Bros. until they failed them, too. For evangelicals, the culture wars trump self-policing; attempts to intellectually defrock Prosperity preachers come episodically from jailbird Jim Bakker, too-nice Rick Warren, or little-known leaders like Frederick Price of the National Baptist Convention, who compared Prosperity boosters to pimps. The signs do not point to a denouement.

But with two centuries of entitlement echoing Prosperity's mantra "What I confess I possess," who can blame people for flocking to Joel Osteen when he reassures them that "God wants to make your life easier"? Recent news that Americans have become less religiously classifiable doesn't mean a wave of Christopher Hitchenses so much as feel-good cafeteria spirituality stripped of tradition and dogma. It follows that organized religion has its analogue of this syncretism and that its smiling face bares an uncanny resemblance to Osteen's. The Book of Isaiah commands, "Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back," and for many Christians, a man who can sell out Yankee Stadium has a very large tent indeed.

Clint Rainey is a writer based in New York. His articles have appeared in New York Magazine, the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Dallas Morning News, among others.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 6:30 PM The Tragedies That Have Shaped Canada's Gun Politics
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 4:10 PM Skinny Mark Wahlberg Goes for an Oscar: The First Trailer for The Gambler
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.