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?

Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church.
Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church

In times of record-high foreclosures and Treasury Department scrambling to shore up loan-refinancing initiatives, the Prosperity Gospel can sound as if it comes from preachers who live under rocks, not in mansions: "God wants to give you your own house," big-cheese pitchman Joel Osteen announced in 2007's Your Best Life Now, which he penned in an economic Indian summer of a bull market and excited homebuyers. " 'How could that ever happen to me?' you ask. 'I don't make enough money.' Perhaps not, but our God is well able."

Osteen is everywhere these days. You see his coiffed pate smiling on Good Morning America, at the new Yankee Stadium for its first nonbaseball event, on the cover of Texas Monthly's ideas issue—all in one week. Yet he artfully disappears for housing-crisis questions like "Why, if God wants to reward the faithful with material possessions, are so many believers in foreclosure?"

These high rates in particular have made some Doubting Thomases of Prosperity's controversial centerpiece: the belief in "positive confession," or the idea that the faithful can "name it and claim it"—even Waikiki timeshares or Rolls-Royces with corn-silk leather trim—and God will provide it. Prosperity nomenclature is varied (Word of Faith, the "law of reciprocity," Christianity Lite), but the movement owes as much to New Thought metaphysics and Norman Vincent Peale's "positive thinking" as it does to early proselytizers like Kenneth Hagin. In many ways, it is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Christianity's face-lift, whisking away specters of hellfire and brimstone with a message of self-empowerment. Preachers don't belabor sin if they mention it at all. "It's not my job to try to straighten everybody out," Osteen famously told Larry King in 2005, adding, "My message is a message of hope."

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But reality, in the form of a housing-crisis fallout, is full of victims who ought to be a clarion call for Prosperity's out-of-touch-ness. Its territory—locus of the lower-middle-class and minority neighborhoods from which most followers are culled, like modest exurban areas in California's Southland and the edges of greater Atlanta—has some particularly high foreclosure rates. The number since 2007 in the greater Atlanta counties of Henry, Newton, Paulding, and Clayton (home of Creflo Dollar's World Changers Ministries) is two to three times higher than the already-high statewide average, according to data from Foreclosures.com. The disparity jumps even higher outside Los Angeles, but inside the vast, gilded auditoriums, it's Prosperity business as usual. "Where are these preachers as parishioners' mortgages continue to default?" University of California-Riverside religion professor Jonathan Walton asked last September as the government took over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. "One need look no further than the same congregations and networks where they have always resided. Same theology, same sermons, and same results."

Milmon Harrison, author of Righteous Riches, calls this a "prosperity narrative" and says it's as American as apple pie. Shaping these narratives, he says, is the entitlement mentality—from Winthrop's "city upon a hill" sermon and John O'Sullivan's manifest destiny to the secular but similarly strong faith in Wall Street as "too big to fail." A laughable example was New Thought mystic Charles Fillmore's rendition of Psalm 23. It began: "The Lord is my banker; my credit is good." This talk of holy sinecure as a birthright is Osteen-ism at its most sophomoric. (He and his wife would not be held down by the foundation-cracked hovel of their more naive years! They got the full asking price for their townhouse!)

Prosperity's slap-happy belief system evolved from a spiritual imperative to accumulate wealth found in the end-times view known as postmillennialism. It holds that God promises 1,000 years of Christian dominion will precede his return; thus, wealth accumulation is a tool of evangelism, and a materialism arms race is the harbinger of Armageddon (a good thing in the Christian view). Today's Prosperity movement has shed postmillennialism's eschatological literal-mindedness, recasting it at times in rosier phraseology, like optimillennialism, best said with Osteen's aw-shucks smile, but not abandoning the groundwork it laid for the unencumbered pursuit of success.

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