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.

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.

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.

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