Someone once told me “Religion is the only thing you can put your all into that won’t consume you and diminish your soul”. On its face, anyone with a sense of history or a vague awareness of foreign affairs would disagree with the sentiment. But at its core, the voice in my memory is correct, whoever they were. Virtually all religions seek to make people better, happier, morally efficient and socially effective. Human nature causes us to focus more on the “sin is bad” rather than the “only God can judge,” but if you are objectively doing it “right," religion is good for everyone, including those who choose not to engage.
So why is it that when it comes to devout faith, we evoke fear and condescension? Much has been said for Paula White, the leader of one of the country's largest churches and the president’s official faith adviser. White is many things, chief among them is a preacher of Prosperity Theology AKA the Prosperity Gospel - A subsection of Christianity that believes that God wants you to be happy, healthy and wealthy and that his “favor” (which isn’t fair) is more likely to fall upon you the more you follow his word. White is the Evangelical leader and founder of the nation’s largest church who between the years of 2004 -2006 took in “as much as $150,000,000”. She and her husband were investigated by the Senate in 2007 for allegedly misusing church funds in was that included paying her relatives over $2,000,000, purchasing a $3,000,000 condo in Trump Tower, and "enriching their lives" through tax-exempt donations and a $5,000,000 salary. Not cool.
The greatest mistake that people make about the prosperity gospel is not Paula White – because she’s trash and we know that – but in the gospel itself and its purpose. The common thought is that the Healing Revivals of the 1950s brought the theology to prominence and that the church is using God’s promise of blessings to guilt people into acting a certain way or giving their money to the church and in turn, the preachers. This - in this theory - allows faith leaders to make more money which then corrupts their motivations for preaching a certain understanding of the world.
In regards to the gospel, I don't think 1950's Floridians had anything to do with it. In fact, one could argue - and I plan to - that like most good things in this world, Black people are at the center – going back to slavery. The white Christians who brought over slaves benefited and perpetuated the slave system using religion to justify their behavior, mainly Genesis 9, 18–27, but also Ephesians 6, 5-7.
In almost poetic irony, the slaves who adopted Christianity and learned it from their masters thought the same God would find them freedom- much like the Hebrews in Egypt. Black people have been acting as good stewards to win God’s favor ever since they met him and were steadfast in linking good behavior to blessings. Some will argue that freedom, equal rights, and safety aren’t the prosperity or wealth that many link to the teachings. In return, I would ask them to widen their definition of prosperity.
When I spoke with Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton – a student at Harvard’s Divinity school and an Instagram friend– he shared a bit of intellectual context as it relates to religion. “Religion can only be practiced successfully in a community of like-minded people” he says, “but this also produces a cycle of groupthink where people can't get out of their own piety because they are so consumed with looking at the people who don’t fit into that mold.”
He also expanded on my definition of the gospel at hand. “[Followers of the prosperity gospel believe] we can witness God’s “Favor” on people by the amount of wealth they have amassed. God obviously loves Bill Gates and Paula White because they have been given platforms. People trust that White is connected to God because she has amassed enough political and economic power to be connected to the President. What we get wrong is that we look at the societal power of individuals AND THEN decide they are connected to God. We don’t look at if they are truly connected to God first (whatever that looks like).”
So now that we’ve gotten the basics out of the way...can I ask what the problem is? While I am certainly not a preacher and can only describe my relationship with religion as...complicated and nuanced, I have to take issue with everyone’s issue. Why do people have such a hard time believing that God – be him, theirs, or someone else’s – would engage in reciprocity? Are we not taught that the Christian God is a jealous God – one that requires you not to put any God before him?
He relates to his creation. He takes joy, he is jealous, he is love, he is just, he has anger and wrath, he has grace and mercy. – Christianity.com
Understanding that the Christian God has human emotions much like a parent, does he not feel pride? If he is a great creator and grand giver of life, doesn’t he have good and pure intentions? What kind of God doesn’t want you to do well? What is the problem with people thinking that their creator created them for good and wants them to thrive? I’m not saying that the streets are paved with gold, but I am saying that humans did not take up religion to praise a God that wanted them to struggle – no matter your faith.
“We must distinguish between meaningless suffering (due to systemic injustice) or not being wealthy enough and “struggle” - taking a cue from Islam, - “Jihad” which is Arabic for [the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin”. Jarred explains, “People have conflated that to be wealthy is to suddenly not struggle and in terms of a Christian walk, that’s just not the case. No, I don't think God wants us to suffer…but I do think that we need to “strive” for God’s grace despite already having it and sometimes that may look like a bit of struggle” says Batchelor-Hamilton. Taking religion out of it, isn’t the basic idea essentially just karma? We spend our days teaching kids to do good things and good things will happen. It’s a guiding principle around charity and overall being a good person. So why can’t religion take that same stance?
If the presence of money is the issue then I think we all have taken a warped view of the church. Your average, objectively “good” church, is a meeting place. A place for people to come together, find community, feel better about themselves, feel seen, get advice and counseling and to serve the community. Churches go on mission trips to different parts of the word, they feed the hungry, provide job training, offer and find shelter for the homeless, the church is a non-profit. So if the church is a charitable organization why shouldn’t we give them money? And before you start talking about preachers who have mansions, planes and Bentley’s, any church worth its salt won't be paying their preacher on commission. They may pay them to scale but again, so does your favorite 5013C. The televangelist you’ve come to know - Joyce Myers, Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, etc. - make their wealth from book sales, speaking engagements, products, etc. This is their right. The idea that preachers can’t enjoy luxury is both outdated and rooted in jealousy and anger. Similar to how Republican’s like to call left-leaning ideas the ramblings of the “media elite” because shaming people for spending their money how they’d like while framing them as out-of-touch allows people to see them as “other” and disregard their desire for the same freedom.
Jarred’s Intellectual Interjection: I agree with [you]. Preachers can experience wealth and luxury, that’s not out of the realm- the issue is- is their community starving? Joel Olsteen for example: Despite his wealth, he closed his church facility during a hurricane. Does he notice the homeless population in Houston - On the black side of town? Does his wealth allow him to think about this or does his ministry simply stop at smiling really nice [from] the pulpit?”
A rebuttal: Point taken, but I don't know if that reflects on his prosperity gospel teachings as much as it just reflects on how he personally may not be the world's nicest guy. While I am in no way advocating for the Prosperity Gospel, I am suggesting that those that disagree with the theology because of their lack of Christian faith can rake the smug out of their tone and raise their objections with a little grace. So what is the intellectual disagreement? According to Batchelor-Hamilton, the question isn’t can you be wealthy, but where is the wealth going? “Prosperity is nothing without community-driven prosperity. Prosperity for whom? For the pastor? Or for the community? [If] the question is: can you be wealthy and preach the gospel? [The answer is] it depends on what you do with [the wealth]".
The common issues that people have with this teaching are based on assumptions and disregard. In The Gospel Coalition’s 5 Errors of the Prosperity Gospel they show 5 points where Prosperity Gospel followers have “misinterpreted” the bible:
1. The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22) is a means to material entitlement.
2. Jesus’s atonement (2 Corinthians 8:9) extends to the “sin” of material poverty.
3. Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God (Mark 10:30).
4. Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity.
5. Prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity.
While the TGC is welcomed to think and write what they please (don't we all?) the "errors" they found are not necessary teachings of the theology in question. Anything can be corrupted by humans because that’s what people do. But it’s intellectually dishonest for us to make judgments off of a customized view of the faith.
While it’s true the Abrahamic Covenant speaks of inheritance, that isn’t necessarily about material wealth. Having dominion over the earth and inheriting the blessings of Abraham also speaks to personal agency, peace, and positivity. Meanwhile, the idea that poverty is a sin is a specific interpretation and can not be ascribed to the faith as a whole. What is crucial to the practice is the idea of giving. Those who stand firm in the theology not only abide by a 10% tithe, but they also believe in an offering as well as charitable giving for specific causes of the church --all of these expecting to be done with “enthusiasm” and a “spirit of expectancy”. However, this is not to treat God as a vending machine where the money goes in and blessings come out, but to do God’s work. The idea is that by being an enthusiastic giver you are supporting the mission and cause of the church, and by being a good follower you will be blessed. That’s not a bribe or even a trade, it’s just how religions (virtually all them) work. Furthermore, no one has ever said that faith was self-generating or that it leads to wealth. By the biblical definition, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen; and without “work”, it’s dead. Lastly, prayer is a tool of communication not of force. The point is to talk to God, thank him for what you have and ask him for what you need/want - much like meditation, therapy or journaling. The church tells you to be specific when you pray, be grateful, and to meet your faith with work. If AP students get to make S.M.A.R.T. goals, why don’t Christians? And moreover, what does the bible even say about wealth – mine, yours and the preacher's? When asked, Jarred provide 2 specifics passages:
“Proverbs 28:20 - a faithful man will abound with blessing but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished” he quotes.
“[In] Matthew 19:21 Jesus says if you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven - now what does this mean? We can create heaven on earth. What does this look like? It looks like giving your monetary wealth that you don’t need to people who do. I'll say it this way: if you have 10 loaves of bread, and I only have half of 1, it doesn’t hurt you to give 1 away; we’ve conflated that the person who has only has the one half hasn’t praised enough or loved on God enough to have more and this just isn’t true”. An interjection: I mean it might be true, but that's not the point.
Often, we get so caught up in our own lives and beliefs that we forget how we came about them. We are all the products of our environments, external influences and the beliefs (or lack thereof) that raised us. Any idea can be corrupted by humans because that's what humans do. It’s unfair to make judgments on teachings based on a bad/unapproved example of anyone's faith. Furthermore, we should all be allowed the space to maneuver through life with whatever hope and belief that allows us to feel whole, welcomed and encouraged. The point of this piece was not to shame those who don’t believe or to convert those on the fence, and it definitely was not intended to defend Christians. I simply wanted to show a clear and logical path to a spiritual place that many have fought for and others have disregard.