This will be the first of at least four posts on the topic of the American Prosperity Gospel. I recently finished Kate Bowlers’ (Currently Assoc. Prof at Duke) book titled, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013). This is the first book to fully explore the origins, unifying themes and major figures of the movement. It is quite thorough as it is essentially a shortened version of her dissertation. I love her writing style – she’s literature-aware-and-savvy and her writing is steady yet lighthearted and smooth. I found myself surprised to be smiling almost all the way through. Nuanced, clear, concise and upbeat…she brought me right into a world I had never been. She woke me up. Good… because I’ll admit that before this, I never took the American Prosperity Gospel seriously. I just shrugged it off. But no longer.
I learned that not-just-a-few but rather millions of Americans have fallen in love with the prosperity gospel and its new kind of preacher who preaches a consistent message: God desires to bless you. Dr. Fowler points to a recent Time poll which found that 17% of Christians surveyed identified themselves as part of such a movement. 31% believed that God increases the riches of those who give. A full 2/3 agreed that God wants people to prosper. One Pew survey reported that 43% of all Christian respondents agreed that the faithful receive health and wealth. Another 2008 Pew study found that three-in-four Latino believers across all Christian denominations agreed with the statement: “God will grant financial success and good health to all believers who have enough faith.” By 2011, almost 1/2 of all churches with more than 10,000 members preach prosperity from the pulpit. By 2011, a tally of self-reported membership showed that one million people were attending American prosperity megachurches. In the sidebar of the book I have written, “woa…shocking…”
This is evidence enough to warrant credence to Dr. Bowlers’ words when she writes, “The prosperity gospel, though much reviled by the media and academics alike, deserves sustained attention” (9). Already by the early 1900s the thought-forms spawning the American Prosperity Gospel were already lurking everywhere, “In Broadway plays, bestselling books, street-corner success manuals, and in the advice husbands heard from their wives when they look up from Good Housekeeping” (25). Apparently this movement is new, but it isn’t that new. As I learned, Osteen has predecessors. In the 1900s it was “New Thought” theology and by 1950 it was recast as “positive thinking” where people are implored to “see themselves as channels of divine energy and learn to be ready vessels for divine flows” (35). In these movements, “sweeping generalities buried the specifics” because of its theological thinness but “thick with guarantees of success.” The churches wanted “a winner, not only of souls, but of dollars and prestige” and this message was an answer for that ask.
The movement became even stronger after WWII as Americans’ optimism rose together with the burgeoning consumer culture. At this point, Scriptural truths began to be understood as “tools to solve problems…techniques waiting to be applied” (40). By the 1950s this trend could be described as a “wholesale revival that stirred the country with talk of faith – faith to heal, faith to deliver, faith to prosper, and faith to unleash God’s will by simply speaking true words aloud” (41). This is a danger of what can happen when we favor practice over philosophy or application over exegesis and that is exactly what happened. After all who needs hope (which says, “I will get it sometime”) when faith says, “I have it now!” When faith is the “switch in our hand to turn on all the omnipotent power of our Lord” then life is all about right-now. Right around 1950 when A.A. Allen wrote the first popular book on financial miracles this movement quickly moved from its’ adolescent stage into one of continued influence. As Bowler says, “It is a bizarre twist of history that this flowering of the prosperity gospel arrived in a season of withering anti-institutionalism.” A new institution was on the rise – arriving at the right time at the right place!
By 1971 a cluster of independent preachers (predominately prosperity folk) comprised 42% of the top syndicated religious programs on television. In 1981 the total jumped to 83%. Fowler notes how over time the scope of religious broadcasting narrowed, giving the prosperity gospel a market share that came close to a theological monopoly. Flipping from channel to channel on Sunday morning, viewers might think they were watching endless reruns (74). By 1975, 25 million people tuned in to Oral Roberts’ 1975 Thanksgiving television special. By the decades end, American religious broadcasting earned an estimated $1 billion in total revenue. The prosperity gospel truly exploded in the 1970s. Of course, its flashy reputation became a public relations nightmare in the late 1980s when the moral failures of a few tarnished the very idea of the “glamorous minister.” But the movement deftly refashioned itself for the postmodern 1990s as therapeutic and down-to-earth Christian self-improvement, tempering its hard prosperity with a soft prosperity image. By the 1990s, the prosperity gospel had become the foremost Christian theology of modern living in America. In this movement giving is turned into a public spectacle and it becomes the new liturgy for everyday people. It blends pop theology with pop psychology and the result is lots of empty pop-pop optimism that could never last. YIKES!
This is what happens when we deify and ritualize the American dream. As Bowler states, “The prosperity gospel consecrated America’s culture of optimism” (227). It is where “A cultivated cheerfulness is proclaimed” (232). One thing is sure – we shouldn’t turn our heads. We shouldn’t mock. We shouldn’t ignore. This movement deserves sustained attention.