The prosperity Gospel always occupied the fringes of my experience of religion -- a strange and colorful neighbor, easy enough to dismiss and avoid. That is until I encountered its East African expression. There I found in the street markets ample tables with the collected works of well known American prosperity preachers in every available media format, and, upon the Mutatus (East African buses/traveling billboards), coverings of advertisements for either American rappers or local "health & wealth" mega-churches. In East Africa, as I understand is also the case in the Philippines and many Latin American communities, it is apparent that "get rich" religion is the U.S.'s single largest export.
When I think of the prosperity Gospel, what comes to mind is Sinclair Lewis's drunken, brawling, conniving, preacher Elmer Gantry junketing around the country spurring ticket-paying congregants to proclaim, "I am God's child, God created all things including wealth, and I will to inherit it" -- a caricature of prosperity teaching that is widespread amongst the theological community, media commentators, and non-governmental organizations. Understandably, the consensus on the prosperity preachers is that of a group of unsavory, self-enriching soothsayers who have distorted classical Christian theology and taken advantage of the poor with a simple quid pro quo model of relationship to God.
But what if the consensus about the prosperity Gospel is wrong? Regardless of the theological value of the movement, what if the prosperity Gospel in its worldwide Pentecostal form actually hastens development, fosters upward social mobility, and makes great strides in establishing a middle class in impoverished nations? Heresy, I know, but what if the prosperity Gospel works?
Momentarily I will commit such a heresy. But first, I recognize that a few of the charges often levied at the prosperity Gospel are well grounded, merit-based, and worth repeating.
The Arguments Against the Prosperity Gospel
The chief complaint about the prosperity Gospel is that it is a peculiar deviation of canonized Christian theology. While Christian theology does certainly speak of the imperative to improve the material conditions of the poor, one would be hard-pressed to make an argument for the rich getting richer under the guise of the Christian theological tradition. Yet the prosperity Gospel does not problematize poverty; it problematizes the poor. It implies that the poor are faithless and warrant no sympathy -- save conversion.
Other critics point to the character of the preachers who are getting rich off the prosperity message. Selling books, audio recordings, and conference tickets at exorbitant prices to people who live at or below the poverty line is wrong. And to point to those who thrive off the backs of the impoverished as evidence of their own blessing is a shameful self-reifying cycle.
Finally, many have suggested that adherence to the prosperity Gospel leads to poor financial decision-making. For instance, a recent, widely read Atlantic article asked, "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?" In the U.S. it could be easily argued that theological justification for risky financial choices could lead to defaults on loans, irrational expectations for improved financial prospects, and an overly generous belief in one's own material worth. This is troubling in a society with easy access to capital coupled with poor regulations on lenders; however, where Pentecostal prosperity preaching is flourishing, in the developing world, access to easy capital is rare and often unheard of, minimizing the risk.
But What About When the Prosperity Gospel Works?
Back in Nairobi I sat down for curbside soda with a local street vendor to chat politics and theology. Because of his liberal politics, I expected to hear a liberation theology, so I was surprised when he offered a simple prosperity Gospel message asserting, to paraphrase him, that God does not desire poverty for anyone, and that those who have faith can lift themselves from poverty. At its core, these beliefs are a statement of autonomy and upward mobility placed into theologized language.
This is a discovery I am not alone in. Peter Berger, father of American Sociology of Religion, went to South Africa and found the same core message as the Kenyan street vendor driving prosperity teaching there, leading him to pen a scathing sociological piece against the prosperity Gospel's opponents in The Wall Street Journal. And the late David Martin, of the London School of Economics, demonstrated in his comprehensive studies of Pentecostalism in Latin America that church-goers who believe in God-given prosperity are more autonomous, economically responsible, self-confident, and optimistic about life outcomes than their Mainline Protestant and Catholic counterparts. He called this belief "betterment" and argued that it bore itself out in greater chances for upward mobility into the emergent Latin American middle class. A belief in one's own prosperity, Martin suggests, is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This claim is nothing new to the field of sociology of religion. It is the crux of Max Weber's 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which suggested that a society that values hard work, encourages the poor to blame themselves for their poverty, and emphasizes the importance of personal piety will likely be economically successful in a matter of generations. It could be easily argued that it was prosperity teaching that lead to the 17th- and 18th-century economic success of Dutch Calvinists and the enrichment of Methodists shortly after the death of John Wesley (whose final essays decry its espousal amongst his flock), and that it was the prosperity Gospel that provided theological grounding for an emergent English middle class in the 19th-century era of Samuel Smiles's The Gospel of Self Help.
Perhaps the present discomfort with the prosperity Gospel, as opposed to its past expressions, has emerged because of just how explicitly its modern practitioners make its case. The beliefs do come off as quite crass to the religious ear, especially when they are no longer subtle cultural aphorisms but declarative statements of faith on the television, in books, and on countless AM radio stations. But, notwithstanding their perceived crassness, they are beneficial to development in at least four ways:
1) Educational Opportunity
From the perspective of the U.S. it may seem counter-intuitive to claim that the prosperity Gospel is a secularizing force. Yet what secularizing beliefs generally do is untie individuals from past dogma, encourage personal autonomy, and prioritize the present over a past or future. The outcome of this, in terms of development, is that persons are more likely to leave home (and, perhaps sadly, traditional identities and cultures) to pursue educational opportunities for the sake of greater economic viability.
Worldwide one can find evidence that when the prosperity Gospel does engage poverty, it is through the vehicle of education. It is in the form of business, computing, and engineering classes, as well as in a growing number of church-granted scholarships to far-away universities. The prosperity Gospel encourages people to leave traditionalist, localized, religious beliefs and, in doing so, leave home for education opportunities. While educational and job mobility is not great for community, it is great for economic development.
2) Market Individualism
The second major way the prosperity Gospel fosters development is in its insistence on personal piety in its believers. While this creates many problems, such as the Ugandan homosexuality scandal (in which an attempt at legalizing privately homophobic piety has created an international uproar), it also means that the followers are likely, to paraphrase Martin, to get off the bottle, get into the workforce, and go home to their family at the end of the day.
Bluntly put, poverty fosters substance abuse, sexual abuse, and higher crime rates. Prosperity churches present a God that does not tolerate this behavior if one wishes to earn his blessing, an exchange that creates safer, more dependable and ambitious individuals.
3) Fiscal Soundness
Except in the U.S., the prosperity Gospel encourages followers to use their money wisely. The proof of salvation, or faith, is directly tied to current economic conditions and individual economic outlook. Believers are more likely to save, live debt-free, and create businesses in order to find themselves in an economic position that garnishes a demonstrable (economic) assurance of salvation.
Many suspect that followers of such movements are duped into tithing ridiculous amounts of their income to preachers and congregations. After all, their preachers blatantly suggest that God will return your investment "ten-fold" if you fill the Church coffers. And, yes, occasionally this does happen, but the data, at least in the U.S., suggest that individuals who attend Pentecostal prosperity churches donate no more to the offering plate than do their Catholic, Mainline, or Evangelical counterparts, regardless of class.
If church-goers are saving money, developing businesses, and not being broadly taken advantage of, does this not serve to foster development?
4) Secular Mentality
Lastly, the Pentecostal prosperity Gospel secularizes communities. While I know many don't believe secularism is a good thing (and perhaps it isn't), it does serve to foster economic opportunity. Secularization creates an insistence upon the present, a lack of complacency with one's circumstances, and a potentially profitable individualism that is well suited for market economies.
Because much, though not all, of Pentecostalism rejects past dogma and, in doing so, historical theological beliefs, and because it makes the connection with God a transcendental, ecstatic matter of the present, it can have a very short half-life as far as religions go. Such it is that third-generation Pentecostals tend to reject religious belief at a much higher clip than the grandchildren of Evangelicals, Catholics, or Mainline Protestants in the developing world. In turn, these newly secular individuals tend to be members of the middle class, be better educated, and have better health outcomes than their religious counterparts.
As much as I want Elmer Gantry to be my boogeyman, and as much as I want to believe that the message of the prosperity Gospel is an immoral concoction to take advantage of the naïveté of the poor, the facts simply do not justify a sociological argument against the worldwide prosperity Gospel.
The attacks upon the prosperity Gospel can easily rest on the subtly fetishized argument that being poor is an inherently good and virtuous thing. At best, these accusations are merely patronizing, and at worse they are means of the privileged subconscious providing a justification for keeping the poor poor.
In this vein sociologist Peter Berger writes:
There is no notion here (within the prosperity gospel) that poverty is somehow ennobling. In that, speaking sociologically, the prosperity gospel is closer to the empirical facts than a romantic idea of the noble poor -- a notion reminiscent of another romantic fiction, the noble savage. Such notions, of course, are always held by people who are not poor and who do not consider themselves to be savages.
We ought to consider that while 20th-century theology spoke eloquently of a "preferential option for the poor," the preference of the poor needs to hold far greater weight. We ought to recognize and appreciate that for many in the developing world, that preference is for the prosperity Gospel, an option that is working.