Questioning the Prosperity Gospel

camelneedle.jpgRecently Republican Senator Charles Grassley has begun to investigate “six televangelists who are part of an evangelical subculture known loosely as Prosperity gospel.” For example,

Grassley wanted to know how Kenneth Copeland–who as a church leader pays no taxes but is expected to plow revenue back into the public welfare–got a private plane and whether flights to Hawaii and Fiji qualified as business trips. Grassley sought credit card receipts and the numbers of the church’s offshore bank accounts.

The conflict raises some interesting theological questions–for example, what if the religious group sincerely believes that its leaders deserve extraordinary opulence? What if their high spending is not a diversion of resources, but instead is the very point of the religion? As I’m mentioned before regarding The Secret, wealth worship may be working its way into the DNA of American culture. Consider this conflict between Grassley and the Prosperity gospel crowd:

Prosperity adherents believe the right thoughts and speech, along with giving to the church, will prompt divine repayment in this life, with a return as high as $100 on each dollar handed up. On a small scale, Prosperity’s positive thinking has sometimes energized the march of the poor into the middle class, but many Christians find it theologically and ethically perverse. Prosperity dominates American religious TV, and millions of adherents send millions of dollars to preachers they have never met. For Grassley, this might be fine if the ministers put all the money back into their mission work. But his now famous question about Meyer’s $23,000 commode suggests he questions the destination of her estimated $124 million annual take.

I think the answer has to be that the Prosperity Gospel crowd is itself distorting and ignoring Christian doctrine–even if such an indictment sets up the state as a more authoritative interpreter of the Bible in this case than those it would prosecute.

One need only a passing acquaintance with the Bible to understand that egalitarianism and concern for the poor are two of its central themes. The story of the “widow’s mite” says volumes, and as Proverbs 16:8 puts it, “Better is a little with righteousness, than great revenues without right.” Matthew 19:23-24 also comments on how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.

I think there is one final lesson in this controversy for those who would criticize others for holding “strange” or “exotic” religious beliefs. As inequality skyrockets, the “Prosperity Gospel” may be the most natural and obvious creed one could opt for in today’s America. But perhaps we should religious ethics in part to the extent to which they are in tension with the prevailing norms of our commercial society. As much of the collection Preach Liberty suggests, religion can provide moral balance in the present age.

Photo Credit: Micreon.

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