Politics Magazine

Blessed Art Thou?

Posted on the 15 January 2014 by Steveawiggins @stawiggins

blessed“Con man” derives from the disparaging use of the term “confidence man,” as applied to those whose promised deliverables never appear, if they ever existed at all. History is filled with roguish con men who populate movies and popular biographies. Among their ranks have been hawkers of spiritual wares, but the institutionalization of religious profiteering is fairly new. Even growing up in a Fundamentalist setting, I don’t recall ever hearing of the “prosperity gospel.” Although I can’t in good conscience accept the distorted theology of the literalists, at least I can say that they are mostly an honest bunch with a high threshold for supernatural interference in daily life, if sometimes rationally challenged. The prosperity gospel is far more insidious.

Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel was my first attempt to deal with the phenomenon academically. Bowler traces the movement to strains that appeared earlier than I might have guessed. Nevertheless, its fruit is rotted on the tree of greed, and it has nothing to do with historical spiritual seeking. One of the few things over which the Bible doesn’t equivocate is the corrupting influence of wealth. The needle has been jammed into the eye of the gospel in this confidence scheme. “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” How did this become transformed into “bring your family jewels if you don’t have cash; our accountants can liquidate your heritage for the extreme comfort and obscenely expensive lifestyle of your ‘pastor’”? In a church of 10,000 how much does your pastor care for you? I would never join a church where the shepherd did not know my name.

Bowler does an admirable job maintaining academic neutrality in Blessed. She explores the central concepts, copied from the very entrepreneurial ledger of the root of all evil. Nevertheless the prosperity gospel remains terribly hollow, shallow, and callow. The mere suggestion that wealth equates blessing in a world where millions suffer for lack of basic needs is unconscionable. One could even be justified in saying “wicked.” What kind of god takes food from the mouth of a hungry child to give it to those who have more than enough? I grew up knowing some want. I also grew up knowing that my grandmother had religiously supported a millionaire who said, “expect a miracle” week after week and then claimed the Lord would take him if he didn’t raise 8 million dollars in the first three months of 1987. Meanwhile the Evangelist still enjoyed great wealth for two more decades when he heeded the call home. All the while those far more worthy perished for lack of bread and clean water. This is neither prosperity nor gospel. Of this I’m utterly confident.


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