The Prosperity Gospel Gerry OShea
About five years ago I was invited to play golf with a priest from my home county, Kerry. He was working as a missionary in Maracaibo in Venezuela, and he was spending a few days in New York before going on to Ireland for a vacation.
We played in the State Championship Course off route 9W in Rockland County, and afterwards we stopped for a meal and a few drinks in Kennelly’s Bar, close to the exit from the course. The conversation was lively because we shared a strong interest in Irish games with a special affinity for Kerry football.
He told me about his work and his life as a missionary in Venezuela. I was surprised when he related that his most challenging assignment involved advising the local Catholic charismatic organization. He explained that without direction they could easily veer into elitist thinking, convinced that their special relationship with the Holy Spirit would bring all kinds of benefits, including financial enrichment.
He focused on reminding the charismatics in his diocese that their church repudiates the idea that God responds to prayers by enhancing anyone’s bank account, stressing that, despite what televangelists say, there is no spiritual formula to access God’s largesse. There are no prayers that yield miracle money with a divine stamp on it.
This kind of thinking is associated with the growth of the Prosperity Gospel which emerged in America as an offshoot of Pentecostalism after the Second World War. It really blossomed in the 80’s with the arrival of evangelical preachers on television. Apart from the United States, charismatic renewal is also popular in other parts of South America and in some African countries, claiming more than two hundred million adherents worldwide.
Oral Roberts, who was the father of faith-healing in our time, became a major voice on television in the 1980’s. He preached the Health and Wealth story, another name for the Prosperity agenda, which stresses that material abundance and good health are marks of a true believer.
How then do you explain all the poor people? According to this philosophy, poverty is a sign of failure, indicating a lack of effort and faith. God can’t be blamed for anybody’s sorry financial state, so clearly the poor person who has prayed for success but still finds himself at the bottom of the barrel must look to his own religious inadequacy as the cause of his failure – or so the story goes.
Every televangelist preaches the importance of giving - meaning contributing - generously to the preacher’s expenses and lifestyle. Oral Roberts was very successful, raking in over 110 million a year, and the Bakkers, Jim and Tammy, and others like the exuberant Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson took in similar amounts. Creflo Dollar had a fundraiser in 2015 to upgrade his private jet, pleading for a cool 65 million to enhance his comfort level when travelling.
Robertson certainly had name recognition when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 with suggestions that his entry into the race had received a benediction from on high but his efforts fell far short of success. The evangelical vote is seen as solidly Republican in every election, although recent polls show a significant slippage in support for President Trump among devout Christians.
In a 2015 poll 9% of white people and 34% of blacks, with Hispanics in the middle at 24%, stated their belief that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Living in a society where people are valued by their possessions - the car they drive, the house they live in and their Wall Street investments – it is easy to understand why God has been dragged into this miasma and has become part of the one-up-man-ship race for financial success.
Experts in logic tell us that the biggest mistake we humans make in our thinking, our most common fallacy, centers on believing what we want to believe; we come up with reasons to justify whatever sound theory or madcap idea is driving us at any particular time.
For example, the blatant exploitation and immorality of slavery was justified for centuries by Christian leaders going back to St. Paul. They spread – and many believed – the story that after Cain murdered his brother Abel he was branded by God as a reprobate and that mark, skin color in this wild yarn, set him and all his descendants apart as inferior human beings. That philosophy, supported by guns and propaganda, was one of the rationalizations used to justify the slave trade for centuries.
The Prosperity Gospel has an attractive proposition on offer. Here is the logic: God loves you and she is all-powerful; you want the freedom and prestige that comes with a big bank account for yourself and your family; so, ask the all-powerful deity that loves you to make whatever arrangements are needed for your enrichment.
From one perspective, it is hard to argue with this line of thinking. Non-believers – atheists and pagans – shouldn’t expect to get the heavenly VIP treatment that these serious Christians feel they are entitled to. The only problem with this thinking is that the so-called bad guys seem to be doing just fine without any special line to the man above.
We are talking here about the biggest intellectual challenge that faces the believing community in all religions: the problem of evil. How does one explain why good people suffer while bullies and cheaters seem to be thriving?
Not long after the tragedy of 9/11, Bill Murphy, the now-retired bishop of Kerry, came to New York to bless the newly-refurbished Kerry Building in Yonkers. He visited lower Manhattan to see the site of the recent tragedy accompanied by detective and founder of Project Children Denis Mulcahy, who knew the terrain there well, and the bishop was visibly moved by the scenes of desolation all around.
At a subsequent mass in the Kerry Hall, he confronted the evil that he encountered during his trip to Manhattan. Where was God when so many innocent people were destroyed, wiped out by mad extremists who thought they were following precepts of their religion?
In response, the bishop quoted a Jewish rabbi who was asked the same question about Hitler’s death camps in Europe where millions of Jews were murdered. The rabbi answered that the presence of terror and devastation and unspeakable human suffering - while awful beyond words - can also be viewed through biblical eyes as an indication that God was indeed there with her people. The God of the two Testaments left no doubt that she is always on the side of the deprived and oppressed.
Back to the related questions about the Prosperity Gospel where a personal relationship with God is equated to a close friendship with a powerful friend – a tempting analogy. Fr. Robert Barron, a Catholic theologian, sees prayerful people calling on God to give them a special break so that they can ascend the socio-economic ladder – a legitimate goal but not part of any list of biblical priorities.
Barron wonders whether in televangelist Joel Osteen’s world Jesus would have been “the richest man in Nazareth and the darling of high society in Jerusalem.” In fact, he was a wandering rabbi, a poor man with no interest in upward mobility who upset the powerful people of his time, resulting in his humiliation, torture and crucifixion.
Many Christians from all denominations are part of the charismatic movement, but the dubious theme of tying faith to economic plenitude presents major problems for believers in New Testament morality.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com