Last month, my colleagues and I were moved by a beautiful and tragic New York Times editorial by Kate Bowler, a religion professor from Duke Divinity School who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
Bowler recently wrote a book – Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel – that has been hailed as the first monograph tracing the history of the prosperity gospel in America. The prosperity gospel, Bowler explains, is “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” Bowler recalls how the prosperity gospel transformed the Mennonite farming community in Manitoba where she grew up. When the community’s pastor showed off the motorcycle he received for “pastor’s appreciation day,” it signaled a new religious attitude about material wealth. She describes explaining this change as her “intellectual obsession.”
The experience of fighting cancer, however, gave her fresh insight to this obsession: can the prosperity gospel make sense of radical and senseless tragedy? Or does its theology rob us of the opportunity to come to terms with our suffering?
Today, America seems divided between those who engage with some version of the prosperity gospel and those who smugly dismiss it as fraudulent and puerile. While there are a number of problems with the gospel, it’s important to look at why this strand of religious thinking evolved in the first place, and why it persists.
A right to wealth and health
The prosperity gospel is based on a simple premise: God wants us to live “in abundance.” But in order to receive the gifts we are promised, we must demonstrate faith and claim the prosperity that is rightfully ours.
The prosperity gospel has also been used to explain good health and even good luck.
After a string of lethal tornadoes moved though Texas in December 2015, a survivor named Sabrina Lowe claimed that God had given her authority over the winds – and that her family ad “commanded” the tornado to move elsewhere.
Lowe’s narrative strangely inverted feelings of survivor’s guilt that often follow natural disasters. Instead, she claimed agency and credit for her good fortune. Like the televangelist’s promise of financial blessings in exchange for “seed” donations, the idea of commanding immunity from natural disasters is also a manifestation of prosperity gospel theology.
Bowler’s work has shown that the prosperity gospel is much more embedded within American culture than these spectacular examples might suggest.
The origins of the prosperity gospel date back to a 19th-century movement called New Thought, which asserted that health and fortune can be achieved through positive thinking.New Thought never went out of fashion: it survives today in books like The Secret, which promises financial success and physical health to those who think positively. The book has sold more than 19 million copies.
Bowler credits the early 20th-century pastor E.W. Kenyon with creating a new theology that blended New Thought with the idea that the Bible promises Christians a “legal right” to prosperity. After World War II, the prosperity gospel was spread by popular evangelists like Oral Roberts and became associated with Pentecostalism and televangelism.
While relatively few congregations define themselves as preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” elements of the theology saturate American culture.
Controversial televangelist Joel Osteen claims that he “shuns” the prosperity gospel label, but still asserts that those who are “blessed” can expect financial rewards along with healthy families and peace of mind. Talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey has been accused of promoting prosperity gospel thinking by pushing inspirational messages to her audience that emphasize the benefits of a positive attitude. Instagram photos and tweets marked with the hashtag “#blessed” populate social media feeds.