Meanwhile, politicians will often claim that America’s prosperity is a direct result of God’s blessing.

In a Facebook post, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says God has bless America - before hitting up his followers for money.

Beyond the United States, the prosperity gospel is now spreading rapidly to countries like Brazil and Nigeria. In fact, Nigeria is now home to some of the wealthiest pastors on the planet – which, from the perspective of the prosperity gospel, is an accomplishment to be proud of.

Holy hypocrites?

Criticizing the prosperity gospel is arguably as American as the prosperity gospel itself.

Theologians have denounced its denial of the reality of suffering. Religious scholar Reza Aslan has called prosperity gospel preachers “charlatans,” and the Lausanne Movement, a group cofounded by Billy Graham, has accused them of “gravely distorting the Bible.”

In a 2015 editorial for Time, Kareem Abdul Jabar called the prosperity gospel “war on the poor,” arguing that it works like to lottery, exploiting the hopes of the poor and desperate. Journalist Sarah Posner writes that the movement equates capitalist ideology with Christianity in order recruit the poor as foot soldiers for a conservative culture war.

While liberals associate the prosperity gospel with conservative Christianity, it also has critics on the right. In 2010, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley launched an investigation into six televangelists who have been known to preach the prosperity gospel. After more than three years, Grassley’s investigation failed to discover any evidence of wrongdoing or impose any penalties.

Other investigations have exposed the gospel’s capacity for duplicity.

In 1991, ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” featured a devastating expose of Robert Tilton, a televangelist who mailed handprint tracings, packets of “holy oil” and other mementos to his donors. He encouraged recipients to write their needs on these objects and mail them back with donations so that Tilton’s ministry could ensure their prayers are answered. “PrimeTime Live” discovered the donations went directly to a bank for deposit.

In the dumpster behind the bank their team found sacks of unread mail from believers desperate for help.

The ABC 'PrimeTime Live' report on Robert Tilton.

Painful certainty

But rather than further eviscerate the prosperity gospel, Bowler’s study attempts to render this movement understandable.

Drawing from her ethnographic research in prosperity gospel churches, she shows how this movement is not simply about “praying yourself rich,” but is instead a “comprehensive approach to the human condition.”

Far from lazily hoping that God would somehow fix all their problems, Bowler found that the prosperity gospel requires practitioners to cultivate an intense mental discipline in order to constantly suppress thoughts of negativity or doubt.

The idea of the prosperity gospel as a system for controlling one’s thoughts may explain its popularity in a country where 18 percent of adults suffer from anxiety disorders. Americans spend an estimated US$42 billion a year treating these disorders.

Bowler’s findings suggest that one reason for the prosperity gospel’s popularity is that it serves a function similar to therapy or medication. With some discipline, it may, in fact, be possible to feel “too blessed to be stressed.”

Even though historians of religion are trained to avoid making normative claims about how religions should be practiced, several reviews of Blessed were critical of Bowler’s sympathetic portrayal of the prosperity gospel. They felt she had downplayed the outrages of figures like Tilton. Some even called her an apologist. But in her editorial, Bowler is able to speak with a more personal voice. She offers some wise critiques of the prosperity gospel and the broader project of finding meaning in human suffering.