BlessedI well remember the 1980s, when I was growing up. My generation saw scandal after scandal with “name it and claim it” preachers whose own lavish lifestyles held out the promise that God could and would make followers rich. Preachers like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were proponents of prosperity theology, an offshoot of Pentecostalism that envisions faith as a spiritual power to unleash wealth and health.

Some scandals are still going on—late last month, for instance, David Yonggi Cho, the pastor of the world’s largest prosperity church, was convicted of tax evasion and fraud, and Joyce Meyer and others are still under investigation in the U.S. But overall, we’ve transitioned from the “hard prosperity gospel” of the 1980s to what Duke historian Kate Bowler identifies as a therapeutic softer sell offered by Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and others.

I talked with Bowler, the author of the outstanding Oxford book Blessed, to find out more about the growth of the prosperity gospel’s softer side. — JKR

Kate Bowler, author of "Blessed."

Kate Bowler, author of “Blessed.”Kate B (courtesy of Kate Bowler)

RNS: How did we move from the excesses of Jim and Tammy Faye to something like Joel Osteen’s gentler approach?

Bowler: I think the prosperity preachers took their cues from culture. People were fed up with the hard sell and the kind of “greed is good, more is always more” culture. We became much more accustomed to a kind of darker postmodernism that said that people could not always be trusted.

The main difference was having accepted therapeutic idioms as being the primary language of prosperity. They have now moved into the realm of feelings as the primary spiritual battleground that Christians need to use to wage war against demonic forces. It allows for a gentler “I’m here to help you” approach, saying, “I’m not here to sell you products, but to offer you tools.”

In the 1980s there was this carnival atmosphere, emphasizing all the stuff, all the material wealth that God could get you. It was the triumph of the power suit, and anything that glittered. We saw heavy gold watches and jewelry, [and] power suits put through a pastel machine.

That would not play so well now. In the 1990s, you started seeing casual dress, with less of a difference between the leaders and the followers. They started looking more like sports motivational figures.

RNS: Is the movement changing in other ways?

Bowler: I think the most exciting frontier for the prosperity gospel is white evangelicalism. The trickiest thing for the “soft” preachers is that their message looks a lot like ordinary optimism. White evangelicals love an optimistic, practical, culturally sensitive approach, and the prosperity gospel offers really good tools to help them make that kind of expansion.

For example, there’s a new evangelical prosperity gospel church in North Carolina [Elevation Church in Charlotte] that gave away iPods at their opening. Their pastor, Steve Furtick, has a very robust prosperity gospel and is taking the evangelical world by storm. Steve Furtick looks exactly like a culture-savvy evangelical, but actually has the theological apparatus of the prosperity gospel behind him.

I find it fascinating that some white evangelicals are taking a page from the playbook of Pentecostals, offering parishioners more. They want to get more out of this life before life is over.

RNS: In your book you tell some stories about people you interviewed who had not gotten the healings they prayed for. Sometimes, when people continue in illness or addiction or debt, they just disappear in shame.

Bowler: A hard prosperity gospel will emphasize the once-and-for-all character of these kinds of blessings. There is a sense in which your life really should demonstrate the power of your faith.

There are a few options open to someone who has prayed but not been healed. Sometimes they’re told there is a season, and their season is not yet. It’s a ritualized waiting; waiting is a huge part of what they do. They can also take more aggressive measures, like in the annual cycle of revivals. At revivals, people can ask for the big things, and will also take on bigger sacrifices, like making a larger donation or doing a fast. It’s a more herculean effort. Lastly, they can take a break or just leave. That’s something you see when people feel they’re not able to live up to the standards of their churches.

RNS: Thank you!

11 Comments

  1. Being honest, I think some of the stuff that the LDS church says about tithing and such sneaks right up to the border of Prosperity Gospel if it doesn’t go ahead and cross over. I actually get a little uncomfortable when we hear folks preaching or teaching lessons and promising folks that if they pay tithing and fast offering, etc., that they’ll get all these blessings here on Earth.

  2. Tell that to the murdered, abused, and persecuted Christians who have suffered for their faith. And tell it Peter, Paul and the other martyred apostles. This is NOT the gospel that Jesus preached, it is not of the Holy Spirit, and it is to be shunned, shamed, and shouted down.

  3. This is sickening. It is a complete perversion of the message of Jesus to get rid of your wealth and follow him in poverty. It is a subtler temptation to greed, that is all.

    And riddle me this: If you get rich, then someone else gets poor. Only the 5 percenters are getting rich. The rest of us are getting poor. Is that what Jesus wants?

    • Jana Riess

      My posting the interview, or this scholar’s writing the book, does not in any way mean we are personally endorsing the prosperity gospel. I am in fact inclined to agree with you, though I would have chosen less inflammatory language. I cannot speak for her.

  4. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I am a 64 year old Mormon who grew up n the LDS Church and I cannot temember ever hearing a talk given in sacament meeting or in General Conference promising that we will become wealthy by paying tithing. The testimonies that are borne are along the lines of paying tithes, and then finding a new job that covers expenses, of finding ways to get out of debt. While there are some people who have preyed on their fellow Mormons in investment schemes, that is not due to LDS teachings, but the human tendencies toward greed and rationalizing whatever we do to claim we are righteous.

    Institutionally, the LDS Church destroys the opportunity to become rich through preaching by making leadership positions unpaid and temporary. If leaders prosper, it is through education and hard work, not church service.

    • Jana Riess

      Raymond, I mostly agree with you. I have not heard the “God wants you to be rich!” theology ever proclaimed from the pulpit in an LDS congregation or in General Conference. I don’t think that Mormons have anything like the direct equivalent to the prosperity gospel; we don’t have “name it and claim it” notions that if we tell God we want something, we deserve to get it — and that we will. And you’re definitely right that our church leaders are not getting rich from their church service. In some cases, church service actually renders them downwardly mobile.

      However, there is also a subtle dynamic at work too. Every time we promote a successful businessman to general church leadership (as opposed to, say, a novelist or an adjunct professor), we are sending a signal that certain types of success are more worthwhile than others. And every time we pay nine or ten figures for a shiny new complex of retail/housing/greenspace (SLC, Philly), we send a message about our church’s worldly success. So even though it’s not a message we hear overtly from our pulpits, it’s good to be cautious before we dismiss the prosperity gospel as something only other people might fall prey to.

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