The Gospel of Greed

Economic inequality is getting worse in America every day. People are working harder and harder and making less, jobs continue to go overseas and structural unemployment remains high. Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” confirmed what we already felt, that America is well into its second “Gilded Age” where the divide between the wealthy and the rest of us makes the Grand Canyon look like a New Mexico creekbed.

The myth of capitalism, if it ever was true, was that an honest man who earnestly applied himself could better his place in life and quite likely do even better than that. Today’s truth with governmental corruption, Wall Street shenanigans, profitless IPO’s and CEO greed is that the person who can game the system, con the markets and buy off the politicians has a better chance of being “successful” than the mythical Horatio Alger or George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Driving a good bit of today’s moral corruption is a Christian religious doctrine called the “Prosperity Gospel.” This is an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed into mainstream status.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money.” Mark tells us he also said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” In spite of these and many other warnings about the dangers of wealth, this modern “gospel” holds that God wills that those who are “born again” be materially wealthy and free from disease.

Known also as the “Health and Wealth Gospel” or “Faith Message,” the theology connects a wide range of non-denominational and charismatic ministries based in what is known as the “Word of Faith Movement.” The “gospel” teaches that God blesses those He favors most with material wealth. This doctrine fits nicely into the current preoccupation Americans have with greed and narcissism.

The Prosperity movement is no religious sideshow. Seventeen percent of all American Christians openly identify with it. Every Sunday, over a million people attend Prosperity-oriented mega-churches and millions more watch prosperity-centered television and radio broadcasts. Although largely under the radar of the media, it is closer to the mainstream than you might imagine.

Joel Osteen, the 46-year-old head of Lakewood Church in Houston, has a TV ministry that reaches more than 7 million viewers, and his 2004 book “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” has sold millions of copies. In a letter to the faithful, Osteen wrote, “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us. Never mind that this is completely contrary to virtually all Christian teachings.

Some of the other preachers associated with the movement — like Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Kenneth Copeland and the aptly named Creflo Dollar, have some of the largest congregations and best-selling books in the world. They host television programs that air at all hours of the day and night and are some of the most-watched programs on television.

Steve Furtick, the pastor of the 12,000 member Elevation Church with seven branches around Charlotte NC, thanked God for his blessings and defended his multimillion dollar house as a gift from God, “It’s a big house, and it’s a beautiful house, and we thank God for it. . . We understand everything we have comes from God.” (Not to mention the contributions of the faithful.)

When one says that material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers. Pastor Shane Claiborne from The Simple Way in Philadelphia shared his understanding of the role of money within the Gospel: “The prosperity Gospel is self centered, and narcissistic and it is very dangerous but also attractive, especially to those who have the money.”

Prosperity preachers teach that those who give abundantly (to the church) will be rewarded with generous financial success and that this prosperity will continue as long as one keeps giving. They tell devotees they are robbing God by not tithing. Plus, they challenge adherents by telling them that God wants them to test him by them giving more, so that he can give them more. Members whose testimonials tout the success of this mega-tithing concept are praised in front of congregations and on television programs. Sadly, there are no laws against this sort of televised pyramid scheme.

One would assume that this doctrine has a special appeal to middle and upper class whites – which it does, especially because it is promoted by thousands of life coaches who misrepresent the “Law of Attraction” as a prosperity gospel. But nowhere has this gospel flourished more than among the poor and the working class. Told that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and favor, followers strive for trappings of luxury they can little afford in an effort to prove that they are blessed spiritually. Some critics have gone so far as to place part of the blame for the past decade’s spending binge and foreclosure crisis at the foot of the prosperity gospel’s altar.

The problem with the prosperity gospel is that if you’re not already wealthy or healthy, then your faith must be suspect. You must try even harder to win God’s favor in order to achieve “blessed prosperity.” You can see the trap in this logic.

It is truly sad to think how far Christianity has fallen that the only way you can connect to God is through a guy in a $5,000 suit and perfect hair who lives in a multimillion dollar house. At first pass, this may seem like a stretch, but it’s really not a giant leap from “The Prosperity Gospel” and “American Exceptionalism,” to the Nazi doctrine of the “Arian Super Race.” The “Super Race” remember, also had more humble and benign origins.

We don’t very often see our own foibles, but Muslims around the world look at the “Prosperity Gospel,” our pornography industry, Hollywood’s preoccupation with violence, our addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol, street gangs, violent crime and guns, our prison system and the homeless, and wonder if the American model is really superior to what they find in everyday Muslim life.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2016

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