Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Prosperity Gospel Movement.

With all of the recent critical attention directed to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Chicago's Trinity Church, the subject of African-American traditions of Christianity is increasingly in the news. Wright practices Black Liberation Theology, which aims to incorporate the empowerment of black people into religious practice. Political pundits are very much aware that this type of thing frightens many white people in America's 'heartland', and have decided to attack Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign by associating him with 'the movement'. Of course it is an extremely cynical strategy. It's not altogether clear that Obama would be in the least affected by his church affiliations. But the conservatives have to find a way to bring race into the election, and this is the best opportunity they have found to do it.

While it is certainly a circus sideshow of an issue, it has given some media outlets a chance to report on the different types of black churches throughout the nation. Traditionally houses of worship were the most obvious places for African-Americans to organize their activities, and hear messages about equal rights. While religion and politics are increasingly mixed throughout our society, it has aways been that way in the 'Black Community'. But it turns out that Black Liberation Theology is only one segment of the larger phenomena. And it also so happens that there is a group of Black Christians that seem to be diametrically opposed to BLT on the political scale. The folks preaching this defiantly oppositional Word are coming from the perspective of the "Prosperity Gospel".

This relatively new wave within Black Christianity is concerned with individual achievement, rather than elevating 'the masses'. Prosperity theology suggests that authentic religious belief will result in material riches for the believer. The faithful, according to this doctrine, can expect to be financially rewarded for being good Christians. Apparently the biblical authority for this idea is to be found in Deuteronomy 8:10 ("But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day"). The Prosperity Gospel is most often associated with charismatic or Pentecostal traditions. But it contains not-so-subtle themes that have been part of American Christian thought since the 'Protestant Work Ethic' was first promoted as a wealth-building approach.

By no means is the Prosperity Gospel limited to black churches. In fact, many white preachers and televangelists (especially in the Word of Faith Movement) have been pimping the idea of material salvation for years. Pat Robertson is a big fan of it- he often refers to the "law of reciprocity". Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (with their PTL Club) were huge proponents as well. Still a number of black preachers, including such luminaries as P.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar, are getting into the act as well. They are aware that the message of prosperity will be alluring to people who have been disadvantaged for generations. Many African-Americans have given up looking for worldly forces that might help them out of their desperate situations. If they are mired in poverty in a nation of super abundance, then maybe they haven't been holy enough.

Naturally preachers of the "Prosperity Gospel" are ready with their justifications. They often claim that money is necessary for the promotion of their mission. Yet it's somehow difficult to figure out how luxury cars, phat houses, and plenty of bling help spread the story of Christ. A convincing case can be made that Jesus would disapprove of the whole setup. Still, in a society where Capital is next to Godliness, Prosperity Theology is falling on a lot of inviting ears. Who wouldn't like a religious excuse to hoard wealth and resist paying taxes? "God gave me my wealth, and no one can take it away!" This is tailor-made for Republicans and other suburbanites. If the Blacks are willing to quit thinking about injustice and prejudice, then I'm sure they are welcome to play along. As long as they don't ask for help from their Christian brothers on Earth, then they can expect a happy embrace.

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Blogger John Morris said...

Cool. Here come the Puritans again! They were the first and best of this breed. When religion asks to be measured by it's results on earth- the next stop is dropping it outright.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

While I agree with your ultimate conclusion, the "Puritan Work Ethic" is purely Capitalist dogma. Work for its own sake is backwards and (in many cases) dangerous.

5:52 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

As an athiest, I am hardly an expert on the Puritans. But, I think their work ethic was not a myth. A central theme was that "godly people" could be recognised on earth through their hard work, soberness, thriftiness etc.., and that these values would be rewarded both in this world and the next. Catholic teaching focuses much more on things being in "gods hands" and degrades earthly achievment.

I think one of the big reasons that puritan values played a bigger role in the new world was because they are well suited to life in wilderness in which there was less prior stock of human effort to fall back on. Wealth as we know it would have been pretty beyond their grasp.

10:51 PM  

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