God Wants You To Be Rich
Why do millions of Christians in the United States believe that their faith, financial status and health are all intertwined? That's the question that Paul Kennedy explores with Kate Bowler, author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. They turn to the early 20th century beginnings of this uniquely made-in-America brand of theology, where it was first preached in pentecostal tent revivals. Now it's being preached from mega-churches across the country. For many, it is a key to a richer and fuller life. For its critics, it's hucksterism at its worst. **This episode originally aired October 7, 2016.
The prosperity gospel is an American Christian movement that stretches back to the early 20th century. Kate Bowler writes, "The roots of the modern prosperity gospel are long and tangled. To understand the size, success, and diversity of today's movement, we first need to understand certain ways of thinking about spiritual power that emerged and competed for attention early in the twentieth century. The thinking took many forms and went by different names, including the mind-cure, success literature, positive thinking, self-help, and prosperity theology ... This was the core: adherents, acting in accordance with divine principles, relied on their minds to transform thought and speech into heaven-sent blessings."
From the pentecostal tent revivals of the early 1900's to present day mega-churches the success of the prosperity gospel has been phenomenal. The marketplace is flooded with books, magazines, audio tapes, workshops, DVDs, and workshops touting the wealth and health that God bestows upon those who embrace this gospel. With its roots firmly in America, is there something that makes it a uniquely American phenomenon? Professor Bowler replies, "The message certainly resonated with a set of national characteristics deeply embedded in the American social imaginary." Those "national characteristics", according to her, are reflected in the qualities that make achieving the American Dream possible: hard work, moral fiber, and an entrepreneurial spirit. For many Americans the man who embodies these qualities at the moment is Donald Trump, whose pastor, Mark Burns, just so happens to be a preacher of the prosperity gospel.
Though there are many critics within and without religious circles of this "uniquely American phenomenon" its success shows no signs of faltering. Not that surprising given what it offers to believers. Professor Bowler writes, "One level, the appeal of the prosperity theology is obvious ... The faith movement sells a compelling bill of goods: God, wealth, and a healthy body to enjoy it. But it is the enjoyment, the feelings that lift believers' chins and square their shoulders. That is its fundamental achievement. The first step in accessing this good news is the belief that things can get better. The prosperity gospel's chief allure is simple optimism."
Kate Bowler is Assistant Professor of American Religion at Duke Divinity School in Durham North Carolina. She is presently working on a memoir for Random House.
- Kate Bowler's blog
- "Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me" Kate Bowler's essay that appeared in New York Times, February 13, 2016
- Book TV at Duke University interview with Kate Bowler
**This episode was produced by Frank Faulk & Greg Kelly