Prosperity Theology: A (Largely) Sociological Assessment

Introduction

I write as a sociologist of religion, and not as a theologian. In addition, I suspect that I have been invited to be a sort of Devil’s advocate… but when I am speaking for the Devil and when for myself, the reader alone will have to decide!

However, my task is in fact the opposite of that of the traditional Devil’s advocate in the old-style Catholic canonization process. He had to show that the candidate for sainthood was not as good as people thought. He had to dig up the dirt. In my case, I have to do the opposite: to show that Prosperity Theology is not as bad as many people think.

For that task, the Devil actually has some trump cards, due to the irony that is at the basis of much social science. Most social consequences of human actions are unintended, and most ideas get transformed as they become “incarnate” in social carriers (as they must, if they are to have any effect). Both ideas and actions get transformed, for better or for worse. Some result in better consequences than they “deserve” to, others in worse.

How does this irony of unintended consequences show itself in the case of Prosperity Theology? Perhaps both for better and for worse…

A brief characterization

Prosperity Theology is quite a recent innovation (having only become important from the 1980s). While it is basically of American provenance, it resonates especially well with pre-existing concepts of religion and prosperity in some parts of the global south, and local adaptations and exponents have appeared.

Prosperity Theology is fundamentally about how we understand God’s action in relation to human actions. It is a religious discourse which rejects traditional Christian theodicy. It does especially well where hard work and the other economic virtues produce little reward, at least for sectors of the population.

Approaches to its Study

For some (perhaps many) evangelicals, Prosperity Theology is theologically flawed, morally reprehensible and psychologically damaging. Because of that, we need to make an effort to bracket our normative judgments in order to be able to understand and even to empathize. This is good sociological practice, but also good Christian practice. The ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to see things in the round, to find good where none seems to exist… these are Christian virtues. They don’t mean losing our critical sense, but putting it on hold. In the end, we might be just as critical… but perhaps better informed in our criticism.

So, whatever I think of Prosperity Theology theologically, sociologically we have to make some distinctions.

The first distinction is between sellers and consumers, or in other words, between the propagators and the audience, who are usually not vulnerable simpletons but needy people hedging their bets over a range of options.

Secondly, we can distinguish between Prosperity Theology for the poor and Prosperity Theology for the already well-off, because the sociological consequences are quite different.

Thirdly, between a literal interpretation of Prosperity Theology discourse (are its promises actually fulfilled?) and a metaphorical interpretation (the galvanizing effects, the hope generated, the collateral benefits).

And lastly, between what I will call “naked” Prosperity Theology and “clothed” Prosperity Theology (terms which will be explained below).

The First Protestant ‘Prosperity Theology’

Max Weber’s famous study on the relationship between the ethic of the early Protestants (especially those of a Reformed bent) and the rise of capitalism was, of course, a classic study in unintended consequences. What he called the “spirit of capitalism” was not at all what theologians such as Calvin and Richard Baxter intended to create, but they nevertheless, in Weber’s opinion, played a part in creating it.

When non-Western parts of the world began to develop economically, the search began for “Protestant ethic equivalents” in other religions (Confucianism, for example). More recently, as Protestantism itself has globalized as a mass religion, there has been discussion whether this new mass Protestantism (which is mostly Pentecostal) has a similar economic ethic and might have similar macro-economic effects in parts of the global south.

But this global Protestantism is different. It operates on the periphery of established global capitalism and does not have the space to have the same sort of macro-economic effect. And in any case, it does not usually have the classic Protestant work ethic and frugal consumption patterns, which were supposedly impelled by anguish about eternal destiny in the face of divine inscrutability over predestination. Nevertheless, the new global Protestants may well be energized economically by various aspects of their faith (greater optimism and self-belief, new patterns of honesty, sobriety and diligence) and by skills learnt in the churches.

Global Pentecostalism may not have the Weberian notion of vocation, but (as British sociologist David Martin says) it operates a psychic mutation towards independence and individual initiative, qualities which are required especially in the informal economy. In addition, Pentecostalism rejects the European Christian approach to suffering as exemplary; rather, it sees suffering as something to be overcome, with no great distinction between spiritual, physical and material well-being.

The Socio-Economic Context of the Rise of Prosperity Theology

There is a contemporaneous rise of global Protestantism and the latest stage of global capitalism (the dismantling of protection; the mushrooming of megacities; the flexibilization of labour markets; the growth of the informal sector). The new Protestants in the global south are not typically in the manufacturing proletariat but in the service sector, where the ability to be punctual, regimented and obedient (which were important for factory work) is less relevant than the capacity to be self-motivating, self-monitoring and to manage interpersonal encounters skillfully.

In addition, globalization incites more desires, because it makes everyone more aware of how others live, thus encouraging fatalism and desperation, or else Prosperity Theology’s revolt against fatalism (as the refrain goes in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God: “tell God: I do not accept!”).

Where is Prosperity Theology weak?

It tends to be relatively weak where populations are very prosperous; or relatively prosperous and very secure (i.e. where the welfare state is strong); or very secular; or very communitarian (e.g. in countries of Orthodox Christian tradition). Another example would be in Cuba, where Pentecostalism has done well recently in very difficult economic circumstances, but where Prosperity Theology does not gain much traction because it is ideologically suspect in a society which has a strong ideology of solidarity fuelled by the old ideal of the socialist “new man”.

Typologies of Prosperity Theology

Amos Yong, a Pentecostal theologian: a fivefold typology of theological postures toward Prosperity Theology:

a) the argument for prosperity claims there are biblical reasons, although widely divergent forms;

b) the argument against prosperity reacts to the biblical arguments, but also to the excesses of Prosperity Theology and its lifestyles;

c) the missionary argument defends prosperity as a vocation to engage with the more affluent;

d) the contextual argument defends prosperity from a holistic perspective;

e) the balanced argument recognizes the importance of prosperity but emphasizes responsible stewardship; some also advocate concrete development initiatives.

Nimi Wariboko, Nigerian theologian: five ‘ideal types’ of African theologizing about prosperity:

1) the Covenant Paradigm, of which there are two variants: a) the ‘typical’ Prosperity Theology, in which financial contributions are key; b) the excellence model, which emphasizes capability development and Afrocentric sentiments.

2) the Spiritualist Paradigm: spiritual warfare as the first step to national prosperity.

3) the Leadership Paradigm, also with two variants: a) the prophetic model, of protest against mismanagement, injustice and corruption; b) the transformational model, of placing morally upright Christians in power.

4) the Nationalist Paradigm: Africans should improve their self-esteem and separate from outside influences.

5) the Developmental Paradigm: churches as agents of development.

So, there are Prosperity Theologies in the plural. Some varieties stress that humans must express their own initiative in order to flourish, while other varieties have a much stronger sense of divine agency, a notion of “sowing and reaping” and of a God who is contractually bound to bless.

The Flexibility of Prosperity Theology

Part of the reason for its success is its ambiguity. In periods of plenty, it can explain why life is good, and in distressing times it can explain why it isn’t, as well as alleviating anxiety. And, whereas some believers take Prosperity Theology as a mandate for hard work, others take it as a call to live (“by faith”) beyond their means, in constant indebtedness.

Prosperity Theology as a form of spiritual capital

Gerrie Ter Haar, a Dutch anthropologist, says of Prosperity Theology that “people invest in their relations with spiritual entities with a view to improving the quality of their lives… The element of reciprocity in social relations is extended to the realm of the invisible”. Thus, Prosperity Theology is “entirely logical from the holistic perspective of a worldview that… does not separate the material from the spiritual.”

Prosperity Theology as an incentive to economic initiative in an unjust world

As Amos Yong says, in more developed regions of the world most Christians do not have a prosperity theology but they live with a prosperity mentality, that is, they imbibe the prevalent economic presuppositions and lifestyles of their context. Meanwhile, in less developed parts of the world, Prosperity Theology may have a galvanizing effect, transforming economic habits and practices, especially in the informal economy.

With regard to the effects, we can distinguish between what I call “naked Prosperity Theology” (i.e. unadorned, bald) and “clothed Prosperity Theology” (i.e. where the exhortation to give to the preacher is accompanied by concrete recommendations for transforming one’s economic situation. We can exemplify with a sermon I heard in Brazil, in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God: “It’s no good just giving an offering. You must quit your job and open a business, even if its only selling popcorn in the street. As an employee you’ll never get rich”. This church’s publications contain practical suggestions on opening small businesses in a variety of economic areas, and the initial capital needed for each.

Prosperity Theology as affirming global capitalism?

The academic literature is full of such interpretations.

Robert Hefner, American anthropologist: the message is, don’t feel sorry for yourself, and don’t get distracted with dreams of social justice, get right with God and expect miracles.

Andrew Chesnut, American sociologist: Prosperity Theology in both practice and theory reinforces and even promotes the existing global capitalist order.

Douglas Hicks, American professor of religion and economics: It represents “a complete acceptance of the free market’s ‘solution’ to the distribution question”.

Jonathan Walton, professor of African-American religion: Prosperity Theology and the housing and stock market bubbles were all fuelled in part by super-sized conceptions of life, based on easy credit and unmanageable debt.

But is that all? We know that, in modern democracies, everyone is encouraged to want and hope for the same “good things” in life, but the means are not distributed equally. Perhaps surprisingly, we can find some highly critical evaluations of global capitalism, even in publications of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

One of its bishops writes that “globalisation is the fruit of an economic policy dictated by the developed countries to expand their markets… giving their citizens all the things they ‘steal’ from ours”. Another bishop reconciles anti-neoliberalism with prosperity theology: “There is a Satanic trinity in capitalism: the great ‘god’ is the market, the great world religion is capitalism and the Holy Spirit is the IMF… When we do a Prosperity Chain [meetings dedicated to obtaining prosperity] we are going against the elementary principles of the market, which include ‘you are poor, you were born to be poor, you will die poor’.” Even if these sentiments are not regularly repeated, they at least show that Prosperity Theology as such is not incompatible with a critique of global capitalism.

Perhaps more common than an outright critique of global capitalism is a concept verbalized by a female assistant of the Universal Church: “God always wants the best for us, to have a good car, a nice house, money in the bank. This is citizenship, and no government, no politician will give it to us” (emphasis added).

Prosperity Theology as a gift economy

For Joel Robbins, an American anthropologist, the popularity of Prosperity Theology in the global south is because it offers security in chaotic economic circumstances where some get rich but it is hard to understand how or why.

This leads to a consideration of its “scandalous” monetary appeals. They are one of its most controversial aspects. But, as Brazilian sociologist Cecilia Mariz says, in popular mentality giving is power, whereas submission is symbolically reinforced by receiving. In Pentecostalism, the poor discover they are capable of giving and not just of receiving. In addition, it should be remembered that donations often replace previous spending on medicines, drink or drugs. For many members, giving to the church and a rationalization of overall economic behaviour are inseparable. They came together as part of a package of transformations, a package which is constantly threatened by old habits. Giving incarnates this precarious commitment to the new pattern. And research shows that appeals are always filtered by the audience.

In any case, there is a social context for all this. A survey of Pentecostalism in ten countries, in 2006, asked: does God grant believers prosperity? The expectation of material reward through religious means is far from unique to pentecostalism. 64% of all religious Brazilians believe that God grants believers prosperity; pentecostals merely increase the percentage to 83% (the respective figures for Chile are 28% and 49%, and for Guatemala 71% and 82%).

Thus, TP is not merely a result of the globalization of capitalism and of American religious exporting. It is also an updating of local religious expectations in many parts of the world. For example, anthropologists Stephen Ellis & Gerrie Ter Haar write that, in Africa, there is a perception that all power has its ultimate origin in the spirit world. There is an association between acquiring wealth and making a payment to a spiritual being. Prosperity has a mystical aspect, its roots are in the spirit world. Prosperity Theology, therefore, is simply a recent adaptation of much older beliefs.

Prosperity Theology and the broader Christian world

Prosperity religion is not a specifically Christian phenomenon, but its Christian versions have to retain some connection to broader Christian themes. They cannot be entirely free-floating, and they cannot totally ignore critiques from the larger Christian world.

At the same time, they themselves represent a critique of other Christian currents, e.g. of traditional Protestantism.

According to Dutch anthropologist Birgit Meyer, there is a strong inclination on the part of many scholars to regard material religion as inferior to an ideal religious “spirituality”. This comes from a “Protestant” view which sees materiality as a lower form of religion. But Pentecostalism does not share that prejudice.

Pentecostal theologian Frank Macchia talks of Prosperity Theology as an antidote to a Western theological heritage plagued by dualisms; and talks of hypocrisy among white male critics from Western academic elites. Prosperity Theology taps into an Old Testament notion of salvation as shalom or integral well-being.

In addition, it exists in tension with older forms of Pentecostalism which gloried in God’s choice of the poor and was suspicious of the spiritually deleterious effects of wealth. That was the ethic of an older capitalism, of a long and arduous struggle to reach modest respectability. Today, that ethic still exists, but has lost ground to prosperity teachings.

Prosperity Theology and the non-Christian religious world

Firstly, in relation to the other great expansionist monotheism, Islam. Robert Hefner compares it to “market Islam”, which links appeals for piety to self-help discourses and therapies. Both prosperity Pentecostals and “market Muslims” import many self-help techniques from the American managerial and life-coaching industries.

Secondly, in relation to indigenous religious traditions in many parts of the world. British anthropologist Simon Coleman speaks of “the tendency of indigenous religions to treat the material and the spiritual as inextricable and to expect the indigenous spirits to enter into ‘contracts’ to deliver worldly ‘goods’ creates very fertile ground for a prosperity gospel”.

As Dena Freeman, in her book on Pentecostalism and development in Africa, points out, Protestantism in Europe developed against a backdrop of Catholicism which had promoted an ascetic ideal, whereas contemporary Protestantism in Africa is developing against a background of traditional African religions which emphasize sacrifices to receive the blessings of health, wealth and fecundity. In this context, Prosperity Theology relieves the pressure to participate in traditional practices and gives moral backing for resisting demands from kin.

Conclusions

Firstly, prosperity messages are always filtered by their consumers. The audiences are never passive victims. Often, the preacher says “prosperity”, but the listener thinks merely of “security” or “dignity”. According to Dutch anthropologist Rijk van Dijk, Prosperity Theology in Africa emphasises the need for “breaking” and for “breakthroughs”, a proactive break with the past which transforms the subjectivity of the believer and makes possible new breakthroughs in economic life.

Secondly, Prosperity Theology has functioned as a way of making evangelicalism into a mass religion. Every religion has a form which attracts only a few “virtuosos” because it is very demanding, and another form which attracts the masses because it is less demanding and easier to understand. If we want numerical success and large churches, maybe Prosperity Theology is the price we have to pay.

Thirdly, we can talk of a spectrum of Christian attitudes to wealth: at one extreme, Prosperity Theology; then stewardship; then simplicity; and at the other extreme, a vow of poverty. The Christian world is not just divided in binary fashion into those “for” and those “against” Prosperity Theology.

Fourthly, what are the prospects for Prosperity Theology? Like all religious currents, it is constantly evolving, in response to: socioeconomic and cultural changes; internal factors such as the aging of leading figures and churches; and criticisms from the larger Christian world and the surrounding society.

Prosperity Theology is very functional for bringing people in, but not for maintaining a church over many decades. Prosperity Theology has short legs. It ends up having to incorporate other elements, otherwise it has difficulty creating stable communities. In the case of Brazil, the census of 2010 suggests that the so-called neopentecostal churches, which are the main purveyors of Prosperity Theology, may be past their peak.

Fifthly, the really key question is the following: what does the popularity of Prosperity Theology tell us about the world we live in? Before we condemn it, we should see it as a sign of the times. We must not get fixated on the sign, the idea as such (thinking that combatting the idea solves everything), but we must respond to what the sign points to, a world so unequal and unjust that even the most undiluted forms of Prosperity Theology are wildly popular. Perhaps we need to see it as the sigh of the oppressed and the heart of a heartless world!

Lastly, a modest proposal: why do we not invent another Prosperity Theology, inspired by some of the patristic authors? Chrysostom, for example: “since you have not given the accustomed offerings… the rich hold the goods of the poor… For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty” (emphasis added). Or Basil: when you give to the poor, you are lending, because the beneficence of God repays you. “Do you not wish the Almighty to be bound to restore to you? (emphasis added)” In other words, these fourth-century Christian leaders believed in Prosperity Theology’s reward mechanism: give to God, and he will recompense you many times over. But there is a vital difference from the Prosperity Theology we hear today. For Chrysostom and Basil, “give to God” did not mean “give to the church” or “give to me, the preacher”. It meant “give to the needy”. And not to give was stealing from the poor, not from the church or the preacher. So, we have here a totally different Prosperity Theology, one in which the reward mechanism that we are familiar with (in which we “obtain great plenty” because “the Almighty is bound to us”) is joined to a practice which is socially beneficial and to an ecclesiastical relationship which is less self-interested. This would avoid what is most scandalous in Prosperity Theology, because it replaces the two-way relationship between preacher and hearer with a triangular relationship in which the needy person is introduced. The preacher is no longer the interested party, since he is no longer the recipient of the donation. At one stroke, this “new Prosperity Theology” would vastly improve the greatly damaged public image of evangelical Christianity in places like Brazil, since it would both remove the suspicion of self-interest from the preachers and would lead to a surge in charitable giving.

As I said at the beginning, I have been asked to be a sort of Devil’s advocate. But how much I have written as myself, and how much as the defender of the Devil’s cause, each reader will have to decide for him or herself…

Questions for Discussion

1) Given that a healthy ‘global Christianity’ has to be able to embrace conditions of life everywhere, how should our sensitivity to the huge disparities in the global economic system affect our evaluation of Prosperity Theology? Should we evaluate a prosperity gospel for the poor differently from a prosperity gospel for the well-off? What does the huge attraction of the prosperity gospel tell us about the global society we live in?

2) Do evaluations of the prosperity gospel differ according to whether they are made theologically, ethically, economically, psychologically or sociologically? Can the prosperity gospel be defended in terms of good effects it has, even if it is regarded as indefensible theologically?

3) The Consultation at which this talk was first presented was structured around the devotional themes of humility, integrity and simplicity. How would defenders of Prosperity Theology say they integrate these virtues?

 

This is a paper presented by the author at the 2014 Lausanne Global Consultation on Prosperity Theology, Poverty, and the Gospel. You may find a video version of this paper in the Content Library. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the personal viewpoints of Lausanne Movement leaders or networks. For the official Lausanne Statement from this consultation, please see ‘The Atibaia Statement on Prosperity Theology‘.

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