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"You Can Do It!"
Two cheers for the prosperity gospel.
Peter L. Berger

Monday, September 1, 2008

There is an almost universal consensus, right across the Christian theological spectrum, to the effect that the so-called prosperity gospel is an aberration. One should always be suspicious when there is a universal consensus about anything; quite often it is wrong. I will momentarily voice some suspicion about this particular consensus. But first one should give credit where credit is due. In other words, the consensus about the prosperity gospel is not completely wrong.

Is there a theological warrant to propose that God wants us to be poor? Any more than he wants us to be sick? The prosperity gospel contains no sentimentality about the poor.

It is certainly a distortion of the Christian message if it is primarily interpreted as a program for the material improvement of the human condition. Where the prosperity gospel does that, it is an aberration—especially so when its proponents suggest, implicitly and often enough explicitly, that giving money to them guarantees that God will bless the donors with success and wealth. Protestants if no one else should recall in this connection that the Reformation began as a protest against the sale of indulgences. Recall JohannTetzel's jingle—"as soon as the coin drops into the collection plate, a soul jumps out of purgatory." Some prosperity-gospel preaching strikes one as an eerie Protestant translation of Tetzel's message.

A number of critics of the prosperity gospel have couched their criticism in an overall anti-capitalist rhetoric: The prosperity gospel is supposed to be part and parcel of a pro-capitalist ideology, seeking to dupe the poor of the global south into accepting the wicked policies of "neoliberalism." It is useful to point out that the materialist distortion of the Christian message is fully shared by the liberation theology of the anti-capitalist left. Only here the material improvement is understood in collective rather than individual terms: put your coin in the collection plate of the revolutionary movement, and the soul of the masses will be freed from the purgatory of capitalist exploitation. Theological suggestion: What is good for the rightist goose is good for the leftist gander.

The core of the Christian message is the proclamation of a tectonic shift in cosmic reality inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This proclamation radically relativizes all the empirical givens of this world, including all human institutions. Any reinterpretation of Christianity in terms of a this-worldly agenda, individual or collective, is a distortion. At the same time, one cannot ink out of the New Testament the fact that Jesus in his earthly ministry showed a special concern for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Nor should one put aside the age-old pastoral wisdom that adversity can be an occasion of spiritual growth, that God draws closer to us when we suffer from adversity. But this does not mean that adversity should be celebrated as such. Sickness should be fought by the means medicine puts at our disposal, as marginality should be fought politically (think of the civil rights movement here). But if sickness or marginality should not be accepted passively as God-given circumstances, neither should poverty.

This train of thought, at least for me, leads from theology to sociology. In terms of poverty, one must now ask just what is good for the poor. And, as far as the prosperity gospel is concerned, what one can say about it sociologically is quite different from what one can say theologically. Different Christian traditions will have different ways of coping with this (I think, necessary) dichotomy. For Lutherans this is rather easy, due to the sharp distinction between the "two realms" of Law and Gospel. Sociology has nothing to say about the realm of Gospel. It has quite a lot to say about the realm of Law. Let me try.

The research center which I direct at Boston University, in collaboration with the Centre for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg, has recently concluded a study of the social impact of the remarkable growth of Pentecostalism in South Africa. Not all Pentecostals adhere to the prosperity gospel; many do, especially in the Pentecostal mega-churches. One of these is Rhema Church, located in a suburb of Johannesburg. On a recent visit to South Africa I attended a Sunday morning service at Rhema. It was a memorable occasion. And it led to the reflections expressed here.

An estimated 7,000 people attended the service (one of four every Sunday), in a vast gigantic auditorium that was packed full. The atmosphere was that of a rock concert, with amplified music from a band on the center stage (the music, I was told, derived from American "Christian rock"). After a long warm-up of singing and clapping (certain to give a splitting headache to anyone not immunized against such a trivial ailment by the "baptism of the Spirit"), a collection was taken (very efficiently, given the size of the congregation). Then came the climax of the event, a long, rousing sermon by the founder of the church and its principal preacher, a white South African with a background in professional body-building (I could not help thinking of him as a born-again Schwarzenegger).

The congregation was about 85 percent black, but the whites seemed perfectly at ease. We arrived by car and had difficulty finding a space in the large parking lot on one side of the church. There was a variety of cars, among them quite a few Mercedes, BMWs, and the like. On the other side of the church sat a long line of buses, which had brought people from the townships. The same class difference was evident in the way people were dressed, some in business suits, some in cheap-looking clothes. Thus the divides of both race and class were bridged, fused together in the fire of the Spirit.

Like mega-churches elsewhere, Rhema has a large number of activities serving the multiple needs of its flock. Most of these, of course, were not in evidence on a Sunday morning, but I was particularly struck by a brochure advertising a business school operated by the church. Clearly, this was not intended to give out MBAs for individuals hoping for a career in a multinational corporation. But the courses listed were evidently suitable for grassroots entrepreneurs: how to keep accounts, plan marketing, pay taxes. One could not tell from the brochure how religion was introduced into this curriculum, but it was described as "bringing Christ into the marketplace."

The message from the preacher had two major themes. One: God does not want you to be poor! And two: You can do it! That is, you can do something about the circumstances of your life. Should one quarrel with this message? I'm inclined to think not.

Is there a theological warrant to propose that God wants us to be poor? Any more than he wants us to be sick? The prosperity gospel contains no sentimentality about the poor. There is no notion here that poverty is somehow ennobling. In that, speaking sociologically, the prosperity gospel is closer to the empirical facts than a romantic idea of the noble poor—a notion reminiscent of another romantic fiction, the noble savage. Such notions, of course, are always held by people who are not poor and who do not consider themselves to be savages. The notions are patronizing. They are implicit in the famous slogan of liberation theology: "a preferential option for the poor." Mind you, not of the poor, but for the poor—pronounced, as it were, from on high.

"You can do it!" Research data about Pentecostals bear this out. They are more optimistic, more self-confident than their non-Pentecostal neighbors. David Martin, the dean of Pentecostal studies, has caught this theme in the concept of " betterment." The concept refers to what Pentecostals believe to be a fruit of the Spirit—betterment, not only spiritually, but in every aspect of life, including health and material well-being. All over Latin America this belief is expressed in the Pentecostal bumper sticker par excellence: "Cristo salva y sana!—Christ saves and heals!" It is a package: being saved from sin, healed from sickness, and helped to emerge from poverty. This is a big promise. An empirical observer cannot say anything about salvation from sin, and will be inclined to skepticism about healing from sickness. But what about the promise of emerging from poverty? And here is the most important reason for taking a new look at the prosperity gospel: The promise has a good chance of being kept!

The aforementioned package also comes with a moral component—the one that Max Weber long ago called "the Protestant ethic." It is an ethic of hard work, soberness, frugality, and a generally disciplined lifestyle. If it is observed by poor people over a generation or so, it is very likely to lead to social mobility—that is, to an escape from grinding poverty. To be sure, there will be many people who attend prosperity-gospel churches and think of their transaction with God in quasi-magical terms—they will sing, pray, give money, and without any further effort on their part God will shower material blessings upon them. In other words, Tetzel can indeed reappear in a Protestant guise. But it is also clear from the empirical data that those people who do adhere to the Protestant ethic will indeed be materially rewarded, or at least their children will. "Betterment" follows if people work hard, save from their paycheck rather than spend it on liquor and lavish entertainment, educate their children rather than invest energy in sexual adventures. Individuals who live by the Protestant ethic have a better chance to undergo social mobility, and a society in which this ethic is diffused has a better chance at economic growth. And that is very good indeed for the poor.

Weber believed (correctly, I think) that the socio-economic consequences of Protestantism were unintended. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley did not intend their moral teachings to make their followers rich (though at least the last of the three noticed, with considerable discomfort, that many of his followers did become rich—the "method" of Methodism turned out to have an economic result along with its religious one). The purveyors of the prosperity gospel are, as it were, intentional Weberians: They consciously intend the consequences that earlier Protestants brought about unintentionally. Sociologists will have a hard time quarreling with this program, whatever the qualms of theologians.

One does not have to be a dogmatic "neoliberal" to understand that the major beneficiaries of capitalist growth are, precisely, the poor—in the aggregate if not without exception, later if not sooner, and if the political context is not one in which an élite forcefully hoards the fruits of growth. If one truly cares for the poor, one will hold a "preferential option" for capitalist economics—and ipso facto will be cautious in one's criticisms of the prosperity gospel.

What about the criticism that prosperity-gospel preachers are cynics who live high on the hog by exploiting their poor followers? Unless one gets jovially drunk with people, it is difficult to know who is a cynic and who is sincere (and, alas, these preachers rarely drink). And exploitation is an ambiguous category: If a salesman convinces me that his product will make me happy and is worth the price, is he exploiting me? (Never mind whether he believes in the product himself.) The maxim of caveat emptor applies. And buyers are often quite careful—especially if they are poor and don't have money to throw away. But let it be stipulated that some of these preachers are cynical and exploitative. So are other clergy, bishops, archbishops, even professors of social ethics.

People generally know what is good for them, better than the well-meaning outsider. So do buyers in the marketplace, especially if they are poor. Thus the "consumers" of the prosperity gospel generally know what they are "buying." Specifically, they know that the betterment being promised them is not an illusion, and they know and don't care that their preacher has a swimming pool and drives a Mercedes. If they put money in the collection plate, they generally believe that they are getting good value in return. Thus it is not only patronizing to see them as dupes and victims; it is empirically misleading.

Pentecostalism is an enormous and growing presence globally. Until recently, it has been under the radar of academic and media attention. It continues to be ignored by many if not most Christian theologians outside its community: it is still the elephant in the living room of respectable Christendom in the global north (and sometimes even in the global south). Given the demographic facts, this will inevitably change. An ecumenical dialogue with Pentecostalism will have to come. To the extent that the prosperity gospel is a sizable component of the Pentecostal phenomenon, a moral reassessment of this component should be part of the dialogue.

Peter L. Berger directs the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.