When the Saints Go Cashing In

This morning I came across an article that reminded me of some of the things I wrote about back during the Katrina aftermath, about the conservative belief that wealth is a indication of moral virtue. Every once in a while I’m reminded that the reason it works so well is because it’s rare that anyone actually says it, and that it lives and breaths on the fact that alot of people who aren’t wealthy but believe in their own moral virtue actually buy into it.

It’s one way — but a pretty effective way — to keep in place a system that exists largely to serve concentrated wealth and to further concentrate wealth; making people believe that it will serve them too, if they’re good enough. I couldn’t help thinking that this New York Times article about church and minister — Rev. Creflo A. Dollar, hsis real name — that have become wildly successful by preaching a gospel of wealth is a sign that the buy-in runs deeper than I realized, and the most ardent believers are often among the most economically disadvantaged.

It is a theology that is excoriated in many Christian circles but is becoming increasingly visible in this country, according to religious scholars. Now, it is beginning to establish a foothold in New York City, where capitalism has long been religion.

Mr. Dollar – his real name – is the most prominent among a host of prosperity preachers that have put down roots in the city. He is quick to insist that he warns Christians to “love God, not money” and teaches “total life prosperity,” meaning prosperity not only in finances but in everything from health to family life.

… Asking the faithful to donate is a part of virtually all religions. Outside of Christianity, Muslims pay zakat, and Jewish synagogues have membership dues. Conservative Protestants see tithing – offering a portion, usually a tenth, of one’s income back to God and the church – as a biblical mandate.

… It is the connecting of religious faithfulness, especially in giving, to material riches that causes many Christians, including other evangelicals, to accuse prosperity teachers of verging on heresy.

I suppose it’s nothing new. A while back I linked to an article that included a story of another minister — Norman Vincent Peale — preaching essentially the same gospel

I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peale in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong.

The article itself refers to 70s era “prosperity preacher” Rev. Ike, who is still doing quite well and whose famous quote — “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.” — basically sums up the lessons touted by Bill O’Reilly and George Will even as the bodies of New Orleans’ poor were floating face down in the stagnant flood waters left by Katrina. And Houston preacher Joel Osteen is winning fans in New Jersey with an identical message. 

Joel Osteen is one pastor unlikely to dwell on Jesus’ warning about the difficulties the rich face getting into heaven.

On the contrary, Osteen preaches that material wealth is nothing to be ashamed of and can be a happy consequence of deep religious faith.

“Get rid of that small-minded thinking and start thinking as God thinks,” the Houston-based pastor declares in the opening chapter of his best-selling book, “Your Best Life Now.”

“Think big. Think increase. Think abundance. Think more than enough.”

It’s a message that some call the “prosperity gospel.” And it has struck an undeniable chord in 21st-century America.

I think the fact that it’s being openly preached an increasingly embraced, if the articles are to be believed, is evidence that it’s roots have grown deep in to the psyches of many Americans. The difference, however between Peale and Rev. Dollar (besides that the former was preaching to a predominantly white audience, while the latter’s congregation appears to be predominantly black and latino) is that the latter — much like his predecessor, Ike — isn’t justifying his congregation’s wealth as a sign of their righteousness and god’s approval, but is raising hopes and donations from people facing serious economic disadvantages.

Mr. Anderson said he started to apply Mr. Dollar’s teachings on love at his job, trying to be more helpful to people. The couple also started to apply his teachings on tithing.

But just as they started to give, their children became sick, and the family began to fall badly behind on the bills. “Things went from bad to worse,” Mr. Anderson said.

A few weeks ago, they had no food and no money. A concerned neighbor, however, surprised them with groceries. Another friend offered winter coats for their children, ages 5 and 7.

The Andersons attributed the unexpected gifts to God’s provision and said they looked to the testimonies of others in the church for inspiration.

Maybe it’s me, and maybe it’s because I’m a non-believer, but I’m inclined to think that if you’re kids are sick and your family is hungry a loving got might want you to spend what you do have on food and medicine. I’d also be inclined to believe that neighbor’s donated food and coats because they could see that you didn’t have any, rather than because they were magically moved to do so by your giving what little you did have to Rev. Dollar’s church. It seems to me that doing what the Anderson’s did would tend to make them poorer and Rev. Dollar (among others) richer.

Mr. Dollar’s salary is set by a compensation board at the Georgia church, but he declined to reveal it. He also declined to say how much of his salary and fees he donates back to the church, except to say that he is one of the church’s biggest givers.

He and his wife live in a million-dollar mansion in Atlanta that is owned by the church. He has said that his two Rolls-Royces were gifts from congregants. But shortly after he started the New York church, he and his wife, Taffi, purchased a $2.5 million apartment in the new Time Warner Center on their own.

 But then again, I’m looking in from the outside, and without the benefit of knowing better than to begrudge god’s anointed the blessings he showers upon them.

The article doesn’t mention the Andersons’ ethnicity, but I kind of infer from the rest of the article that they are an African American family. If that’s true, especially given the deep vein of faith that runs through many African American families and communities, then Rev. Dollar’s success is another sign of how seductive and widespread the cult of prosperity has become, and how the potential exists for many more to buy into the essential conservative message that wealth and well being is a sign of moral virtue.

It’s summed up pretty well by another minister interviewed in the Osteen article.

“It’s this sort of spiritualized Reaganism,” said Randall Balmer, head of the religion department at Barnard College. “It says God is itching to bestow material blessings on the faithful. But I don’t find anyplace in the Scriptures where Jesus is promising great wealth and wages.”

And Balmer said such preaching can take its toll on believers.

“It can be quite devastating if you’re not sharing in the wealth,” he said. “Somehow, your faith is considered to be lacking.”

… Scholars say the prosperity gospel has its roots in the faith-healing revivals of the early 20th century that stressed salvation of the body as well as the soul. The movement matured when evangelicals entered the upper and middle classes.

“You went from salvation of the soul, to the body, to the bank account,” said Joe Barnhart, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of North Texas.

Balmer, the Barnard professor, said the prosperity gospel took off in the 1980s.

“It’s very Republican in its approach – a sort of bootstraps theology,” he said. “It shows how much evangelicals have bought into the prevailing culture.”

 Mix it all up and you get something this. Your last best hope is to get saved and get rich. If you don’t, it’s your own fault. God rewards the faithful with riches. The poor suffer in poverty as a result of their unbelief and immorality, and thus have only themselves to blame. As Ike pointed out — and, more recently, Will and O’Reilly — the best thing you can do for the poor is not to be one of them. After all, if you give them too much, you simply encourage unbelief and moral weakness; the opposite of what god does, so it much be some kind of sin. All you have to do is watch, and wait. Oh yeah, and give to god’s anointed. After all, isn’t their success a sign of how well all of this work?

It’s a “very Republican approach” in that it requires some basic assumptions that are directly in line with apparently conservative ideology of late. The first is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the current economic system. All is pretty much as it should be, and anyone who can’t make it under the status quo don’t deserve to because they are undisciplined or just don’t have what it takes. Another is that, as Will and O’Reilly went to great pains to point out during Katrina’s aftermath, the government can not or should not be in the business of taking care of the poor, including getting them out of the path of flood waters if the poor can’t do it themselves.

Faith, in the above, seems to be the added ingredient that sweetens all of the above and makes it go down a little easier, because it is something affirmed in the heart of the individual, and thus is not easily argued away with political points, or a discourse on economics. Rather, it boils it down to a very basic economic message: Believe and be blessed; and in the meantime, tithe.

And if some (many?) in Dollar’s congregation have yet to experience their heaven-sent economic windfall, then they are apparently appear to be engaging in the old practice of “claiming it” even if it hasn’t arrived yet. God has promised it, so it’s here already if they just believe. Anyone who wants it can have it as well, if only they believe. Ultimately, it’s a matter of choice. What need is there for programs to help the poor or even heat their homes.

Whether Dollar’s theology will work out for his congregation as well as it’s working out for him. I can’t help what it means for the rest of the country if people continue to adopt it, politically or spiritually, in significant numbers; because a lot of people won’t be in that number, when the saints go cashing in.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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One Response to When the Saints Go Cashing In

  1. keri says:

    This belief was all too commonly held (though not bluntly spoken) in my Southern Baptist church growing up.  And it is often believed, as you point out, by not just the well off but by the poor and everyone in between. 

    Reminds me of  the "Supply -Side Jesus" comic strip from one of Franken’s books: http://www.buzzflash.com/contributors/03/09/17_franken.html

    "If you are prosperous on earth that means that God is rewarding your rugged individualism! If you are poor it is a sign that God frowns on your reliance on handouts!"

    There is a study I read somewhere and for the life of me I can’t find it right now, but it was about how people are likely to report that they are in a higher financial bracket then they actually are….or to believe that they will soon be in a higher financial class. I think the context of the article I read this in was attempting to explain why a "poor" person would vote against their own economic interests and to benefit the "rich" – because they want to be or feel they one day could be "rich.," ie: People vote their percieved or desired class interests. If anyone knows the article I’m talking about please link it b/c I’m not doing a great job explaining.

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