For Richer or Poorer—Prosperity Gospel Misleads On Needs | Opinion

Recently several U.S. religious leaders in Christian churches have released videos on social media touting their riches or complaining about their lack of riches, while damning their congregations for their lack of wealth.

In Brooklyn, a pastor and his wife were robbed of reportedly $1 million of jewelry during a live broadcast. In Kansas City, a recording of a preacher complaining about the contributions from his congregants went gone viral on TikTok.

While many Americans bemoan this fascination of faith and riches, many fail to recognize that this has long been a part of American culture. America's religious zealotry around obtaining wealth has generated a religion of wealth that has led to individuals working to get rich or die trying.

The prosperity gospel is not new, but is something that has driven Americans from the founding of the nation and only became more apparent in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the late 19th century Russell Conwell, a Baptist minister from Philadelphia, argued that wealth was a sign of being blessed by the divine.

Kenneth Hagin, Sr. is credited with its advancement during the early 20th century. Using the radio and books as platforms, Hagin developed a following of Christians who believed that their destinies could be controlled through their faith.

The prosperity gospel argues that those of good faith will be favored by God and that favor will manifest itself in God providing them with riches and wealth. Their faith and God's favor means that they do not have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

As the late Bishop Eddie Long, the former pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in Atlanta, stated in 2005 in his defense, "We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies. ... You've got to put me on a different scale than the little Black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering."

Author Kate Bowler recently commented on the rise of the prosperity gospel and the growth of megachurches and internationally televised ministries. Individuals, such as Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and Paula White, have been the disciples of this religious belief who showcase their wealth, whether it be houses, cars, jets, or designer sneakers.

The projection is that the sick and poor are no longer people who have been let down by the system, they are now sinners being punished for their misdeeds.

A raven sits on a cross
A raven sits on a cross. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

My research demonstrated that those who strongly adhere to the prosperity gospel are more likely to attribute poverty to laziness as opposed to systemic problems.

Some religious leaders reportedly view the wealthy as prophets, no matter how unscrupulously they gained their wealth. Because they are God's favored, they play by a different set of rules. They advance the idea that because of their faith and special divine connection, they are not subject to the same risks as others. This is was evident during the pandemic as several of these preachers openly ignored guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and urged members to not be vaccinated.

There are many who question why people would be brought to this almost heretical religious belief given the numerous biblical passages dedicated to protecting the poor. Some report it is a way for the rich to justify their position; however, research as far back as 2010 shows adherence to the prosperity gospel is growing in poor communities in the United States and poor countries throughout the world.

As a scholar of religion and politics, my research into who adheres to this prosperity gospel finds that the role of wealth in adherence is contingent upon race. Among white people, as their wealth increases adherences increases—they support the belief that is a justification of their wealth. For Black people, however, the relationship is reversed. The less wealthy they are, the more likely they are to adhere to the prosperity gospel.

Research from 2015 shows one of the reasons there is explosive growth of the prosperity gospel in Black communities and poor communities in Latin America and Africa, is because it is aspirational and provides a greater sense of self-esteem.

That so many people globally are searching for economic security and good health in the time of a pandemic indicates that there are systematic problems to address.

Any religion whose leaders prey on the poor and sick can never be one that truly lifts them out of their conditions. It will take more than prayer and a questionable gospel to change the economic status of many around the world. It takes policies, programs, systems and leaders committed to equitable and fair economic opportunity, regardless of faith.

Eric L. McDaniel is an associate professor in the department of government and co-director of the Politics of Race and Ethnicity Lab at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He is the author of Politics in the Pews: The Political Mobilization of Black Churches and the co-author of The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.