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Public Theology: Protestant Council Declares Prosperity Gospel is Heresy
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Protestant Council Declares Prosperity Gospel is Heresy
Joel Osteen is a heretic, as was Oral Roberts, and even such evangelicals as Rick Warren may qualify as heretics, according to a new report by the highest authority within Protestantism.

By Ed Knudson

The title and subtitle of this article represent a hope of mine, a hope that the primary Protestant church bodies of this country could come together to form a "Protestant Council" which would become the official public voice of Protestantism. The failure of these Protestant bodies to do so has meant that Christian faith is being defined by the secular media which gives voice to the religious ridiculous in the many expressions of what is known as the religious right today. So we have the likes of a Sarah Palin being promoted as a political star by the media because she is deemed popular among so much of the ridiculous religious right, to the degradation of any serious politics or religion.

So it is not true that a Protestant Council has declared "prosperity religion" a heresy, exactly. But a group of scholars has been asked to evaluate what has been called the "prosperity gospel" (I want to call it prosperity religion because I do not like to use the good word "gospel" with it). This is the belief that if you have enough faith in God (and send in money to the television preacher) you yourself will get rich, or at least receive financial rewards. It is akin to Norman Vincent Peal with his power of positive thinking, think positive and all will be well for you. The result of this thinking is that if things go wrong for you, if you find yourself poor and without a job, it is your own fault, you don't have enough faith or have not been thinking positively enough. The real rich and powerful love this kind of preaching to poor and middle class folk, it takes them off the hook of any responsibility for the way things are in the world.

Even though the primary Protestant bodies would all reject prosperity religion these bodies have no public means to express and communicate their views so local pastors have no cover in the moral public context if they seriously criticize these prosperity preachers made so popular by the corporately-owned media, a media the owners of which have a huge financial stake in promoting these preachers. It's a bit easier for scholars to engage in criticism, but even that takes some courage these days when no one, not even the president of the United States, wants to say or do anthing which would anger the wealthy ruling class of the country.

The Social Science Research Council through its Immanent Frame blog has asked several scholars to respond to an article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosen called "Did Christianity Cause the Crash" which explores whether the prosperity preachers encouraged so many people to take on bad mortgages that it caused the financial meltdown last year. Now, notice that the word "Christianity" is used in this title, as if the prosperity preachers can legitimately be called Christian. Protestantism has no official voice that can contradict such media usage, as is indicated by the first response item by Professor Long below.

Most of the other responses by these scholars are also critical of the Rosen article as well as the prosperity preachers. It is worthwhile reading all of them. However, I have included two below which are especially helpful. Notice in the second one how Mark C. Taylor documents something of which I have long been aware from my own reading, that the idea of the "invisible hand" for the market comes out of the Protestant idea of God's providence, and thus that modern economists who justify economic behavior on the basis of the autonomous market have made the market into a god concept. To put it simply, the market IS God for modern economists and business. Even the government should not mess around with the market (God). So, of course, Republican senators right now think it is obvious that "government health care" can only be an abomination. The market god is the god of the prosperity preachers and they are, thus, heretics, leading people to place faith in a false god.


D. Stephen Long, Professor of Systematic Theology, Marquette University

“Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” Unfortunately, “Christianity” no longer bears sufficient commonalty among its adherents for it to bear the kind of agency suggested in this provocative title. Nonetheless, Rosin admirably discloses the negative social consequences of a Christian heresy—the gospel of prosperity. Christianity’s fragmentation means those primarily responsible for teaching it, such as Joel Osteen, cannot be (non-violently) silenced. That makes it all the more dangerous for it appears to represent ‘Christianity’. Heresy is not a thoroughly corrupt form of Christianity, but the distortion of a truth. God does seek the plight of the poor to be alleviated. But the gospel of prosperity distorts this teaching, bringing it into alliance with a heretical doctrine of providence where God’s providence no longer works by holding goods in common, but as Adam Smith taught, by each looking only to his own interest. That supposedly brings Isaiah’s “Wealth of Nations.” Only freedom from any common regulation—moral, theological, political—will bring wealth. But this is not a shift in an “American doctrine of providence.” It is its fruit.

Despite showing us the negative social consequences of heresy, I nonetheless think Rosin confuses symptom with cause. A subclass that clean toilets, pick vegetables and manicures lawn, sought a quick fix to economic servitude. Who could blame them? But the cause lies deeper than the gospel of prosperity. She rightly diagnoses a contributing, theological factor in ‘providence,’ but mis-locates it. For that reason, the question of causes needs expansion. I would suggest the following:

Did Adam Smith cause the crash when he taught his distorted doctrine of providence that seeking to advance the common good did more harm than seeking one’s own interest?

Did Reformed Christianity cause the crash when it adopted this doctrine of providence?

Did the social sciences, especially economists, cause the crash when some drew on that doctrine of providence, and assumed they now had law-like rules of predictive power about future wealth?


Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion, Columbia University

Hanna Rosin’s recent cover story in The Atlantic, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” is not wrong, but it is superficial and, as such, is symptomatic of the inadequate understanding of religion that characterizes so much public debate. The so-called prosperity gospel has a long history of close ties with leading figures in the business and financial communities. To suggest that its latest version was a cause, rather than a symptom, of the current financial crisis is ludicrous.

The relationship between Christianity—more specifically, Protestantism—and today’s finance capitalism is much deeper and more insidious than people realize. Max Weber’s analysis of Protestantism and capitalism has become canonical, but even this account cannot explain what is going on. As I have argued at length in my book Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption, the form of capitalism that has emerged since the early 1970s is the product of the intersection of three factors, all of which have a long and complicated history: neo-conservative politics, neo-liberal economics and neo-foundational religion.

To glimpse how the interrelation of these trajectories has evolved, consider the all-too-familiar term “the invisible hand.” Though rarely recognized, the relation between the divine and the human lies at the heart of the modern understanding of markets. Calvinism not only prepared the way for a flourishing economy but also provided principles for understanding and justifying market activity. The first person to use the image of the invisible hand was not Adam Smith, but John Calvin. For Calvin, God’s providence is the invisible hand that sustains the order of the world even when it is not immediately evident. Smith, who was, of course, from Protestant Scotland, appropriated Calvin’s doctrine of providence to explain the machinations of the market. Emphasizing the aesthetic aspects of Calvin’s theology that were important for Scottish philosophers in the eighteenth century, Smith brought together religion, art, and economics to form the modern theory of markets. Just as the beautiful work of art is characterized by the harmonious interrelation of parts, so the market functions as an integrated system in which individuals pursuing their own interests also promote the good of the whole. With Smith’s translation of theology and aesthetics into economics, the source of order shifted from an external agent—i.e., God—to internal relations among individual human actors. From this point of view, the market is a self-organizing system that regulates itself. F. A. Hayek has gone so far as to claim that for Smith the market is, in effect, a cybernetic system that operates by processing information. The market, in other words, works like a computer.

By the seventeenth century, the Amsterdam stock exchange had already become a thriving speculative market where investors were using financial instruments remarkably similar to the sophisticated products promoted during the 1980s and 1990s in New Amsterdam, i.e., New York. The fundamental belief of latter day heirs to Dutch Protestants is that the market is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. For neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, the market is God and God always knows what is best for mere mortals who only mess things up when they intervene in the market’s providential operation.

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Date Added: 12/23/2009 Date Revised: 1/6/2010

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