Hanna Rosin looks for connections between the recent housing crisis and the 'prosperity gospel' in Did Christianity Cause the Crash? The short answer to her question is, of course, 'No, Christianity didn't.'
Approximately 50 of America's 260 largest churches are prosperity-gospel churches. And 66% of all Pentecostals and 43% of 'other Christians' believe that 'wealth will be granted to the faithful.' Clearly, these American believers were, and remain, a receptive market to what the bankers were selling. Rosin looks in particular at Pastor Fernando Garay and his Casa del Padre, a largely Latino prosperity-gospel church in Charlottesville, Virginia. This group is representative of the larger phenomenon, 'the shift in the American conception of divine providence and its relationship to wealth.'
Many years ago, in my teens, I had just joined an Anglican parish in Johannesburg. I also encountered an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, who lent me books by Beat Generation authors like Jack Kerouac, and extolled Francis of Assisi and his embrace of holy poverty.
Then we got a new priest in the parish who came along with a new gospel of "Jesus loves money". He said so, in those very words. "Jesus is watching you put your money in". My mother said it made Jesus sound creepy, like Judas Iscariot, standing behind a pillar, spying. "Success appeals to those who love success," said the Rector, "and all men do." Therefore, the church must look like a big success, to attract the rich and successful. Another priest, however, was saying at that time "We don't want to look like a failure, and just for that reason we are one."
And I read in one of the books that Brother Roger lent me
Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to
offer are not valued at a high price in our society... It is not the poverty of
the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.
That tended to innoculate me against the "prosperity gospel", which surged into South Africa about ten years later, and looked to me a lot like idolatry -- wooing the bitch goddess Success.
But so all-pervasive has its message become that many people seem to think that it is Christianity.
In the early 1970s I visited a Pentecostal church a few times. The minister announced to the congregation his vision of a "Christian Centre", and asked them to pray that it would become a reality. I thought he was talking about some kind of evangelistic outreach. Their congregation used to have an annual evangelistic effort, where they would set up a tent and have evangelistic services, believing that the unchurched would feel more comfortable coming to a tent than to a church building. Perhaps they did. He made his plans for a Christian Centre sound something like this, not a church, but a kind of community centre for outreach, possibly interdenominational. What happened, though, was that he bought an old theatre, but far from being a Christian community centre, it was actually the start of a brand-new denomination, where he preached the prosperity gospel. His vision was in fact of a Neopentecostal megachurch. Once he had it, he left his Pentecostal denomination and started his own, with prosperity preaching high on the agenda.
Around the same time, in the early 1970s, "contextualisation" was the theological buzz-word du jour. And contextualisation went along with the prosperity gospel pretty well, because the prosperity gospel came in a bright new packaging to contextualise the gospel for yuppies, just in time for the secular prosperity gospel and Mammon worship of the Reagan-Thatcher years. The gospel of the Market, wedded to the bitch goddess success, a marriage made in... um, heaven?