Jan 8, 2016

Live long and prosper – it’s what God really wants

Andrew Brown
The Guardian
January 6, 2016

It is easy to mock the YouTube debate between prosperity gospel preachers over their private jets, but their belief that wealth is a literal teaching of the Bible is shared by billions

There is a gripping discussion taking place between two multimillionaires on YouTube about how many private planes they ought to own. One of them describes commercial airliners as "demon-infested tubes", which must resonate with anyone who has travelled in economy class with small children. But still, "demon infested"?

This is actually a clue to their profession, for both men are leaders of the "prosperity gospel" movement, a branch of Pentecostal Christianity that holds that believers will get rich if they just want to do so enough.

Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis defending their private jets The roots of the movement are in the southern states of the US: the two preachers discussing their private jets on YouTube, Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis, have southern accents so thick you could drip them on pancakes. But it has spread around the world, and is found all over Africa, Australia, and Europe. There are tens of millions of followers, possibly hundreds of millions, but it is a phenomenon almost invisible to the mainstream media.

One of the most successful and respectable prosperity gospel preachers, Joel Osteen, claims 7 million viewers of his TV channel – but the most successful, Joyce Meyer, purports to have more than 3 billion people follow her on the web. She does not in fact have a church building or a congregation, but makes her money from merchandising and personal appearances. Faith in your own propaganda is an essential part of the armour of a prosperity gospeller. It has certainly worked for Meyer, who also flies around the world in a private jet and once paid herself and her husband nearly $1.4m in "compensation packages" (of which any personal use of the plane was deducted).

Facebook Twitter Pinterest 'Joel Osteen claims 7 million viewers of his TV channel.' Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters The prosperity gospel arose from the earlier strains of Pentecostal fundamentalism that spread through the Bible belt in the 40s and 50s, under the influence of evangelists such as Oral Roberts. Their shows were more about physical healing than wealth, but they depended on the literal interpretation of certain biblical texts – as did the wider Pentecostal movement, which could claim that its ecstatic prayer in tongues was the fulfilment of God's promises immediately in the believers' lives.

The same style of apparently literal interpretation of certain Old Testament passages gave rise to the end time fantasies which have given pleasure and comfort to millions since 1844, but the prosperity gospellers concentrated on passages which suggest that God wants his followers to be rich, and promises them that they will be if they merely have enough faith.

Although the popular image of the prosperity gospellers is of a few immensely rich people living off the faith of hundreds of thousands of poor ones, Kate Bowler, a Canadian academic who has written a book about the movement, says that this is misleading. Many of the congregations who give so generously can afford to do so. At one gathering of the Nazarene Church she attended, there was a tithing line for those giving $100,000. "They are very specific about asking doctors and lawyers and so on to act as pastors."

For her, the appeal of the prosperity gospel in the US is that it explains and "baptises" what people already have. The churches "sanctify ambition", Bowler says, which is clearly a recipe for success in an ambitious society, but beyond that, they make God personal. Joyce Meyer's website offers insight into the "character" of God, as if he were a person to manipulate. According to Bowler: "The prosperity gospel is willing to be incredibly specific about the benefits that faith can provide. You get an overwhelming sense that God cares about the details of your life, your health, your kids' happiness, your husband's promotion – that there's nothing lost in this world, that there's nothing God doesn't care about."

This is, of course, common to all forms of evangelical Christianity. The kind of Christian who prays for a parking space is a familiar object of mockery to the other kinds. What the prosperity gospellers added to this kind of piety was the belief that God would be bound to respond if the prayer was rightly phrased. Bowler says that the movement harks back to deism – the 18th century idea, much influenced by the discovery of Newton's laws, that God set the universe in motion following the laws that science could discover. But the movement adds to that the confidence that humans can turn these laws to their own advantage: "The prosperity gospel is a theodicy. It is an elegant explanation for the problem of evil and for why some people are happy and others are not." Bowler says the doctrine preaches that there are endlessly repeatable laws that even God has to abide by.

Of course, by the standards of mainstream Christian orthodoxy this claim is simply blasphemous – almost as blasphemous as the claim that Jesus was a rich man (and employed Judas as his treasurer) or that virtue will be rewarded in this world. But then it's doubtful that many or even most Christians have ever been entirely orthodox. And private jets are so much more convincing than angels' wings.


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