The Gospel of Prosperity, or prosperity theology, is a current in American popular culture with many institutional and literary manifestations that cross denominational boundaries; indeed, prosperity theology blurs the boundary between the religious, economic, and private institutional realms.
The theological underpinnings of the Gospel of Prosperity were present among the earliest colonists to the New World. The Puritan colonists, facing the hardships of life in newly founded settlements, believed that God would watch over His faithful, blessing their labors with prosperity. Personal and collective tragedy, conversely, was understood as providential judgment against those who had deviated from God's will. Although this theology has been revised and revitalized in response to the changing circumstances of American life, the basic equation of prosperity with moral virtue persists.
Max Weber's classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, documents well the emergence of prosperity theology. Industriousness and self-discipline became expressions of Protestant values in the secular realms of labor and domestic life. Financial success came to be understood as visible evidence of election to grace. Thus was formed an ideological link between capitalism, individualism, and religion in American culture.
As the basis of the American economy shifted from entrepreneurial capitalism to industrial capitalism, and Arminian thinking in American theology became widespread, so too was there a shift in prosperity theology. (Arminian thinking opposes the strict predestinarian doctrines of Calvin with the concept that salvation can be obtained by everyone.) The greater sense of individualism to which industrial society gave rise, combined with the Arminian notion of free will, lent themselves to a greater emphasis on self-determination. The myth of the self-made man, as expressed in popular Horatio Alger stories and Andrew Carnegie's classic, Gospel of Wealth, had a profound influence on all social classes. To those living in poverty, the new prosperity theology offered both an explanation for their present condition and, more importantly, a prescription for action to change their condition. Clean living, sobriety, hard work, and self-discipline would surely lead to prosperity. The rising middle classes were provided with an ethical basis for enjoying the conveniences that modern manufacturing techniques made readily available. Even "robber barons," such as Andrew Carnegie, could take comfort in knowing that by providing opportunities for gainful employment, they were contributing to the general welfare. Opportunities for economic success and the allure of the rewards of hard work gave the masses powerful incentives to live virtuous (hard-working, clean, and sober) lives. Persistent problems of poverty and the economic crisis of the 1930s, of course, cast a shadow over this optimistic viewpoint. The Social Gospel movement, which emerged in response to the economic struggles of the fourth and fifth decades of the twentieth century, may be understood, in part, as a critique of Prosperity Theology.
But the United States success in two World Wars and the economic recovery that accompanied military success revived the country's confidence in itself as a chosen nation. Unprecedented investment in institutions of higher education and economic expansion into the global marketplace, often subsidized directly or indirectly by the federal government, were seen as means of helping those Americans who would help themselves. It made sense again to think that anyone who really wanted to succeed in the United States could.
Implicit in this faith in free-market capitalism and democracy as the best of all possible worlds was a condemnation, sometimes stated explicitly, of those who did not experience success. If any one who was willing to work hard and live a virtuous life could succeed in America, it followed logically that those who experienced poverty had only themselves to blame. Along with a reaffirmation of faith in the Gospel of Prosperity, therefore, came a call for cutting back federal programs designed to ensure the general welfare. Ironically, the latest expressions of Prosperity Theology have argued that the very programs designed to alleviate poverty only serve to perpetuate it by making individuals dependent on government assistance and removing the incentives to improve one's own condition.
Today, Prosperity Theology may be readily observed in religio-economic corporations, think-tanks affiliated with the new Religious Right, and a growing abundance of self-help guides in print, video, and television media.
Religio-economic corporations such as Mary Kay Cosmetics and Amway, according to Bromley and Shupe, relate their products and services "to a higher cultural purpose . . . [that links] individual success to collective good" (1981, 234). Prosperity, according to such organizations, is the result of service to humanity.
Conservative think-tanks such as the Chalcedon Group in Vallecito, California, the Institute for Christian Economics in Texas, and the Contemporary Economics and Business Association, located at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, combine a literal reading of the Bible with neo-classical economic theories in their defense of free-market capitalism and their attack on government regulation of industry and public assistance programs. According to these thinkers, not only is free-market, competitive capitalism the best possible means of achieving distributive justice, but biblical law demands laissez faire capitalism and condemns government regulatory involvement.
Of course, most well known are popular expressions of prosperity theology in television and print media. Proponents such as Suze Orman, author of the bestselling book, The Courage to Be Rich: Creating a Life of Material and Spiritual Abundance (1999), are repackaging the ideas of Russell Conwell (Acres of Diamonds), Ralph Waldo Trine (In Tune with the Infinite), and Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking) for a contemporary audience. Here the divine is portrayed as infinite abundance, and the way to prosperity is merely by attuning one's life to the divine will.
The central message of Prosperity Theology, that poverty is a sin because God wants you to be rich, is a powerful refrain that is certainly significant to understanding American religious culture. The refrain is persistent in American culture, though at some times it is heard more clearly than at others.
Bromley, David G., and Anson Shupe. "Rebottling the Elixir: The Gospel of Prosperity in America's Religioeconomic Corporations." In In Gods We Trust:New Patterns of Religious Pluralism, edited by T. Robbins and D. Anthony. 1981, pp. 233–253.
Jordan, Bill. The Common Good: Citizenship, Morality andSelf-Interest. 1989.
Terrie, Martha E. "Social Constructions and Cultural Contradictions: A Look at a Christian Perspective on Economics." Journal of American Culture 17, no. 3 (1994): 55–63.
Van Dahm, Thomas E. "The Christian Far Right and the Economic Role of the State." Christian Scholar'sReview 12, no. 1 (1983): 17–36.
David W. Machacek