The Magazine

Heavenly Rewards

That business of God and Mammon.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By PATRICK ALLITT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

“Soft prosperity” preaching helped repair the damage in the ensuing years. Favoring a slightly calmer idiom, ministers like Joel Osteen and Kenneth Hagin looked more like corporate CEOs than nightclub emcees and were less specific about exactly how much money God wanted you to give. Before long, the prosperity gospel recovered its recruiting momentum. Many African-American ministers adapted to it, preaching godly wealth but also cautioning members about the need to manage their finances, pay their debts, and avoid reckless expenditure. The switch from a long Christian tradition of holy poverty to one of holy riches has not affected the other moral verities: Megachurch members are still expected to be sober, chaste, industrious, honest, uncomplaining, and courteous. 

The charismatic leaders of the megachurches have, in most cases, separated themselves from the old denominations. The separation has sometimes been a result of disagreement over prosperity theology, but it could also be the result of a specific minister’s belief that God had singled him out with the blessing of wealth or a sudden recovery from ill health. These independents, while autonomous, actually have many things in common: bold entrepreneurship, massive capital investments, broadcasting and publishing empires, and success theology. They gather regularly at national conferences, where one or another of them can usually be found as keynote speaker.  

Bowler, rather than keeping an academic distance from the object of her study, did much of her research as a participant-observer. In addition to visiting and researching dozens of megachurches, she attended faith-healing services at the Victorious Faith Center in Durham, North Carolina, and befriended some of its members. She tagged along with faith-healer Benny Hinn on an exhausting pilgrimage to Israel with 900 other Christian tourists. In the midst of her research, she began to suffer from a mysterious muscular paralysis, an experience that intensified her response to the highly emotional healing-oriented events.

After the trip, she seems to have struggled to find the right voice in which to report her findings. I enjoyed trying to catch sight of the real Kate, behind the façade of social-scientific objectivity. She doesn’t let her guard down often, but occasional stray phrases give away her actual train of thought. Determined not to condemn the prosperity gospel out of hand (as most investigative journalists have done), she works hard to show readers how its adherents explain their way of life and how it offers an internally consistent worldview. She is equally determined not to endorse it, however, and makes no secret of the fact that it can be highly coercive.

Anyone coming to these churches from the outside is bound to ask: Does the faith-healing actually work, and does the giving of money actually bring back more money? Bowler sometimes met people who had been “healed,” in the sense that they had become the object of the minister’s tearful entreaties, and yet still they suffered. When Bowler asked after the welfare of “Ruth,” one such sufferer, an informant told her, “She has been healed. She is just claiming her healing”—and then added, “I think she’s worried about negatively confessing.” In other words, if Ruth was still confined to her wheelchair, it must be because her faith wasn’t strong enough. She was now expected to “claim” her return to good health as though it were already complete. To ask for healing again would imply inadequate sincerity the first time around. 

Bowler also cites the case of a cancer sufferer prevented by church leaders from returning to the altar for more “healing.” Once should have been enough; now he was on his own. By the same logic, members who don’t grow rich have only themselves to blame.

Readers of The Weekly Standard may know that human life ends in death and that to blame individuals for their own deaths is usually unreasonable. Prosperity preachers disagree: “Death meant failure, the failure of the believer to win the spiritual battle against illness,” paraphrases Bowler. Gloria Copeland, one of the female stars of the movement, recently published Live Long, Finish Strong (2010), advocating “unlimited life.” Even in a book dedicated to the proposition that death is unnecessary, however, she finally admits that at the age of about 120, Christians might want to “choose the time of their own home-going.”