Anyone who doubts that truth is stranger than fiction should reflect on the fact that one of America’s leading “prosperity” preachers is named Creflo Dollar. The owner of two Rolls Royces, he shames and cajoles his congregation, most of whom are poor African Americans, into giving their money to his ministry, telling them that to do so will make them not poorer but richer. After all, God wants them to be rich; He wants money to rain down on the righteous as a sign of His blessing. How do we know? Because Jesus himself was rich and was used to receiving gifts like gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
“Prosperity attached itself to baby Jesus immediately,” he says, “and that same gift to prosper has been given to us as heirs of Christ.”
The paradox at the heart of Blessed is that this apparently materialistic creed, immensely popular in the megachurch world today, is actually highly idealistic. This is a world in which faith trumps any number of hard material realities. It can bring wealth to the poor and health to the sick, replace despair and depression with “victory.” Christians in this frame of mind don’t so much give their money away as they “sow” it like seeds, believing that it will lead to a great harvest and return to them in the form of material and spiritual blessings.
It is also a world that mixes flights of fancy with dogmatic literalism. Ecstatic ministers describe their visions of “angels, doves, dragons, and clouds of light.” They create elaborate agricultural metaphors about sowing, reaping, threshing, and gleaning. At the same time, however, many believe that to speak exactly the right words is vital for seekers of health and wealth: Black magic, witchcraft, and the personal malice of Satan are real things that must be countered in definite and specific ways, such as literally vomiting them up. Some favor talismanic objects and rituals, like putting a dollar bill in your shoe if you want to be rich or laying a sanctified handkerchief on an injured limb.
Membership in such churches has its privileges, but it makes heavy demands on members’ time as well as on their wallets. To attend church only on Sunday is regarded as the bare minimum, even though Sunday services can be three or four hours long. Members who also attend midweek prayer and healing sessions and do extensive volunteer work for the church come closer to the ideal. When Kate Bowler asked some harried members how they found time to devote 10 or 15 hours a week to the church, in addition to their work and family responsibilities, they gave her a puzzled look and told her she had it backwards: The real issue was how to make time for anything else.
Bowler, a professor of religion at Duke University, shows how this “prosperity” Christianity grew out of earlier trends in Protestant history, notably Mind Cure, positive thinking, and Pentecostalism, all of which equated faith with the achievement of worldly well-being. She describes it as a religious style well-adapted to American economic conditions: “The prosperity gospel’s emphasis on the individual’s responsibility for his or her own fate resonates strongly with the American tradition of rugged self-reliance.”
The idea that God wants Christians to be rich picked up speed in the 1970s, along with the rise of mass-audience television ministries. Bowler makes a distinction between what she calls “hard” and “soft” prosperity preaching. Hard prosperity was all the rage in the 1970s and ’80s, when televangelists enjoyed linking specific dollar amounts to the promise of percentage returns and eternal salvation. Jim Bakker was a case in point, weeping on TV in his mint-green suit when an appeal for funds fell short. So was Oral Roberts, who told viewers that if they did not send in $8 million, God would “call him home” to Heaven. Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye, whose fall from grace came as a blow to satirists everywhere, were exposed as frauds in 1987. They had been extorting credulous viewers’ money to fund a lavish personal lifestyle rather than investing it in Heritage USA, their Christian theme park.
“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.”
Bowler is relieved to discover among her friends at the Victorious Faith Center a subterranean current of resistance to official teachings. Sick members often help each other out without passing judgment. They comfort the bereaved, rather than berating the departed for lack of faith. They sometimes slip out of church early to accomplish practical tasks or to look after their children. But even while contradicting their church’s teachings, they continue to invoke them as ideals for themselves and for one another.
Researching and writing Blessed could not have been easy, and the author, if anything, understates her own tribulations. Nevertheless, she has emerged with a historically and anthropologically convincing account of this central trend in contemporary American Christianity, in equal parts informative, amusing, and horrifying.
Patrick Allitt, professor of history at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History.