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.