Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

 

 

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

—– ”Mercedes Benz,” by Bob Neuwirth, Janis Joplin, Michael Mcclure 

 

 

When I was a child, “mainline” churches like the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, as well as moderate Baptists, were all growing denominations, growing even faster than the population. It is not hard to imagine why. Catholicism was still often seen as an “immigrant” religion; it wasn’t until JFK that anyone seriously thought a Catholic could be President, or that the United States of America would survive if one did. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Native American religions and other faith groups were all small and, for the most part, either fringe faiths or dominant only in small, ethnically-defined communities. In short, there were some very this-worldly reasons to join the “mainline.” While the “no Irish welcome here” signs were largely gone, it was also a fact that the business community of the 20th Century was often a “good old boys network,” and if you wanted full access to the movers and shakers, you were probably better off joining their churches, or their country clubs (that often had “no Jews” policies, for example), or their fraternities. If you wanted your children to attend public schools, you had to accept that Protestants would be writing the prayers your children would be required to recite every day; otherwise you could pay taxes to support schools you didn’t use, and keep your children out of the mainstream American culture in parish schools, or yeshivas, etc. It was simply easier, and even more profitable to simply go along with the mainstream. Mainline Protestantism was always pretty business-friendly, since so many of the larger churches in any town depended on tithes from the well-off businessmen; in exchange, the churches gave the businessmen who wanted it some moral guidance, and the others could at least gain some moral respectability and gratitude from those who appreciated their contributions and didn’t know too much about where the personal ethics of the contributor.

This was not always so in the early days of Christianity. When Christianity broke off from Judaism some 2000 years ago, it was a persecuted and largely underground faith. Rome was actually very religiously tolerant; as long as a group was willing to burn incense to worship and strengthen the Emperor’s family spirit and the Imperial cult, Rome accepted them. To refuse to worship the Emperor was like refusing to pay taxes today: an unpatriotic betrayal, a declaration that your allegiance to yourself and your group was in conflict with the health and strength of the community. Christians were, in fact, willing to obey most laws, generally, but not to contribute to the spiritual warfare against the barbarians by worshiping the Imperial cult along with Jesus. They were thus enemies of the State and, depending on attitudes of local governors or Imperial edicts, subject to enslavement, torture and death. When the persecution ended in the Fourth Century, people flocked to join Christianity; once the Emperor started supporting it, it became a way to greater economic and social security. As a result of this wealth and power, the real devotion of individual Christians seems not as, well, devoted. In reaction, those believers who wished to experience real spiritual focus began to withdraw from society, first as hermits and later as monks and nuns living in isolated communities. This pattern held through the Middle Ages: the majority lived their lives while worshipping God as the Church told them to, while the spiritual elite, the monks and nuns, rejected full involvement in the world of money and business and power so that they could focus on prayer, meditation and study. Even Popes, who often combined wealth, power and religious authority, could be cowed by the connection to God of a monk or nun known for spiritual discipline and mystical spirituality. And among the people as a whole, it was simply a given that a monk or nun was more spiritual than anyone else, even more than the village priest who still had to live with the rest of us sinners.

That changed with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Reformers argued that monasticism was in fact “works-righteousness,” an attempt to curry favor with God instead of trusting God’s love and power alone. Anyone who thinks they can earn and deserve God’s favor did not really love God; God should be seen as a loving parent, not a demanding employer, and we are God’s children who cannot and need not earn what God gives us. Therefore, they said, to love and trust God is not to hide away from the world, but to live and work in community with all your neighbors, to hold a job and do your best, to earn your living rather than relying on the tithes and charity of those who work. Luther asserted “the priesthood of all believers:” that is, the idea that all Christians are equally close to God and can pray directly to God, without the aid of a priest or monk. Calvin went even further, modernizing Christian theology to better suit an economy moving away from medieval agrarianism and towards a society based on commerce and manufacture (such as loosening medieval prohibitions on lending money at interest, which allowed Christians to be bankers).

As Christianity was going through these changes, Europeans were exploring and colonizing America. Catholic lands continued to follow the religious and social patterns of the Medieval Church. Monks and nuns were the religious elite, the missionaries and teachers; nobles were the rich landowners and political leaders; and the majority were farmers laboring to support the Church and the nobles, without any expectation of being anything else. In English and Dutch lands, by contrast, Protestant theology reconciled spiritual devotion with mercantile ambition, so that merchants, traders and investors strove to become wealthy while also being considered godly. In fact, their hard work was seen as a sign of spiritual devotion, and their growing wealth seen as a sign of God’s blessing; at the same time, conspicuous consumption and waste was seen as arrogant and also poor stewardship of God’s blessings. This is the beginning of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic.” Protestants were encouraged to work at their jobs as vigorously as monks and nuns worked at praying and fasting, and to prize comfortable lives as signs of God’s favor the way a monk or nun would prize mystical visions or inner peace; naturally, the “Yankee trader” who followed this direction became rich, even if he lived in a community with legal restrictions on wasteful spending. As a result, the money could just pile up.

The third-generation Puritans may have lived lives of material success undreamt of by their Pilgrim forbearers, but they still remembered that spiritual devotion and material comfort were not always linked. Their settler ancestors had suffered greatly, and many had died, despite and because of their faith. “Being good” did not always mean “doing well,” and “doing well” was not always a sign that one was good and blessed by God. This was part of the trigger for the Great Awakening, where the descendants of these early religious refugees and now children of their successful grandchildren sought to revive that earlier religious fervor in themselves.

The 19th and 20th Centuries are when the growing material comforts of the United States prompted the Protestant Work Ethic to metastasize into the Prosperity Gospel. The Industrial Revolution created new opportunities for wealth and comfort for some, with poverty and dehumanizing drudgery for others. This divide grew greater, and took on spiritual dimensions, as the country recovered from the Civil War. The U.S. would not have recovered so well, perhaps not at all, without the so-called “robber barons,” the tycoons, industrialists and financiers who remade the nation and the world economic system while enriching themselves. Some, particularly Rockefeller and Carnegie, were strongly religious men of strict personal morality, and they tried to promote good religion and good lifestyles among their workers and in the world. Most famously, Carnegie said that the first half of a man’s life should be devoted to making money, the second to giving it away; he and Rockefeller competed to see who could make the most when they were young, and who could give away the most before they died. They certainly did not think they were choosing between being good men and good businessmen.

In the 1930s the age of the robber baron gave way to the Great Depression, but the mixing of religion and business only increased. The Christian Business Men’s Committee began in 1930 as businessmen gathered to pray for spiritual revival in Chicago; the movement grew and spread. Now not only were a few millionaires bringing religion into their business (and vice versa); average businessmen across the nation were gathering to seek ways to do so. In all this, there were definite continuations of the Colonial and early national Protestant work ethic: God wants you to strive to be successful, and then to use what you make to help others. The tycoons and less amazingly successful capitalists tended to attribute their success to their own daring, ability and (often) good, godly lives; those who were poor, particularly if they seemed to resent the rich or complain of bad fortune, were simply lazy and jealous. There’s a bit more of a notion that poverty says something about the poor character or poor spirituality of the person, since obvious sorts of “acts of God” like plagues, famine and so on were rapidly becoming things of the past.

At this point past becomes prologue, as President Donald Trump’s favorite preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, began his ministry in New York.[1] Peale did not rely much on Scripture or on traditional Calvinist theology, despite being a Presbyterian pastor. He drew mostly from the therapeutic theories of French psychologist Émile Coué to develop his own theory, outlined in his book The Power of Positive Thinking. If you believe that you will be successful, you can tap God’s power to achieve all manner of success, including wealth and health. Peale did not talk about sin, grace, or salvation; he preached more often about the great examples we could see in the lives of rich, successful businessmen. While guilt and repentance had little part in Peale’s preaching, there is a definite moral implication; if you are not personally successful, it is because you are doing something wrong. Perhaps your faith or your self-confidence is lacking, or perhaps you are just not a good, industrious person, so God’s blessing cannot flow through your life to give you material success. This is the beginning of what we would recognize as “The Prosperity Gospel” in full flower. Not only is material success seen as a gift from God; the lack of success is seen as a sign of one’s spiritual or moral failure.

Peale may be an early proponent of the Prosperity Gospel, but he was not an Evangelical. Peale was a Presbyterian pastor, part of the “mainline Church.” Business leaders were most likely to be moderate, denominational Protestants. In the 1930s it was perfectly legal to refuse to hire someone because of his religion; if you wanted to be a full participant in the business world, you needed to be part of the Protestant culture. Evangelicalism was not part of the mainstream culture; having been badly humiliated during the anti-evolution fights of the 1920s, Evangelicals spent most of the 1930s through the 1970s turning their backs on “the world” with its debauchery, its science, and its materialism. The Protestantism a successful businessman would embrace would be one that his community, potential customers and partners, also embraced: the mainline Protestant churches.

This started to shift in the 1970s but really became a force in the 1980s, when Evangelicals jumped back into politics to back Reagan. They also jumped on modern mass media more successfully than any mainline religion, first through Billy Graham’s radio broadcasts and then, when television took off, through televised revivals, then UHF religious networks, and finally through the Christian Broadcasting Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network, and other cable religious networks. The “TV Preacher” was born, with glitzy broadcasts and lavish lifestyles.

Jim Bakker was an early leader. An Assemblies of God pastor, he early dropped his denomination’s emphasis on personal simplicity. Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, which is a style of Evangelicalism that stresses a strict, simple lifestyle, such as avoiding drinking, dancing, make-up or jewelry or fancy clothes. Preachers like Bakker dropped the Holiness emphasis on voluntary poverty. His PTL Club promoted conspicuous consumption and even luxury for Christians, claiming that if believers had enough faith (“faith” being demonstrated in willingness to tithe to the ministry, not through acts of charity for the poor or personal self-denial) then God would pour wealth down upon them. Self-examination, contrition, guilt, and repentance were gone. There is no need to wait for treasures in Heaven; if you tithe, God will pay you off in this world.

The Prosperity Gospel obviously helped reconcile Evangelicalism and capitalist consumerism. This is a religion that the capitalist can understand; faith is a financial investment, and God always pays off eventually. And the Evangelical’s suspicion of “the world” and of wealth is replaced by not just acceptance, but even veneration for the wealthy; those who have a lot must be the ones who love God the most and thus have been blessed the most. And contrariwise, since wealth comes from having faith and doing one’s job, if one is not wealthy one is impious and lazy.

[1] Tom Gjelten, “How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump’s Faith Outlook;” All Things Considered August 3, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/08/03/488513585/how-positive-thinking-prosperity-gospel-define-donald-trumps-faith-outlook) NPR

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: