Slate Takes on the Prosperity Gospel Peddlers

Slate is good to take a fresh look, in the second year of the financial crisis, at the “Prosperity Gospel,” the movement in evangelical Christianity that preaches that Jesus wants you to be rich—odd since it supposedly comes from a homeless dude who taught his followers to renounce their possessions and that it was near-impossible for a rich man to go to heaven.

This area has called out for more skeptical attention from the business press for a while—megachurches and televangelism are big businesses, after all. Even banks and get-rich-trading seminars don’t encourage customers to regularly give them 10 percent of their income so they, too, can become rich. But The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has had just one news story in the last eleven years that mentions the words “Prosperity Gospel” (The NYT has done better, including this story on the Prosperity preacher with the too-good-to-be-true name of Creflo Dollar and his “Rolls-Royces, private jets, million-dollar Atlanta home and $2.5 million Manhattan apartment’).

Clint Rainey’s smart lede points out how similar the 2007 spiel of a Prosperity preacher like Joel Osteen sounds to the snake-oil pitch of a subprime mortgage broker.

In times of record-high foreclosures and Treasury Department scrambling to shore up loan-refinancing initiatives, the Prosperity Gospel can sound as if it comes from preachers who live under rocks, not in mansions: “God wants to give you your own house,” big-cheese pitchman Joel Osteen announced in 2007’s Your Best Life Now, which he penned in an economic Indian summer of a bull market and excited homebuyers. ” ‘How could that ever happen to me?’ you ask. ‘I don’t make enough money.’ Perhaps not, but our God is well able.”

At least Countrywide wasn’t pulling the God card on folks. Well, actually, that probably happened here and there.

The prosperity gospel has spread like kudzu in the last decade—to use Clint Rainey’s apt metaphor here. But it’s nothing new to me. I grew up in Tulsa, home of Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts and many more, and ground zero of the megachurch, televangelism, and the get-rich-with-God business. I used to live a few blocks from Oral Roberts high-fenced compound where his son and daughter-and-law lived with their Mercedes convertibles and Lexus SUV’s and their 2000-square-foot closet. The Prosperity Gospel is indeed prosperous for the preachers, at least.

Riley does a nice job with the theology here:

Yet (Osteen) artfully disappears for housing-crisis questions like “Why, if God wants to reward the faithful with material possessions, are so many believers in foreclosure?”

These high rates in particular have made some Doubting Thomases of Prosperity’s controversial centerpiece: the belief in “positive confession,” or the idea that the faithful can “name it and claim it”—even Waikiki timeshares or Rolls-Royces with corn-silk leather trim—and God will provide it. Prosperity nomenclature is varied (Word of Faith, the “law of reciprocity,” Christianity Lite), but the movement owes as much to New Thought metaphysics and Norman Vincent Peale’s “positive thinking” as it does to early proselytizers like Kenneth Hagin. In many ways, it is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Christianity’s face-lift, whisking away specters of hellfire and brimstone with a message of self-empowerment. Preachers don’t belabor sin if they mention it at all. “It’s not my job to try to straighten everybody out,” Osteen famously told Larry King in 2005, adding, “My message is a message of hope.”

And he writes that the financial crisis may be a crisis for the Prosperity Gospel itself:

But reality, in the form of a housing-crisis fallout, is full of victims who ought to be a clarion call for Prosperity’s out-of-touch-ness. Its territory—locus of the lower-middle-class and minority neighborhoods from which most followers are culled, like modest exurban areas in California’s Southland and the edges of greater Atlanta—has some particularly high foreclosure rates.

I think there may be a rich vein to be tapped here for business journalists. Riley alludes to something like this, but he doesn’t have evidence:

A decade ago, this pursuit was equated—not for unfounded reasons—with upward social mobility by the black churchgoing community, which was alternately feeding off and fostering entrepreneurship and mutual patronage that bound congregants together. In the lead-up to subprime lending, black church members served fellow believers as mortgage brokers and real estate agents, trying to apportion heavenly goods. In the end, it was a cruel double whammy: To save face and friendships, many ex-subprime celebrants, now jaded victims, wouldn’t admit to being flimflammed by either predatory lenders or faulty interpretations of biblical teachings.

Okay, but give us an example. Thing is, I doubt it would be that difficult to report this kind of thing out. As Riley does note, some Prosperity Gospel preachers have gotten into real estate, and it hasn’t worked out too well for some of their buyers, who in many cases are their followers, too:

Prosperity’s impact in Kirbyjon Caldwell’s Corinthian Pointe, a south Houston community the city labeled “affordable,” on the other hand, is clearer: According to the Houston Association of Realtors and RealtyTrac listings, more than 30 of its 454 homes currently face foreclosure.

Sounds like a story to me.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.