What do Donald Trump, Joel Osteen, and Jesus Christ have in common? Together, they served as the chief illustrations of the 13th annual Thomas H. Lake Lecture and its focus on politics, religion, and prosperity. The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Walton delivered the lecture on March 31st entitled “Jesus, Chief Executive: The Gospel of Health & Wealth at the Core of American Religion.” Walton is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, and Professor of Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School. He is a noted expert on the prosperity gospel.
This religious movement remains one of the fastest growing and most prominent among U.S. Christians as well as abroad, shaping many of the largest churches in the world, from South Korea to South Africa. Also known as the “health and wealth gospel,” it is the doctrine that God wants followers to prosper. Through naming and claiming their hope for health and wealth, adherents confess they can achieve physical well-being and material success through faith in God and their tithes or financial contributions to the church. The view is espoused from local neighborhood pastors to televangelists such as Joel Osteen to Creflo Dollar and Paula White. While viewed by some as “unorthodox,” its popularity warrants greater understanding.
In his lecture, Walton traced the history of the prosperity gospel, from nineteenth century New Thought and Methodist pastor E.W. Kenyon through Neo-Pentecostal preacher Kenneth Hagin and contemporary advocates such as pastors Kenneth Copeland and Fred Price. Walton painted a nuanced picture: charitable, at times critical, but always well informed. His goal, however, was to demonstrate that prosperity theology is not simply sectarian, but rather quintessentially American. Rugged individualism and upward social mobility, American ideals that have shaped prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and politicians like Donald Trump, have defined much of American religion. Walton expanded the notion of prosperity theology. It’s not just for pastors with Bentleys and Leer jets, but perhaps it extends much further arguing that American Protestantism and capitalism have maintained an interdependent relationship throughout history.
Lines between religion and secular spheres have always been blurry. Walton illustrated this point through our evolving portrayals of Jesus. Through highlighting one of the nation’s bestselling books of the 1920s, The Man Nobody Knows, Walton depicted how author Bruce Barton depicted Jesus as salesman and CEO. Taking a rag-tag group of twelve disciples, he built the world’s largest international corporation. As a captain of industry, a self-made man, and an accomplished manager, Jesus embodied the ideals of American success.
If you think Barton’s book is an anomaly, google “Jesus + CEO” and see the number of hits you get. Of course, the overlap is often more subtle. James Hudnut-Beumler’s book In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and Protestantism, demonstrates throughout American religious history how Protestant churches have adapted the stewardship techniques, capital campaigns, and business principles of modern economics.
The blurriness of these lines should not surprise us and they are not inherently bad, but it often makes religious leaders quite anxious. In Lake Institute’s research and educational course, we continually confront the reality that money in faith communities remains a taboo topic. Clergy often mention to us that their vocational call into “ministry” was often a call away from the “world of business” as if the two are set against one another. Of course, some anxiety of clergy and laity is warranted when faith traditions are too quick to embrace any single financial approach as the economic model ordained by God. Sometimes this has led religious leaders to baptize business enterprise and sanctify success. At other times, it leads religion to a sense of strict separation, only engaging the market as its critic. Most often, however, we find ourselves in between. The full separation or immersion of our religious traditions into contemporary markets without question would be difficult. However, if the relationship between faith and money is not simple, that does not mean the conversation should be avoided. In fact, digging deeply into how these two spheres interact is essential. If all faiths speak of religion not simply as a cultural marker but as a way of life, our religious institutions and their leaders must look to guide people of faith in how they can ethically engage markets through their moral traditions.
So how do theologies of prosperity or poverty affect our way of living? What happens if a tradition promises wealth and health, and it doesn’t happen? What happens if it does? How does prosperity affect the way we think about and carry out our charitable giving, whether to one’s congregation or to other causes? Our faith influences our relationship with money – individually, within our communities, but also through our broader outlooks on politics, markets, and culture. The relationship is too important to ignore. Anything less diminishes religion and its power in shaping our world.