I’ve always been annoyed by Hollywood sports movies that spend nearly two hours earnestly preaching about how it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose the Big Game because what’s really important is the spiritual growth achieved through the challenge of competition. But then the movie predictably ends with the protagonist winning the Big Game anyway and being carried away on the shoulders of admiring teammates. The twisted lesson seems to be: Once you acknowledge that winning isn’t important, you will win. The fiscal corollary is: Once you acknowledge that money isn’t important, you will become fabulously wealthy. And more important than the winning or wealth is that witnesses are there to admire your achievement, to hoist you up on metaphoric shoulders of envy.
It’s crazy logic that stomps spirituality into pulp like a mugger pummeling a victim in a back alley. Like something Cersei Lannister would propose on Game of Thrones. Yet, that is the line — that God wants believers to be wealthy and that giving donations could improve your wealth — that some proponents of the so-called prosperity gospel have been selling. And like the snake-oil salesmen from whom they are descended, their product has a greasy stench to it that cures nothing but the salesman’s own greed.
Which brings us to Pastor Creflo Dollar’s earthly reward last week. In March, his plea to his congregation for them each to donate $300 or more so he could purchase a $65 million Gulfstream G650, the jet of choice for discerning billionaires flying the heavens like self-anointed angels, seemed to have been abandoned after public outcry. But now that the outraged voices have died down, the board of World Changers Church International, which oversees Creflo Dollar Ministries, has said it will buy this “Holy Grail” of aviation. The campaign to purchase the jet, the board said, is “standard operating procedure for people of faith” in “our community.”
And that’s the problem. Who are these “people of faith”? According to a survey for TIME magazine, those who embrace the prosperity gospel tend to be African Americans, evangelicals and those less educated. Though the specific theology from church to church can differ, the general claim is that the more money you give to the church, the more God will financially reward you. But this column isn’t about Creflo Dollar and the other multimillionaires who have cynically perverted Christ’s teachings to fill their silk-lined pockets. It’s about how the country shifted from the war on poverty in the 1960s to the war on the poor today.
The prosperity gospel is just another battlefront in that war. We could just shrug at the hundreds of thousands who willfully give up their money so their pastors can live in the kind of opulence that rivals that of the Roman Caesars. We could dismiss these worshipful congregants as victims of their own greed. But that would be misreading the situation. While greed may motivate the mansion-dwelling pastors, the congregants are motivated by hope of a better life. This is the same desperate, though misguided, hope that droves Americans to throw away $70.15 billion on lottery tickets in 2014, more than what was spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets and music combined. Who buys those tickets? According to a 2011 study, “Gambling on the Lottery: Sociodemographic Correlates Across the Lifespan,” the highest rate of lottery gambling (61%) came from those in the lowest fifth of socioeconomic status, concluding that “males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods” were more likely to play.
In essence, many of the “people of faith” are the poor who are more willing to place their faith in the lottery and prosperity gospel than in the tarnished legend of the American Dream. The recent economic recession has delivered a gut punch to that American Dream of working hard and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps until the inevitable riches follow. Sure, it still can happen, just not as often as it used to. Now burdened with enormous college debt, fewer prospects for well-paying jobs, rising housing costs and increased cost of living, more of the what used to be middle class are slipping over the edges of the financial cliff and falling on hard times. According to the CBS News article “America’s Incredible Shrinking Middle Class,” the size of the middle class has decreased in all 50 states. Where have they gone? To the poor side of town. More than 45 million (14.5%) Americans lived in poverty in 2013, up from 12.3% in 2006.
Without faith in the government to help lift the poor out of poverty or prevent the middle class from slipping away, desperate and frightened people seek help in the supernatural of religion or in the supernatural odds of the lottery (odds of winning on a single ticket are 1 in 175 million). It’s hard not to be sympathetic.
Americans have always had difficulty reconciling the lofty pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with the worldly hunger for material prosperity, especially if the former rejects the latter. We want to win, even if winning means we lose something even more valuable not tangible because our fame-mongering, social-media-driven culture tells us we haven’t won unless everyone else acknowledges it. (If someone does a good deed in the forest and no one’s around, is it still a good deed? Not anymore.) But how does one keep score in the spirituality game? According to the purveyors of prosperity gospel, your friends and neighbors will know how righteous you are by the size of your bank account and the make of your car.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he says, “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also” (Matthew 5:40). The coat was considered to be a shirt while the cloak was a crucial garment to protect against the elements. Combined with Jesus’ admonishment to turn the other cheek when struck, we see a teaching that is establishing the basis for Christianity: Tend to what is permanent (the soul) over what is temporary (material goods). To expect an earthly reward other than purity of mind would go against these teachings. Yet those pimping the prosperity gospel are preaching the opposite.
I’m in awe of most religious leaders because they dedicate their lives to helping others achieve spiritual fulfillment. I’m also in awe of most practitioners of religions because their goal is to do the right thing for their god and their community. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful and wealthy. But there is something wrong when some people exploit the poor, the fearful and the desperate to enrich themselves through donations and tax-exemptions by pretending to be spiritual leaders. Like the professional pardoners of the Middle Ages who pedaled indulgences to the highest bidders, they pervert teachings for profit. These are the people that the word shame was invented to describe.