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The prosperity gospel, explained: Why Joel Osteen believes that prayer can make you rich

The long, strange history of a quintessentially American theology.

Joel And Victoria Osteen With Fr. Ed Leahy At SiriusXM
Joel Osteen is one of the most famous preachers associated with the prosperity gospel
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

In the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey, which has resulted in the deaths of at least 46 people, few narratives have captured the public imagination — or anger — like that of Joel Osteen and his Lakewood Church, one of the largest megachurches in the country. Osteen’s seeming hesitation in opening the church as a shelter for evacuees provoked an intense social media backlash.

Lakewood’s representatives maintain that the church was opened as soon as it was safe and feasible to do so. But whether the backlash was founded or not, it reflects the profoundly ambiguous feelings Americans of different faiths have about wildly wealthy preachers like Osteen — whose net worth is estimated at over $50 million — and about the “prosperity gospel” he preaches.

As Laura Turner notes in an excellent piece for BuzzFeed, no theological tradition is as rife for accusations of hypocrisy as the “prosperity gospel,” a distinctively American theological tradition. While it’s popular among many evangelical Protestants, it’s been condemned by many others. But to many of its critics, especially since the election of Donald Trump, this tradition has come to represent the worst of the conflation of American-style capitalism, religion, and Republican party politics.

The prosperity gospel has its roots in an American occult tradition called New Thought

The prosperity gospel is an umbrella term for a group of ideas — popular among charismatic preachers in the evangelical tradition — that equate Christian faith with material, and particularly financial, success. It has a long history in American culture, with figures like Osteen and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, glamorous, flashily-dressed televangelists whose Disneyland-meets-Bethlehem Christian theme park, Heritage USA, was once the third-most-visited site in America.

A 2006 Times poll found that 17 percent of American Christians identify explicitly with the movement, while 31 percent espouse the idea that “if you give your money to God God will bless you with more money.” A full 61 percent agree with the more general idea that “God wants people to be prosperous.”

Its roots, though, don’t just lie in explicitly Christian tradition. In fact, it’s possible to trace the origins of the American prosperity gospel to the tradition of New Thought, a nineteenth-century spiritual movement popular with decidedly unorthodox thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. Practitioners of New Thought, not all of whom identified as Christian, generally held the divinity of the individual human being and the priority of mind over matter. In other words, if you could correctly channel your mental energy, you could harness its material results. New Thought, also known as the “mind cure,” took many forms: from interest in the occult to splinter-Christian denominations like Christian Science to the development of the “talking cure” at the root of psychotherapy.

The upshot of New Thought, though, was the quintessentially American idea that the individual was responsible for his or her own happiness, health, and situation in life, and that applying mental energy in the appropriate direction was sufficient to cure any ills.

Thus, New Thought thinker Ralph Waldo Trine (not to be confused with Ralph Waldo Emerson) could exhort his readers to “See yourself in a prosperous condition. Affirm that you will before long be in a prosperous condition.”

In addition to influencing Christian movements like the prosperity gospel, New Thought has also made its way into many “secular" aspects of American life, including the tradition of positive-thinking self-help represented by books like The Secret, which was written by an Australian but gained popularity when promoted by Oprah.

Today’s prosperity gospel was also shaped by pro-capitalist and Pentecostal thought traditions

A second strand in the development of the American prosperity gospel was the valorization of the “Protestant work ethic.”

Written in 1905, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism traced what he saw as the specifically Protestant approach to labor as integral to the development of capitalism and industrialization.

In Weber’s historical analysis, Protestant Calvinists — who generally believe in the idea of “predestination,” or that God has chosen some people to be saved and others damned — felt the need to justify their own sense of themselves as the saved. They looked both for outward signs of God’s favor (i.e., through material success) and for ways to express inward virtue (i.e., through hard work). While the accuracy of Weber’s analysis is still debated by scholars, it nevertheless tells us a lot about cultural attitudes at the time Weber wrote it.

By 1905, at least, the idea that working hard and receiving material, financial reward for that work was integral to a certain strand of Protestant Christianity had entered the public consciousness. According to a recent Dutch study, that point of view still holds true today: Protestants and citizens of predominately Protestant countries tend to conflate labor with personal satisfaction more than those of other religious traditions.

A final strand of the development of the prosperity gospel was the development of charismatic Pentecostal churches in America. An umbrella term for a decentralized group of churches — comprising over 700 denominations — Pentecostal churches are characterized by an emphasis on what is known as “spiritual gifts” (or charisms, from which the term “charismatic” is drawn). A worshipful Christian might experience, for example, the gift of healing, or might suddenly start speaking “in tongues.” This tradition of worship meant that, for a believer, the idea that God would manifest Himself to the faithful in concrete, miraculous ways in the here and now was more prevalent than it would be in, say, a mainline Episcopalian church. In addition, the decentralized nature of these churches also meant that individual leaders, many of whom practiced faith healing or similar practices, had a particularly strong effect on their congregations and could build up individual personal followings.

These three strands collided throughout the twentieth century, as the prosperity gospel came into being. It started — like the “work ethic” Max Weber described — as a way to justify why, during the Gilded Age, some people were rich and others poor. (One early prosperity gospel proponent, Baptist preacher Russell H. Conwell, told his mostly-destitute congregation in 1915: “I say you ought to be rich; you have no right to be poor.”) Instead of blaming structural inequality, Conwell and those like him blamed the perceived failures of the individual.

Throughout the twentieth century, proponents of this particularly American blend of theology envisaged God as a kind of banker, dispensing money to the deserving, with Jesus as a model business executive. Both of these characterizations were, at times, literal: In 1936, New Thought mystic and founder of the Unity Church Charles Fillmore rewrote Psalm 23 to read, “The Lord is my banker/my credit is good”; in 1925, advertising executive Bruce Bowler wrote The Man Nobody Knows to argue that Jesus was the first great capitalist. The literal money quote reads, “Some day ... someone will write a book about Jesus. Every businessman will read it and send it to his partners and his salesmen. For it will tell the story of the founder of modern business.”

Yet it was in Pentecostal churches — with their focus on immediate spiritual gifts and the power of God to confer favor (and wellness) immediately — that the prosperity gospel as we know it today took hold. The “Word of Faith” movement — a Pentecostal version of New Thought that saw positive affirmation as central to financial and material success — became more prominent. Figures like Kenneth Hagin, his protégé Kenneth Copeland, Oral Roberts, and, of course, Osteen himself built up individual followings: followings that often grew as a result of cross-promotion (something religious historian Kate Bowler points out in her excellent Blessed, a history of the prosperity gospel movement). One preacher might, for example, feature another at his conference, or hawk his cassette tapes.

Central to the prosperity gospel was the idea of tithing, or giving money to the church, ideally one's “first fruits” — or initial earnings. This money, many prosperity gospel preachers promised, was an investment. By showing faith, parishioners could have a “hundredfold” return on their investment, a reference to a verse in the Gospel of Mark about those who suffer for Christ receiving a hundredfold what they have lost. Thus could Ken Copeland write in his Laws of Prosperity, "Do you want a hundredfold return on your money? Give and let God multiply it back to you. No bank in the world offers this kind of return! Praise the Lord!” In this mentality, tithing is a financially responsible thing to do. It’s a show of faith and a shrewd investment alike, a wager on the idea that God acts in the here and now to reward those with both faith and a sufficiently developed work ethic.

Many of the evangelical leaders that surround Trump are proponents of the prosperity gospel

The prosperity gospel tended to ebb and flow in accordance with wider cultural trends — it flourished in the postwar boom of the 1950s, and then again (unsurprisingly) in the no less ostentatious ‘80s, when big hair and big money alike were in. Yet despite the catastrophic fall of some of the most prominent proponents of the gospel — Jim Bakker, for example, spent years in prison for fraud — the movement has persisted well into the present day. Perhaps no less unsurprisingly, two of its major proponents — Paula White and Wayne T. Jackson — were among the six faith leaders invited to pray with Donald Trump at his inauguration.

Certainly Trump is, in some sense, a product of that mentality. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, theology professor Anthea Butler argued that Donald Trump and Joel Osteen were “mirrors” of one another:

Both enjoy enormous support among evangelicals, yet they lack a command of biblical scripture. Both are among the 1 percent ... Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Osteen’s brands are rooted in success, not Scripture. Believers in prosperity like winners. Hurricanes and catastrophic floods do not provide the winning narratives crucial to keep adherents chained to prosperity gospel thinking. That is why it is easy for both men to issue platitudes devoid of empathy during natural disasters.

It’s difficult to say that the prosperity gospel itself led to Donald Trump’s inauguration. Again, only 17 percent of American Christians identify with it explicitly. It’s far more true, however, to say that the same cultural forces that led to the prosperity gospel’s proliferation in America — individualism, an affinity for ostentatious and charismatic leaders, the Protestant work ethic, and a cultural obsession with the power of “positive thinking” — shape how we, as a nation, approach politics.

What is our collective approach to health care, after all, if not rooted in a visceral sense that the unlucky are responsible for their own misfortune? What is our willingness to vote a man like Trump into office but a collective cultural reward for those who brand themselves as successful?

After all, Trump may have embraced New Thought more than anyone realized: seeing himself in the White House, affirming himself in the White House, before anyone else saw it coming.

He’s gotten his investment back a hundredfold.