Today, Joel Osteen preaches one of the more popular versions of prosperity gospel. A quick perusal of Osteen’s books including Expect More reads like a how-to for prosperity gospel proponents. In his book, it is clear that personal success is evidence of piety, and poverty is evidence of a lack of faith. There are, of course, more complex variations where poverty may be understood as a God-given test to build one’s faith. In each variation, however, wealth is connected with God’s favor.
Many progressive religious people will easily critique the prosperity gospel, and yet, as a cultural expression of market theology, it is woven into our lives. How many progressives speak of the “universe providing” with an Oprah-etic tone? Or what about study after study that show, in the abstract, we attribute poverty to systemic cause, but walking by someone huddled in a train station, we almost always craft a personal narrative of their poverty. Sometimes, this is done as unconscious self-protection method. “It can’t happen to me, because I am not _____” At other times, it is the sneaky insidious nature of the prosperity gospel.
Market theology is woven into our globalized world. It is understandable to want to believe in a world in which we can shelter ourselves from poverty, illness and death rather than living into our vulnerability and finitude as fuel for living. It is understandable to want to control the fear with a belief in an invisible hand that guides the market. I get it. And yet, it is dangerous- not just for “the poor”- but for all of us.
Consider the Affordable Care Act and the recommendation to replace it with Health Savings Accounts. If you believe that your condition in life is a result of divine favor, then of course, you would support policies that allow for individuals to gain access to care for themselves. If you believe that there is an “invisible hand” or some divinely-appointed power controlling the world with a karma calculator, then you would likely support policies that increase individualized mechanisms of control and access. Even if you are “the poor,” if your belief is grounded in a prosperity gospel, you will consistently vote and act against your own interests but maintain alignment with your theology.
The Affordable Care Act is not perfect, by any measure. The swiftness of repeal and the profound public support for the repeal is bolstered by market theology. It is not an indifference toward people at-risk. The real danger in market theology is that it diminishes empathy and social responsibility by emphasizing a sense of personal piety and individual control. In this shift, the economies of authenticity are diminished and the creative capacities for people to develop subversive, egalitarian relationship is hindered. In the prosperity gospel, the poor are excluded from God’s favor as a necessary sacrifice to the system of God’s justice.
In that sacrifice, we all lose a bit of our humanity each time we are told the lie that somehow this is a necessary form of political tough-love, that people won’t really die, or that there is a choice between providing for the poor and supporting small business owners. Smart politicians, like our president, understand all too well the power of market theology. In subtle and direct ways, they will reinforce this theology. And if, we are not clear, about how accidental our own birth and success or terrible trouble may be, and how subversive egalitarianism and generosity can be, we will diminish, in truth, the core of a revolution.