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Blessed are the winners: The uniquely American “prosperity gospel” tradition

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Joanne McPortland - published on 02/03/17

In various forms, it has shaped President Trump and millions of others since our country’s beginnings

Last Sunday’s gospel reading from Matthew featured one of the most famous “listicles” of Christianity: the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus defines blessedness. The Beatitudes offer a vision of true happiness, blessing, and divine favor that still startles us, no matter how many times we’ve heard the words:

Blessed are the poor in spirit … they who mourn … the meek … they who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the clean of heart … the peacemakers … they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness … (Matthew 5:1-12)

These precepts couldn’t be more different from the world’s – and particularly our American – notion of bliss. As hard as we may try, we are all influenced, even seduced, by another list:

Blessed are the winners … the successful … the wealthy … the powerful … the great … the healthy … the beautiful … the comfortable …

It’s no surprise that Christianity has, over the centuries, succumbed to interpretations of the gospel that conform more closely to our very human fears and desires. Nowhere has this tendency flourished more colorfully than in American Christianity. From our Puritan beginnings to today’s nondenominational megachurches, the gospel of winning runs like a thread through our religion and our politics. President Donald Trump calls one of today’s leading prosperity gospel advocates, the Rev. Paula White, his “spiritual director.”

You might hear the term “prosperity gospel” and come up with a stereotyped image: a white, Southern, Evangelical or Pentecostal televangelist, fervidly coaxing poor widows to exchange their pension checks for the promise of miracles. But as historian Kate Bowler demonstrates in her survey Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, the truth is much more complicated and diverse.

What are some of the general characteristics of prosperity gospel thinking?

Blessings are a sign of God’s favor. While all believers are called to see life as a gift from God, the prosperity gospel teaches that God bestows special material blessings of health and prosperity on those he favors. The Puritans of New England, who believed that God had predestined a precious few for salvation, tended to see material success and prosperity as clues to people’s eternal destiny. The dangerous converse, of course, is the belief that those who are ill or poor or unsuccessful are that way because they have sinned or because God has chosen them for damnation. It’s an easy leap to thinking the holier you are, the wealthier you’ll be. And if you’re not “winning,” it’s because God is unhappy with you.

Mind over matter. In the 19th century, Americans were enchanted with the New Thought movement, which counseled that the powers of the mind could be harnessed to bring about changes in material circumstances. (Envision Professor Harold Hill’s “think system,” from The Music Man.) Later this philosophy merged with Christian spirituality, most notably in the person of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of New York’s Marble Collegiate Reformed Church. Peale, whose book The Power of Positive Thinking was a best-seller in the 1950s and 60s, preached the importance of focusing one’s intent solely on success, both materially and spiritually. President Trump attended Marble Collegiate as a young man and considers Peale, who officiated at his first two marriages, to be one of the most powerful influences on his life.

Negative self-talk indicates a lack of faith. The gospel of winning has little or no room for admissions of fault, loss, or regret. It’s more than just a healthy emphasis on blessing and goodness. Believers, especially faith leaders, are cautioned never to concede failure or error, never to apologize, because words, like thoughts, have power, and lack of confidence is a devilish deception.

The individual comes first. The prosperity gospel emphasizes each person’s responsibility and power to succeed on his or her own, through the blessings of personal salvation. Prosperity gospel communities practice charity in terms of providing short-term aid to those in need, but rarely engage in communal action or efforts to change social structures. (A notable exception is the social action undertaken by some African-American prosperity gospel communities.)

The cross fades into the background. As might be expected, the prosperity gospel’s emphasis on victory makes the cross of Christ an uncomfortable symbol. Many prosperity gospel communities substitute a globe for the cross in their identifying logos, and few celebrate Holy Week or recommend penitential or ascetic practices. Suffering is not redemptive in this tradition, but something to be avoided or erased. People who suffer are “losers” who have not learned to claim the healing and abundance due them.

As Catholics look to the Trump presidency, it’s important to understand the spiritual and philosophical tradition that has shaped him and so many other Americans. In working to build a country where all are truly “blessed,” we can celebrate the positive aspects of the gospel of winning while providing an important corrective – based on the Beatitudes – where necessary.

This article draws for background on a piece by Miguel Pastorino in Aleteia’s Spain edition. You can read it in Spanish here.

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