‘Invest in me, and God will invest in you’. This is how Tanya Levin characterises the message of those who preach ‘prosperity gospel’, one of a number of closely related teachings also known as abundant life or seed faith. ‘Refuse, and you only have yourself to blame’.
Prosperity gospel or theology is defined as ‘a religious belief among some Christians who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth’. Although Enrichmentality is not a religious blog, prosperity gospel lies at the intersection of the two topics this site deals with: language (‘positive speech’) and money (‘donations’). The lessons from this example are far reaching.
Of course, not all Christians adhere to the ‘American gospel’ of prosperity theology (although, as Levin notes, it has spread to other countries including Australia). As John Oliver pointed out in his Last Week Tonight exposé, many churches use the money they collect to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. Nor is this type of belief exclusive to one religion. And multilevel marketing schemes like Herbalife or Amway and books like Trump and Kiyosaki’s Why We Want You To Be Rich preach similar lines in a secular tone.
Why should we care about prosperity gospel?
It’s big business.
In the her book People in Glass Houses, Levin reports the Trinity Foundation’s figures of 2,500+ radio and TV evangelists, vying for a donor pool of 5 million people. Trinity Broadcasting Network alone had a reported income of $200 million annually.
Making it the ninth highest-earning charity in the US.
We can learn how the poorest and neediest are targeted.
Levin reports that publishing house St. Matthew’s expanded in the 1990s, contracting services to other ministries for their seed faith campaigns. ‘Currently, ministers are charged US$400,000 for the use of the services and promised US$600,000 profit.’ How does St. Matthew’s accomplish this? By researching ‘the poorest and neediest demographics in the United States, where one in four children are deemed at risk of being hungry’.
Levin outlines how Gene Ewing, of St. Matthew’s, laid out the concept of ‘seed faith’:
‘Audiences were told that if they planted a seed of faith with money, it would grow into a big ministry to save the world. And God would reward them by giving the harvest of what they had sown.’
If this sounds at all convincing, I suspect it has a lot to do with language. The Bible is full of metaphors involving seeds, sowing, and reaping.
In the New Testament, the word ‘seed’ is mentioned 49 times. Most occur in Matthew and Mark, which contain the parables of the Sower, the Weeds, and the Mustard Seed.
Jesus even breaks down the metaphor of the weeds for his disciples: ‘The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom.’ He doesn’t mention money.
The words ‘reap’ and ‘sow’ provide an even more interesting picture.
The Bible characterises the general order of things not as one reaping what one sows, but as the opposite normally being true. John 4:37 even states that ‘the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.’ Matthew 6:26 explicitly disconnects the notion of sowing and reaping when it comes to God’s blessings: ‘Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’
The importance of language, specifically positive speech highlighted in the definition of prosperity gospel explains one of Levin’s observations of Australian church, Hillsong: ‘Even though new-monied people appear to love nothing more than to gather together and talk about money, the sad truth is that they actually need to do this’ she says.
‘Talking about it, visualising it, living it, was often part of the book they read, or workshop they went to’.
Want to buy a miracle?
John Avanzini, author of Rich God, Poor God, began telling people in 1990 on Christian television that whatever you give to the ministry (or ‘to God’) will be returned 100-fold. Any investment with this kind of return would be examined extremely skeptically. But as Oliver points out, there is next to no scrutiny when such claims are made in a religious context.
In a video Was Jesus Poor? Avanzini argues that Jesus and his followers were wealthy, and promised the believer riches. Remember, Jesus was the man who said ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’. Arthur Ward, in another video of the same title, claims Jesus bought at least one of his miracles – and he’ll show you how you can too.
Through publishers like St. Matthews, Levins reports ‘Poverty-stricken neighbourhoods are inundated with prosperity propaganda and gimmicks. They are told that they are driving God away with their lack of faith. The publications they are sent guarantee miracles only if they give what little they have’.
And it’s not just Americans. Levin quotes Hector Avalos, professor of Religious Studies: prosperity gospel is ‘probably the single most dangerous religious trend because it is causing further impoverishment of the poor in the Third World’.
At least two comedians have tackled this type of marketing. In his exposé, John Oliver showed footage of Henry Fernandez, encouraging viewers to give $1000 if ‘that’s all’ they have, because ‘that’s not enough anyway to buy the house’. Likewise, Mike Murdock recommends ‘you sow $1000 on your credit card’ if you want to wipe your debt.
Oliver engaged in a seven-month correspondence with Robert Tilton’s mailing list. He was sent $1, instructed to place it inside his Bible overnight, then send it back with an additional $49, so ‘I can have it blessed with oil and, then, send you a One Dollar Bill that has been blessed’. For Tilton, that’s an overnight return on investment of 4,900%. ‘ I must warn you not to rob God with your tithes and offerings’ he concludes.
‘Robin Cooper’ engaged with Peter Popoff’s ‘miracle water’ hotline. In the 1980s, Popoff was investigated by James Randi, who demonstrated Popoff’s telepathic abilities were actually facilitated by his wife feeding him information via wireless transmission. At the time, Popoff was collecting almost $4 million a year, but following the investigation, he declared bankruptcy. However, he made a comeback, and by 2005, was making $23 million a year.
YouTuber Ashens shared unsolicited letters from Popoff’s mailing list. ‘Supernatural debt cancellation is coming’ promised one envelope. ‘I feel led to ask you to sow a SEED of £25.00, this is the SEED God will use to break the yoke of DEBT bondage and set your HARVEST in motion’ reads the letter, written in a type-writer font and annotated with (printed) handwriting in an attempt at personalisation through orthography.
Ashens quips, ‘God, the omnipotent, omniscient creator force behind everything in existence needs twenty-five quid.’
Donation vs. investment
‘The argument’ Oliver summarises, ‘is sow your money in the ground, and you will reap returns multiple times over. Except, as an investment, you’d be better off burying your money in the actual ground.’
While preachers may encourage the view of these payments as ‘investments’ via their use of the terms ‘sow’ and ‘reap’ and ‘growth’ and ‘reward’, they also make use of the term ‘donation’. The word has a positive association – donating time or money or goods makes us feel good, and perhaps most importantly, donations to charitable or religious organisations in the US and many other places are frequently tax exempt.
Part of the problem comes down to language. Not just in the way that language is used to obscure the real use of the money that is ‘donated’, or in the way that asking for a jet is dressed up as a Biblical blessing. But in the eyes of the law: the term ‘church’ is not clearly defined. As Oliver points out, an organisation must merely have beliefs which are ‘truly held’ and practices which are ‘not illegal’ – which could be almost anything.
And it’s not just tax-free income. As NPR reported, televangelist Kenneth and Gloria Copeland’s $6.3 million villa is tax-exempt ‘because it’s listed as a parsonage’. Some prosperity gospel preachers, TYT reports, illegally evade taxes. But the fact remains that most of what they do is considered legal.
To illustrate the economic, legal, and moral issues at play, Oliver created his own church (Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption), crowning himself ‘MegaRverend’. The prophesy? ‘The viewers at home must plant a seed’ ‘That’s money’ cries his stage wife, ‘don’t send us seed’.
Does seeding work?
This is pretty easy to answer if we can agree on a couple of assumptions.
- Since prosperity gospel has been around since the late 19th century, we can assume that sufficient time has passed to see if it has had any effect.
- It would appear likely that if people found prosperity gospel was indeed working, they would maintain their faith in it.
Based on these assumptions, we might expect that a sizable proportion of the viewers of a typical televangelist would be well-off.
Instead, we find that of the 5 million people in the ‘donor pool’, 55% are elderly women. And these aren’t wealthy older women. Only 10% of the donor pool comes from a demographic that is upper-middle class: ‘a demographic that truly believes God wants it to be stinking rich’ says Levin.
The other 35% come from a group the Trinity Foundation calls the ‘desperation pool’. Those who are poverty-stricken. Those who have a terminally ill relative. Sometimes people who are sick themselves buy into faith healing via seed faith instead of seeking medical treatment, with Oliver reports, deadly consequences.
With 90% of the donation pool in the US made up of elderly women and the truly destitute, prosperity gospel does not appear to meet the criteria set out above.
You might suggest the 10% in the upper-middle-class got there miraculously. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t tell us whether seed faith got them there, or whether they were already upper-middle-class, and found prosperity helped them reconcile their wealth with their belief in a religion more widely known for teaching the evils of a love of money.
Financial literacy – or religious literacy?
When it comes to prosperity gospel, perhaps religious literacy is just as, if not more important than financial literacy. For all the lamenting of low rates of financial literacy, it appears rates of religious literacy are pitiful too. According to Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy, only 10% of American teens can name the 5 major world religions. More alarmingly, 15% cannot even name one.
Three quarters of Americans identify as Christians. It’s almost obligatory to make some reference to ‘faith’ (narrowly defined as a specific brand of Christianity) if you’re running for office. Yet, in a country where political leaders and lobby groups frequently call for ‘faith-based’ laws and education, religious literacy appears dire. While Prothero reports 2/3 Americans believe the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s fundamental questions, most cannot name its first book. Only half can name even one of the four gospels.
This leaves the public unprepared to evaluate statements made by politicians using Biblical-sounding language to accomplish their own goals, and combined with a lack of financial literacy, doubly unprepared to evaluate fanciful claims of riches that, due to their ‘religious’ nature, are not subject to even a fraction of the scrutiny an investment firm making the same promises would be. It is not merely or even mainly a case of the poor and vulnerable not knowing enough. The law is failing to hold those running these schemes accountable.
Has anyone become wealthy through prosperity gospel?
In 2009, TBN dropped from a 3 to a 2 out of 4 star rating on Charity Navigator, due to its increase in its administrative costs. The former director of finance filed a lawsuit in 2011 alleging that TBN unlawfully distributed over $50 million to the ministry’s directors, and that she, chauffers, and sound engineers had been ordained as ‘ministers’ in order to avoid social securities tax payments.
Gene Ewing’s St. Matthew’s Churches (formerly St. Matthew’s Publishing) reportedly earned $6 million per month in 2007.
The aptly named Crefflo Dollar, Oliver reports, attracted criticism by asking believers to help pay for a $65 million jet. Televangelist Mike Murdock bragged he ‘had enough money to buy a beautiful Cessna Citation Jet. Cash. And since there’s so much jealousy’ he addressed the congregation ‘…a few weeks later, I bought another one worth three times what that one was. Cash.’ Kenneth Copeland, also asked for a $20 million jet for ministry purposes – that a local news program revealed he used for personal holidays.
Although prosperity gospel may teach that if you sow, you will reap, in practice, it appears to prove the old saying that ‘One sows and another reaps’.
Those profiting from prosperity gospel – or from multilevel marketing (which, Levin points out, some preachers have a background in), or from policies based on the fairytale of trickle-down economics – are not those who are sacrificing and sowing the seeds.
Grow your own ‘miracle’
Fernandez may be right when he says $1000 isn’t enough to buy a house (in most places). But our home savings account started with a lot less. That’s the real seed. The bit of money you set aside – in an interest bearing savings account preferably – and grow yourself.
If you are saving for a house, or looking to pay off debt, make sure to read How can I maintain my money mojo?
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Today’s featured image is of some Polish złoty (love that word!) I ‘planted’ on the balcony. Don’t worry, I won’t be leaving it there (like I did when I was a kid…!)
Let me know what you think about faith and money in the comments!