The prosperity gospel mess

money2smAuthor and historian Kate Bowler has penned a deeply touching, personal, and provocative look at what’s called “the prosperity gospel” — a twentieth century Christian heresy positing that a better, more prosperous life is available through faith. Based on her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, the New York Times article covers this controversial topic with powerful accuracy through the telling of her own story. Ms. Bowler has stage 4 cancer, and the prognosis isn’t good.

There’s so much to like about this article, but here’s the money paragraph to me:

The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me?…The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you…My world is conspiring to make me believe that I am special, that I am the exception whose character will save me from the grisly predictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed.

I address this issue head on in my forthcoming book, How Jesus Joined The GOP. Here’s one particularly distressful story:

Unfortunately, the relentless emphasis on a God that was “always” healing had a very dark downside, and that was with those viewers were never were healed and had no explanation. I got a letter late in my first season with the ministry, and it was one of the factors in my decision to leave in 1986 as Pat was beginning his run for President. It came from a father in Indiana. He and his family were members of a faith church and regularly watched The 700 Club. He ripped into me for producing a program that always showed people getting healed, because his 9‑year old daughter had just succumbed to cancer. “Worse,” he wrote, “than the agony of her suffering with the cancer towards the end, was the rejection she felt from God, because He wouldn’t heal her.”

“She watched your program every day,” he went on, “and was ever full of faith that she would be healed based on the stories you showed. In the end, she felt an abandonment and rejection like few have ever known, and she cried constantly in shame that God didn’t love her, because He was letting her die.”

“She came to this belief by watching The 700 Club,” he concluded, “and I will never forgive you for that.”

This letter affected me deeply. I cried not only alone but also with others over what this little girl had suffered, and while we all could come up with justifications, we knew that the father was right. To this day, I pray for that little girl and her family and beg forgiveness for playing a role in what she went through.

Fortunately, these kinds of letters weren’t commonplace, but the fear that we were manipulating people into believer status by bending the truth of miracles in such a way was omnipresent, not only for me but also for others on the staff who were in the trenches trying to deliver the sometimes-merciless demands of our leader. We spoke of immutable spiritual “laws” of God’s kingdom that people “should” follow to be in sync with God’s will. We read Answer to Prayer forms live on the air without vetting anything. This further advanced the narrative that God was moving mightily among us, as we invited viewers in to experience it with us. The lines we regularly blurred were trouble to many of us, but we didn’t speak. We dared not, for the benefits of participation in what we were taught to believe was happening outweighed the possibilities that we were actually doing people harm.

This is such an important issue for understanding how certain voters can set aside reason in their political and social choices. It’s not (necessarily) the lack of intelligence; it’s a form of conditioning that flows from the pulpits of their houses of worship. In order to change minds, one must begin and end with their faith, which is impossible for secular media types who seem unable to look beyond the surface.

I’m so sorry that Ms. Bowler has to go through the suffering of cancer, and I hope you’ll take the time to read her important story.


  1. Terry, you know me from way back then. I was and am often confused by miracles of healing, having prayed diligently for maybe 40 years for certain things and even more often in the last decade or so, with no discernible answers (unless no or not now count for something!) I can only trust God in a way I can’t explain. Maybe things now are the same as they were back then (televangelists et al) or maybe being on the inside blurs our sensibilities. You know, a fish doesn’t know that it’s wet! I am actually glad I was fired back in the 80s or maybe I’d still be stuck in the muddle. It made for a very hard year afterwards but since then we’ve moved on to a new series of ups and downs.

    You and Ms. Bowler both make good points. I await your book.

  2. Those were faith-wrenching days, Terry. I remember them well! Troubling to me was the money behind it all. As I referred in my book, Chiseled, each dollar that came in to the ministry was a testament of faith and the ministry had to deliver the goods. When I left in 1988, I was spiritually vanquished with no answers to many, many nights of tearful prayer. I had to rescue myself out of that pit or go mad. How happy I am, how content and joyful now without the uncertainty of salvation or God’s love, or even God’s ear. I am far more content in a more Buddhist’s tradition of having no expectations than offering up a dollar for some special dispensation from a greedy God. REally looking forward to reading your book!

  3. You made me think of a couple of passages from scripture that make the point in a monumental way:

    The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:10–13
    I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.

    Matthew 8:20
    Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

    And one bit of thoughtful humor on the subject:

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