A God who does his best work in the dark hours is integral to the story of American evangelical Christianity. The stuff of country music songs and conversions in roadside motels, Jesus tends to come to people at their lowest and loneliest. The only problem is that some of God’s most pernicious modern apostles understand this all too well. At a time when fewer and fewer believers are going to church, it is consumption, in these dark times, that illuminates a deeply antisocial shift in evangelical Christian beliefs.
Chief among the new doctrines is the idea that God rewards “seeding”—that is, the “sowing” of financial donations to churches, or favored online preachers—with a material harvest in return. The prosperity gospel might sound as old-fashioned—and feel as familiar—as a preacher in a three-piece suit, but a new and cynical version is making a comeback across ministries both old and new; among people who go to church and those who get their faith online.
A recent survey by Lifeway Research found that 52 percent of American churchgoing Protestants say their church teaches God will bless them if they give more money to their church and charities. That figure is up from 38 percent of churchgoers in 2017. It’s an almighty leap, according to Lifeway’s executive director, Scott McConnell, who attributes the shift to the pandemic. The Covid-19 years, he says, had a real effect on the way many believers see the relationship between their faith and their personal finances. “Both positively and negatively,” he told The New Republic; “there was a lot of frustration just on the financial side.” Whether people “were out of money, or they couldn’t really spend the money they had on what they wanted,” largely in the form of stimulus checks, “they didn’t feel very prosperous.”
It’s a discontent that cuts across religious lines, but with many pastors and congregations forced to endure what they experienced as government restricting their ability to attend church, these resentments were often magnified among the faithful. In the return to normal life, McConnell believes that the inflation that followed left a lot of people with the sense that “even if they’ve done well, they don’t feel as in control of their finances.”
Enter the church and, more specifically, preachers who specialize in the “health and wealth” form of faith. Quietly, outlets such as television channel INSP, the rebrand of Jim Bakker’s PTL Television Network, have become a fixture in the top 20 highest-rating channels in the nation. With viewership increasing 1,171 percent since 2010, the network that runs John Wayne films by day and Joel Osteen sermons by night has gained a foothold in American households.
Prosperity gospel preachers no longer need to ply their trade on minor Christian broadcasting networks—they can speak to people on mainstream channels at all hours. For those without cable, InspirationTV, the INSP’s online arm, broadcasts the prosperity gospel message around the clock. Osteen and his cohorts might have captured an older television audience, but there’s a whole new breed of prosperity preachers who specialize in the motivational Christianity that is made for online spaces.
For all of its certainty, social media algorithms favor muscular Christianity. During the pandemic, when people couldn’t go to church, the preachers who had the online infrastructure in place to broadcast sermons—and accept donations—found a whole new audience: members of “mom and pop” churches who had nowhere else to go. Those who ended up getting their Christianity from Facebook rather than the pulpit found it all too easy to fall down into some extreme theological rabbit holes. And without anyone to bounce new ideas off, they had no mooring—there was no congregation to moderate radical ideas.
Scott McConnell believes that this bombardment of new ideas has disrupted conventional Christian teachings. “We have access to so much knowledge and so many information sources,” he says, and unless believers are intentionally returning to the Bible, few have the time to “check their credibility.”
Here, proponents of the prosperity gospel, whether online or on television, can speak out from both sides of their mouths. For the well-heeled, success is an obvious reward of faith. For the disadvantaged, a God who is looking after them in this life, as well as the next, dangles a golden carrot at a time when social mobility is becoming harder to come by due to increasing inequality.
This might go some way to explaining why the Lifeway study of churchgoing Protestants found that those most likely to agree that God will bless them if they give money to church and charities are most commonly found among the demographics who have felt the economic downturn most acutely. People aged 18 to 34 (81 percent) and 35 to 49 (85 percent) are more likely to get on board with a God interested in prosperity than people aged over 65 (68 percent). African Americans (86 percent) were more likely to get on board than whites (73 percent) and other ethnicities (67 percent).
But while the prosperity gospel speaks to the groups who are experiencing the worst of times, it’s also being weaponized by some of the most right-wing elements in conservative religious circles as a form of retribution.
In May, Jason Mattera, son of Joseph Mattera, one of the most influential modern prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation—which emerged from the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition that is sweeping all of evangelical Christianity before it—wrote a piece outlining a new direction for prosperity theology. In the article, titled “A Biblical View of Work and Welfare,” Mattera junior opined that, while Christians should help to alleviate poverty, they are not “under any obligation to help indolent bums.” Such people, he added “are not entitled to our generosity” (emphasis his).
While the concept of prosperity gospel has always held some latent hostility to the poor—that your circumstances belie a lack of faith or at least that you’re not doing it right—Mattera’s view highlights an escalation of prosperity-gospel thinking that says the quiet part out loud.
In Mattera’s vision, which appears rooted as much in right-wing talking points as in theological ideas, “there are clear worldview implications for Christians to consider on the topic of work and welfare.” A hereditary influencer who made his name creating a “whites-only scholarship” while at college, he concedes that Christians should be at “the tip of the spear” when it comes to looking after the poor but largely for other Christians. The unfortunate, he writes, “have chosen the path of poverty.”
This is a worldview that seeks to wage not a war against poverty but a war against the poor instead—those who have, in his view, shown insufficient faith. This might come as a surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the teachings of Jesus, but it represents the culmination of a long strand of American Protestantism that gained hold after World War II.
Emerging from the New Thought movement espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson and friends in the 1830s, ideas about “mind power” found an amped-up audience in America’s new world primacy. Reds were under the beds, and evangelicals believed that this was an existential threat to the self-made, God-fearing man. Fretting that the New Deal was welfare masquerading as communism, Protestant leaders—who until then had largely set themselves outside and above the political realm—began making common cause with political opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Historian of the prosperity gospel Kate Bowler describes the merger of faith and conservative politics as incorporating the “American gospel of pragmatism, individualism, and upward mobility.”
At the same time, a renegade movement called New Order of the Latter Rain emerged to challenge the established Pentecostal hierarchy by promoting the idea that God’s blessings could be obtained on demand rather than by waiting for them to be bestowed on the pious. “Inverting the well-worn American mantra that things must be seen to be believed,” Bowler says, the prosperity gospel “rewards those who believe in order to see.” To this day, the majority of proponents of the prosperity gospel come from the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition. (There is one important exception, though: the Reformed Church of America minister Norman Vincent Peale, whose book The Power of Positive Thinking had a lot of purchase, not least on the Trump family who were fixtures in the front row of his New York church.)
Once something of a fringe movement that was looked down upon by other evangelicals, today’s Pentecostal-Charismatic preachers—often calling themselves nondenominational—have captured the energy of American, and global, Christianity to the point that everyone from Catholic priests to mindset influencers is embracing the Holy Spirit and its powers over mind, body, and wallet. This version of Christianity has toned down the emphasis on the afterlife for an understanding of the world here and now. Like any politician seeking election, the God of prosperity speaks to issues at the kitchen table.
For Arizona pastor Thomas Anderson, author of Becoming a Millionaire God’s Way and CEO of The Word for Winners, Biblical tales can be contextualized in modern terms. “Mary and Joseph took a Cadillac to get to Bethlehem because the finest transportation of their day was a donkey,” he told his congregation in 2009. “Poor people ate their donkey. Only the wealthy used it as transportation.”
A modern Messiah that owns nice wheels is really one of victory: For some, that may be overcoming personal hardship, for others, triumph over the forces of darkness. Transport apparently being a particular preoccupation of this Jesus, last month, during a telethon fundraiser, Louisianan prosperity preacher Jesse Duplantis announced that his ministry purchased a $21 million jet. According to the Roys Report, it will sit in the driveway behind the smaller business-traveler jet already owned by the ministry.
During the same broadcast, pastor Jerry Savelle joined the stage to announce that his ministry was seeding $100,000 for a private jet of his own. “I was sowing for the future,” he said, but God told him that “there’s something bigger, better, faster, and more range in your future.” Handing the check to another preacher on the stage, Savelle offered the money “out of my aviation account.”
That ordinary churchgoers are happy to give money to those who so obviously don’t need it can be confounding to many, but it speaks to people of faith living in a world where we equate valuing something with paying for it. We only need to look at the number of people who are willing to pay Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest men, for VIP access to his free social media site.
In this sense, it would be unfair to attribute the resurgence in prosperity-gospel beliefs to the lack of education found in the Lifeway study. It found that churchgoers who have a high school diploma or less were more likely to believe in the prosperity gospel (81 percent) than those with a bachelor’s degree (67 percent).
It’s easy to deride believers in the prosperity gospel as misinformed or uneducated. But for all of Mattera and his fellow trevelers’ views about people living in poverty, there is a growing body of evidence that the failings of the secular world are driving believers to faith-based alternatives. And this movement is going global: Research out of Brazil, where Pentecostal-Charismatic churches are overtaking Catholicism as the primary expression of Christianity, found that economic downturns push people toward the gospel of health and wealth—and, politically, to more religiously conservative candidates. One man’s spiritual Ponzi scheme looks a lot like another’s solidarity network, and for those who believe that there are better ways than the state to look after people, it’s a powerful thing.