A Grift From God

The prosperity gospel, in both religious and secular form, is a giant con.

A pastor leads a service on October 31, 2017 in Wittenberg, Germany to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of his 95 theses, which called for reform within the Catholic Church and criticized the sale of indulgences. (Carsten Koall / Getty Images)

Forty percent of Americans are liquid asset poor, which means that if they don’t receive their next paycheck they have no means to make ends meet. Why?

If you’re a socialist, the answer is that society’s capitalist minority is exploiting the working-class majority. People are broke because they are dependent on wages to survive, and their bosses are paying them as little as they can get away with. Low labor costs yield high profits, and the compulsion to maximize profits is the driving principle of capitalism. It’s baked into the economic system and exacerbated by low levels of organized working-class resistance.

If you’re a believer in the prosperity gospel, though, the answer is very different. The prosperity gospel is a movement within American Christianity, also known as the Word of Faith, that says God wants you to be rich, but you have to will his financial blessing into being. Forty percent of Evangelicals are taught the prosperity gospel, according to which the root cause of poverty is faithlessness.

Barbara Ehrenreich took a glance at the prosperity gospel in her bookBright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. She links it to the overall trend of “positive thinking” that emerged first in self-help and business literature and has bled over into religion. According to the laws of positive thinking, writes Ehrenreich, “You can have all that stuff in the mall, as well as the beautiful house and car, if only you believe that you can.”

From a socialist perspective, it’s cruel enough that the prosperity gospel locates the potential for economic uplift somewhere else besides mass politics and united class struggle, distracting and demobilizing people, and making it harder for them to actually win real society-wide victories. But it gets worse.

Prosperity gospel ministers don’t usually stop at urging positive thinking. To manifest financial success, believers can’t simply have faith. They must demonstrate that faith — preferably in the form of a tithe to the person doing the preaching. As rapper Ice-T put it, “The preacher says, ‘I know God a little bit better than you. If you pay me, I’ll hook you up.’”

Like payday lenders, prosperity gospel ministers see the broke and struggling as a consumer market. Their target demographic is those who suffer from lack, and their product is the promise of abundance, or at least relief. Financially, the prosperity gospel is nothing but a swindle, prying money from people who by definition have very little and desperately wish they had more.

Ideologically, the prosperity gospel dovetails perfectly with right-wing ideology, which views poverty as a consequence of individual failure rather than rigged economic and political structures. As Ehrenreich writes, “Always, in a hissed undertone, there is the darker message that if you don’t have all that you want, if you feel sick, discouraged, or defeated, you have only yourself to blame.”

When times are hard, it’s because you didn’t think positively enough, pray hard enough, or tithe enough. It’s a spiritual spin on meritocracy, the ideological handmaiden to neoliberal capitalism.

The prosperity gospel is one of America’s greatest grifts. Little wonder, then, that it’s made its way to the White House, currently occupied by a master con artist himself.

Bet Your Bottom Dollar

On YouTube you can watch a video called “The Money Secret of the New Testament.” The video features a Word of Faith minister named Dr. Gene Lingerfelt, speaking in Los Angeles in 2009 at a venue called the FaithDome which seats one-hundred-thousand people.

The prosperity gospel reaches all kinds, but many believers are black. “The Word of Faith message resonated powerfully with African Americans,” writes Ehrenreich, “who were eager to see the gains of the Civil Rights Movement transformed into upward mobility.” The audience at the FaithDome is mostly black.

Lingerfelt is white. He has slicked-back, salt-and-pepper hair and is dressed in a pinstripe suit with a gold patterned tie and a gold pocket square.

“Honor has a big part to play in our money,” he says, instructing the crowd to repeat after him. “Lack of honor is what causes lack among God’s people. And that’s why God’s people are broke.”

Specifically, says Lingerfelt, God’s people are failing to honor the Lord. Even more specifically, they are failing to honor the Lord by forking over a portion of their paycheck.

“There’s really only one way to show honor, and that is money,” Lingerfelt says. “Why money? Because money is what people treasure most.” Lingerfelt uses Bible verses to specify that the Lord’s asking price for prosperity is ten percent of everything that passes through your hands. Follow God’s teachings, pay the tithe, and material abundance is yours.

To whom does the tithe go, though? If you ask Lingerfelt, it goes to God. But if you consult the books, you quickly discover that it goes to organizations like Lingerfelt’s Fellowship of Inner City Word of Faith Ministries. The organization was founded by pastor Frederick K. C. Price, who once bragged, “I live in a twenty-five room mansion, I have my own $6 million yacht, I have my own private jet, and I have my own helicopter, and I have seven luxury automobiles.”

In his sermon, Lingerfelt throws in an anecdote meant to innoculate the crowd against allegations of enriching himself at the expense of believers desperate for a change in their financial situation. He describes being at a fast-food restaurant in Detroit late at night, surrounded by “drug dealers and their ladies.”

I never saw a parking lot so full of Mercedes and BMWs in my life. And I never saw so much bling in one room in my life. And you know, you never see the media doing an expose on, “Something’s wrong here. Who are these drug dealers to be driving these expensive cars and wearing this bling?” But they’ll come after a preacher, and if they can’t find something they’ll just make it up.

The FaithDome erupts in applause.

Megachurch Preachers and Televangelists

Dr. Gene Lingerfelt is just a foot soldier in the prosperity gospel army. The generals are multimillionaire “pastorpreneurs” like Fred Price, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Bishop TD Jakes, Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton, and Kenneth Copeland. The latter is reported to have a net worth of $300 million, though some estimate it’s higher still.

Ehrenreich explains that the decline of traditional church membership in the late twentieth century created space for megachurch preachers and televangelists to capture new shares of the religious market, outside of ordinary denominational bureaucracies. They built churches, and eventually empires, with the intensity and devotion of nineteenth-century industrialists.

“Most megachurch pastors took their organizational model directly from the corporate playbook,” Ehrenreich writes, and many came to see themselves as businessmen. “The more pastors functioned as CEOs, socialized with CEOs, and immersed themselves in the lore of corporate management, the more they were likely to think of themselves as fellow CEOs.” They were not ashamed to be businessmen. After all, financial success was a gift from God. Anyone rich must have done something right in the eyes of the Lord. (Except Lingerfelt’s drug dealers; the prosperity gospel glosses over that contradiction.)

An early prosperity gospel pastorpreneur was Robert Tilton, Dallas-based televangelist who began a Word of Faith ministry in the mid-seventies. In the eighties, his television show Success-N-Life promised viewers riches beyond their wildest dreams if they sent prayers and donations his way. Tilton’s staff would throw away the prayers without reading them and funnel the money into the ministry. At its height, the scheme brought in an estimated $80 million a year.

Tilton was taken down by a vigilante named Ole Anthony, “The Antichrist of East Dallas,” who saw it as his personal mission to stop televangelist swindlers like Tilton from ripping off the poor. Ole Anthony’s muckraking led to a 1991 exposé by Diane Sawyer, which precipitated the downfall of Tilton’s empire. Today, Tilton lives life out of the public eye. “I consider myself already dead,” he says.

Another great promoter of the prosperity gospel narrowly avoided falling into disgrace a few years ago. Benny Hinn built a fortune urging believers to donate while telling them, “As we imitate Him with obedient giving, the potential of the harvest from our seed is truly limitless.” In 2017, Hinn’s nephew renounced him in an article in Christianity Today, writing:

Growing up in the Hinn family empire was like belonging to some hybrid of the royal family and the mafia. Our lifestyle was lavish, our loyalty was enforced, and our version of the gospel was big business . . .

God’s goal was not his glory but our gain. His grace was not to set us free from sin but to make us rich. The abundant life he offered wasn’t eternal, it was now. We lived the prosperity gospel . . .

Prosperity theology paid amazingly well. We lived in a 10,000 square-foot mansion guarded by a private gate, drove two Mercedes Benz vehicles, vacationed in exotic destinations, and shopped at the most expensive stores. On top of that, we bought a $2 million ocean-view home in Dana Point, California, where another Benz joined the fleet. We were abundantly blessed.

Hinn’s nephew went on to write a book called God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel, spilling the secrets of the Hinn family enterprise. Hinn was also subject to an aggressive IRS investigation. His hand forced by a brush with ill repute, Hinn has begun backing away from the prosperity gospel, which increasingly draws criticism from more traditional corners of Christendom.

But others are keeping the flame alive. Kenneth Copeland is the author of books such as Receive Your Inheritance and Prosperity: The Choice is Yours. Copeland’s website reads, “Prosperity is not an accident. It’s not a function of circumstances or the economy. According to God’s Word, prosperity is a choice. It is a personal decision and a spiritual process.” His newsletter says things like:

Is there anything missing in your life? Good health? A strong marriage? Increase in your finances? If so, it may be time to take a look at the condition of your spirit. One indicator of a weak spirit is a lack of success.

Ole Anthony’s watchdog organization has kept an eye on Copeland for years — broadcasting, for example, when Copeland and his wife sought donations from their followers to buy “his-and-her Cessna Citation X jets, valued at $20 million apiece.” (“When God tells Kenneth to travel to South Africa and hold a three-day Victory Campaign,” Copeland told his followers, “he won’t have to wait to make commercial travel arrangements. He can just climb aboard his Citation X and go!”)

But Copeland’s fall from grace has yet to come. In fact, in May of this year, the richest prosperity pastorpreneur of all was invited to dine with Donald Trump at the White House.

A Religious Spin-Off

Copeland’s visit wasn’t the Trump administration’s first or last intersection with the prosperity gospel. In fact, Trump’s spiritual adviser is a prosperity minister. Her name is Paula White. In April of this year, she promised believers that if they sent her money they would receive one of several blessings: God would bring harm to their enemies, assign them a special angel, enhance their prosperity, or increase their inheritance.

Donald Trump and Paula White speak at an event honoring Evangelical leadership at the White House on August 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan / Getty Images)

White is the reason Trump has hosted Copeland in DC, and the reason Trump has a religious advisory board featuring multiple prosperity gospel preachers. Her presence has caused concern among more traditional Christians. An article in Christianity Today reads, “Critical voices within the church worry that White’s political prominence will push the prosperity gospel mainstream — or prove that it’s already there.”

Trump and White have known each other since before he ran for president, back when she was a televangelist and he a reality TV star. White began her career in 2001 with a prosperity gospel television show on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network. (According to the Washington Post, she faces “accusations that she has taken advantage of her mostly African-American parishioners through her fundraising.”)

In the relationship between Paula White and Donald Trump, the nature of the prosperity gospel is laid bare. White got famous telling working-class people that their economic insecurity was a personal failing, and in a way, so did Trump. The Apprentice is a show about people dreaming of riches, desperate to prove themselves worthy of success. Most are not, and are punished for their weakness with unemployment. What’s obscured in both instances is that people are poor because people like White and Trump are rich — that they are each beneficiaries of a system that takes from the needy and gives to themselves.

As a businessman, Trump built a fortune on housing discrimination and speculative investments, and benefitted from tax cuts secured through industry-wide lobbying and personal influence. As president, Trump muscled through $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations — money that might have otherwise gone to schools, healthcare, housing, public sector jobs, or yanking the earth from the brink of climate destruction — and is now moving to cut Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and food stamps.

The prosperity gospel, in both religious and secular form, is a giant con. And one of the main reasons people put up with it is that they blame themselves for their own anguish. Unable to see the structural economic and political reasons for their dispossession, millions of people internalize the idea that their struggles are their own fault. They weren’t smart enough, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t think positively enough, didn’t put enough value on the line.

A preacher can easily shake a believer down. But capitalism shakes the rest of us down, too. The paycheck won’t cover the rent? Get a better job. None on offer? Improve yourself. Here, buy this sham college degree from Trump University, don’t worry about the debt. Yes, the numbers in your bank account are going down, not up, but you will reap your reward in time.

The prosperity gospel is only a religious spin-off of a secular dogma that bears the same markings. Having traveled all the way to the White House, it’s now disturbingly ascendant. Perhaps soon its star will fade. But we won’t be free of it entirely until working-class people start to understand that their deliverance from want is only attainable through united struggle against all the hucksters — from Wall Street to the White House to the FaithDome — who build their fortunes robbing people blind.