“Prosperity gospel” is the Christian ideology that if you give your money to the church, God will make you rich. The more you give, the more you get.
And by the millions, people actually believe this.
That’s why Michael Fortner, author of numerous theological books such as “The Prosperity Gospel Exposed: And Other False Doctrines,” has made debunking harmful doctrines like “prosperity gospel” his life’s work.
“God doesn’t promise to make us rich,” Fortner says over the phone.
“These preachers say that whatever you give, you’ll receive back tenfold, or one-hundred-fold, or some of them even go so far as to promise one-thousand-fold!” Fortner exclaims. “I used to believe it myself, but after studying the Bible, reading every line and writing down every verse and scripture related to wealth and prosperity, I realized they were wrong. They were taking everything out of context.”
One of the most prominent preachers of the prosperity gospel is Joel Osteen, the wildly wealthy Houston mega-pastor.
You remember him. Just last week, Osteen was publicly attacked after apparent reluctance to open his church as a shelter to victims of Hurricane Harvey. By the time Osteen began accepting refugees, days after the fatal flooding had left thousands homeless, a tide of resentment had already started to swell.
It didn’t help when Osteen told victims not to have a “poor me” attitude. It also didn’t help when his church passed around collection buckets, asking for church donations during their first service for Harvey victims.
But the anger surrounding the Osteen fiasco is about more than one cruel response to a natural disaster’s refugees. It’s about super-rich preachers like Osteen — whose net worth is estimated at over $50 million — leading the hypocritical Christian movement of prosperity gospel.
“If prosperity gospel were true, people who give offerings would just become richer and richer,” Fortner says. But obviously … they don’t. Instead, poor, faithful souls coughing up every last cent are told by their affluent preachers that money is God’s blessing, and the richer are simply more blessed.
These teachings, and the charismatic televangelists and pastors like Osteen who preach them, are part of the Word of Faith movement, a strain of Christianity that maintains faith in God will heal sickness, improve relationships, and shower believers in riches.
“They say if you have enough faith you can get healed, and if you don’t get healed, you don’t have enough faith,” Fortner says. The same idea also applies to wealth. “You have preachers who drive Rolls Royces saying they have more faith. They’ll tell their congregation, ‘If you have as much faith as me, you’ll be as rich as me!’ but they’re getting all their money from the people.”
But it seems America is finally beginning to see the hypocrisy inherent in gospel prosperity. That’s why those perpetuating the ‘God will make you rich’ narrative are stirring up so much anger, and why when preachers like Osteen allow a momentary glimpse of uncharitable and unsympathetic behavior, the public raises Hell.
According to a Time Magazine poll that sought to find how extensive belief in prosperity gospel had become, 17 percent of American Christians identify explicitly with the movement, while 31 percent support the belief that “if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.”
However, statistics seem to prove the opposite. In general, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to be poor. The poorest counties in America — mostly in the South — also tend to be some of the most religious. Uber-religious groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Baptists and Muslims have very low average incomes.
And, in general, the less religious you are, the more likely you are to be rich. Jews and Unitarians, who, broadly speaking, tend to hold their beliefs more lightly, are the religions with the highest average income.
It's not a perfect correlation. People with no religion are right in the middle of the pack in terms of income. Social scientists say that's because churches and synagogues give social connections. When it comes to money, sometimes it’s who you know.
Even worldwide, poverty and religion are connected. The most religious countries are also poor countries. Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen and the other top 10 most religious countries are all poor. Does this mean that God hates these people? Why would He, when they love Him so much?
And why are some of the least religious countries also the wealthiest? Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong and Britain.
God works in mysterious ways. But He has never sent anyone a direct deposit.