The Mix

Reaganomics, Dubya, and the Gospel of Wealth

It's no coincidence that the prosperity preachers are back in action
God wants you to be rich. If you believe in God enough, fortunes will follow … or so some evangelical preachers successfully convinced their congregants during the 1980s. It was during that era of televangelism and the rise of the Christian Right that these messages about wealth were espoused by a evangelical preachers who taught the so-called "gospel of prosperity." According to the prosperity gospel—also called the Word-Faith Movement, gospel of Wealth, Health and Wealth Theology, Name it and Claim it, or Seed Faith Theology—the Bible promises material wealth to true believers.

Well, according to the New York Times, this "gospel of prosperity" is back in fashion. And I believe the ebb and flow of prosperity teaching has something to do with our national politics.

In the 1980s, the religious message of prosperity fit well into the political context of the Reagan years. Both Reaganite Republicans and prosperity preachers viewed wealth as the visible proof of God's blessing on America, and as the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream. Conversely, poverty was viewed by both groups not as a failure of an economic structure, but as a result of sin. For Republicans, the sin was a lack of a strong (Protestant) work ethic; for prosperity theologians, poverty was proof of a lack of faith in God. (I have a whole theory of how Reaganomics and prosperity preaching went hand-in-hand, which I may write about at a later date.)

The prosperity gospel went out of fashion, largely due to high-profile scandals by prosperity preachers, such as the 1989 conviction of millionaire preacher Jim Bakker on fraud charges. Slowly, the prosperity preachers found themselves with fewer congregants, and lots of suspicious looks. For about a decade, the prosperity gospel was out of the limelight and many downsized from megachurches to online ministries. But, reportedly, the ridiculous prosperity gospel is picking back up.

Today, George W. Bush's worship of both wealth and "Christian" values has re-created the environment where prosperity preaching thrives. It even thrives inside the White House: In 2002, one of Bush's "spiritual advisors," prosperity preacher Kirbyjon Caldwell, stayed in the Lincoln bedroom.
Maria Luisa Tucker is a staff writer at AlterNet and associate editor of the Columbia Journal of American Studies.