The following is an excerpt from Sarah Banet-Weiser's book Authentic published by NYU Press. Buy a copy of the book here.
Prosperity Christianity, or what some call “health and wealth” religion, is largely a North American religious movement, connected to Pentecostal Christianity and Word of Faith teachings, and is often tied to Oral Roberts and other evangelists who became well known in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Prosperity Christianity is also historically related to faith healing; in the early 20th century, evangelicals focused on physical well-being as the therapeutic ethos of culture became normative and activities like the “mind cure,” which stressed the power of positive thinking as a cure for disease, became popular. Additionally, Prosperity Christianity is related to the rise of Christian free enterprise in the mid-20th century and the interrelation between professional business and theology. For instance, business schools began to attract religious individuals as both students and administrators by midcentury, and as business schools began to take a more prominent role in higher education, Christian business schools (specifically in the midwestern US) emerged as places in which future evangelists could be trained to merge business skills with religious principles.
In the later half of the 20th century, schools such as the University of Arkansas, the University of Ozarks, Southern Methodist University, and others developed business schools as a response to a variety of factors, including national market concerns, postwar inflation and debt, an increasing national demand for vocational business instruction, and a growing desire for whitecollar workers in the US. Christian business schools, however, could provide a conservative and “moral” framework for this kind of education. In her careful history of the global corporation Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton argues that the figure of the contemporary religious entrepreneur became important to the rise of business programs at schools and universities around the US in the late 1970s. In the economic recession during this period, combined with residual countercultural fears of big business and bureaucratic businessmen, small-business enterprises and business schools cultivated the individual entrepreneur as an important element to Christian free enterprise, which found a particularly rich home in small towns, farms, and local churches. Outside the crowded, competitive urban industrial landscape, the emphasis on religion and American heritage that often characterized rural areas in the 1970s provided a welcoming context for the emergence of Christian free enterprise. These cultural spaces, as Moreton argues, “provided the cultural resources to enable a massive shift of economic possibility.”
In the small business schools that cropped up along the Sunbelt in the late 1970s, courses were offered in entrepreneurship, where, as Moreton states, the entrepreneur was cast as a special and rare type, not your typical bureaucratic businessman: “In this guise, the entrepreneur inherited the mantle of Jeffersonian virtue from the independent farmers and the Populist rebellion—a hero for the age of the mass office, a foil to sissified bureaucrats and the distant Shylocks of Wall Street.” As Moreton points out, the Waltons, the founders of Wal-Mart, promoted Christian business schools and Christian free enterprise and free trade, which serve a vital function in the economic backdrop of advanced capitalism in the branding of religion.
The commodification of religion had been a practice for centuries, but the use of the commercial marketplace to “sell” religion to reluctant, hard-to-reach, or otherwise inaccessible potential congregations proved successful in making religion “relevant” to an increasingly modern and pro-corporate population. But Christian free enterprise is not simply the use of the marketplace to sell religion. It is the adoption of the logic of free enterprise and branding as a way of understanding, experiencing, and proselytizing Christian religious values. This not only is a necessary condition for the branding of particular religions but also changes the understanding of religion itself.
In the vacuum that was left by the eradication of the safety net [public provisions], churches and other faith-based organizations became the pro- vider of last resort. Their family values rendered care a private privilege awarded in defense of marriage, not a mutual social duty of citizens to one another. The irony was that both the corporations and the churches were already public-private partnerships by definition, built with public subsidy and dependent on state nurturance.