The most influential work of popular theology published this century comes with a glossy gold dust jacket and a slew of celebrity blurbs on the back. Celebrity Texan blurbs, mostly: Chuck Norris loved the book; so did the former NBA coach Rudy Tomjanovich; so did the then-owner of the Houston Astros, Drayton McLane; so did David Carr, the Houston Texans' quarterback. The author himself gazes out from the front cover: his black hair is piled up and slick with gel; his hands are extended and touching at the fingertips; his smile is enormous, his front teeth like piano keys or filed-down tusks. The book's title hovers like an angel above his left shoulder, promising Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps To Living at Your Full Potential.
This is Joel Osteen, a Houston-based preacher who inherited a 7,500-seat megachurch from his late father, John Osteen, in 1999, and parlayed his pastorship into the highest-rated religious television show in America, a trio of #1 New York Times bestsellers, and a home for his congregation, Lakewood Church, in Houston's 18,000-seat Compaq Center. In the fragmented landscape of American religion, Osteen comes as close to Billy Graham's level of popularity and influence as any contemporary evangelist — and his cultural empire is arguably larger than Graham's ever was.
But there the similarities end. Graham's persona was warm and inclusive, but theologically he preached a stark, stripped-down gospel — a series of altar calls, with eternity hanging in the balance and Christianity distilled to a yes or no for Christ. Osteen's message is considerably more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out his rewards in this life rather than in the next. Where Graham was inclined to comments like "we're all on death row ... the only way out of death row is Jesus," Osteen prefers cheerier formulations. "Too many times we get stuck in a rut, thinking we've reached our limits," he writes in Your Best Life Now. "But God wants us to constantly be increasing, to be rising to new heights ... God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, and creativity." And whereas Graham's rise to prominence in the 1940s and '50s embodied evangelical Christianity's shift back toward the Christian mainstream, Osteen embodies a shift of a very different sort — the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in a marriage of God and Mammon.
In the 1980s, this marriage was associated with hucksters and charlatans — preachers who robbed their followers, slept with prostitutes, and sobbed on camera. But in twenty-first-century America, the gospel of wealth has come of age. By linking the spread of the gospel to the habits and mores of entrepreneurial capitalism, and by explicitly baptizing the pursuit of worldly gain, prosperity theology has provided comfort for millions of believers trying to reconcile their religious faith with their nation's seemingly unbiblical wealth and un-Christian consumer culture.
The crudeness of the prosperity gospel's rhetoric can obscure the subtlety of its appeal. There's an assumption that Christianity's traditional critique of Mammon worship is aimed primarily at the richest of the rich — the people who are most likely to resemble the camel struggling to nose its way through the needle's eye, as the gospel image has it. But there's a reason that the disciples responded to Jesus's famous simile with a shocked "Who then can be saved?". They understood, as many of today's casual readers might not, that the image is bound up in their master's broader condemnation of acquisitiveness in all its forms. In Christian teaching, the pursuit of money can be as morally dangerous as the possession of great wealth, and the middle-class striver may be as steeped in sinfulness as an Andrew Carnegie or a Donald Trump.
This is a hard teaching in any society, but especially in one as steeped in capitalist competition as our own. It feels like a monk's creed, and yet most churches insist that the average Christian isn't necessarily called to be a monk. Instead, believers are expected to be active participants in society, to be breadwinners and home owners and business proprietors, to be fruitful and multiply and then support their kids, all without succumbing to the siren song of greed, acquisitiveness, and wealth-worship. The stringency of Christianity's sexual teachings gets most of the press, but the commandment against avarice, if taken seriously, can be the faith's most difficult by far.
The prosperity gospel does away with this anxiety. Like most heresies, it resolves one of orthodoxy's tensions and paradoxes by emphasizing one part of Christian doctrine — in this case, the idea that the things of this world are gifts from the Creator, and that Christians are expected to participate in the world rather than withdrawing from it. Then it effaces the harder teachings that traditionally balance it out. The result is a message that's tailored less to the very rich than to the middle and working classes — to people who are hardworking but financially insecure, and who feel like they have to think about money all the time because they're trying to make more of it. The stereotype of the prosperity gospel involves a rich preacher fleecing the gullible poor. But the reality is just as likely to involve ministers who prosper by flattering their upwardly mobile, American Dreaming congregations, telling them to keep on striving and praying, because God wants them to keep up with the Joneses next door.
Of course, some of them won't keep up, the promises of their pastors notwithstanding. But prosperity theology resolves this difficulty as well, solving the problem of suffering by recasting it as a simple failure of piety and willpower. If you fail to master everyday events, it's a sign that you just haven't prayed hard enough, or trusted faithfully enough, or thought big enough, or otherwise behaved the way a child of God really should. The fault where any evil is concerned, in other words, lies not with God but with you — so stop whining about your troubles, get down on your knees, and do something about it!
Such a message may sound cruel. But it can also be strangely comforting, since it makes sense of one of Christianity's more difficult dilemmas, and then suggests, in fine American style, that there's always something you can do about your troubles. (Pray harder! Trust more! Widen your horizons!) And it has a further appeal in our disenchanted age, because it simultaneously preserves orthodox Christianity's emphasis on prayers, miracles, and divine actions — on a God who loves and cares and intervenes — while avoiding anything that seems too visceral or medieval-seeming. In prosperity theology, there's no need for bleeding statues or levitating saints to prove that God acts in history or that He answers individual prayers. Everyday blessings and ordinary triumphs are the miracles, if you're seeing things "in the supernatural."
When you ask God for help, in other words, he doesn't need to send an angel or an apparition to prove His love for you and prove your prayer's power over earthly powers and principalities. He can just send you a raise.
Adapted from Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat. Copyright 2012 Ross Douthat. Excerpted by permission Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.