Preaching to the Pocketbook
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The grinding poverty in Africa is a world away from the affluence that's common in much of this country. Commentator Robert Franklin is a professor of theology in Atlanta. He has little use for prosperity preachers whose sermons are more about gathering riches than sharing with the poor.
ROBERT FRANKLIN reporting:
Recently I visited the Atlanta church led by the Reverend Creflo Dollar - yes, his real name. In the middle of an otherwise good sermon, he began to speak adoringly about a Rolls Royce given by a friend. He urged listeners not to confuse this Rolls with the one provided by the church years earlier.
A few months later, I heard Pastor Rod Parsley of Ohio declare that if people sent a financial seed gift to the church, he would pray that they'd make no bad choices for the next 12 months. Imagine that, a whole year free of stupid choices just for sending money to the church.
Didn't ministers use to promise amazing grace for people burdened by bad choices?
These are many other prosperity preachers appear to be distorting the simple ethic of love, forgiveness and service at the heart of the religion of Jesus. Far from overturning the tables of money changers in the temple, prosperity preachers have become religious entrepreneurs who preach a gospel of health, wealth patriotism and success. They are purveyors of a feel good, be all you can be faith that packs sports arenas.
But in the past it was not so. In earlier days when the country was in trouble, public preachers called the nation to repentance, intellectual clarity and unity in pursuit of righteous goals. In the 18th Century, amidst a nation divided by slavery, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, declared that slave owners would be judged by the same God who authorized an exodus to upset the political economy of the pharaohs.
And during the 20th Century, as America struggled to overcome racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, public preachers like Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloan Coffin called the nation to social righteousness and compassionate citizenship.
Once again, the country is in conflict, but our most visible preachers have departed from a noble American tradition of social ethical preaching. They've entered the pulpit with strange manuscripts that answer questions no one's asking. I'd love to hear fewer sermons about luxury cars and seed gifts, and more of them about economic justice for those left behind by a growing economy.
Today's preachers of prosperity and piety should rediscover the social ethical values in that old time religion. Maybe then our pulpits will thunder with the sounds of truth, justice and the American way.
NORRIS: Robert Franklin is a professor of social ethics at Emory University School of Theology.
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