How American Life Is Impacted By The Prosperity Gospel : Throughline In the New Testament, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In the United States today, many Christians believe in something radically different. In what's known as the prosperity gospel, wealth is a sign of virtue and God's favor. The effects of this belief can be seen throughout American life from business to politics to social policy.

Capitalism: God Wants You To Be Rich

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Hey. Before we get into the final episode of our capitalism series, we want to remind you that you can test all you learned from the series tonight. We're going out with a bang with three rounds of capitalism-based trivia that you can play by yourself or with a team.


And if you win, you'll take home a three-month subscription to the NPR Coffee Club and a THROUGHLINE T-shirt. And if you don't, well, you'll still get to hang and have fun with us and our trivia maestro, Terri Simon.

ABDELFATAH: Join us on Zoom tonight, July 8, at 8 p.m. Eastern for a special capitalism edition of THROUGHLINE trivia. Go RSVP and get more info at OK, on with the show.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) May the light of God shine on us today and every day.


NORMAN VINCENT PEALE: This is Norman Vincent Peale.


PEALE: What I have in mind to do is to give a little discussion on the subject how to make positive thinking work for you.

CHRIS LEHMANN: Norman Vincent Peale is a bit of a theological outlier. Like a lot of these modern spiritual entrepreneurs, he kind of floundered around a bit.

ANTHEA BUTLER: Born at the end of the 19th century and comes into the 20th, he's beating all of these, you know, big automakers, oil people. So he's right there in the middle of this sort of capitalist kind of thing.


PEALE: What is positive thinking?

BUTLER: When he writes his book, "The Power Of Positive Thinking," which you can still find probably in every used bookstore in the country, he's like if you think positively, you're going to get all of these things.


PEALE: Life can be wonderful.


JAMES STEWART: (As George Bailey) You want the moon? Just say the word, and I'll throw a lasso around and pull it down.

LEHMANN: The book is really just a series of success mantras...


PEALE: You can if you think you can.

LEHMANN: ...Drawn from scripture.


PEALE: God bless you and best wishes.

BUTLER: God says it. I can have it. I believe it. That settles it.

LEHMANN: Get up every morning, look in the mirror and repeat over and over again, you know, some variation of...


PEALE: You can...


...If you...

...You can dream of...

...Think you can...


...You can...

...Is the first secret...


...Of success.


LEHMANN: Norman Vincent Peale is very much a key apostle of prosperity gospel belief.


LEHMANN: A kind of spiritual psychology of success. At this point, it is all about the self and all about feeling good.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Put both your hands on your hips like Wonder Woman or Superman. If you stand like this and you breathe deep for just two minutes, what the science found was that you will absolutely increase your testosterone by 20% - man or woman.

KATE BOWLER: There's no distinction here between secular and religious.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Thirty-three percent more likely to take action with - you wouldn't have before 'cause fear would have stopped you.

BOWLER: I mean, if you think about it, self-help is a series of spiritual beliefs that we can somehow become better because the power of mind.


OPRAH WINFREY: Basically, the message of the secret is the message that I've been trying to share with the world on my show for the past 21 years. That message is that you are responsible for your life.

ABDELFATAH: If you're thinking the prosperity gospel, self-help - what does that have to do with me? Consider this - even if you've never stepped foot in a church or watched a single episode of "Oprah"...


WINFREY: What? Hold up. Hold up.

ABDELFATAH: ...So much of our lives is shaped by the idea, the belief, that all you have to do to succeed is believe harder. And if you fall on hard times, well, better try harder. It's all on you after all.

ARABLOUEI: In last week's episode in our series about capitalism, we looked at how political forces have for decades propped up an entire economic system that reinforces those ideas. And in this week's episode, we're going to look at how the prosperity gospel, the idea that God gives more to good people, helped create the narrative in the first place.

BOWLER: They truly believe that God has set up a series of invisible but possible spiritual laws that anyone can tap into.

ARABLOUEI: This is Kate Bowler. She's a historian at Duke University and author of "Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel."

ABDELFATAH: There's a reason we're all drawn to the message that we are in control of our own success. It's powerful, even liberating. And for some, it's true.

BUTLER: To me, it's like God's plan for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, right? It gives the illusion that everybody can get this and that, you know, that there is equality when there really isn't. It's very compelling to people who come from, you know, the immigrants to America because it folds right into this American exceptionalism and the American dream.

ARABLOUEI: Anthea Butler is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "White Evangelical Racism: Politics Of Morality In America."

ABDELFATAH: The thing is, for every person who manages to turn their lives around, there are others who don't, can't, because of things beyond their control.

ARABLOUEI: And meanwhile, there are some people profiting off of this narrative...


UNIDENTIFIED TELEVANGELIST #1: This is the very first plane that I purchased for the Lord.

ARABLOUEI: ...Starting with televangelists.


UNIDENTIFIED TELEVANGELIST #2: Money cometh to me now.

KENNETH COPELAND: I am a billionaire because the Lord said I want you to begin to confess the billion flow.

ARABLOUEI: But it goes way beyond them.


ABDELFATAH: Actually, let's go back to Norman Vincent Peale for a second. There's something important we left out.


FRANK LUNTZ: Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?

DONALD TRUMP: That's a tough question.

I'm not sure I have.

I just go to church. And I love God, and I love my church. And Norman Vincent Peale - the great Norman Vincent Peale was my pastor. He would give a sermon - you never wanted to leave.

PEALE: One human problem which has impressed me greatly of late is the prevailing incidence of a lack of self-confidence.

LEHMANN: Donald Trump's dad, Fred, brought young Donald there.


PEALE: The vast number of people are plagued by feelings of inferiority.

LEHMANN: Trump has written very appreciatively of how he would go to Norman Vincent Peale's sermons and left feeling so good about himself.

ABDELFATAH: Chris Lehmann is editor at large at The New Republic and author of "The Money Cult."

LEHMANN: There's this famous episode where Trump sues one of his biographers who had published the claim that Trump was not, in fact, a billionaire. And during the deposition, you know, they just ask him forthright, how do you know you're a billionaire? And Trump says, well, on most days, I just feel like a billionaire.

BUTLER: Trump never said anything negative about himself. Everything was spectacular, stupendous. So he actually did pay attention when he was in church and heard Norman Vincent Peale speak. He took that forward into how he talked about himself as both a campaigner, as a businessman and a president.

ARABLOUEI: It was a self-fulfilling prophecy of prosperity. Donald Trump used the power of positive thinking to will himself into fame. And the mythology he created made its way into all parts of the culture, even music.


ICE CUBE: (Rapping) I'm just trying to get rich like Trump.

SEAN COMBS: (Rapping) ...Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Bloomberg money.

YUNG JOC: (Rapping) Make the block bump. Boys in the hood call me Black Donald Trump. Dope boy magic seven days a week. No. 1 record long as Nitti on the beat. Oh, I think they like me...

LEHMANN: I mean, he has taken the precepts of the prosperity gospel and channeled them into a political movement.


ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And in this final episode of our capitalism series, how the prosperity gospel shaped the way we think about capitalism, politics, culture and our place in all of that.


MARK: Hi, I'm Mark (ph). I'm from Toronto, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 1 - The Anxious Bench.


ARABLOUEI: On an autumn night in 1821, a 29-year-old lawyer in western New York was in the middle of a crisis of faith.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: (As Charles Finney) I made up my mind that I would settle the question of my sole salvation at once; that if it were possible, I would make my peace with God.

ARABLOUEI: He was haunted by questions looping over and over in his mind.

BERKES: (As Charles Finney) What are you waiting for? Did you not promise to give your heart to God? And what are you trying to do? Are you endeavoring to work out a righteousness of your own?

ARABLOUEI: The next morning during a walk, he found what he called full tranquility, his mind at peace. He reached his office and did what he loved - played music.


BERKES: (As Charles Finney) I took down my bass viol, and as I was accustomed to do, began to play and sing some pieces of sacred music.


BERKES: (As Charles Finney) But as soon as I began to sing those sacred words, I began to weep.


ARABLOUEI: And in that moment of quiet passion and sorrow, he saw something, something that would snap things into focus for him, something that would stay with him for the rest of his life.


BERKES: (As Charles Finney) There was no fire and no light in the room. Nevertheless, it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light. It seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. He said nothing but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. I could feel the impression like a wave of electricity going through and through me. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me like immense wings.


ARABLOUEI: He saw Jesus Christ right there in his law office. And the next day, when he met with a prospective client, he told him...

BERKES: (As Charles Finney) I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.

ARABLOUEI: This was the beginning of a transformation for Charles Grandison Finney, the lawyer from New York who became the preacher that led a religious revival. And his message was nothing short of revolutionary. It would change Christianity in the United States and create foundational ideas for what would eventually morph and evolve into the prosperity gospel.


ARABLOUEI: This is where the story of Charles Finney really starts - the 1600s, the earliest European settlements in the United States, a place where Puritan Protestant Christianity, a strict personal form of the religion, thrived...

LEHMANN: These Puritans who are so anxious about their future salvation...

ARABLOUEI: ...Because they believed that salvation was only up to the will of God, that humans could do nothing to affect it.

LEHMANN: And this made them incredibly fretful, as you can imagine, about how they comported themselves in life. And all that a believer can do is sort of adopt a calling or a vocation as a means of keeping yourself busy.

ARABLOUEI: Salvation was a very serious concern, and work was a convenient way to forget about your lack of control over it. And add to that that these settlers had to work hard to survive and to later take land from Indigenous people, this fed into what came to be called the Protestant work ethic. Be a good Christian. Work hard. Save your money. It was a belief that deferring gratification, forgoing worldly pleasures, being frugal, being productive were all virtues.

It's a message that was fully compatible with the development of that other American obsession - business. And by the 1700s, this way of thinking was becoming very influential. And you can see this in the autobiography of one of the most famous colonists - Benjamin Franklin.

(As Benjamin Franklin) How much more than necessary do we spend in sleep, forgetting that the sleeping fox catches no poultry?

LEHMANN: This whole early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise, you know, he is - this is the first kind of self-help book in American life.

ARABLOUEI: (As Benjamin Franklin) Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.

LEHMANN: It is sort of seized upon as a manual to improve yourself and also to embody a kind of Christian virtue, but it is a virtue - a body of virtues that is geared toward self-advancement.

ARABLOUEI: These ideas came from something called Calvinism, a religious movement that took off in England in the 1600s and was the belief system of most American colonists. It rejected the authority of the church and instead emphasized going directly to the Bible for everything. And most importantly for our story, it pushed that idea that your salvation or ticket into heaven was already decided. It was predestined. There was nothing you could do to change that. But then a new movement comes along that challenges that idea. It coincided with the United States' emergence as a world economy - a movement called the Second Great Awakening.


LEHMANN: The Second Great Awakening sort of takes off at the turn of the 19th century, around 1800. And one of its defining features is the use of what are called active measures to bring about the conversion and salvation of believers.

ARABLOUEI: The Second Great Awakening explicitly rejected predestined salvation. The message to the believer was, you can actually do something about getting into heaven right here in this life. You can sin less, and you can do more good things, and you'll get there.

LEHMANN: The Second Great Awakening is the death knell of Calvinism, that spirit we were talking about earlier that Puritans have, like, nothing is in our control. Suddenly, a lot is in people's control.

ARABLOUEI: That's because in the 1800s, life for many white Americans was changing. Up to that point, most of the country was dominated by agriculture. But industrialization and market economies meant more resources and a different lifestyle for many people - a middle-class lifestyle.

LEHMANN: And, you know, yeah, there is this anxious middle class benefiting from but also suffering from the uncertainties of a new national market economy. And it's - you know, it's difficult when you are trying to - you know, when you're a merchant or a stockjobber in Boston or New York, you're not really creating anything, you know? You're sort of a middle person. And that creates its own kind of anxiety. And you think of, well, what can I create? Well, I can create a better self. And a lot of the energy of the Second Great Awakening is bound up with that project.


ARABLOUEI: And it's in this context that Charles Grandison Finney, the lawyer who had the vision of Jesus Christ in his office, emerged.

LEHMANN: Who, significantly, is a lawyer - he doesn't initially train as a preacher or a theologian. He is sort of the first great entrepreneur who moves into the religion space and sort of sets up shop.

BERKES: (As Charles Grandison Finney) Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in nor imply a sinful nature in the sense that the substance of the human soul is sinful in itself. It is not a constitutional sinfulness. It is not an involuntary sinfulness.


ARABLOUEI: Finney was charismatic and passionate. He was educated but could speak in the local vernacular. After his night of revelation in 1821, he became convinced that individual actions and behavior were the way towards salvation. He left his law practice and became an evangelist.

LEHMANN: And then he is off and running and leading revivals in upstate New York that are all driven by the agenda of the Protestant ethic of, like...

ARABLOUEI: Personal responsibility, hard work, abstaining from sinful excess - week after week, Finney preached these ideas in massive revival tents. He was like a celebrity. People flocked from miles around to hear him speak.

LEHMANN: He says, not only am I going to, you know, do the traditional work of revival and convey to, you know, people the urgency of being saved, but I'm going to show you how it's done.

ARABLOUEI: He encouraged people to get involved politically, to make the world a better place.

LEHMANN: He does start preaching against slavery and on behalf of women's suffrage. So there is a progressive element to Finney's career as well.

BERKES: (As Charles Grandison Finney) The fact is that slavery is, preeminently, the sin of the church. It is the very fact that ministers and professors of religion of different denominations hold slaves which sanctifies the whole abomination in the eyes of ungodly men.

LEHMANN: He launches what's called the anxious bench, which is where soul - people who feel their souls are in torment and are being called to convert go to the front, the sort of tabernacle part of a church or a revival tent, and, you know, are kind of performatively in anxiety.

ARABLOUEI: Believers would raise their hands in the air, calling for God to help them, for the Holy Spirit to heal them. They'd openly let out their fears and anxieties in front of other parishioners, asking to be saved.

LEHMANN: It continues on to this day. You'll see a Pentecostal preacher sort of, like, you know, energetically lay hands on someone's forehead and pronounce them saved. And that's pure Charles Finney.

ARABLOUEI: Charles Finney would go on to become the president of Oberlin College in Ohio. He'd become a major figure in the early abolitionist movement and a prominent supporter of the Union during the Civil War. But his most lasting impact was the door he opened - a door inward. He pushed the spiritual gaze of evangelical Christianity towards the self. He asked the individual, what are you doing to be a better Christian? How are you improving yourself? And as the 19th century went on, his words would echo through the culture. The country industrialized, and attitudes of self-improvement became essential to making it in America.


ARABLOUEI: When we come back, capitalism and Christianity make it official.

JEFF: This is Jeff (ph) in Portland, Ore. You're listening to THROUGHLINE.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 2 - Healing.


ORAL ROBERTS: Oh Lord God, I come into your presence tonight. And in all my messages that I preach for you, I beseech thee for the protection of the Holy Spirit and that the angels of God shall camp round about this tent and protect me while I preach tonight from the demon world. And may the angels of God...

ABDELFATAH: Imagine yourself in the audience of this sermon. You're under a massive tent propped up by giant aluminum beams dozens of feet high, and you're surrounded by thousands of other people. The crickets are chirping. The sun is setting. Maybe you're there because a family member is sick. Maybe you're struggling at work. Or maybe you're just curious if something better is out there.


ROBERTS: I'm glad you're here.

ABDELFATAH: And then from the stage, the voice of Oral Roberts commands your attention.


ROBERTS: You've come here for God to help you, and he's going to do something for you.


ROBERTS: You see, I believe Christ is standing beside me. I see him saying, Oral, you lay hands upon her as an instrument so I may heal her body.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I've been waiting two years for this opportunity.

ROBERTS: You have tuberculosis in both lungs?


ROBERTS: Oh, God, open these lungs. I touch her because you tell me to touch her in the name of Christ.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm all right.

ROBERTS: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why do you say that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I just know I am.


ABDELFATAH: In city after city, thousands of people showed up under Oral Roberts' big tent waiting to be healed. After all, who better to heal you than someone who had himself come back from the brink of death? As a teenager in the 1930s, Roberts nearly died of tuberculosis but recovered and decided to become a preacher. For years, he struggled as a part-time preacher in Oklahoma, where he was from, until one day in 1947, the story goes, his Bible fell over and opened to a passage that read, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. Roberts took this as a sign that he should seek both material and spiritual prosperity for himself and others. So he bought a green Buick and began to heal the sick. Anthea Butler says Oral Roberts is central to the story of the prosperity gospel.

BUTLER: I think personally, while everybody wants to big-up Billy Graham, Oral Roberts is the person that's more responsible for a lot of things in evangelicalism and prosperity gospel and Pentecostalism.


ROBERTS: Soon after the day of Pentecost, there rose a very terrible persecution against the early Christians, and a great many of them were scattered over the world. Among those who were the persecutors was a young man by the name of Saul of Tarsus. He was smitten with a temporary blindness, but he received the baptism of the Holy Ghost, and his eyes were healed, and the call was revealed to him. He was to preach Jesus Christ to the whole world.


ABDELFATAH: Pentecostalism, very basically, is a form of Christianity that took hold in the early 20th century. It emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is within every single person and just needs to be drawn out...


ROBERTS: Sing it, everyone.

ABDELFATAH: ...Through things like singing, dancing or speaking in tongues.


ROBERTS: (Speaking in tongues).

BOWLER: They become, in the best way, miracle chasers. They're looking for evidence that God is still at work in the world - and also promoted a very strong theology of healing. In a time of unbelievably harsh early medical treatment, I mean, Jesus is the best doctor you're going to have.


ROBERTS: God's going to heal you tonight. Do you believe it?


ROBERTS: Tonight.


ROBERTS: From head to toes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: From head to toe.

BOWLER: It was a movement that was very popular among the poor.

ABDELFATAH: Especially by the 1930s, the Great Depression era, when so many people were struggling just to have their basic needs met.

BOWLER: It was interracial.

BUTLER: Here's the but part - there's an interracial element to it, but it only goes so far. I mean, remember, this is a time that, you know, you got lynchings. You've got Jim Crow. You've got all this other stuff.

ABDELFATAH: In other words, segregation was still very much a reality, and life for Black Americans was uniquely bad. So Pentecostalism resonated on a whole other level.

BUTLER: How do you get along without the Holy Spirit? How can you get along in a racist, racial society without having extraordinary power to help you when everything around you is pressing you, right? How many things can you do as a Black man or a Black woman in this kind of realm that you're living in in early 20th century? You might be educated, but that's few and far between. You might be able to work a job, but you're probably a maid in somebody's house.

When is the time that you feel most in power? At church on Sunday or Wednesday or whenever you have Bible study, that is a place of empowerment for you. And so it's not just about, you know - the way that I think people look at it is, well, Black people just always were spiritual. You're more spiritual because you have to be. It's about how do you deal with the situation of this society that you're living in?


UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #1: How many would like to see this poor little kiddie healed tonight? Look at that. Oh, my God. Did you ever see anything like it in your life?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Singing) Thank you, Jesus.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Father God, answer that call. Answer that one right.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: God says when you pray for that man tonight, rebuke a spirit of infirmity.

ABDELFATAH: Pentecostal preachers would travel around the country giving sermons, many under tents like Oral Roberts. And when they were done with the tents...

BOWLER: They would cut them up into little squares, say that they had been soaked in prayers and then send them out as part of money pitches.

ABDELFATAH: It was a full-on business venture, and some also took advantage of a booming new technology.

BUTLER: Radio.


AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: We have no need to doubt God. God lives. God's word is true. God's word has been proven.

BUTLER: What you begin to see in the '30s and '40s is this mix between radio and evangelism, these evangelistic kinds of crusades or revivals - they get people locked into this. And what happens is, is that the normal Pentecostal experience gets to start to be called something else, which is the word of faith or health and wealth gospel. And that's where we begin to see this kind of shift towards what we know as prosperity gospel today.


ROBERTS: Maybe you need a house. You need an automobile. You need so much money to pay your bills and to get along in the world. You need a new suit of clothes. You need this, and you need that. The Bible says that God will supply that need, according to the riches, his riches, by Christ Jesus in glory.

BOWLER: Oral Roberts gave us a different spiritual lexicon for how to think about the relationship between faith and money.

LEHMANN: This doctrine called seed faith, where you just sort of intone certain scripture passages over and over again or prayer for wealth and, not insignificantly, give money to the preacher.

BOWLER: So you give money. Like a seed, it goes into the ground. It's dormant - don't ask about it anymore. But then it will pop up, and it will come back to you.

LEHMANN: You will be granted wealth...

BOWLER: ...Ten, a hundred, a thousand fold.

LEHMANN: That's the usual pitch.

BUTLER: So in other words, you got to put some money down in order to make this thing work. It's not your time. They don't care about that. They care about, can you put something in the basket, right? And by putting something in the basket, you're extending your faith to show that you're trying to meet God, and God's going to meet you.


ABDELFATAH: Oral Roberts began preaching his seed faith doctrine soon after World War II ended, the perfect time for this kind of an idea to take off. The American economy was doing well, really well. There was a thriving middle class, and buying a home was within reach for many.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) My heart goes boom boom 'cause you got me so excited.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, industries were also thriving. Prosperity was the name of the game.

BOWLER: I mean, it is deeply American - she said, as a Canadian, just working that in there. But, like (laughter) - it tells a story of a country after World War II imagining its own uplift. It's an accommodationist message in which it says, wherever you are, God can help you become good, better, best.

BUTLER: It's very seductive, and it's at a time where you're having to fight communism. What's the difference between communism and capitalism? Communism wants you to share everything, and the state gives you stuff. Capitalism is about how you earn it for yourself and everything else. So it's no mistake that this part of Christianity goes in that direction of capitalism, instead of going in the direction of communism. I mean, like, Jesus would be, like, a total communist. He said, let's have all things in common with him and the apostles, right? Oh, no, no, no, no.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Thou shalt not think that money is evil. Say it again.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: The apostles were businessmen. They were rich men, had plenty of money. I'm going to show you that Jesus was a wealthy man, had plenty of money.

BUTLER: This is where you begin to see these pictures of Jesus, you know, hugging a businessman and all this other stuff - right? - and people talking about, you know, prayer at the corporate level.


UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #2: How many of you know that God blessed Abraham with riches, blessed him with silver and gold? How many of you like silver and gold? Those of you that don't, you're in the wrong church.

BUTLER: This becomes an important part of how you think about what capitalism is connected to, and that's Christianity.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Little dose of self-reliance can do wonders. Any one of us could use a bit more than we have.


BUTLER: Pentecostalism is a movement, not a denomination. So you've got all different kinds of denominations that come out of this movement. But what's important is that there's certain people in the movement who bring things from other places inside to the movement, OK? So this is where it gets messy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: It's hard work to become self-reliant, but these are the steps. Assume responsibility, be informed, know where you are going, make your own decisions.


BUTLER: One of the things that comes into this is something that's called religious science or science of the mind.

BOWLER: Americans began to fall in love with the idea of the power of the mind. This was a time of the coalescing of the discipline of psychology. The boundaries between psychology and religion are, I mean, almost indistinguishable. It's the very first gospels of American self-help. And all of this is springing up to say that if you harness the power of your mind, that you can accomplish more than you think.

BUTLER: You need to attune your mind, you know, to make sure that you don't get sick.


PEALE: This is Norman Vincent Peale.

BUTLER: You need to think positively.


PEALE: How to make positive thinking work for you.

BOWLER: And they're experimenting with it in medicine in the work of placebos. In psychology, they're imagining the power of the unconscious.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Before man learned how to control fire and put it to work, it was man's greatest enemy. In much the same way, your emotions can be your own greatest enemy. Or under control, your emotions can make you healthier and happier.

BOWLER: It's just a swirling sense that inside of your mind is an untapped potential.


BOWLER: The power of the mind becomes an absolutely intoxicating gospel on its own. And, I mean, it's something that Americans have never fallen out of love with.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: In a short time, we've come a long way. And this, already hanging around in the heavens, this is change.

BOWLER: The prosperity gospel spread far beyond Pentecostal denominations with the rise of television.


ROBERTS: I, Oral Roberts, do solemnly affirm that the events, incidents and statements which you are about to witness occurred and were recorded on motion picture film and soundtrack as they actually happened...

As we start to pray, we're asking you, our friend watching through television, to join us as these are joining us here at the big tent...

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, the prosperity gospel in the age of television.

J CLARKSON: This is J. Clarkson, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher, N.C. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 3 - Dial One For Prosperity.


WORLD ACTION SINGERS: Come on, people, time's a wastin. Join our happy celebration.


BUTLER: We think about televangelism as starting in the 1970s, but you really can go back to the '50s. And Oral Roberts was on very early. They had kind of a variety show that they started using. And we have the Oral Roberts Singers on it, you know, a group of integrated, you know, kids singing and doing different kinds of specials and stuff on television for Christmas and Easter.


WORLD ACTION SINGERS: ...And celebrate Thanksgiving Day - hey.

BOWLER: "Oral Roberts' Thanksgiving Special" used to be seen by as many people as the Macy's Day Parade.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Now it's my happy privilege and pleasure to present the man that God has raised up with a message for your deliverance - the Reverend Oral Roberts.

BUTLER: He's the model for everything.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Multitudes of people come running to be saved and healed and delivered. And through the means of television, we're giving you a front row seat.

REVEREND IKE: Health, happiness, love, success, prosperity and money - let's hear it.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Health, happiness, love, success, prosperity...

BUTLER: But we got to talk about, you know, one of my faves - Reverend Ike.


REVEREND IKE: Fake it till you make it.

BUTLER: Reverend Ike is born on June 1, 1935. He is a Black man, very striking in appearance because he always had on really great suits.


REVEREND IKE: Now don't go out here and say, now Reverend Ike is teaching those people how to be fakes.


REVEREND IKE: This is a psychological, metaphysical statement.

BUTLER: I got to admit, I listened to this as a wee kid.


REVEREND IKE: Now that we understand that, let me hear you say again - fake it till you make it.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Fake it till you make it.

BUTLER: But it's the '70s that changes the aesthetic of Pentecostalism...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Surely, God is able.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: It’s taking place right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

BUTLER: ...From holiness into this kind of flashy bling thing.


HENRY HARRISON: The PTL Television Network presents Jim and Tammy.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Praise the Lord. See the things that he has done. Praise the Lord...

BUTLER: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or, you know, Paul and Jan Crouch come on and look a certain sort of way. And they were the ones that began to bring, you know, different kinds of preachers and things and introduce them to others. So in other words, these shows in the '70s and '80s were important conduits for, you know, the A, B, C and D list of all of these prosperity gospel preachers...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Yea, sayeth the Lord.

BUTLER: ...That would get a foothold in America. And that's the way that most people saw them. You might be up late at night.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: I want to talk to you for a few moments about the law of the seed. The seed means...

BUTLER: And you'd see, you know, somebody preaching this message.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: And if you'll call during this telecast for you that support our ministry in any way...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: You need to make about a vow of faith of a thousand dollars. Oh, Bob, couldn't you say 25? No. If you'll start now and get your seed of faith into the ground, it'll begin to grow and God begin to move.

BUTLER: And you'd send them something, and they'd send you something back. And then you'd get on the mailing list. What's actually much more dangerous than televangelism was the mailing list. If you can get that person to write to your ministry, you could harass them forever. You know, it's like Hotel California - you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. You keep the money coming in. You keep people hooked.

ARABLOUEI: By the mid-1980s, the number of Americans watching religious television has skyrocketed to nearly 25 million. Prosperity gospel was everywhere - on TV, of course, but also in magazines, on billboards and in self-help books.


RONALD REAGAN: We can have a strong and prosperous America at peace with itself and the world.

BOWLER: In so many ways, the story of the prosperity gospel follows the rise of a certain kind of capitalism.

ARABLOUEI: A kind of capitalism known as neoliberalism, which we broke down in last week's episode.


REAGAN: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.

ARABLOUEI: The short version is that it's the idea that free markets are the solution to all of our problems. The focus, like with prosperity gospel, is on personal advancement - more is more.

BOWLER: It asks each individual, citizen/buyer to absorb all the responsibilities for making its promises true. The harder you work, the more that's meant to prove its own reward. If capitalism is unstable, it simply means that you need to adopt more flexible work hours. Be willing to hustle at 2 a.m. Have you taken on a side project?

LEHMANN: I describe this as the process of sanctifying the market. The market itself becomes this object of worship and the arbiter of life outcomes that is not to be questioned. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, there is no alternative.

BOWLER: It's similar to the prosperity gospel in which when the system is meant to prove itself, it shifts the burden of responsibility away from - in this version - away from God and onto the person who has failed to demonstrate the abundant life.

ABDELFATAH: The abundant life - fancy cars, expensive clothes, big houses - things all prosperity gospel preachers make sure to flaunt.

BUTLER: You need to show yourself in a certain kind of way so that people know that you're blessed and that, in turn, they can be blessed if they follow you because, obviously, you've got God's word that will tell them how they need to get this prosperity in their lives, too.

ABDELFATAH: And like with neoliberalism, as the prosperity gospel became more entrenched in American life, it also began to be exported around the world.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: Amen and Amen. Hallelujah. Please be seated in God's presence. Let's celebrate...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: (Speaking in Non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: Because there's only one important business in the world...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: It is the business of salvation.



BOWLER: One of the questions I get a lot is how much do - were the preachers snake oil salesmen, and how much were they deeply sincere and not just sincere, perhaps, but, like, how much did they truly believe that what they were doing could transform other people's lives?

ARABLOUEI: Kate Bowler, a practicing Christian herself and a historian, spent a decade going to services, getting to know parishioners and their prosperity gospel preachers and investigating the relationship between the two.

BOWLER: I have met dozens and dozens and dozens of them. And I think the answer - it really varies. I have met people who are, likely at this moment, defrauding a widow in Florida. And I have met people who were really concrete and practical about how they imagined that this could very materially transform people's lives.

I'm thinking of a church I went to, an inner city church. And the megachurch pastor who had a Rolex and a mansion and all that also simultaneously believed that all the things he was teaching his parishioners would be the reason why they get that job and they are that partner that creates a stable family home.

So in one version, you could say, well, it just robs people of their money, promises them things it can't possibly deliver. In other versions, we call it the redempt (ph) and lift effect, which is that when you stabilize people's lives, you encourage them to network, save, take care of their home life and are able to redeem and lift is what they describe.

ARABLOUEI: And why do the parishioners, seeing how well off the preachers are, keep giving them money?


BOWLER: Well...


BOWLER: ...In the minds of parishioners, it doesn't matter if the preacher is sincere or not. What matters to them is whether God is good and God has set up the rules by which they, too, can have those good things. And so in that way, the preacher is its own show-and-tell but doesn't inherently matter to the faith lives of the people in the pews.


LEHMANN: The sort of constant in American religion is this kind of anxiety about your destiny. And, you know, it reflects broader trends in a market-dominated society.

BOWLER: We're forced to believe in invisible causality in this economy.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The stock market is now down 21%.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Forty-three percent...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: All of the major technology sectors - Apple's under pressure, Yahoo down 8.5%, Cisco 6.5%...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It was the worst day on Wall Street since the crash of...

BOWLER: And what all this says though is, don't be afraid, God is good. Don't be afraid, you'll do your best. And on the other side of this, there may be ups and downs, but I am going to bring you to a better future.


SCOTT PELLEY: Nearly 2 trillion tax dollars have been shoveled into the hole that Wall Street dug. And people wonder where's the bottom? It turns out that this is...

BUTLER: Oh, my gosh. Let's just say this is the moment where we're going to talk about prosperity gospel and the banking industry as, you know - in collusion with each other in certain kinds of ways. So I want to tell a story. And that story is about 2008 and the belly up of everything and the financial markets and especially the foreclosure market.

And one of the places where this happens, you know, in a huge way was Atlanta. Black people were told, you know, that they should buy homes. Predatory lenders gave, you know, these kind of balloon loans to people who were in churches. So in other words, you were encouraged by your, you know, televangelist pastor, you could just buy a home because, you know, here we got this loan officer here today who's going to talk to you, and you can - God's going to bless you with a house. And then all these people went belly up in 2008 and lost their homes.


BOWLER: For people who are constantly on the cusp of losing everything, which we were reminded again in the pandemic, we're looking for the person with a formula.

ABDELFATAH: For some, that person might be a Tony Robbins or an Oprah.


PHIL CROWLEY: Who are the sharks?

ABDELFATAH: For others like me, it's the business minds of "Shark Tank."


CROWLEY: They're self-made business experts worth billions.

ABDELFATAH: And still others turn to preachers or politicians who seem to have it all figured out.


TRUMP: You know, I said the other day - 'cause so many people, they carry around "The Art Of The Deal" because they're begging. They're begging their politicians, please, please read "The Art Of The Deal" when you negotiate with China and with Japan or with Mexico and with Vietnam.

BUTLER: And I think this is crucial for right now. It flows into a kind of Christian nationalism. It means that God is especially favoring, you know, the nation as a special place. And so the people who live in it, who follow after this particular kind of thing, are going to be more blessed than anybody else in the world.

BOWLER: I think people crave - even if they might hate it, they crave a gospel where the responsibility always falls back on them. Because it's always the one thing we can control is ourselves. So if you preach an empowered individualism, you've got a gospel you can believe in, which is always us.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...








ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl. And a special thanks to Howard Berkes for his voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Tamar Charney and Julia Carney.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: And don't forget to test your knowledge at tonight's virtual trivia event. We kick off at 8 p.m. Eastern with three rounds of questions all inspired by the three episodes in this series.

ABDELFATAH: RSVP and get more info at See you there.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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