By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The belief that God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful is now embedded in American Christianity. That’s evident in the prosperity gospel which has its roots in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), where Moses taught that those obedient to God’s law would be rewarded and the disobedient punished. The only difference is that the standards of legitimacy that determine faithfulness in the prosperity gospel are partisan radical-right political ideals.
Jesus refuted the idea that God rewards the faithful with worldly prosperity and power. In fact, Jesus taught that the prosperous and powerful would have a more difficult time finding salvation than the poor and meek, and that altruistic love for others—even those we would rather ignore—was God’s standard of righteousness. That standard of love over law is summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
A nation’s moral and legal standards of legitimacy are derived from both religious and secular norms. Religion shapes cultural norms just as secular cultural norms shape religion. Over 70% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians, and a majority of them are white evangelical Christians who have abandoned the teachings of Jesus to promote the values and politics of a materialistic and hedonistic culture.
For any institutional religion to be successful, it must be popular. Jesus taught that the way to salvation was a narrow way of sacrificial love and self-denial, not the broad and popular way that leads to worldly prosperity and power. That message never played well in Europe and America, where religious leaders reshaped Christian standards of legitimacy to conform to more popular materialistic and hedonistic cultural norms, or witnessed the demise of Christianity.
Popular Christianity has long subordinated the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, since such beliefs are a popular source of cheap grace. But the prosperity gospel goes beyond emphasizing belief in a divine Jesus and ignores his moral teachings. It closely resembles the self-centered objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, and cannot be reconciled with the moral teachings of Jesus found in the four gospel accounts.
Since Emperor Constantine co-opted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, church doctrine has limited salvation to believers in a divine Jesus and condemned unbelievers to eternal damnation. While the church has always put more emphasis on worshipping Jesus as God than following his teachings as the word of God, the prosperity gospel has made radical right politics the moral standard of Christianity.
The so-called family values and politics of the Republican Party are the moral standards of the prosperity gospel. Its leader is Donald Trump, a narcissist whose values are antithetical to the altruistic values taught by Jesus. Trump and his Republican minions reflect the materialistic and hedonistic cultural values now prevalent in the U.S. Those “Christians” who support Trump and his minions should be ashamed. They have sacrificed Jesus on the altar of politics.
Historically the Abrahamic religions have sought to conform immoral worldly standards of legitimacy to God’s will. Moses, the Hebrew prophets and Muhammad emphasized religious laws as God’s standards of righteousness, while Jesus emphasized love over law, as summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors--including those of other races and religions--as we love ourselves. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity through the transforming power of God’s love, while the will of Satan is to divide and conquer humanity with the temptations of worldly power and prosperity. In the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the church, mosque, synagogue and in politics. It’s obvious which side of that spiritual battle the prosperity gospel supports.
Joel Osteen is one of the most popular (and prosperous) evangelical leaders who preach the prosperity gospel, and according to Eloise Blondiau, “Osteen tells us we have the power to obtain health and wealth if we believe enough, for long enough. “God’s got this!” he exclaims. Osteen takes the idea that “nothing is impossible for God,” and runs with it. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, it suggests that since nothing is impossible for God, God will give health and wealth to those with the strongest faith in him. This line of thinking constitutes the prosperity gospel. ...The sense of agency and justice that the prosperity gospel provides—whether offered by wellness advocates or preachers—is deeply attractive; it means that everything is within our control. But the implications of the prosperity gospel are less attractive: If the faithful are rewarded with health, are the terminally ill not faithful enough?” See https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/06/07/who-deserves-be-healthy-prosperity-gospel-according-goop
Rev.Terri Daniel has addressed the question why not all terminally ill faithful are healed by their faith. She has challenged traditional (and toxic) church doctrines of substitutionary atonement and faith healing, debunked the prosperity gospel and confirmed why church doctrine puts God’s rewards and punishment in the afterlife, not in this life: “Trying to match doctrine and dogma with lived human experience is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The square peg is a belief in divine reward and punishment. The round hole is the way life actually works. By the time most of us are young adults we have observed that the good are not necessarily rewarded and the bad are not necessarily punished. Real human experience proves that it just doesn’t work that way. So the only way the emerging church could sell the idea of divine reward or punishment was to locate it in the afterlife, where it could not be verified or validated.” See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/toxic-theology-%E2%80%A8religious-beliefs-that-hurt-instead-of-heal%E2%80%A8/
Edward Simmons has delineated three ethical approaches to salvation in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Salvation Ethics (a fundamentalist/evangelical approach at the foundation of the prosperity gospel), Golden Rule Ethics (a more secular approach based on treating others as you would want them to treat you), and Torah Ethics (based on the greatest commandment that combines the love of God with the love of neighbor). Simmons argues against the first approach as “coercion in the name of righteousness” that leads to “the most cynical form of ‘political realism’--the end justifies the means.” Simmons debunks biblical examples in which good and bad fortune were considered to be either God’s rewards or punishment based on obedience or disobedience to Mosaic Law, and points to more practical explanations for those ancient events. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/political-salesmanship-and-christian-morality/.
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics