Preaching Good News to the Poor

It is by now old news – or should be – that evangelical Christians have developed a social conscience that goes beyond wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. Some are even (gasp!) registered Democrats. In (the September 2008) issue of Books and Culture(put out by the editors of Christianity Today), sociologist of religion Peter Berger, currently Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University, launches the latest missive in the debate over what it means to do justice and love mercy. He invites scholars of religion, and particularly Christian theologians, to reconsider the prosperity gospel that is sometimes related to and often conflated with Pentecostalism, the fastest-growing religious movement in the world with followers numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Rather than deeming the poor around the globe who flock to prosperity churches – where they are taught that faith in God leads to health and wealth – to be gullible, stupid, or greedy, Berger offers a sociological account of the movement’s this-worldly values: thrift, hard work, and family stability will, over a relatively short period of time, lift people out of poverty. Those who follow prosperity preaching may attribute their material success to faith rather than deeds, but that is not Berger’s concern here.

A connection between spiritual and material well-being can also be found in the early evangelical movement, recorded in the writings of Anglican John Wesley, a leader of the transatlantic Methodist revival. Wesley urged his followers to, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Unlike unflattering stereotypes of contemporary evangelicals, Wesley was so concerned with the physical well-being of his poor adherents that he wrote a home-remedy guide, The Primitive Physik, in which he collected folk treatments for various ailments and rated the efficacy of ones he had personally tried. Wesley coined the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness,” recognizing ahead of the curve that sanitary conditions were less likely to breed disease. Berger notes these historical similarities, but points out that the prosperity gospel explicitly pursues the material goods that earlier Protestants viewed as merely a byproduct of righteous living.

The work of evangelical historians, including George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Harry Stout, as well as evangelical philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, has enhanced the image of evangelicals in the academy. And the high public profiles of socially conscious Rick Warren, Jim Wallis, and others have contributed to a more positive assessment of evangelicals among non-evangelical opinion-makers. Berger asks whether a similar re-assessment can be made about prosperity believers and Pentecostals, the latter of whom he terms “the elephant in the living room of respectable Christendom.”

How will his plea be received? Never mind that Berger published this essay in a journal primarily aimed at evangelicals; evangelicals eager for respectability may not be so eager to acknowledge their kinship with prosperity churches. Other observers of these charismatic movements express surprise that intelligent and accomplished people continue to believe in supernatural causality that defies rational explanation. But responses of fascination or repulsion (rather than a conviction of significance and even religious merit), Berger might say, keep evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike from truly understanding Pentecostalism’s (and prosperity’s) appeal.

Berger’s line of argument has more than a passing similarity to a central thesis of just-published Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, in which authors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam contend that the working class is drawn to the conservative social stance of the Republican party because they have suffered disproportionately from the fallout of sexual liberation, no-fault divorce, and abortion on demand, positions championed by the left. Rather than distracting them from root economic causes (the liberal view), Republican emphases on family values and law and order address the social disruption that contributes to the economic woes of the working class.

Together, Berger’s essay and Grand New Party point out two ways of condescending to the poor. The first, a favorite of conservatives, is to blame poverty on poor people’s lack of industry and moral rectitude. The second, a favorite of liberals, is to claim that the poor aren’t smart enough to know what is good for them. Neither attitude helps. Whatever else we think of them, Berger argues, Pentecostalism and prosperity preaching empower the poor. Let’s hope they are taken seriously.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.