gimme that old time religion

prosperity theology

Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic argues that prosperity theology contributed to the housing bubble that caused the late-2000s financial crisis. She maintains that home ownership was heavily emphasized in prosperity churches, causing a reliance on divine financial intervention that led to unwise choices.

That’s one line that grabbed my attention in the already very interesting article featured on the front page of Wikipedia today: prosperity theology.

I wonder if Hanna Rosin of the Atlantic is at all familiar with Austrian business-cycle theory and the role of the Fed and fractional-reserve banking in general in the development of the housing bubble. I suspect not.

What is "prosperity theology"? It is apparently the belief that being a good Christian will make you wealthy.

My first thought was of Calvinism, where prosperity is considered a sign of being among God’s elect. But if I understand correctly, you can’t do anything as a Calvinist to become one of God’s elect, because God has already decided who is and isn’t saved, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. For the antinomians, such as Anne Hutchinson (whom Murray Rothbard considered America’s first individualist anarchist), the doctrine of predestination led to all sorts of behavior that other Christians would consider quite sinful. The antinomians were demonstrating their faith in their elect status by doing nothing to cause it. Even among Calvinists, however, the antinomians seemed like nut jobs. I think most Calvinists tried to act outwardly righteous and become prosperous to prove to themselves, if not to God, that they were among the elect.

But for prosperity Christians, the relationship between righteousness and wealth is one of cause and effect.

So while my first thought may have been of Calvinists, my second thought is of the classical pagans.

Bart Ehrman (website, blog) explains that religion in the world of the Roman Empire was not about ethics. To the classical Greco-Roman mind, ethics belonged to the discipline of philosophy, not religion. To religion belonged the practical undertaking of a quid pro quo with the myriad deities. The gods could punish or reward, so religion was the very businesslike pursuit of keeping on the good side of the relevant gods. It had nothing to do with faith, creed, or doctrine, and certainly had nothing to do with fidelity to any particular god. Best to think of it as a metaphysical form of customer relations — or maybe political lobbying captures it better.

For the better part of the past two millennia, Christians have not expected earthly rewards from God. What began as an apocalyptic religion, in which the forces of evil ruled over the present world, became a doctrine about and a focus on the afterlife. Reward was for the next world. This world was a "vale of tears."

Now, I have suspected for a while that there are plenty of 21st-century Christians whose thinking is much closer to that of the pagans — with religion as a consequentialist project more than a principled pursuit — but I’m a little surprised to find a whole movement within Christianity that makes the economic cause and effect so explicit.


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