Black Churches and the Prosperity Gospel

DeForest B. Soaries Jr., Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2010

{snip} His [Bishop Eddie Long of Atlanta] fancy cars, expensive clothing and vast estate, all funded on a multimillion-dollar salary, are part of his act–pushing the so-called prosperity gospel on mostly African-Americans. Whatever Mr. Long has done in his personal life, his brand of theology has contributed to a troubling trend among black churches in America.

The prosperity gospel–the idea that God guarantees truly faithful believers physical health and financial wealth–is not new. But cable and satellite television broadcasting have turned prosperity preachers into celebrities that have followings similar to musicians and movies stars. A movement and a theology that once seemed like an aberration among black churches now appears to be mainstream.

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Of course, it is much easier for clergy to preach this gospel when they are living proof that the “system” works. Hence the celebrity-like lifestyles of so many religious leaders. The fact that the people most likely to do well in the prosperity gospel movement are the people at the top suggests that it is all an ecclesiastical pyramid scheme.

Traditionally, black churches have emphasized spiritual renewal, social justice, educational uplift, community improvement and civic engagement in addition to individual achievement. The fact that the church was the locus for community and personal advancement was what made it such a powerful force for hope and survival. Leaders like the late Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, emphasized religious and secular education as keys to economic progress for blacks. Proctor and others like him produced strong institutions, not just a few fabulously wealthy individuals.

In light of today’s weak economy, perhaps the prosperity movement should consider focusing on financial literacy, personal discipline and saving for the long term, rather than emphasizing supernatural possibilities. Depending on miracles as a financial strategy is a dangerous way to live. Churches can be effective in teaching people how to convert from a culture of borrowing and spending to a culture of saving and investing. {snip}

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