Echoing a long line of Reformed divines who linked godliness with good fortune, the Gilded Age minister Henry Ward Beecher, the “most famous man in America,” declared that “generally the proposition is true, that where you find the most religion there you will find the most worldly prosperity.”[1] God distributes rewards to those who render themselves deserving. Displays of piety beget displays of wealth. Accordingly, Beecher went on, the poor need not exist. Riches can be obtained by anyone who has industry, patience—and faith. This optimistic outlook may have been an especially fitting theology for a society struggling to reconcile its rising fortunes against a backdrop of urban poverty and industrial chaos. For what do the affluent want to hear more than that their wealth has been divinely decreed? And the poor that their wealth is but a work of faith away?

Fast forward a century-and-a-half, and the parallels are striking. As the United States struggles again through a time of economic uncertainty, optimism and faith in a generous God continue to find a prominent place in middle-class churches. The “prosperity gospel,” as this blend of Christianity and financial desire has come to be called, reigns at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the largest mega-church in America. According to historian Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, about 60 percent of churchgoers who attend a congregation with over 5,000 attendants hear a “prosperity gospel” message each week.[2] Televangelists proclaim it from their programmed pulpits, self-help theologians from their online advice columns. Meanwhile a cottage industry of books, tapes, conferences, and traveling seminars has sprung up to bring the hope of riches, a big house, and a luxury car to all the disenfranchised.

 

Religion makes virtually no appearance in Piketty’s analysis.

 

We may find, in just such a cross-historical comparison as that given above, the means to map the study of American religion onto the riveting economic analysis of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. By now, the outlines of his argument have become familiar: income inequality in the modern West is on the rise, skewing up the economic share of the highest earners to a level not seen since before the Great Depression. While much has changed since that era, the mechanisms of the current income divergence—falling tax rates on high earners, the growing compensation packages of corporate executives and managers, as well as the ability of the rich to become richer through strategic capital investments—largely appear unchanged. According to Piketty, the West is verging on a “new Gilded Age,” a reversion to the era of robber barons and oil tycoons.[3] Yet, he quickly warns, his is not a tale of economic determinism: massive income disparities are neither natural nor necessary to a functioning capitalism. “The history of inequality,” he suggests, is shaped not only by brute market forces but also “by the way economic, social, and political actors view what is just and what is not, as well as by the relative power of those actors and the collective choices that result.”[4] In particular, Piketty notes the importance of a gradual transition away from an older American suspicion of (European) class hierarchy and toward a firm belief in the virtues of a meritocratic inegalitarianism.

Given this endorsement of the role of ideology in the making of economic history, it may be surprising that religion makes virtually no appearance within Piketty’s analysis. Religion is not his focus, of course, and one could hardly wish for greater breadth in the nearly-700-page tome. Yet a historian of American religion cannot help but wonder what role religion might play in substantiating or qualifying Piketty’s thesis, in giving shape and form to the crucial levers of how “economic, social, and political actors view what is just and what is not.”

To begin, few places would seem more promising than the wholesale baptizing of income inequality accomplished by the Gilded Age’s “gospel of wealth” or the Reagan Era’s “prosperity gospel.” Both valorized the exploits of the wealthy while shaming or, at best, ignoring the travails of the poor. Both preached the virtue of individual aspiration and the vice of collective demands. Both praised the patient endurance of Job instead of the prophetic indignation of Amos, and emphasized Jesus’ message of hope and faith while jettisoning his radical politics. In short, one would search in vain for righteous anger or social critique in the romantic orations of a Beecher or the sunny sermons of an Osteen. It is not difficult to speculate on the consequences of such persistent messaging: in redirecting the conversation from how poverty is created to how it can be miraculously overcome, prosperity gospels bypass critical social analysis. In perpetuating the belief that the economy is controlled by divine intervention, they undermine people’s ability to discover the source of their own marginalization.

 

It may not be so great a leap to conclude that prosperity gospel has actively contributed to the worsening problem of income inequality.

 

It may not even be so great a leap to conclude that the prosperity gospel, at least in its modern incarnation, has actively contributed to the worsening problem of income inequality. While much attention has been given to the actions and motives of predatory lenders and financial opportunists, less has been directed at what motivates the people on the other side of the contract, who borrow more money than they can reasonably afford. More research is needed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that some risky economic behavior is prompted by religious belief, specifically, the prosperity gospel’s tenet that God will always provide. As Hanna Rosin reported in The Atlantic, some prosperity gospel ministers have even become loan lenders themselves—encouraging their flock to take a leap of faith in buying a house they cannot possibly afford and then taking a commission for each risky loan made.[5] And she points out that African-Americans and Latino-Americans, who belong to prosperity gospel churches in significantly larger percentages than whites, were also among the hardest hit by the wave of foreclosures. If one were to look further outward to the kissing cousins of the prosperity gospel—the “cowboy capitalism” of Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart or the indulgent consumerism of Katie Lofton’s Oprah: Gospel of an Icon—one might find even further evidence for the prominent role of religion in blessing inequality and sanctifying the status quo.

To be sure, gospels of wealth and prosperity do not provide the whole story. We cannot ignore the embedded nature of rising inequality in the larger tectonic shifts of the global economy, and Piketty is undoubtedly correct to direct our attention to the (financial) wizards behind the curtain. But the persistence of these theological emphases alongside the bigger picture of the return of income divergence suggests the entwined nature of these narratives. It suggests too that Piketty’s call for the creation of a global wealth tax, however sensible, however outlandish, cannot rest solely upon elegant formulae or pleas for the contingency of history. At some point, economics may very well need to get religion.


Kip Richardson is a doctoral candidate in the study of religion at Harvard University.

 

[1] Quoted in Henry May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Octagon Books, 1963 [1949]),70.

[2] Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) 182.

[3] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/may/08/thomas-piketty-new-gilded-age/

[4] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 20).

[5] Hanna Rosin, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” The Atlantic, December 2009.

 

Image from Flickr via Mor

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