“(W)e love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!”
-Charlottesville faithful, Billy Gonzales, quoted in Hanna Rosin's fascinating article about the recent popularity of the "prosperity gospel", or, as we used to call it, "Satan worship". (Joke!)
According to Rosin, the "prosperity gospel" is a strain of Pentecostal belief in which believers are thought to come upon wealth because God loves them in particular. "God is the “Owner of All the Silver and Gold,” and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above. Even in these hard times, it is discouraged, in such churches, to fall into despair about the things you cannot afford. “Instead of saying ‘I’m poor,’ say ‘I’m rich,’” Garay’s wife, Hazael, told me one day. “The word of God will manifest itself in reality.”" So, basically, The Secret, with a Christian twist.
Admittedly, stating any opinion about religious belief is going to anger somebody, and this will probably be particularly provocative... Nevertheless, this "prosperity theology" idea (as explained by the Wikipedia elder scholars) is sort of amazing because it's both embraced by a number of Christian churches, and in opposition to nearly everything in the Gospels they claim to read. Christ is not ambiguous- believers are rewarded in the next life; not this one. The accumulation of wealth and material possessions is a vice- the precondition of sin- not a reward from God. I'm not even a Christian and I know this, mostly because I've actually read the Bible. But it would be like a Church teaching that adultery is a blessing because it shows that we have great love. It just doesn't follow from the scriptures.
I've been studying the Christian scriptures quite a bit lately, in addition to the Buddhist and Muslim scriptures and a bit of the Dead Sea scrolls.* It helps with the long winter months and I've decided that maybe the universe really does answer back for some people. But, I have to say that, as ambiguous and poetic as the New Testament is, it's pretty clear, at least to me, that Christ's followers abandoned their material possessions. In fact, it's pretty clear that this is what Christ's followers are supposed to do. This isn't to say that the rich are doomed; just that it's much harder for them to be saved than it is for the poor. The main reason- and this is exactly the same in Buddhism- is that focusing on the finite takes one's focus off of the infinite. The more money and nice things you have, the harder it is to think about what lies beyond death. Again, wealth is not so much a sin as the precondition of sin. But, telling people that they're poor because God doesn't love them as much as the wealthy is not only inaccurate- it's apostasy.
Now, let me say that every religion I know of teaches that we're all sinners, more or less. Another way of putting that is that every one of us, including Atheists, live in different little worlds that are always at odds. Such is life; none of us can keep all of our roles, beliefs, interests, and passions from clashing. And what I think really is unique about the Jewish and Christian gospels is they teach that the salvation of the worst sinners among us is actually more valuable to God. Saul/Paul is the model of salvation. The Prodigal Son achieves more than his upright brother. So, let's not say that the rich are in any worse spiritual shape than anyone else. None of us are perfect. And, as a neophyte, if anyone can find a passage in which Christ says that people become materially wealthy as a sign that God loves them, please post it in the comments, because I'd love to hear it.
As a side note, something I noticed when visiting friends and family over American Thanksgiving, which strikes me as different from Canadians, is the emphasis on American exceptionalism. And there are really two strains of that: one is self-aggrandizing and the other is self-lacerating. An example of the former would be those obnoxious emails older relatives send about how, well, those of us here in the heartland might not be "rock stars", but we love our families and freedom in a way that most people "in today's world" just do not; they should come with a smug alert. I heard plenty of that while in the states.
And, on the other hand, you have Americans who think that their culture is somehow uniquely corrupt. Rosin's article hints at that self-lacerating strain; she talks about people who think the US housing crisis was caused by this unique religious culture. In reality, the regulations for home loans were extremely lax in the US and, as a result, people made some stupid decisions, which human beings are wont to do. It's not that unique really. And, in my experience, Americans are not especially corrupt, wicked, greedy, lazy, or any other invective. It could happen elsewhere and has in the past.
But the "prosperity gospels" seem like an example of the self-aggrandizing strain: a need to be told that you are the best and the brightest and God's favorite kiddo. It always seems weird to me that so many religious people can be so self-righteous, given the fact that you can't possibly read any of their scriptures and not come out aware of your own sin. People will cheerily say things like, "God's got my back, yo!" and I think, "really?" Because, honestly, I'm a pretty good person, and it's still pretty impossible for me to imagine actually coming to the pearly gates and not getting sent down the trap door. How could you read those scriptures and come out thinking: "Hey, you know who's without sin? Me!"? Furthermore, how could you make the assumption that wealth production is God's way of giving you an allowance for being such a swell person? By this measure, Paris Hilton is close to sainthood.
Maybe it's a matter of holding conflicting viewpoints, and maybe it's a matter of living in a confusing world, and maybe they really do understand the Scriptures better than the rest of us. But I just don't understand the need some people have to be patted on the head and told, "Why you're as good as you could ever be! Just look at the size of your bank account!"
[*I realize that sentence probably sounds pretentious, or nerdy, or maybe both. But I have.]