In her deliciously scabrous book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes a trip to Joel Osteen’s 16,000-seat Houston megachurch, where she hears about his wife’s recent spiritual triumph. Here’s what happened: In 2005, Victoria Osteen was flying to Vail, Colorado, when she noticed a stain on the armrest of her first-class seat. She demanded the flight attendant take care of it immediately. The flight attendant refused, saying she had to help the rest of the passengers board first. Outraged, Mrs. Osteen became combative, and even tried to get into the cockpit to complain to the pilots. She ended up being thrown off the plane and fined $3,000. As if that weren’t indignity enough, the flight attendant, imbued with the spirit of darkness, sued her.
But God, naturally, was on her side, and the case was thrown out. “It’s not just a victory for us,” Osteen announced. “It’s a victory for God’s kingdom.” Victoria took the stage, “as triumphant as David doing his victory dance through the streets of Jerusalem,” wrote Ehrenreich. And the largely black and Latino working-class congregation applauded her success.
This theology has done as much to bolster conservative ideology as the naked politicking of Falwell and Robertson. It’s also ruined a lot of lives.
The Osteen’s church is one of many congregations where material wealth is seen as a sign of God’s favor. So how did Christianity go from “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” to preachers like Joel Osteen, the aptly named Creflo Dollar, and Joyce Meyer, owner of a $23,000 marble toilet? Much of the credit, such as it is, belongs to Oral Roberts, who died on Tuesday.
Though very much part of the right wing, Oral Roberts was less overtly political than celebrity televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and thus made less of an impact on the secular culture. But as the progenitor of the prosperity gospel—the belief the God rewards the faithful with wealth and health—Roberts did as much to shape modern Christianity as any other preacher. He helped create a kind of Christianity in which wealth is sanctified and holy, a Christianity that merges the seemingly incompatible values of the gospels and of cutthroat capitalism.
As one of the first televangelists, Roberts brought Pentecostalism, a demonstrative, magic-filled kind of Christianity that often involves speaking in tongues, faith healing, and prophesy, into the mainstream. He deserves a good part of the credit for the fact that today, Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest-growing denomination. (According to the scholar Philip Jenkins, by 2050 there will likely be more than a billion believers worldwide.) As Roberts’ biographer David Edwin Harrell, Jr. wrote in 1985, “In his nearly four decades of healing evangelism, Oral Roberts has personally touched over a million human beings; several million more have answered his call to ‘accept Christ;’ tens of millions more have heard him preach and pray on radio, television, and in films; hundreds of millions of pieces of literature have been mailed to every corner of the globe from his headquarters in Tulsa, Oklahoma… a generation of students has been trained at Oral Roberts University.”
Roberts tied Pentecostalism to fundraising in a way that continues to echo worldwide. In the 1950s, in a gambit that’s become common for prosperity preachers, he promised radio listeners that God would repay every dollar they sent to him seven times over. His genius was to market faith like an investment, one that would pay predictable dividends to true believers. Thus wealth became a sign of piety, and poverty a spiritual, rather than a material, condition. This theology has done as much to bolster conservative ideology as the naked politicking of Falwell and Robertson. It’s also ruined a lot of lives.
These days, Roberts’ heirs are everywhere. Osteen, a dropout of Oral Roberts University, presides over America’s largest church. Joyce Meyer, who holds an honorary doctorate of divinity from Oral Roberts University, is a global celebrity with a $10 million private jet; Time named her No. 17 on its list of America’s 25 most important evangelicals. A 2006 Time poll showed that 17 percent of all Americans identify themselves as part of the prosperity gospel movement. Some have speculated that the prosperity gospel contributed to the real-estate crash, by assuring the faithful that they could overextend themselves and count on God to bestow riches. In the Atlantic magazine cover story “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” Hanna Rosin quoted the Virginia preacher Fernando Garay declaring, “The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!”
It’s not surprising that this sort of magical thinking is most powerful among those who have the fewest economic options. That’s a big part of the reason that, as important a figure as Roberts was the United States, he had even more influence internationally. In poor countries through the world, promoters of the prosperity gospel promise the desperate that their tithing will be repaid with American-style riches. In Kampala, Uganda, where huge billboards promote visiting American televangelists, I once visited a prominent, English-speaking church where the preacher promised a sobbing, ecstatic congregation that God would free them from poverty and HIV if they just demonstrated their faith. Then he called for donations. As Jenkins wrote in his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, a Brazilian prosperity gospel church, controls one of that country’s largest television stations and has a football team and its own political party. “Much of its wealth comes from the fervent devotion of members, who tithe faithfully,” wrote Jenkins.
There’s no way to know how many people have bankrupted themselves in the metaphysical Ponzi schemes of the prosperity preachers. It’s a fair bet, though, that Oral Roberts caused far more economic impoverishment in his life than, say, Bernie Madoff. Now that he’s dead, one can only hope that there actually is justice in the hereafter.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.