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Peter L. Berger

"You Can Do It!"

Two cheers for the prosperity gospel.

There is an almost universal consensus, right across the Christian theological spectrum, to the effect that the so-called prosperity gospel is an aberration. One should always be suspicious when there is a universal consensus about anything; quite often it is wrong. I will momentarily voice some suspicion about this particular consensus. But first one should give credit where credit is due. In other words, the consensus about the prosperity gospel is not completely wrong.

It is certainly a distortion of the Christian message if it is primarily interpreted as a program for the material improvement of the human condition. Where the prosperity gospel does that, it is an aberration—especially so when its proponents suggest, implicitly and often enough explicitly, that giving money to them guarantees that God will bless the donors with success and wealth. Protestants if no one else should recall in this connection that the Reformation began as a protest against the sale of indulgences. Recall JohannTetzel's jingle—"as soon as the coin drops into the collection plate, a soul jumps out of purgatory." Some prosperity-gospel preaching strikes one as an eerie Protestant translation of Tetzel's message.

A number of critics of the prosperity gospel have couched their criticism in an overall anti-capitalist rhetoric: The prosperity gospel is supposed to be part and parcel of a pro-capitalist ideology, seeking to dupe the poor of the global south into accepting the wicked policies of "neoliberalism." It is useful to point out that the materialist distortion of the Christian message is fully shared by the liberation theology of the anti-capitalist left. Only here the material improvement is understood in collective rather than individual terms: put your coin in the collection plate of the revolutionary movement, and the soul of the masses will be freed from the purgatory of capitalist exploitation. Theological suggestion: What is good for the rightist goose is good for the ...

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