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The Almighty Dollar In Which God Do We Trust: Introduction

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Messages about wealth received in church, if any are offered, and in the religious media tend to fall into two categories:
1.  Wealth is benign:  With the exception of the annual stewardship campaign, many churches rarely addressing issues of wealth, be it the wealth of the community or the wealth of the individual.  It just happens that certain people have wealth and others have less.  God may have some concern with how you gain and use wealth, but not about how much you have.
2. Wealth is a blessing:  Often implied in this  message is that wealth is a sign of faithfulness and blessing.  Sometimes wealth is portrayed as a reward for being generous or faithful in other ways.

Many American Christians tend to avoid addressing wealth issues when discussing their faith. 


The Almighty Dollar: In Which God Do We Trust: Introduction

What are contemporary Christian beliefs about wealth in North America?  What has influenced religious and cultural beliefs about money and wealth accumulation in early 21st century North America?  How did the prosperity doctrine come to dominate the American religious conversation on faith and wealth?  What are the alternative ways of reuniting faith and money in confronting issues of wealth accumulation?

Messages about wealth received in church, if any are offered, and in the religious media tend to fall into two categories:
1.  Wealth is benign:  With the exception of the annual stewardship campaign, many churches rarely addressing issues of wealth, be it the wealth of the community or the wealth of the individual.  It just happens that certain people have wealth and others have less.  God may have some concern with how you gain and use wealth, but not about how much you have.
2. Wealth is a blessing:  Often implied in this  message is that wealth is a sign of faithfulness and blessing.  Sometimes wealth is portrayed as a reward for being generous or faithful in other ways.

Rarely is wealth addressed critically in their religious life, whether as a special responsibility or as a deep grappling with scriptural passages relating to outright rejection of material goods.  Therefore many American Christians tend to avoid addressing wealth issues when discussing their faith. 

This paper will not present a single answer or prescription for all Christian believers.  Rather, I believe that the faithful path for dealing with wealth can differ among Christians.  While the precise path may vary, our faith, at a minimum, requires each person to consciously wrestle with all decisions about money.  In addition, Christianity offers significant resources for how each one of us can grapple faithfully with our wealth--including Scripture, tradition, community and experience.

Since the earliest stories of the Hebrew Bible, continuing through the gospels and the other writings of the Newer Testament and throughout the history of Christianity, we witness the epic struggle human beings face in deciding whether to place their deepest trust in God or in themselves.   While this struggle plays out in many stories great and small, frequently the struggle is framed in terms of where do humans find security, blessing and ultimate worth--in material possessions or in God.  In the early 21st century of the common era (C.E.), wealth in the form of money assets serves as the paramount material possession.

Unfortunately the doctrine of wealth most often articulated is the prosperity doctrine.  The most extreme forms of prosperity theology put prosperity under control of the individual rather than God.  Even the more subtle forms share the perspective that the correct beliefs and action will lead to material prosperity.  Thinking positively, proclaiming words of abundance, giving 10% or more of income to certain churches will cause God to bless the individual with prosperity.   Furthermore, wealth itself is considered good, the more you have, the more you are blessed and the happier you will be, as long as you gained your wealth honestly.

Because the prosperity doctrine, especially as popularized by prominent televangelists conflates trust in self and money with trust in God, popular Christian thought has frequently confused rather then clarified for its followers how to grapple with money and wealth issues in their lives.  Considering this phenomenon of American Christianity will open the door to understanding how confusion about money wealth issues have widely infused Christian faith and practice in America.

To gain perspective, the first chapter will review the social and theological forces that have shaped American Christian attitudes toward wealth accumulation over the past several centuries.  Whether he intended it or not, we will see how the moral and economic philosophy of Adam Smith facilitated the process of separating economics from the religious sphere.  Max Weber's early 20th century analysis of how Protestant theology and ethics evolved in the developing capitalism of Western Europe provides a valuable framework for understanding the theological perspectives on wealth that American immigrants brought to this country in the 17th through 19th centuries.  R. H. Tawney's perspective of the development of separate spheres for religion and economics sets an important foundation for understanding subsequent religious view on wealth in America.

In the second chapter, America's strong sense of individualism and optimism ("can do" attitude) put a distinct American stamp on Weber's thesis.  The frontier played a key role in understanding the develop American perspective on religion an economics.  Insights from Alexis de Tocqueville to H. Richard Niebuhr will help illumine these dynamics.  Considering Puritanism, pietism and evangelical revivals help explain the individualistic privatizing of religion in America.  The "mind over matter" theologies derived from New Thought religions in the 19th century are another key ingredient in the development of prosperity theologies in the next century.

As America rose to become a leading global economic power in the 20th century and new religious perspectives flowered, American Christian thought and practice about wealth and consumption evolved beyond what Weber could envision a hundred years ago.  Chapter 3 will explore the trends in American religious thought and practice that plowed the ground for the prosperity theologies of today.  The gospel of success proponents combined with Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal preachers to give us the prosperity televangelists of the late 20th century.  Other defenders of the Protestant ethic include the business media and modern day promoters of Smithsonian virtues.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, theologians, both in the pulpit and the academy, have challenged the dominant acquiescence to wealth accumulation that characterized the development of Protestant thought in America.  Chapter 4 will focus on approaches that might be most effective today in equipping Christians in North America to create a new ethic for addressing money wealth issues and faithfulness to God.  Challenges to the dominant thinking on wealth and faith in America have been raised for well over a century, but my focus will be on contemporary writings and ministries.  After exploring some of the psychological and spiritual implications of prosperity thinking, I will briefly outline how both evangelical and mainstream denominational writers are using biblical resources for an alternative money and faith ethic.  Complementing these voices is a growing range of ministry programs that offer concrete ideas for helping individuals and faith communities create a more faithful relationship to money and wealth. 


2 - I suspect a similar struggle has played out in the other great Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Islam.  However I am barely equipped to comment on Western Christianity, let along on other faith traditions.

3 - Prosperity preachers most frequently refer to prosperity in three forms--physical health, relationships and wealth.


Table of Contents:

Preface

Introduction

Chapter 1:  A Revolution in Attitudes Toward Prosperity & Wealth
   The Moral and Economic Philosophy of Adam Smith
   Weber and Tawney on Religion and Economics

Chapter 2 - America's Exceptional Individualism
   The Frontier
   The Religious Aspects of American Individualism
   New Thought Theologies

Chapter 3 - Evolution of the Protestant Ethic in 20th Century America       
   The Gospel of Success
   Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Theologies
   The Prosperity Gospel Today
   Related Ethical Defenses of Wealth Accumulation
   The Reach of Wealth Accumulation Defenses

Chapter 4: Toward Developing A 21st Century Faith & Money Ethic
   Introduction and an Historical Note
   Challenging the Spirituality of Accumulation
   Biblical Perspectives on Reuniting Faith and Money
   Ministries for Transforming Our Relationship with Money

Conclusion

Appendix: Faith and Money Resources

Bibliography

A M.A. thesis submitted in candidacy for the degree of Master of Arts in Religion and Theology
Copyright © 2008 by Michael Troutman} , 3156 Elliot Av
Minneapolis, MN 55407 - 612-822-6059

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