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The Almighty Dollar: In Which God Do We Trust: Chapter 3 - Evolution of the Protestant Ethic in 20th Century America

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An exploration of the trends in American religious thought and practice that plowed the ground for the prosperity theologies of today.

The Almighty Dollar: In Which God Do We Trust:
Chapter 3 - Evolution of the Protestant Ethic in 20th Century America

The Gospel of Success

As the 19th century drew to a close, the idea that the power of the divine mind could overcome sickness and disease was extended to include material success and power as well.  Ralph Waldo Trine, philosopher and mystic of the New Thought movement, posited that the individual could harness the "Infinite Power that creates and governs all things in the universe" through one's disciplined will and overcome the obstacles in their path on the road to prosperity:
Send out your thought--thought is a force and it has occult power or unknown proportions when rightly used and wisely directed--send out your thought that the right situation or the right work will come to you at the right time, in the right way, and that will recognize it when it comes...This is the law of prosperity:  When apparent adversity comes, be not cast down by it, but make the best of it, and always look forward for better things, for conditions more prosperous...ideas have occult power, and ideas, when rightly planted and rightly tended, are the seed that actualize material conditions.[1]

Simultaneously, an American Baptist pastor grafted the optimistic, can-do attitude that marked American character on the many "frontiers" the growing country offered with the "mind over matter" concepts of the New Thought theologies into an early and clear example of the gospel of success.  In a lecture before a Philadelphia audience near the close of the century, Russell H. Conwell developed a theme he eventually delivered thousands of times and first published in 1890 as a booklet entitled Acres of Diamonds.  Conwell relates a number of epochraful stories of people who left their farm or home in search of riches or a better life, only to have diamonds, gold, oil or some other great store of wealth buried under the land they had just left behind.  Conwell's central theme is that the opportunity to gain great wealth is right where you live and within the reach of those that apply themselves to the task.

I say to you that you have 'acres of diamonds' in Philadelphia right where you live...Now then, I say again that the opportunity to get rich, to attain great wealth, is here in Philadelphia now, within the reach of almost every man and woman who hears me speak tonight, and I mean just what I say.

Conwell asserts "it makes not so much difference where you are as who you are (emphasis mine)."[2]

Conwell articulates a series of religious interpretations that are striking for their resonance with prosperity teaching 100 years later.  "I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich."  In response to those who criticize his teachings as not based on gospel he replies:  "to make money honestly is to preach the gospel."[3]  He asserts that 98% of the wealthy are honest.  He promoted money as power and the belief that you can do more good with it than without it.  He asserts that the Bible is not at all against wealth, only against making an idol of money.  In fact, for Conwell you can judge what someone is worth by how much they earn.  He even goes on to outline how one can achieve success as one applies their religion to their business and generates "righteous" profits.[4]

While, Conwell was delivering his "acres of diamonds" sermon, Charles and Myrtle Fillmore were founding the Unity Society of Practical Christianity in Kansas City, MO.  Unity theology incorporates key principles of 19th century New Thought theology including a belief that we create reality through our thoughts and the practice of affirmative prayer.  The Fillmore's theology was influenced by Quimby, Evans, Christian Science disciples and the study of other religions, including Buddhism.  The Filmores taught that one's body need not be the flesh and blood we think it is, but rather can be the "pure and incorruptible" reflection of the "Spirit-Mind" of Christ.  Charles Filmore told his followers the choice is up to each individual:
Man selects the mental model and the body images it.  So the body is the image and likeness of the individual's idea of man...The body is the exact reproduction of the thoughts of its occupant.  As a man thinks in his mind, so is his body. . You can be an Adam if you choose, or you may be a Christ...The issues of life are within man; the body is merely the record of the state of mind of the individual.[5]

Unity thought, in turn, influenced later prosperity preachers who took a core principle of Unity ("We create life experiences through our way of thinking.") and extended it to:  "We can create wealth by thinking in terms of abundance."  Many Unity followers have an exceptionally strong belief that a person's mind can control one's perception of a situation.  Mitchem tells the following story she heard from a Unity church member:  
Three women are sent to hell.  The first two women sit around complaining: 'We're in hell...Isn't it hot?...Don't you hate it here?'  Finally they look at the third woman who is just sitting and smiling.  'What's wrong with you?' the first two women ask.  'Don't you know you're in hell?'  To which the third woman replies: 'I'm not.'  The third woman in the story is an example of a Unity student.  Members will often refer to themselves as 'students' who are always working to develop a life that is not defined by a given situation.  The point of the story emphasizes this aspect, not the hell portion; the idea of a literal heaven or hell is not so much a future occurrence, but something we each create on earth.  Complaining about a situation is not the Unity way of dealing with it.  Life situations must be dealt with, and the mind is the place to begin.[6]

In  the middle of the 20th century, a Methodist minister later turned Dutch Reformed pastor, picked up the themes of Conwell and the Fillmores and combined them with attitudes from the American frontier.  Norman Vincent Peale became a best selling author with his "power of positive thinking" message.  Read not only by church members but also by businessmen and women,[7] Peale's message of positive thinking leading to success in life was widely embraced.  He offered an "applied Christianity, a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works."[8]  

Peale believed that his ideas were scientific and based on principles "taught in the Bible."  Peale taught the "attitudes are more important than facts."[9]  If you had enough faith in God you could gain faith in yourself to overcome obstacles before you and become successful in life.  Peale did not assert that success in life was to be measured solely in material terms, yet his message was grounded in the power of the individual to chose for oneself what kind of life one experienced:
Why go on being a victim of fear, anxiety, trouble and weakness, with vigor of mind and spirit and body being steadily drained off?  Great new power and strength can be yours...If it is the worst difficulty in the world, it does not invalidate the fact that you can win if you will adopt this plan of living.[10]

Peale took the idea of frontier America that obstacles were meant to be overcome and combined it with the power of mind perspective of New Thought religions and offered a formula to business people on the road to success.  Many of his examples of positive thinking come from the business world.  He urges his business audiences to put the words of Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me"[11] into their pockets for easy reference whenever facing challenging situations or tough sales calls.  Peale asserts that success or failure is ours to choose.  Our attitude is what will make the difference:
Nothing can stop us if we have enough faith:  So the first thing to do about an obstacle is simply to stand up to it and not complain about it or whine under it but forthrightly attack it...Faith is the chief quality that you need...Faith supplies healing power...there are people who have overcome every conceivable difficult situation, even the one in which you now find yourself and which to you seems utterly hopeless...The only possible way you can have an attitude is by the mental process and what you think about your obstacles largely determines what you do about them...Emphasize and re-emphasize that positive attitude and you will finally convince you own consciousness that you can do something about difficulties.[12]

A few decades later, Robert H. Schuller refined Peale's power of positive thinking into "possibility thinking."  Possibility thinking is a philosophy of success articulated by Schuller that mixed Calvinist theology (trained as a Reformed Church of America at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan) with New Thought theologies and its derivatives.  For Schuller, "Possibility Thinking is just another word for faith."  He believes we are controlled "by either positive thoughts or by negative thoughts," and he suggests that negative thoughts are the product of an unbelieving mind.  Possibility Thinking, on the other hand, is a process that leads one to success in life.  For Schuller success is "accepting your God-given opportunities and giving your divinely-inspired goals 110- percent of your best effort."  People with possibility thinking will see the opportunities around them every day and have the courage to pursue them.  And for Schuller, courage is not a gift, but a decision by the individual:  "It [courage] is always something you can choose."[13]

While Schuller calls fame and fortune shallow goals, he does propose that "success can mean acquiring more money or material things.  Surely our perception of success should not ignore the material needs of life."  Like Conwell, Schuller preaches seizing the opportunities at hand, not dropping what you have to chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Listen for the echo of Conwell, as Schuller encourages his listeners with the following thought:  "When things get rough, don't move.  People and pressures shift, but the soil remains the same no matter where you go."[14]

Schuller's message also resonates deeply with American attitudes from the frontier period--truly faithful Christians do not let failure stop them.  Indeed, within each failure lie the seeds of tomorrow's success.  Furthermore, failure tells others that one has the courage to pursue one's calling regardless of the outcome.  Schuller offers eight mental attitudes that possibility thinkers can use to turn failure into success:  (1)"Look upon change not as a threat but as the basis for hope;" (2) don't dwell on your sinful nature and shortcomings, instead believe in yourself and nurture a positive self-image; (3) cultivate a "extraordinary positive mental attitude" toward your own leadership abilities; (4) choose a positive mental attitude toward problems; including the belief that the all "failures" are "only problems waiting to be solved" and you have the power to manage all problems rather than have them manage you; (5) expect the best of people and you will get the best from them; (6) keep your emotions in check, don't get too high or too low, maintain  positive mental attitude toward emotional well-being; (7) turn excuses into possibilities by using positive mental attitudes to release creative ideas; and (8) evaluate the risks of decisions but don't be frozen by risk into indecision--move forward with confidence that you have prepared well.[15]  Schuller summarizes the confident attitude of the possibility thinker toward decisions:  "No wonder Possibility Thinkers make such great decisions more often than not!  We are smart. We are good.  We are tough!  We are a success."[16]

Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Theologies

Alongside, and at times, interweaving with the gospel of success were the Holiness and Pentecostal movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries.  An important component of many preachers (and there were numerous strands to Holiness and Pentecostalism) was the central role of a voluntary decision and commitment to believe in the Word as a path to sanctification.  In 1898, Methodist Pastor De Witt Clinton Huntington articulated Christian holiness as a "voluntary and continuous obedience to all the known will of God, a state in which the believer does not commit sin...holiness is voluntary and entire obedience to the known will of God...[while] sin is volitional indulgence in contravention of law."[17]  Pentecostalism added an emphasis of experiential elements to holiness theologies, ranging from speaking in tongues to healing from the laying on of hands.

Among the strands that blossomed from American Pentecostalism was the rise of the Word of Faith movement.  The Word of Faith movement further extended "mind over matter" theology to incorporate temporal material success for the individual believer.  Kenneth E. Hagin is often credited as the "father" of Word of Faith in America.[18]  Hagin, a Pentecostal preacher for almost 70 years until his death in 2003 at age 86, rooted his preaching in a conversion experience as a teenage as he lay bed-bound suffering from a heart and/or blood disease.  Beginning at age 17, Hagin became a preacher of the Word of Faith message--i.e. strong enough belief in the Word of God as it appears in Scripture enables the believer to receive a variety of benefits.  In addition to eternal salvation, faith brings physical healing and material wealth.  In his booklet, Godliness is Profitable, Hagin proclaims: "Thank God there is profit from serving God.  Living for God is not detrimental to a successful life.  It is 'profitable unto ALL things'."  Hagin encourages his listeners to focus on this earthly life, what he calls "living in the now":  "I'm more concerned about the life that now is, because the life where I 'now is' is the one I'm living now."  Hagin asserts that if you choose the path of Godliness you will be rewarded:
God will promote you.  Sure He will.  But you're going to have to make the dedication and consecration.  You're going to have to make the choice.  You're going to have to have the intestinal fortitude that some people call guts to say, 'This is what God called me to do, and I'm going to do it, go over or under, come hell or high water, sink or swim, live or die, burn every bridge behind, praise God.'[19]

Born one year later in abject poverty in rural Oklahoma, Oral Roberts was both a contemporary of Hagin and shared a similar conversion story.  Suffering from tuberculosis as a teenager, Roberts was carried on a mattress to a tent revival in 1935 and received the healing touch of a tent revivalist well after midnight.  After five months of being bedridden, Roberts reports he was healed of both the tuberculosis and long-term stuttering to the point that he found himself bounding across the stage and praising God clearly and with powerful lungs.  At the same time he received a message to bring a healing ministry to as many people as possible, primarily through the touch of his right hand.  Roberts began as a pastor in the Pentecostal Holiness Church and is descended from a Cherokee grandmother, whose ancestors were survivors of the Trail of Tears death march from North Carolina to Oklahoma in the early 19th century.[20]  Like Hagin, Roberts' focused on the "nowness" of God, not a far away or distant God.  However, Roberts' belief that every person is sick but needs both good medical science and a miracle form God ("God's healing streams flow together"), set him apart from other Word of Faith pastors who urged their followers to reject modern medicine as part of demonstrating their trust in God's healing power.   Roberts' theology also differs from those possibility thinkers who focus strictly on the goodness of each person.

While Roberts denies an interest in the material, his message is centered in what he calls Seed-Faith giving, where reaping accompanies sowing.  Roberts urges his followers to expect that a strong belief, free of doubt, combined with giving (at least at a tithing level) will lead to an abundant harvest:
I saw that God would be true to these principles by causing reaping to follow sowing, receiving to follow giving, if I sowed, if I gave, He would send the miracle harvest whether I was expecting it or not.  If I didn't expect it, when He sent it, I would fail to recognize it, and it would pass me by.  That would leave me doubting God and wondering why he didn't care about supplying my needs.  The words Expect a miracle! became a powerful force in my life...when I made my tithes and offerings as a seed, an act of my faith in Him, he would not fail to send the miracle harvest in both expected ways and unexpected ways, and I was to live in a continual state of expecting to receive![21]

Whether or not Roberts thought of the harvest in terms of financially material success, many of his protचgचes have.  Oral Roberts University was founded in 1965       and has graduated tens of thousands since then.  Among its students were the aforementioned Kenneth Hagin Sr., as well as current day prosperity preachers, Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen.  In addition a leading voice of African-American prosperity preachers, Creflo Dollar has served as an Oral Roberts trustee.

The Prosperity Gospel Today

The prosperity doctrine of the early 21s century is grafted from the varied theological stock explored above, and in turn comes in a variety of forms.  There are several prominent elements among these various forms.  First, material possessions are considered to be a positive part of life.  If you apply yourself and work hard you will gain prosperity.  Generally the more you have, the happier or more fulfilled you will be.  Second, faith is a key element in gaining prosperity.  Giving faithfully to the church and living by certain moral principles is an "investment" in gaining prosperity for yourself.  And the material prosperity that results is generally seen as a sign of God's blessing.  Third, common to prosperity teaching is the idea that the individual has the ability to overcome failure and succeed in life, including finding financial success.   One can see the influence of power of the mind combined with positive thought theologies at work here.  In its most extreme form, the individual is posited as having control of the outcomes of their lives.  Mixed in with the idea of "mind over matter" is the  use of scripture, albeit often out of context, to support prosperity doctrines.  Included in the scripture references are those that indicate God's intention for the material well being of humans, particularly those that express certain beliefs and/or behaviors.  Following are examples of just a few of contemporary prosperity preachers.  While their teachings are illustrative, they by no means exhaust prosperity thinking in America today.

Creflo A. Dollar Jr., one of the best-known African-American prosperity preachers, is a strong proponent for how the individual is largely in control of the outcomes of their lives.  Born in Georgia in 1962, Dollar began his career as a high school teacher and educational therapist.  In 1986 he founded the World Changers Christian Center in College Park, Georgia.  This non-denominational church claims over 30,000 members.  Dollar promotes "total life prosperity," a prosperity that clearly includes financial prosperity, to all those who chose to take control of their lives:
I don't want you to get the idea that God is not interested in your financial prosperity because He is.  As I mentioned earlier, He wants you in control of every area of your life.  He wants you to be prosperous to the point that you can handle every financial situation confronting you.  He wants you to be prosperous to the point that the addiction you once had can't come back to control you.  This type of prosperity says that now you gain control over that addiction.  It doesn't tell you what to do; you tell it what to do...You're walking in true biblical prosperity when you are able to handle your circumstances and not have them handle you.[22]

Drawing on the Word of Faith traditions, Dollar emphasizes the power of life change coming through speaking the words of faith.  Dollar asserts, "There is a direct connection between your mouth and prosperity."  He references a variety of scriptural verse[23] to support a "name it, claim it, confess it theology" that gives the individual choice of what kind of life they will live based on what words they choose to speak.   Referring to Proverbs, Dollar tells his readers:
you can have the words of death or life coming out of your mouth.  The Choice is yours.  You can either turn on the death cycle or use the words of God to turn on the life works for money, but it doesn't stop there.  Say all the time that the Lord takes pleasure in prospering His people in their spirits, souls, bodies, marriages, and everything that affects them in this life.[24]

Dollar is also a strong advocate for how tithing plus faith leads to prosperity.  He believes that strictly adhering to giving 10% of income is both Biblically mandated and required to receive God's covenantal promises:  " can cancel your own rights [as a Christian] by not tithing...[tithing] is something God requires."  While Dollar acknowledges the call to love God and neighbor, he emphasizes a formulaic approach to receiving God's blessing:  
Victory in your life is determined by how you handle the tithe...Wherever you find a tither, you're going to find victory. Wherever you find a nontither, you're going to find failure.  The covenant promises of God can always be produced for someone who will continue to stay hooked up to the covenant through his tithes...God is making you an offer you cannot refuse.  Bring the tithe and watch Me open the windows of heaven.  Bring the tithe and see what I can do for you...The tithe is the covenant connector.  It connects you to the covenant promises of God.[25]  

Joel Osteen is one of the most popular pastors in North America today.  His Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas boasts over 40,000 members plus millions of viewers from his television broadcasts.   While not a seminary graduate, Osteen points frequently to select portions of scripture to form his message to his followers.  Osteen's books and sermons mix positive thought and Word of Faith theologies into messages that have proven appealing to early 21st century persons.  Despite his frequent references to material success, Osteen denies that he is a purveyor of the prosperity doctrine.  In response to a question about prosperity preaching, Osteen has commented:  "I don't in the least bit consider myself a prosperity-type preacher.  I don't think I've ever preached a message on finances."[26]

In examining his sermons and writings, however, one finds many parallels to Conwell's and Peale's gospel of success ideas in Osteen's words.  By expecting the best and thinking positively, Osteen urges his followers to live "your best life now".  Echoing Cromwell's Acres of Diamonds, Osteen proclaims:  "No matter where you are or what challenges you are facing, you can enjoy your life right now!" The first step is change one's thinking from a negative outlook on life or one's circumstances to a positive one:  
Change your thinking.  Get beyond the barriers of the past and start expecting God to do great things in your life...Get rid of that small-minded thinking and start thinking as God thinks.  Think big.  Think increase.  Think abundance.  Think more than enough.[27]

Closely linked to changed thinking is that success comes by having faith and steadfastly expecting success to happen:
It's important that you program your mind for success...Expect circumstances to change in your favor.  Expect people to go out of their way to help you.  Expect to be at the right place at the right time...Your attitude should be:  "God I know that You are at work in my life.  Although the miracle I've been watching for didn't happen today I know that I'm one day closer to it!  I'm one day closer to my answered prayer, and I'm not going to get upset.  I'll not allowing myself to become discouraged.  I know that Your timing is perfect, so I'm going to stay in an attitude of faith and keep trusting You to do what is best.[28]

Along side positive thinking, Osteen echoes Hagin's Word of Faith theologies as he promotes the power of both thought and the spoken word to transform a person's life:  "Friend, there is a miracle in your mouth.  If you want to change your world, start by changing your words."  He encourages his followers to start each day by reciting these words as they look at themselves in the morning mirror:
"I am valuable.  I am loved.  God has a great plan for my life.  I have favor wherever I go.  God's blessings are chasing me down and overtaking me.  Everything I touch prospers and succeeds.  I'm excited about my future!"  Start speaking those kinds of words, and before long, you will rise to a new level of well-being success, and victory.  There is truly power in your words.

This power of speaking extends beyond the individual, at least to including the believer's family:  "If you want success, if you want wisdom, if you want to be prosperous and healthy, you're going to have to do more than meditate and believe; you must boldly declare words of faith and victory over yourself and your family."[29]

Osteen says that humans are created by God to be givers, but he puts this call to give in the framework of sowing seeds for the harvest--giving as a way to receive what you want:
If you want your dreams to come to pass, help someone else fulfill his or her dreams.  Start sowing some seeds so God can bring you a harvest.  When we meet other people's needs, God always meets our needs...When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance...The truth is, the more you help others, the more God will make sure that you are helped.

Osteen encourages his followers to give what it is they desire in return.  If you need a job, help someone else find a job; if you need health minister to someone else's sickness; if you want financial success, help someone else with their financial needs.   He says:  "We will receive from God in the same measure we give to others."[30]

Osteen's description of giving evokes a bargain that the believer makes with God, a way of attracting God's favorable attention.  He uses an analogy of having an account with God, that God will refer to in the future in deciding how much blessing to send back in the account holder's direction:
...when we give, it gets God's attention.  I'm not suggesting that we can buy miracles...but I am saying that God sees your gifts...[and] God is keeping a record of every good deed you've ever done.  He is keeping a record of every seed you've ever sown.  You may think is went unnoticed, but God saw it.  And in your time of need, He will make sure that somebody is there to help you.  Your generous gifts will come back to you...God has promised us that when we give, He will give back to us, then add some more.[31]

These are just two examples of the dozens of prosperity preachers found on the radio and television airwaves, in bookstores and on-line.  Many more operate solely at the individual congregational level.[32]  While some emphasize physical healing or improved relationships more than financial success, promoters of prosperity theologies usually blend the one or more of the three concepts exemplified by Dollar and Osteen--thinking positive thoughts leads to overcoming personal challenges; neo-Pentecostal Word of Faith theologies that emphasize claiming God's favor by proclaiming God's favor; and a primary motivation of giving being the expectation that the giver will be rewarded materially in the future.

Related Ethical Defenses of Wealth Accumulation

In addition to prosperity preachers, others defend wealth with utilitarian and even virtue claims.  Advertising in all forms pervades our culture and encourage us to accumulate more money and the things that money can buy.  The business media, from TV networks devoted to financial and business news to prominent publications such as Fortune and Forbes, also offer ethical arguments for wealth accumulation.  Theology professor, Carnegie Samuel Calian has offered a description of the "gospel" of the best-known business daily, The Wall Street Journal.  He identified three components of the The Journal's gospel by evaluating its editorial pages.  First, Calian says The Journal embraces religion's role as important to "a human craving for something transcendent...[as a source for] meaning and of the confidence and sense of self-worth that that come with it [religion]."  Second, The Journal does not believe humans are "eternally damned" and he finds the paper optimistic that humans have the ability to "cope with the almost insurmountable national and global problems he confronts".[33]

Finally The Journal sees "a rational order of social existence" in the gospels.  While justice and equality may be laudable goals, overriding is the need to be realistic; and "meddling" by the government in issues such as health care and the poor makes things worse.  "Avoid illusions, be realistic" is the Journal's golden rule.[34]  Essentially, the WSJ offers a utilitarian defense of wealth accumulation as a necessary ingredient of an economic system, which, despite its faults, works better than any other to benefit the most people.

While Deidre McCloskey, a scholar at the University of Illinois-Chicago, accepts the utilitarian ethics of The Wall Street Journal, she draws directly from the philosophy of Adam Smith to argue the merits of market capitalism based on its virtues.  McCloskey asserts: "Capitalism virtuous...[it only] needs to be inspirited, moralized, completed."  In the first of an eventual four volume explication of bourgeois virtues she proposes to show that:  "Bourgeois life has not in practice...excluded the other virtues.  In fact, it often has nourished them."  McCloskey describes the positive effects of capitalism in the past 200 years:  "Participation in capitalist markets and bourgeois virtues has civilized the world...Richer and more urban people, contrary to what the magazines of opinion sometimes suggest, are less materialistic, less violent, less superficial than poor and rural people."[35]

She urges her readers, whatever their prior attitudes toward market capitalism, to allow her to argue her proposition about markets and virtue:  
I beg you to consider that there might be such a thing as bourgeois virtues, the modern freedoms, and that letting people alone to make deals in a law-respecting society with low taxes helps them and their poor neighbors to flourish, materially and ethically, as Western Europe did 1600 to the present, increasingly bourgeois.[36]

To be fair, McCloskey sees virtue in a "chicken and egg" relationship with markets.  While she sees free markets as nurturing virtue, McCloskey recognizes, along with Adam Smith, that "without virtue the machinery of neither the market nor the government works for our good."  McCloskey puts prudence (i.e. "practical wisdom" or "good judgment") as the "central ethical value of the bourgeoisie."  Nevertheless she points to Adam Smith to note that "other virtues...especially temperance" are embedded with prudence in the ethics of the bourgeoisie.[37]

McCloskey directly tackles the antagonism toward wealth that is found in the Christian gospels.  She acknowledges that the "gospels attack wealth surprisingly harshly by the standards of the rest of the world's religious canon."  But she goes on to suggest that a careful reading of the Christian gospels revel a more mixed position regarding prudence.  She offers several quantitative evaluations of Jesus' parables (including one based on the work of John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar) and demonstrates that Jesus appeals to prudence versus imprudence by a ratio of 2 to 1.  She concludes that Jesus was not "bitterly hostile to the propensity to truck and barter."  She portrays Christ's crucifixion as a type of market deal:  "The very substance of the Christian deal is steeped in a sort of economics, Christ's sacrifice leading to 'redemption'."  McCloskey concludes, "Christianity was in its first centuries an urban religion, appealing to high and low in a market economy.  It offered a deal that pointed to a non-market realm, but used metaphors from here below."[38]

Having defanged the gospels of their alleged antagonism to material wealth, McCloskey proceeds to defend American accumulation as virtuous:  "We make ourselves with consumption", noting that many of our purchases are "spiritual goods" that service our minds and hearts. McCloskey contends that our prosperity comes entirely from our hard work, not from exploitation of others:
They [Americans] have a great deal.  They have a great deal, I said, because they produce a great deal...Countries are rich or poor, have a great deal to consume or very little, mainly because they work well or badly, not because some outsider is adding to or stealing from a God-given endowment.  To think otherwise is to suppose that goods come literally and directly from God, like manna.  They do not.  We humans make them.[39]

Therefore Americans are justified in their consumption even if we end up buying things we don't use:
Our American houses are filled with our mistaken consumption, items that turned out not be as delightful as we thought they were going to be...Being rich in electrostatic dust removers and the like is not sinful.  It does not unjustly take from the poor.  It is not always a sign of intemperance.  It is merely a sign a capitalism's very great and productive prudence.[40]

McCloskey correctly reminds us that Adam Smith never argued that greed is good.  We accumulate as a result of and reward for our hard work; whether we save our wealth, spend our wealth or give it away is the accumulator's decision.  She directs us to embrace Adam Smith's perspective on the economic ethic of prudence: "What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom."[41]

The Reach of Wealth Accumulation Defenses

One finds a noticeable overlap between the attitudes toward wealth found in the Protestant ethic as enunciated by Adam Smith and interpreted by Max Weber with that of the prosperity doctrine and other capitalism apologists.[42]  To the extent it is accurately reflective of Protestant attitudes in the 17th and 18th century, Weber's Protestant asceticism holds the seed of prosperity theologies of the 20th and 21st centuries.  According to Weber, the Calvinist doctrine caused the faithful businessmen of emerging capitalist economies to avoid ostentatious consumption.  However, at the same time, the angst caused by the strict predestinarian theological interpretations of the time motivated these same businessmen to accumulate wealth and see these accumulations as visible signs of their salvation through God's blessing.

McCloskey uses ethical language to justify an essentially Weberian perspective on religion and economics.[43]  She attempts to forge a unity between virtuous ethics and business that Weber's critic, R.H. Tawney, contended became separate spheres in modern capitalist society.  Rather than seeing the capitalist businessman as applying a separate set of values to worldly decisions, she sees capitalism as reinforcing Smithsonian virtues of hard work, prudence, integrity and fairness.  The wealth that results from the ethical businessman's activity is therefore just and appropriate to the virtues employed.  Furthermore, as both she and The Wall Street Journal remind us, while imperfect, market capitalism works and works better than any other economic system so far employed.

The prosperity doctrine, as exemplified by mainstream prosperity preachers such as Dollar and Osteen, also draws much from the classic Protestant ethic.   If there is a hero in American history that captures their philosophy on wealth, prosperity preachers might well chose Benjamin Franklin as their icon.  Franklin preached "practical wisdom" or prudence combined with individual hard work through his popular sayings about life and work.  Prosperity preachers add a strong dose of optimism and Word of Faith theology to the basic Franklin recipe.  What emerges is a similar articulation about the virtue of hard work but a greater comfort with accumulated wealth as a rightful sign of God's blessing.  And modern North American culture has many fewer inhibitions against displaying the fruits of that accumulated wealth.

Reinhold Niebuhr identified a key ingredient in American Calvinism that may help explain how this view of wealth accumulation gained such traction in American religion.  Niebuhr notes how Puritanism in America was overly optimistic about the individual's capacity to resist sin; therefore explicit moral constraints on secular society were considered less relevant and eventually ignored.  Because "Puritanism religion [was] so confident...of prepared no one for the moral relativities which were the inevitable issue of its enterprise...He [the Puritan] expected to build a society in which the scripture was really and materially to be fulfilled."  Niebuhr goes on to note how:
the gradual secularization of economics through the growing complexity of commercial relations [is not surprising as] it became inconvenient and difficult to make simple moral standards, expressed in prohibitions of usury and maintenance of a 'just price,' fit the new intricacies of international commerce and industrial production, we have seen how men turned naturally and inevitably to the consoling reflection that 'in the providence of God life is so arranged that each man seeking his own shall serve the common weal.'  The doctrine of laissez faire was in other words as much an admission of defeat on the part of moral forces of society as it was a conscious effort toward secularization.[44]

This excessive optimism about human morality in the economic sphere is clearly evident in the gospel of success and prosperity doctrine discussed.  The prosperity doctrine draws on these roots.  Therefore it is not surprising that elements of the prosperity doctrine have deeply penetrated religious thinking on faith and money in America.

Most troubling is how elements of the prosperity doctrine are reflected by people of faith across the religious spectrum in North America.  Sociologist and religion professor, Robert Wuthnow has studied Americans' attitudes on faith and money.[45]  Despite recognizing greed as a sin, he found that most Americans, "think a lot about money and finances" (63%) and admit "I wish I had more money" (84%).  Americans also readily admit their attachment to things (having a beautiful home or a new car was important to 78%).  Wuthnow found that Americans are willing to sacrifice for more wealth by working harder and taking less satisfying work for more pay.  Furthermore, he found that we admire people who "make a lot of money by working hard" (80%), which is 11% higher than we admire "people who take a lower paying job in order to help others."

Wuthnow found that faith makes little actual "difference to the ways in which people actually conduct their financial affairs."  While most acknowledge that God does care how they use money, very few (only 12% at large and 16% of regular church goers) "have ever been taught that it is wrong to want a lot of money."  Instead,  "what they had been taught, they said, was to want a lot of money."  Americans also don't have a big problem with the mal-distribution of global wealth; about three-fourths reject the view that "it is morally wrong to have a lot of nice things when others are starving."  Wuthnow believes that churches actually tend to ameliorate rather than sharpen our critique of economic realities:  "What religious faith does more clearly than anything else is to add a dollop of piety to the materialistic amalgam in which most of us live.  We do not feel compelled to give up any of our material desires only to put them 'in perspective'."[46]

By remaining silent or by endorsing, intentionally or unintentionally, these views views, many churches provide tacit support to some of the main precepts of the prosperity doctrine.  Relatively few churches question how the market system itself often fails to protect, and can even exacerbate, the precarious position of the poor and marginalized in society.  There is even less preaching that raises questions about how the U.S.'s economic prosperity may be causing harm to people in other parts of the world.  Along with prosperity preachers, mainline preachers tend to minimize the costs of discipleship.  

Perhaps fearful of alienating those who still attend church, there is often a reluctance to challenge what a life as a disciple of Jesus might mean in modern American society.  As a result many Christians are left with, at best, ambivalent views on wealth in their own lives, and in society at large.
As a result, ethicists such as McCloskey along with prosperity preachers such as Dollar and Osteen offer the clearest statements about how the Protestant ethic, at least regarding wealth accumulation, has evolved and what that ethic means in 21st  century North America.  We now turn to "practical theology" and those that propose an alternative "Protestant ethic" toward wealth accumulation for people of faith in the 21st century.

[1] Gaustad and Noll, Since 1877, 232-233.
[2] Russell H. Conwell, Acres of Diamonds, (New York: Jove Books, 1988 [1960]), 18-19, 39.
[3] Ibid., 20, 21.
[4] Conwell's principles of success include: carry your religion into your business; believe that profits are righteous; demand your own profits and give other men their profits and rights; care about and get to know your customers; do not leave your children money, provide them an education instead; understand demand, what people want; apply yourself to meeting a human need; understand what people need and want is more important than capital; focus your whole mind on what needs to be done.  
[5] Ibid., 29-51.
[6] Gaustad and Noll, Since 1977, 238-239.
[7] Mitchem, 85-86.
[8] My father has a copy from his training as a insurance salesman in the 1950s.
[9] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, (1952; repr., New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980), xiii.
[10] Ibid., 10.
[11] Gaustad and Noll, Since 1877, 244, from Norman Vincent Peale's book You Can Win (New York: Abingdon Cokesbury Press, 1938).
[12] King James Version.
[13] Peale, Positive Thinking, 102-103, 106.
[14] Robert H. Schuller, Success is Never Ending, Failure is Never Final, (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 6, 59, 231.
[15] Ibid., 8, 60.
[16] More on the eight attitudes found in Schuller, 101-129.
[17] As does Peale, Schuller cites Philippians 4:13 as inspiration for instilling self-confidence into people, Schuller, 129.
[18] Gaustad and Noll, Since 1877, 292.
[19] Considerable controversy exists surrounding where and how Hagin developed his theological teachings.  Several researchers from Oral Roberts University have charged him with plagiarizing the works of others, especially those of evangelist E.W. Kenyon, a Free Will Baptist preacher in the 1890s and early twentieth century.  Kenyon wrote over a dozen books on his doctrine of divine healing.  Considerable controversy also exists about the role that New Thought and other metaphysical philosophies had on Kenyon's thought along side of the Christian Higher Life and Faith Cure movements of the 19th century.  Since Hagin and other Word of Faith preachers are rooted in Kenyon's doctrines, this is an important topic for modern day evangelicals who are concerned about the degree to which Word of Faith theologies are based on "heretical" metaphysical New Thought theologies.  Among other works, see Dale H. Simmons, E.W. Kenyon and the Postbellum Pursuit of Peace, Power and Prosperity (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1997).
[20] Kenneth E. Hagin, Godliness is Profitable (Tulsa, OK: Faith Library Publications, 1982), 2, 5, 16-17.
[21] Oral Roberts, The Call: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1972), chapter 8.  Perhaps because of his mixed race background, Roberts describes himself in his first autobiography as an early challenger of racial segregation in Southern evangelical circles.  Beginning in 1948 he began conducting separate revivals for blacks in the same towns where he preached to whites.  A few years later in the early 1950s, after being confronted by blacks who insisted on being part of an integrated altar call, Roberts began rejecting whites only invitations and insisted on fully integrated revivals.  He made Oral Roberts University integrated from the time of its founding, and gave a speech in support of interracial dating in the late 1960s.
[22] Oral Roberts, Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 381.
[23] Creflo A. Dollar Jr., Total Life Prosperity: 14 Practical Steps to Receiving God's Full Blessing (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 5-6.
[24] Matt 12:34, Prov. 18: 20-21, John 1:1, Ps. 35: 27-28.
[25] Dollar, Life Prosperity, 45, 46, 47.
[26] Creflo A. Dollar Jr., The Covenant Connector: How to Get Connected to the Promises of God through the Tithe (College Park, GA: Creflo Dollar Publications, 1997), 5, 19-20, 37, 39.
[27] Laura Sheahen, " 'Expect God's Favor': Interview with Joel Osteen," www.beliefnet,com/story/157/story_15735.html (accessed August 15, 2008).
[28] Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (New York: Faith Words, 2004), vii, 9, 11.
[29] Ibid., 13,16.
[30] Osteen, 123, 125, 132.
[31] Ibid., 222, 225, 226, 228.
[32] Osteen, 262, 264, 265.
[33] The prosperity doctrine is not confined to North America.  It is also growing rapidly in developing countries.  An example would be Edir Macedo's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil.   From its founding in1977, Macedo's church, which is one of largest Pentecostal churches in Brazil, has branches in 172 countries, owns the second biggest TV network in the country and has its own political party.  Macedo says, "Offerings [to God] are investments," and stresses that those who give 10% of their income to "the church of results", they will be blessed with success and health, "If redemption fails, you can still use the free bathroom," The Economist, 5 January 2008, 31.
[34] Carnegie Samuel Calian, The Gospel According to the Wall Street Journal (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), 26-27.
[35] Ibid., 28-29.
[36] Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues:  Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 1, 8, 26.
[37] Ibid., 47.
[38] Ibid., 49, 407.
[39] McCloskey, 442, 446, 449, 450.
[40] Ibid., 453.
[41] McCloskey, 454.
[42] Ibid., 460.
[43] I use apologist in the theological sense, such as Justin Martyr's famous defense (apology) of Christianity in the 2nd century.
[44] However she does not appear to share Weber's regrets about the possible failings of capitalism.
[45] Reinhold Niebuhr, 106-107, 124-125.
[46] Robert Wuthnow, God and Mammon in America (New York:  The Free Press, 1994). Wuthnow's book offers detailed analysis and results from this national survey of 2000 members of the U.S. labor force, plus 175 in depth qualitative interviews, as part of his five-year project on Religion and Economic Beliefs and Values.
[47] Robert Wuthnow, "Pious Materialism: How Americans View Faith and Money," The Christian Century, 3 March 1993, 239-242.  All figures cited are from this summary of Wuthnow's survey.

Table of Contents:



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


Appendix: Faith and Money Resources


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

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