Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Health and Wealth gospel, Liberal style

Ah yes, the Health and Wealth gospel.  We know it well.  And sometimes we know it by other names too.  You've heard them: Health and Wealth, or Name It and Claim It, or Blab It and Grab It.   The style is well known, and generally exists within Protestant circles, off the branch loosely designated Evangelicalism.  It's characteristics are a somewhat fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of the Scriptures, with a healthy dose of modern worldly priorities, like money, wealth, success, big cars, bigger houses, or smaller houses but a life fulfilled by being fulfilled and thinking well of yourself for having a fulfilled life.  To that end, God exists to make sure this happens.   In some ways, Rick Warren't A Purpose Driven Life was simply a more theologically grounded example of this, whereby the star of the book is still me, and the end result of things is my life having purpose.

Which is really the big heresy of the movement. God is reduced to more or less a grand, cosmic Santa Clause, who wants us to be really super-happy, and will do whatever it takes for us to be happy.  Oh to be sure, no H&W preacher would condone greed or corruption or narcissism or selfishness.  Not that they will call out such things by name (unless socially acceptable to do so).  They will simply insist that our fulfillment it best served by a happy, feel good life, and God's just the god to make it happen.  Think Smilin' Joel Olsteen.

Now, anyone who had more than basic Christian Theology 101 can see the glaring flaws in this.  This is a not an approach to Christianity that works well with Matthew 9.23-24.  Not that they would deny that.  They would, again, merely see taking up one's cross as a means to an end, and that end being a happy and fulfilled life now.

Because of its popularity, especially in America, this approach has come under some  heavy fire.  I had people in my churches that lapped this sort of thing up with a spoon.  They didn't always take kindly to those who suggested that God didn't create everything in order for me to have an awesome life defined by the latest definitions of awesome.  Many more conservative and traditional - and in recent years, post-conservative - Evangelicals and Protestants spent more than a few trees writing screeds against this perversion of the Gospel of the poor and meek.   We won't even get into how those more liberal and progressive Christians have manhandled the H&W approach to Jesus.

But here's another consideration to kick around.  In looking back at my sojourn with Protestantism, and the fairly large number of progressive minded Christian leaders I rubbed shoulders with, it dawned on me that, in many ways, most of liberal Christianity is simply a variation on the H&W mindset, from a  different angle.

Years ago I served as an associate on the staff of a large, flagship church within the state convention (that's like an Evangelical diocese).   The senior pastor was someone I did admire.   He was no friend of the Al Mohler revolution.  It was also clear that his political leanings swerved left of the center lane.  Nonetheless, I found him insightful, honest and generally a good guy.

So it came as a shock when the subject of abortion came about in a class he was teaching. Since he was the father of two daughters (or was it three?), someone brought the issue of abortion up to him and where he would stand as a dad.  He answered truthfully, as he was wont to do.  He said that if one of his daughters got pregnant, he would support - perhaps even encourage - an abortion since why should she have her life and all its plans and potential derailed by an unwanted pregnancy?

Wow.  I mean, wow.  Note there was no poor, starving girl driven to abortion for food in the equation.  There was no talk of rape or anything where sexist, abusive misogynists were concerned.  His answer echoed what most girls I knew in college said about abortion: I want to be able to jump on any Tom and Harry's you-know-what and still have what I want in life, and that's success, career and a life of happy fulfillment. He didn't even pretend to wrap it up in that small percentage of abortion cases that dominate 99% of the abortion debate.  He said why should anything stand in the way of his daughters having the good life as they define it?

Now, I ask you.  How is that less "Health and Wealth" than anything Creflo Dollar would preach?  How is that any less 'it's all about your life being awesome based on your own desires' than anything Tammy Faye would say to the cameras?  Why is that any different than Joel Olsteen celebrating the Babe born in a manger from his yacht and upper class life style?

Indeed, how many progressive Christians - even Catholics - echo the same thing, but from a different vantage point?  You've heard them.  Why shouldn't people on food stamps, even if it's because of the life they have chosen, not be able to have their share of steak and caviar?  Why shouldn't I be able to have sex with who I desire?   If a woman gets pregnant, and given the horrible injustices and sexism of our patriarchal, misogynist culture, why shouldn't we assume they make the unfortunate, but completely logical, choice of aborting their babies rather than not have sex?  Heck, why shouldn't women be able to put themselves and their interests first above all other priorities?  In short, why shouldn't I be able to have my cake, eat it to, and let others do the dishes?  In other words, a life of awesome fulfillment based upon my particular definition of worldly awesome. 

How are any of those any less 'Name it and Claim It' than that old H&W gospel we all love to hate?  In fact, so many of those on the Left who are quick to blast someone like Jim Baker, or modern Smilin' Joel, stand idly by when Christians on the left side of the aisle convey the same message where sex, narcissism, abortion, and other more fleshly pursuits reign supreme.  They might miss the fact that the same mentality - it's really about the here and now more than the hereafter - pervades progressive Christianity every bit as much, if not more, than it does those limo riding, yacht sailing H&W ministers and their flocks.

It should also help us realize that for all the contempt and loathing those on the Left have for Olsteenanity, much - if not most - of modern, liberal Christianity is based on the idea that my life is what it's about, and we'll merely have to modify the Gospel to make sure it happens my way.   Because, in the end, for all of its posturing, liberal Christianity is no better suited to Matthew 9.23-24 than their more flagrant, and noticeable, Health and Wealth counterparts at a mega-church.


  1. Catholics have their own H & W Gospel. It’s called Vatican II. And It comes with a feel-good-about-yourself-while-doing-bad component called Social Justice.

    And we have His Holiness taking it to a new level of self-indulgence and wealth re-distribution so we can (eventually) have heaven on earth. We can almost hear the “Pope” saying, “Clearly, Jesus was a good Man for his times but he didn’t consider scientific advancement. Let us make the world a wonderful place for all to enjoy. And besides our new insights into theology suggest that Jesus intended that nearly all will go to heaven anyway. Let us move forward together”.

    1. Yes, the Church seems to have taken a 'keep up with the Joneses' approach for some time and, despite disastrous results, continues to follow the same losing strategy.


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