The Decade in American ChristianityEssays, Featured — By Jordan Green on December 31, 2009 at 12:35 am
When Oral Roberts died this month, the prosperity gospel essentially lost its founder. “Seed faith” – the idea that donating a sum of money to a church/preacher/etc. would return investment like dividends – was a major theme of Roberts’ preaching, and the university bearing Roberts’ name was once the academic home of Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen, among others. While Roberts had disappeared from the public stage in recent years, his death was part of the up and down decade for the prosperity gospel. Senator Chuck Grassley spent the end of 2007 trying to understand the finances of big spending televangelists like Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar, and a television expose of Benny Hinn’s lavish lifestyle would come up every few years on Dateline NBC or a show of that sort. More recently, the Atlantic Monthly posed the idea that prosperity Christianity might have been the cause of the real estate crash.
On the other hand, however, there’s Joel Osteen, whose spiritually-themed life coaching framed the decade, with his first service succeeding his late father in 1999 kicking off a decade where Osteen would appear in nearly every news outlet with his giant grin, fill a former sports arena several times each Sunday, and sell a ton of books. Osteen had enough sense to not directly promise inflated bank accounts to his followers, but instead a “best life now”. God only knows what that means, and clearly most people would prefer their “best life” to include the trappings of luxury, but at very least, his particular take on prosperity seemed a little less tacky, with Osteen more of a first-class-on-commercial-flights type guy than jetsetting on a Gulfstream. At very least, Osteen replaces the plea for tithes with a corny joke on his ever-present television broadcasts. Osteen seems like he’ll be doing well for sometime (especially since he seems a bit too dorky to be into the sort of temptations that took down Swaggart and Bakker), but some reports give the impression that his more obviously offensive peers are having a bit of trouble making ends meet in the current economy. One would think that a near total economic collapse might throw a wrench into the works of the televangelism machine, but there they are on networks like TBN, 24 hours a day, telling people Christians deserve to be wealthy. The names change, shuffled out by scandal and trends, but the message stays the same, surely with someone calling the 1-800 hotline right now, checkbook in hand.