How Christianity Became a Lucrative Brand

How Christianity Became a Lucrative Brand
Prosperity Preacher Creflo Dollar rake in millions

AFRICANGLOBE – Prosperity Christianity, or what some call “health and wealth” religion, is largely a North American religious movement, connected to Pentecostal Christianity and Word of Faith teachings, and is often tied to Oral Roberts and other evangelists who became well known in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Prosperity Christianity is also historically related to faith healing; in the early 20th century, evangelicals focused on physical well-being as the therapeutic ethos of culture became normative and activities like the “mind cure,” which stressed the power of positive thinking as a cure for disease, became popular.

Additionally, Prosperity Christianity is related to the rise of Christian free enterprise in the mid-20th century and the interrelation between professional business and theology. For instance, business schools began to attract religious individuals as both students and administrators by midcentury, and as business schools began to take a more prominent role in higher education, Christian business schools (specifically in the midwestern US) emerged as places in which future evangelists could be trained to merge business skills with religious principles.

In the later half of the 20th century, schools such as the University of Arkansas, the University of Ozarks, Southern Methodist University, and others developed business schools as a response to a variety of factors, including national market concerns, postwar inflation and debt, an increasing national demand for vocational business instruction, and a growing desire for whitecollar workers in the US.

Christian business schools, however, could provide a conservative and “moral” framework for this kind of education. In her careful history of the global corporation Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton argues that the figure of the contemporary religious entrepreneur became important to the rise of business programs at schools and universities around the US in the late 1970s. In the economic recession during this period, combined with residual countercultural fears of big business and bureaucratic businessmen, small-business enterprises and business schools cultivated the individual entrepreneur as an important element to Christian free enterprise, which found a particularly rich home in small towns, farms, and local churches.

Outside the crowded, competitive urban industrial landscape, the emphasis on religion and American heritage that often characterized rural areas in the 1970s provided a welcoming context for the emergence of Christian free enterprise. These cultural spaces, as Moreton argues, “provided the cultural resources to enable a massive shift of economic possibility.”

In the small business schools that cropped up along the Sunbelt in the late 1970s, courses were offered in entrepreneurship, where, as Moreton states, the entrepreneur was cast as a special and rare type, not your typical bureaucratic businessman: “In this guise, the entrepreneur inherited the mantle of “Jeffersonian virtue” from the independent farmers and the Populist rebellion—a hero for the age of the mass office, a foil to sissified bureaucrats and the distant Shylocks of Wall Street.” As Moreton points out, the Waltons, the founders of Wal-Mart, promoted Christian business schools and Christian free enterprise and free trade, which serve a vital function in the economic backdrop of advanced capitalism in the branding of religion.

The commodification of religion had been a practice for centuries, but the use of the commercial marketplace to “sell” religion to reluctant, hard-to-reach, or otherwise inaccessible potential congregations proved successful in making religion “relevant” to an increasingly modern and pro-corporate population. But Christian free enterprise is not simply the use of the marketplace to sell religion. It is the adoption of the logic of free enterprise and branding as a way of understanding, experiencing, and proselytizing Christian religious values. This not only is a necessary condition for the branding of particular religions but also changes the understanding of religion itself.

Indeed, the connection between Christian religious values and a kind of pro-corporate populism is crucial for branding Christianity because it offers the possibility of a wide audience for the brand. As Moreton points out, procorporate populism (which argues vehemently against government or state intervention) imbues the political economy with moral legitimacy, infusing it with the conservative values of a “rural white virtue.”

In the contemporary moment, the merging of Christian values with capitalist entrepreneurship takes the form of megachurches and charismatic evangelist leaders. A focus on “free” enterprise—meaning (in part) an opposition to organized labor, state intervention, and public resources—made Christian enterprise compatible with conservative, anticommunist ideologies and the ideology of whiteness. As Moreton argues, the wedding of conservative corporate ideologies to not simply Christian enterprise but Christian education in the formation of private Christian business schools created a context in which these two discourses were completely compatible, each informing the other: “The southwestern Christian college and the new mass white-collar workplace were just beginning a quietly historic partnership, and the terms of the bargain were clear enough.”

In the advanced capitalism of the later 20th century, the terms of the bargain find purchase in Prosperity Christianity. As a set of religious teachings and training, the theology is centered on the notion that God provides material wealth—prosperity—for those individuals he favors. Prosperity Christianity cuts across denominational boundaries and is defined “as the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.”

Prosperity preaching has found a welcome home in many megachurches across the US in the early 21st century, spaces in which an evangelist preaches to hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals, as well as offering services to even larger audiences through live streams online. While there are certainly many religious detractors from Prosperity Christianity—indeed, Christianity Today describes it as “false gospel,” “unethical and unChristlike,” and “spiritually unhealthy”—it has garnered attention from thousands of followers, its message of gaining material wealth through prayer and commitment to one’s own congregation especially powerful since the global recession of 2008.

Prosperity Christianity
Time cover on prosperity Christianity

Recent headlines tell us something about how this reimagined relationship between religion and the economy has become increasingly mainstream: a cover of Time magazine, in 2006, asked, “Does God Want You to Be Rich?”; a later cover, after the global economic collapse in the fall of 2008, asked a follow-up question: “Maybe We Should Blame God for the Subprime Mess?”

The Atlantic Monthly in 2009 asked a similar question: “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” Christian blogs have taken up the issue of merging money talk with scripture in sermons (alternately defined as Prosperity Christianity or “Christianity Lite”), with vehement defenders on both sides of the debate. The most popular evangelical in the US in the 21st century, Joel Osteen, whose Prosperity megachurch in Houston boasts more than 40,000 weekly worshipers, writes in his best-selling book Your Best Life Now, “Telling yourself you are poor, or broke, or stuck in a dead-end job is a form of sin and invites more negativity into your life.”

Another popular Prosperity evangelist, T. D. Jakes, emphasizes personal achievement in his role as pastor of Potter’s House, a 28,000-member, primarily African American church in Dallas, Texas. As Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere point out, Jakes “argues that his ministries provide African-Americans with the life skills, emotional health, and psychological well-being to be successful.” They continue: “[Jakes’s] brand of personal empowerment promotes the bourgeois conservatism of the new Black church.” In yet another example of Prosperity preachers, televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Gloria Copeland, founders of the Kenneth Copeland Ministries and authors of books such as The Laws of Prosperity and Prosperity: The Choice Is Yours, preach that the more money worshipers give to the church, the more they will receive in their own lives.

The focus of evangelicals on personal empowerment and individuals (and, in this case, individual wealth) has reached a heightened significance in the early 21st century. Prosperity Christianity has become an important non- or postdenomination for many contemporary evangelical preachers, where sermons focus on the righteousness of acquiring individual wealth and material success, a pursuit that becomes its own sort of salvation.

Not only are religious messages packaged like other brands, through infomercials, merchandise, and sophisticated media distribution, but also the content of the message can only be understood within a brand context: materialism, consumption, capitalist exchange, and personal empowerment. As Einstein says about Prosperity preaching, “In order to draw in the masses, preachers must include what will attract the largest number of people—ideas about how their lives will be better, more prosperous, more fulfilling—and exclude those things that will lead viewers to reach for the remote control—mentions of Jesus, requests for contributions, suggestions that they  are going to hell.”