How Christianity Became a Lucrative Brand

Prosperity Christianity
Prosperity Christianity

A mention of Jesus is a turnoff for Christians? If Jesus is not an appropriate focus for spiritual leaders, the question then becomes: How does a spiritual leader become a valuable brand in a rapidly changing society? Evangelists now need to self-brand but another element obviously has to do not only with how particular individuals are skilled at making religion “relevant” to a contemporary culture (through communication technologies, social media, and so on) but with what identities are particularly brandable. That is, a lack of specificity in religious branding is important in order to reach a broad audience of religious consumers, so that megachurches and other contemporary religious institutions (including many religious websites) are strategically nondenominational or “postdenominational” in their religious messages and practices. Within branded religions such as Prosperity Christianity, vague references to a Christian tradition that are individualized, such as how to make one’s life better, are more lucrative than specific and community-oriented content, such as a mention of Jesus.

Christianity a Religion of Prosperity?

Contemporary evangelists, including Prosperity preachers, are the latest in a long history, dating back to the 18th century, of successful evangelists in the US. George Whitefield, who came to the US in 1738, was arguably the first successful evangelist; he was also an early marketer of religious ephemera.

The most successful early evangelists were skilled orators and entrepreneurs who were particularly savvy at using communication technologies to publicize their messages. Radio was a very useful medium for early 20th-century evangelists (as well as for advertisers and politicians). Religious leaders such as Aimee Semple McPherson, Charles Fuller, and Charles Coughlin became expert at using mass media to spread religious messages. In the 1930s, Coughlin’s weekly broadcasts reached more than 30 million listeners. In the 1980s, televangelists like Jerry Falwell, Billy Swaggart, and Jimmy Bakker used television to build huge congregations across the nation.

Today, as Lee and Sinitiere point out, evangelicals draw millions of followers by reimagining Christianity, and part of this reimagining has been enabled by the normalization of the entrepreneur: “Through the power of their appeal, rather than the authority of ecclesiastical positioning, [contemporary evangelists] assemble multi-million-dollar ministries and worldwide renown. With weak or no denominational ties, they are ‘free agents’ who make their mark on contemporary American society.”

One way contemporary evangelicals “make their mark” is through the efficient use of new communication technologies to distribute their messages, from live streaming online videos of their services, to selling books and DVDs on iTunes, to Facebook pages. Self-branding, for some contemporary evangelists, has become an effective way to promote both themselves and the religious teachings they provide. Since, as I have argued elsewhere, self-branding is becoming a more normative practice in contemporary US culture as a way to craft personal identity, it makes sense for some evangelists to consider themselves “free agents” in a neoliberal marketplace. In other words, it is not simply more sophisticated media technologies, or a shifting capitalist system, or new understandings of individual subjectivities that authorize the emergence of the new evangelists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is all of these elements, along with a more general cultural ethos of promotion, which suggests that branding is an aspect of new media logic that is altering even seemingly unconnected domains (such as religion).

The mass white-collar workplace Moreton details as emerging in the mid-20th-century US is precisely the demographic on which 21st-century advanced capitalism depends, both as a source of labor (itinerant labor, antiunion) and as the locus of racialized fears about immigrant labor (outsourcing, denial of immigration rights). Historically, the church has been an advocate of some state intervention and support—social gospelers, for instance, worked with New Deal policies in the early 20th century. Additionally, various Christian denominations have been community oriented rather than individually oriented. But rather than challenge neoliberal economic practices of “free enterprises” and work toward reestablishing state and federal public policies and practices, Christian “free” enterprise and individual entrepreneurship provide solutions to increased alienation (an alienation that ostensibly is caused partly by a multiracial and multicultural workforce and widening income gaps). The church becomes a site of refuge:

n the vacuum that was left by the eradication of the safety net [public provisions], churches and other faith-based organizations became the pro- vider of last resort. Their family values rendered care a private privilege awarded in defense of marriage, not a mutual social duty of citizens to one another. The irony was that both the corporations and the churches were already public-private partnerships by definition, built with public subsidy and dependent on state nurturance.

Advanced capitalist doctrine is expert in circumnavigating this kind of irony, where the emergence of the private, individual entrepreneur is validated by the state and public-private partnerships. In the context of the religious, individual entrepreneur, this irony manifests not only in the public- private partnerships of the church but also in the practice of spiritual leaders of simultaneously disavowing of capitalism and embracing of its logic. For instance, an immensely popular evangelist, Rick Warren, with an impressive megachurch of his own (the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, currently the eighth-largest church in the US, averaging 22,000 weekly attendees) strongly disagrees with emphasizing a relationship between God and personal financial success.

As he says, “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth.”  Warren’s comments are another example of how religious leaders purport to use the strategy of capitalism in the name of faith, without capitulating to capitalism’s system of value. This double mobilization maintains authenticity for such leaders; Warren’s statement that Prosperity teaching is “baloney” is another way to articulate it as inauthentic. Yet Warren has also been described being “as much Bill Gates as he is Billy Graham.” Forbes magazine “called Warren a ‘spiritual entrepreneur’” and stated that if Warren’s ministry were a business, it “would be compared with Dell, Google, or Starbucks.” Of course, Warren’s ministry is a business, so it makes perfect sense to situate it alongside Google or Starbucks. His book The Purpose Driven Life is a New York Times best seller and offers a personal guide for individuals to figure out their purpose in life (and despite the first line of the book, which answers this question with “It’s not about you,” it clearly is about you, and buying the book, and following his “Purpose Driven” philosophy).

Warren gave the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration in 2008, and Time magazine named him one of “15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004” and in 2005 one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Also, in 2005 U.S. News & World Report named him one of “America’s 25 Best Leaders.” So while Warren may preach against Prosperity Christianity, he is nonetheless part of a broader pattern of branding Christianity.

Warren and other contemporary evangelists like him, even when not expressing Prosperity Christianity explicitly, demonstrate the various ways in which religion is increasingly understood through the language of the brand. As Linda Kintz argues in her work Between Jesus and the Market, the fundamentalism of Christian ideology works in concert with the fundamentalism of the market, so that “prosperity” preaching provides a space in which the contradictions of “free” enterprise are resolved. That is to say, the practice of branding religion does not merely indicate that religious doctrine is simply communicated and experienced in an economic context. The branding of religion in contemporary capitalism also means that neoliberal ideologies of the individual, the “free” market, and a lessening of state intervention of any kind are increasingly part of religious ideologies. For example, the Prosperity leader Benny Hinn preaches about the specific ways in which God “wants” people to become wealthy. In one of his articles on his website, “Your Supernatural Wealth Transfer Is Coming,” Hinn cites Psalm 35:27: “Yea, let them say continually, Let the Lord be magnified, which hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant.” Hinn interprets this as “It is God’s will that you prosper!” In this article, Hinn lists six “wealth transfers” that have happened throughout history, offering narratives of biblical figures such as Abraham and Isaac as benefiting materially from God’s will. The seventh person on Hinn’s list in line for a “wealth transfer” is, not surprisingly, “you” (“Next in line for a great wealth transfer is you!”). The key to becoming rich, Hinn tells his congregation, is to pray and spread the word of the gospel. 63 Alongside tabs on his website like “spiritual life” and “healing,” Hinn features “financial freedom,” where he gives advice on money management, tithing, and God’s prosperity.

Hinn, like Osteen and other Prosperity preachers, is committed to an ideology of free-market capitalism and has found ways to imbricate this ideology into religious practice. Indeed, as Jonathan Walton points out, too little attention has been paid by religious scholars to evangelists as proselytizers of a particular Christian identity, “an identity defined, for the most part, by theological, cultural and political neoconservatism.” While neoconservatism cannot be collapsed with neoliberal culture, they share similar tenets in terms of a prioritizing of individualism, a privileging of the free market, a distrust in the state—and the way all of these discourses form a national- ist sensibility. As Walton continues, “For the vast majority of televangelists, commitments to hyper-American patriotism, free-market capitalism, and patriarchal conceptions of the ordering of society are regularly transmitted through mass-mediated images and ‘Christian’ discourse.”

If branding in its contemporary form emerges from a kind of fundamentalism of the free market, then this connects to (though does not always neatly map onto) a particular fundamentalism within religion. “Fundamentalism” here indicates not merely a strict adherence to religious doctrine as the truth but also a powerful belief in the set of neoliberal principles that structure contemporary cultural, political, and economic life. The funda- mentalism of the free market, in turn, implies not only a strict adherence to capitalist doctrine as the truth (though it is about this kind of observance) but also a loyalty to capitalist logic as structuring principles for everyday life.

As Kintz argues, part of this fundamentalism has been the use of women as spokespeople for a kind of Christianity. Women have helped move fundamentalist religious concerns, once thought to be on the extreme margins, to the mainstream by collapsing these concerns into affective feelings about family, home, and domesticity: “That collapse has also paradoxically helped establish a symbolic framework that returns manliness to the center of culture.”

A brief glance at US politics in the first decade of the 21st century demonstrates this, as former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin has efficiently built a self-brand as a religious American woman. In all her roles, as running mate to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a political pundit for conservative news network Fox News, a spokesperson of the Tea Party, and a reality television star, Palin has clearly proselytized that the moral principles of the right wing in US politics and those of a masculinized religious sentiment can be merged—and merged most effectively in a feminine, preferably maternal, body. The collapse of conservative ideologies into affective, indeed nostalgic, sentiments, especially those of a neoliberal definition of morality, is achieved through the use of conservative women as spokes- people for the nation. This collapse is also the crux of religious brand culture, which retools capitalist strategies and logics into cultural norms. The rise and branding of Prosperity Christianity offers a fascinating portrait of treating religion like a brand.

By; Sarah Banet-Weise