I well remember the 1980s, when I was growing up. My generation saw scandal after scandal with “name it and claim it” preachers whose own lavish lifestyles held out the promise that God could and would make followers rich. Preachers like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were proponents of prosperity theology, an offshoot of Pentecostalism that envisions faith as a spiritual power to unleash wealth and health.
Some scandals are still going on—late last month, for instance, David Yonggi Cho, the pastor of the world’s largest prosperity church, was convicted of tax evasion and fraud, and Joyce Meyer and others are still under investigation in the U.S. But overall, we’ve transitioned from the “hard prosperity gospel” of the 1980s to what Duke historian Kate Bowler identifies as a therapeutic softer sell offered by Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and others.
I talked with Bowler, the author of the outstanding Oxford book Blessed, to find out more about the growth of the prosperity gospel’s softer side. — JKR
Bowler: I think the prosperity preachers took their cues from culture. People were fed up with the hard sell and the kind of “greed is good, more is always more” culture. We became much more accustomed to a kind of darker postmodernism that said that people could not always be trusted.
The main difference was having accepted therapeutic idioms as being the primary language of prosperity. They have now moved into the realm of feelings as the primary spiritual battleground that Christians need to use to wage war against demonic forces. It allows for a gentler “I’m here to help you” approach, saying, “I’m not here to sell you products, but to offer you tools.”
In the 1980s there was this carnival atmosphere, emphasizing all the stuff, all the material wealth that God could get you. It was the triumph of the power suit, and anything that glittered. We saw heavy gold watches and jewelry, [and] power suits put through a pastel machine.
That would not play so well now. In the 1990s, you started seeing casual dress, with less of a difference between the leaders and the followers. They started looking more like sports motivational figures.