May 2018

“Give Cheerfully, Give Abundantly”: White American Prosperity Evangelism, Financial Obedience, and Religious Corruption in the Trump Era

As we continue in the struggle for economic justice, it is important to examine how white Christian evangelism shapes our efforts to alleviate poverty. Casting poverty as a form of moral failing encourages people to disengage from the social, cultural, and structural causes of poverty and ignores the role that white Americans play in the global proliferation of poverty conditions worldwide.

by Sam R. Schmitt

Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the best part of everything you produce. Then he will fill your barns with grain, and your vats will overflow with good wine. — Proverbs 3:9-10.

On February 12th, 2018 Billy Graham, American televangelist and former spiritual advisor to Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush Sr. and Jr., died at home in Montreat, North Carolina.[1] At his funeral, President Donald Trump gave a speech  prior to Graham’s interment in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, referring to the space as “where the memory of the American people is enshrined.” Billy Graham is now immortalized as a national public figure, surrounded by scenes of colonization, genocide, and westward expansion that represent American perseverance and prosperity.

A few days later, I saw my first Billy Graham memorial billboard on my way to work. The stark black and white billboard rests against an industrialized landscape amid paved highways and bypasses. Clusters of tent communities can be seen beneath arching highways. People are begging at every highway exit. Their handwritten signs read: “Please help. God bless.” In the distance, the memorial Billy Graham billboard reads  “He’s Home,” implying that he is in heaven—the reward for one’s repentance, faithfulness, and obedience to God. The sounds of sirens are near constant in the Camden-Webber neighborhood of North Minneapolis where I live, the by-product of increased police surveillance of predominantly working-class Black and immigrant neighborhoods.

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Trump’s eulogy was more than trite nostalgia. The symbolic significance of Graham’s burial in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda reflects a deep cultural investment in Christian evangelist thought in American culture. Billy Graham’s personal bible is now a museum installment and he is heralded as “America’s pastor.” Graham is framed as the epitome of the American Dream, a figure who struggled to bring the word of God to a troubled world. Trump compares Billy Graham with figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech, implying that Graham’s evangelism is akin to the struggle for civil rights.

Within prosperity evangelism, “struggle” is often reframed to invoke prosperity through bootstrap capitalist individualism wherein economic success is a sign of God’s abundance and love. This “struggle” is a uniquely white American form of devotion that frames white Christian men’s wealth as a reward for their faithfulness and obedience to God rather than a by-product of unequal economic structures.[2] Equating wealth with faithfulness and spiritual purity is reminiscent of early European colonists who believed that they had a God-given entitlement to the land and all of its wealth. Those who were willing to work the land and optimize its resources would reap the benefits. Thus, Billy Graham’s burial in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda invoked a nationalistic spiritualized nostalgia and symbolizes a cultural commitment to white American narratives of prosperity.

Billy Graham’s ministry made a significant impact on American class consciousness. In 1976, increasing levels of unemployment, housing segregation, economic downturn, and police brutality catalyzed a wave of civil unrest and protest in the predominantly Black Detroit neighborhood of Virginia Park. During The Hour of Decision radio show, Billy Graham suggested that the Black and working class rioters had spiritual defects:

I have an intense interest in those who are working in the inner-city churches. It is probably the most frustrating ministry of today—to face teeming areas of people of different ethnic groups, living in substandard housing, many of them unemployed. Religious ideas have little meaning for most of them…we must remember that they are still people; and as people they are sinners before God. We must not make the mistake of blaming all their troubles on an impersonal society that we think has done them a terrible injustice.[3]

Graham reimagines the white supremacist structures and systems that maintain poverty as a social reality among Black communities. The effects of racism, for Graham, indicated the personal shortcomings of its victims, not the failure of white Americans to live up to the gospel’s teachings.

Within prosperity evangelism, “struggle” is often reframed to invoke prosperity through bootstrap capitalist individualism wherein economic success is a sign of God’s abundance and love. This “struggle” is a uniquely white American form of devotion that frames white Christian men’s wealth as a reward for their faithfulness and obedience to God rather than a by-product of unequal economic structures.

In American history, the desire for a unified, white Christian nation justified land theft, genocide, and enslavement, the impact of which can be observed as wage and class inequalities today.[4] Thus, the dream of American prosperity is also a classed and racialized one wherein wealth is framed as the God-given destiny of white Christians who remain faithful to biblical teachings. The good Christian was placed in stark opposition to those living in poverty, reifying the perceived “savagery” of the Detroit rioters.

According to Graham, the poor could transcend poverty by becoming better Christians and cultivating a strong moral center. He implied that resisting racist and classist structures is akin to sinfulness and that state interventions can not truly help the poor. Crucially, he argued that poverty will not end without teaching the poor how to behave and that state programs could not alleviate spiritual deficits among the poor, who needed God, not bread.

Graham’s attitude toward poverty did not change much in subsequent years. In 2014, Graham again attributed poverty’s persistent nature to poor folks’ spiritual impoverishment in response to questions about how to help the poor: “Will we ever eliminate poverty?” he wondered. “We should do all we can, but the real barrier is our human nature…Put your life into Christ’s hands, then ask Him to use you to help others overcome both their material and spiritual poverty.”

Billy Graham’s influence lay the foundation for contemporary American prosperity evangelist industries. Prior to his death, the Billy Graham empire was worth an estimated $25 million dollars, making him the sixth wealthiest pastor in the United States. In his wake emerged a wave of faith-for-profit industries headed by millionaire pastors such as Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, and Pat Robertson. These modern evangelists deploy a prosperity gospel that builds on Graham’s white nationalistic rhetoric of prosperity, enabling them to define wealth and other forms of social capital as spiritual rewards for faithfulness. These prosperity evangelists sell the false promise of class mobility, urging congregants to demonstrate financial obedience through tithing practices. According to these spiritual leaders, the percentage that defines the tithe is determined in the Bible, because “tithe” roughly translates to “tenth.” Thus, a tithe is ten percent of combined annual income. Congregants give tithes to evangelist ministries as spiritual gifts and in response to the practices described in Proverbs 3:9-10, with the hope that their financial obedience will enable them to experience a prosperous “return” on their “investment.”[5] The Kenneth Copeland Ministries explains: “God considers the tithe crucial to your financial success…For example, if you want new clothes, pray about it and then consider giving a portion of your clothes as seed. (Remember to sow good seed.) Then be patient and expect your harvest.”

In American history, the desire for a unified, white Christian nation justified land theft, genocide, and enslavement, the impact of which can be observed as wage and class inequalities today.

The idea is simple: Give God a portion of your wealth and you will see a return on your investment. The rhetoric of business and entrepreneurialism, such as “deal making,” within evangelist views of tithing comes into sharp focus in light of Trump’s promise to make only the best deals that favor American trade and foreign policy interests. It is no wonder that white Christian evangelicals are among some of Trump’s staunchest supporters.

Research suggests that prosperity theology is not just a white Christian phenomenon. Sandra Barnes, author of  Black MegaChurch Culture and Live Long and Prosper, suggests that Black Christian evangelist communities also preach prosperity; however, the function of prosperity and spiritual wealth function differently for those who have experienced marginalization and subjugation. Prosperity models of faith offer crucial intangible resources for those affected by poverty, overshadowing social isolation and offering organizing structures to poor working class Black communities working toward change.[6] Thus, it is important to note that I distinguish white prosperity theology from manifestations that emerge out of marginalized communities.

White prosperity theology functions by and through the lens of white supremacy, the sole function of which is to maintain white power. White prosperity evangelism asserts a spiritualized form of free market principles and hyper-individualism that disregards the structural causes of poverty by aligning wealth and privilege with spiritual purity. This association sells a false promise of class mobility to the poor: if they engage in acts of financial obedience and give generously to evangelist missionaries, they will see a “return” on their spiritual investments and escape poverty. However, these tithes often translate into massive tax-exempt profits for evangelist industries whose followers believe are following Jesus’ command to spread the good news and offer charity to those in need around the world.[7]

The business rhetoric of prosperity evangelism encourages congregants to invest in their missions. Mimicking the language of financial advising, these prosperity evangelist industries assert that poverty is the result of individual spiritual failings of poor people giving into temptations of materialism. People caught in the poverty-debt cycle are told that they are poor because they believe that they are poor. Thus, the willingness to accept poverty as their “lot in life” is the cause of their financial distress. Many prosperity evangelist companies offer spending reports under the guise of financial transparency, further solidifying their spiritual purity. The 2016 Covenant [Consumer] Partner Report from Kenneth Copeland Ministries’ encourages givers to contextualize their giving as a form of success: “This is not simply an overview of Kenneth Copeland Ministries; this is your success story. You share in the heavenly reward for every life that is changed!” However, these reports require congregants to instill faith in the ministry’s ability to utilize financial resources responsibly.

The allocation of donations is often not a transparent process. Kenneth Copeland recently came under fire after purchasing a $5.6 million-dollar Gulfstream V jet with church funds. However, Copeland justifies his spending as a form of necessity, further reifying the notion that wealth is a reflection of spiritual purity and godliness and can be used to maintain one’s faithfulness. In a conversation with fellow televangelist, Jesse Duplantis, Copeland referred to airplanes shared with other passengers as “tunnel[s] full of demons” that compromises his spiritual purity and interferes with his ability to talk to God. Thus, a private jet and hangar is a justified spiritual necessity for Copeland instead of a sign of potential corruption.

Similarly, Trump’s spiritual advisor and popular televangelist, Paula Cain-White, justifies the luxury lifestyles of evangelist pastors by becoming “good stewards of wealth.” She chastises critics, “[Y]ou’ll find that people who are so obsessed with being ‘thrifty’ are many times people that are plagued by a poverty mentality. This level of thinking keeps them from enjoying what they do have because they’re so focused on what they can’t afford.” Here, Cain-White simultaneously affirms the validity (and godliness) of wealthy lifestyles and paints poverty survival strategies as a gross disregard for God’s gifts. She simultaneously frames critics as the “unfaithful” poor and denies meaningful discourse about structural and historical inequalities. Questioning company expenditures is discouraged, casting critics as faithless doubters or miserly penny-pinchers.

White prosperity evangelism asserts a spiritualized form of free market principles and hyper-individualism that disregards the structural causes of poverty by aligning wealth and privilege with spiritual purity.

Framing wealth as a sign of spiritual purity is evident in many evangelist debt-reduction and bankruptcy missions. While seemingly benevolent, these debt-reduction services deny the systematic and structural causes of debt-related poverty. Christian Broadcast Network’s (CBN) video “Never Stop Tithing” urges viewers to give to missions such as the 700 Club and CBN, even when members are facing a personal financial crisis. Congregants are told that they are in poverty because they “gave into temptation.” These messages capitalize on working-class/poor people’s anxieties and encourage them to purchase books, podcasts, and workshops as a way to escape poverty. In addition to tithes, these evangelist pastors often run massive internet empires. Congregants can livestream sermons, purchase books, attend workshops, and obtain Christian goods, further depleting congregants of their assets. Arguably, these industries contribute to the deepening financial instability of followers by encouraging congregants to purchase evangelist products and blaming poor people for their own marginalization. Thus, prosperity evangelists deflect responsibility for poverty proliferation by participating in unethical business practices and ignoring the structural conditions of debt-related poverty such as predatory lending, the rising costs of living, health care costs, and wage inequalities.

According to Andy Sumner, author of Global Poverty, when poverty is attributed to individual and subjective causes, then there is little perceived need for structural intervention; however, if poverty is structurally related to the distribution of wealth, income, and opportunities, then there is a substantial role for the structural interventions that ensure entitlements and distribution. The Kenneth Copeland ministry is worth over $740 million dollars, which could easily help fund programs recently cut by the Trump administration such as Education, Food Stamps, Energy and Housing Assistance for low-income Americans. However, prosperity evangelism renders the social and structural causes of poverty irrelevant. It casts critics as “non-believers” who are not privy to the abundance of God and naturalizes wealth consolidation and conspicuous consumption of evangelist leaders. Thus, there is no incentive to change the structures that actively maintain poverty as a social reality because white American prosperity evangelism has no interest in eliminating poverty.

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Photograph taken by Paul Needham, 27 August 2014.

As we continue in the struggle for economic justice, it is important to examine how white Christian evangelism shapes our efforts to alleviate poverty. Casting poverty as a form of moral failing encourages people to disengage from the social, cultural, and structural causes of poverty and ignores the role that white Americans play in the global proliferation of poverty conditions worldwide. Trump even asserts in his book Great Again that the trappings of luxury belie his deep religious devotion.[8] Combined with the missionary element of many evangelist industries, white Christian evangelists often perceive themselves as saviors of the poor rather than actively producing poverty through misplaced aid, foreign labor exploitation, and global resources funneling into the west through American industry.[9] At the same time, white prosperity evangelism enables the vilification of the poor, non-white other, as demonstrated in Trump’s attitude toward Haitian immigrants and others who are perceived to threaten his America-first prosperity mantra. Trump hotels in Mumbai, India and the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City have reportedly impoverished local economies, and where Trump ventures have failed, those communities also fell into economic downturn but have been unable to bounce back.

The rhetoric of prosperity is a distinctly white imperial one. Our efforts to alleviate poverty, both locally and globally, must consider how white prosperity evangelism impacts the political landscape, as well as its role in exploiting and stifling the social change efforts of poor working-class people around the world.

DSC_0088 portrait.jpgSam Schmitt is a doctoral candidate in Multicultural Women and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University and is an adjunct professor of Sociology at Hamline University. Sam’s research interests include LGBTQIA+ politics, sexuality, disability, the prison industrial complex, spirituality, spiritual activism, and feminist/womanist philosophy.

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Notes

[1] “Give Cheerfully, Give Abundantly” comes from Christian Broadcast Network’s (CBN) tithing and financial obedience advertisement.

[2] Here, I refer to “white” as a social and cultural framework that benefits white/light skinned persons. Whiteness, as I understand it, signals the social and cultural norms that portray white lives, values, and histories as universal, normal, and good.

[3] Billy Graham, “Billy Graham on Social Injustice,” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, April 28, 2015, via https://billygraham.org/story/billy-graham-on-social-injustice/.

For in-depth discussion of anti-blackness and respectability politics, see Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of  Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000.

[4] Frederick Sontag, “The Religious Origins of The American Dream.” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy. 2(2):1981, 67-78. See also: O’Connel, Heather A. “The Impact of Slavery on Racial Inequality in Poverty in the Contemporary U.S. South,” in Social Forces (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1-22.

[5] Other passages used to define tithing practices include Genesis 28:22, Leviticus 27:32, and Hebrews 7:2-4.

[6] Sandra L. Barnes, Live Long and Prosper: How Black Megachurches Address HIV/AIDs and Poverty in the Age of Prosperity Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. See also, Sandra L. Barnes, Black MegaChurch Culture: Models for Education and Empowerment. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

[7] Note that, per their annual report and audited statements, CBN’s lowest expenditures are on humanitarian aid. See http://www.cbn.com/about/annualreports/2017-CBN-Audited-Full-Financial-Statement.pdf

[8] Donald Trump, Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. He states: “They see me with all the surroundings of wealth, so they sometimes don’t associate that with being religious. That’s not accurate. I go to church. I love God and love having a relationship with Him” (130).

[9] For an in-depth discussion of development and poverty, see Jason Hickel, “Aid in Reverse: How Poor Countries Develop Rich Countries,” The Guardian, January 14, 2017. Poverty Inc. also discusses the ways aid and western humanitarian projects impoverish foreign economies. Finally, Tuju Cole’s “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” explores the racial and nationalistic politics of white volun-tourism and humanitarian efforts.

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