Preaching Good News to the Poor -- Sightings

In today's edition of Sightings, Debra Erickson, takes up the question of the emerging Evangelical concern about poverty and the poor. In doing so, she points to an essay by Peter Berger that suggests that we take another look at Pentecostalism and Prosperity teachings, movements that instead of distracting the poor, may empower them. It also suggests that lower income people may be attracted to the conservative message not because of wedge issues, but because they have been disproportionately affected by social upheaval. As a progressive, this is an idea at least worth considering. So, take a look, and offer your thoughts.



Preaching Good News to the Poor
-- Debra Erickson
It is by now old news - or should be - that evangelical Christians have developed a social conscience that goes beyond wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. Some are even (gasp!) registered Democrats. In the most recent issue of Books and Culture (put out by the editors of Christianity Today), sociologist of religion Peter Berger, currently Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University, launches the latest missive in the debate over what it means to do justice and love mercy. He invites scholars of religion, and particularly Christian theologians, to reconsider the prosperity gospel that is sometimes related to and often conflated with Pentecostalism, the fastest-growing religious movement in the world with followers numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Rather than deeming the poor around the globe who flock to prosperity churches - where they are taught that faith in God leads to health and wealth - to be gullible, stupid, or greedy, Berger offers a sociological account of the movement's this-worldly values: thrift, hard work, and family stability will, over a relatively short period of time, lift people out of poverty. Those who follow prosperity preaching may attribute their material success to faith rather than deeds, but that is not Berger's concern here.

A connection between spiritual and material well-being can also be found in the early evangelical movement, recorded in the writings of Anglican John Wesley, a leader of the transatlantic Methodist revival. Wesley urged his followers to "Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can." Unlike unflattering stereotypes of contemporary evangelicals, Wesley was so concerned with the physical well-being of his poor adherents that he wrote a home-remedy guide, The Primitive Physik, in which he collected folk treatments for various ailments and rated the efficacy of ones he had personally tried. Wesley coined the phrase "cleanliness is next to godliness," recognizing ahead of the curve that sanitary conditions were less likely to breed disease. Berger notes these historical similarities, but points out that the prosperity gospel explicitly pursues the material goods that earlier Protestants viewed as merely a byproduct of righteous living.

The work of evangelical historians, including George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Harry Stout, as well as evangelical philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, has enhanced the image of evangelicals in the academy. And the high public profiles of socially conscious Rick Warren, Jim Wallis, and others have contributed to a more positive assessment of evangelicals among non-evangelical opinion-makers. Berger asks whether a similar re-assessment can be made about prosperity believers and Pentecostals, the latter of whom he terms "the elephant in the living room of respectable Christendom."

How will his plea be received? Never mind that Berger published this essay in a journal primarily aimed at evangelicals; evangelicals eager for respectability may not be so eager to acknowledge their kinship with prosperity churches. Other observers of these charismatic movements express surprise that intelligent and accomplished people continue to believe in supernatural causality that defies rational explanation. But responses of fascination or repulsion (rather than a conviction of significance and even religious merit), Berger might say, keep evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike from truly understanding Pentecostalism's (and prosperity's) appeal.

Berger's line of argument has more than a passing similarity to a central thesis of just-published Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, in which authors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam contend that the working class is drawn to the conservative social stance of the Republican party because they have suffered disproportionately from the fallout of sexual liberation, no-fault divorce, and abortion on demand, positions championed by the left. Rather than distracting them from root economic causes (the liberal view), Republican emphases on family values and law and order address the social disruption that contributes to the economic woes of the working class.

Together, Berger's essay and Grand New Party point out two ways of condescending to the poor. The first, a favorite of conservatives, is to blame poverty on poor people's lack of industry and moral rectitude. The second, a favorite of liberals, is to claim that the poor aren't smart enough to know what is good for them. Neither attitude helps. Whatever else we think of them, Berger argues, Pentecostalism and prosperity preaching empower the poor. Let's hope they are taken seriously.

Debra Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This month, the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism, Religious Renaissance, and Social Conflict in Asia" by Richard Madsen of the University of California, San Diego. The concept of secularism as a political, social, and cultural phenomenon developed in the midst of and in reference to Western countries. Madsen applies this framework to East and Southeast Asia, finding that, while it "does not perfectly fit, the lack of fit is useful for highlighting particular dilemmas faced by Asian governments in an era of political and religious transformation." Formal responses from Hong You (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore), Robert Weller (Boston University), and Hans Joas (University of Chicago) will be posted throughout the month.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said…
Wow.. a lot of truth in these statements:

The first, a favorite of conservatives, is to blame poverty on poor people's lack of industry and moral rectitude. The second, a favorite of liberals, is to claim that the poor aren't smart enough to know what is good for them

Sadly, the new economy will make a lot of people "poor", and the church better be ready on how to serve! I wish I had more direct experience with the poor, but I can't say I have much to add to the conversation. My ideals would simply be "ivory tower" type thoughts.

One quote from a movie I felt incredibly convicted was a story whose tag line was simply.. "in America, we throw money at a problem to fix it or that it will go away. Unless you are willing to get feet dirty, keep your damn money".

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