One of Jesus’ more ambiguous statements was His promise that we “may have life, and have it to the full.” Left undefined in its particulars, some have reduced Christ’s declaration to a carte blanche endorsement of personal fulfillment and professional success — the Christian version of the American Dream.
In an article for the New York Times, Blessed author Kate Bowler reconsiders her research on the “prosperity gospel” — which she defines as “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith” — in light of her recent Stage 4 cancer diagnosis at the age of 35. It’s a moving, personal piece, but also one that made me think of the ways the prosperity gospel has spilled over from the sanctuary to the political stage. In recent months, a number of presidential candidates have adopted prosperity language to mark their campaigns as ones through which life to the full might be ushered in on a national scale.
While it is fair to say that it is typical for every candidate to make promises of hyperbolic proportions, it appears this year that the Republican candidates in particular, competing for the coveted and ambiguous “evangelical” vote, are promising every form of blessing for our country just short of Christ’s inaugurated Kingdom. Marco Rubio commits to “usher in a New American Century even more brilliant and prosperous than the last.” Ted Cruz, whose “entire family (has) been blessed to live the American Dream,” believes “the idea that anyone, through hard work and determination, can achieve anything.” Likewise, Ben Carson promises to “bolster our ability to project power and lead the world.” John Kasich tells voters that his strategy will “help America reclaim our power, money and influence, secure our nation, strengthen our families and communities, and reach our God-given potential.” And never to be outdone, Donald Trump’s campaign offers Trump as “the very definition of the American success story” who guarantees “I will be the greatest job-producing president in American history. I will make our military so big, powerful and strong that no one will mess with us. …We will be unified, we will be one, we will be happy again.”
In this season of promises about the future greatness of America, the prosperity gospel is a tempter who offers blessings without sacrifice, gain without loss, life without death. In the realm of personal devotion, this faux gospel suggests that each of us controls our fate by the amount of faith we possess in God. In the realm of politics, the prosperity gospel entices us to believe that our greatest dreams will be realized if we only place our faith in the right candidate. To both scenarios, Bowler offers this poignant reflection:
“The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.”
We who walk by faith remain steadfast in our belief that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” As such, we are freed from the constant anxiety of looking for a new messiah to usurp the One who has already come. We may be tempted to prefer a king who promises us prosperity and greatness rather than one who suffers alongside us in cancer or poverty. But that would make us akin to those who murdered the man from Nazareth when He failed to meet their own expectations of personal fulfillment. We need salvation, not success. In 2016, let us pray that God is gracious enough to give us what we need, and not merely what we want.