Do Americans Believe in the Prosperity Gospel? Here’s What the Data Says.

Featured Image Credit: The WORD 

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

In August, the city of Houston experienced a natural disaster of true biblical proportions: the landfall and subsequent torrential rain of Hurricane Harvey. Tens of thousands of homes were flooded in the metro area and many individuals struggled to find adequate shelter in the immediate aftermath of Harvey. There was a call put out by relief agencies for non-profits and civic groups to open their doors to flood victims. Many responded and provided clothes, food, and shelter for those in need.

However, one of the largest religious non-profits in the United States is located in the city of Houston and was not initially receiving flood victims. Lakewood Church, pastored by best selling author Joel Osteen, had purchased the Compaq Center, the former home of the Houston Rockets basketball team, and spent $75 million renovating the facility But that facility was not initially taking those displaced by the hurricane. Instead, an official statement from the church said, “We are prepared to shelter people once the cities and county shelters reach capacity.” This, not surprisingly, became an uproar on social media.

A lot of this comes back to the fact that Osteen lives an opulent lifestyle, replete with a home worth a reported $10.5 million. For Osteen and his followers, the fact that their pastor lives in the lap of luxury does not seem hypocritical to them. This is due, in large part, to the type of Christianity that Osteen preaches: the prosperity gospel. The best definition for this comes from Wikipedia: “(the prosperity gospel) holds that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.” Put even more simply: obedience to God and generosity to the church will lead to a life blessed not just spiritually but materially as well. For a more thorough explanation of this theology, see this excellent piece in Vox. And this sociological perspective from Paul Freston.

So, how widespread is this theology in the United States? I managed to find a module from the 2012 General Social Survey that had questions that came close to tapping this phenomenon. Here’s the actual question text:

  1. To what extent did you read [the Bible, Torah, Koran, or other religious scriptures] to learn about attaining wealth or prosperity?
  2. To what extent did you read [the Bible, Torah, Koran, or other religious scriptures] to learn about attaining health or healing?

Each question allowed respondent five response options: not at all, to a small extent, to a moderate extent, to a considerable extent, to a great extent. The figure below displays the distribution of these two questions when they are summed and indexed from 0 (meaning no belief in prosperity theology) to 1 (meaning total belief in prosperity theology). Notice that a significant percentage of Americans (42.3%) have zero prosperity inclinations. In addition, approximately 7 in 10 Americans scored .25 or less on the prosperity scale.

I wanted to take the analysis a step further and take a look at prosperity theology is distributed across all seven categories of the RELTRAD classification scheme. The figure belows displays those means as points and the horizontal lines represent the 95% confidence intervals. While we think that prosperity gospelers are conservative white Protestants in basketball stadiums, sacred sources of prosperity pull on members of many religious traditions. The strongest concentration is among Black Protestants, followed by Jews and those of an “other faith” before we reach evangelical Christians.

I’m a political scientist, so I would be remiss to not include some sort of graph that compared Democrats and Republicans on the prosperity continuum. The pattern here is unmistakable. Democrats are more likely to hold prosperity gospel views, which Republicans are less likely to hold, and Independents fall between the two. It is crucial to note, however, that the differences between these three groups is incredibly small. In fact the difference between Republicans and Democrats is less than .1 on a 1 point scale. So, there is variation but it’s not large.

Finally, it seems warranted to analyze how household income interacts with prosperity theology. The pattern is displayed below and it’s a cause for concern. The most notable finding, which has long been suspected, is that prosperity preachers prey on the poor. That’s clearly what the data indicates. For those who make less than $10,000 per year, they are twice as likely to espouse prosperity theology than those who make between $35,000 and $50,000 per year. The correlation, generally speaking, is a negative one. The more money an individual earns, the less likely they are to believe in the prosperity gospel.

The prosperity gospel is an interesting offshoot of modern day evangelicalism, but has been vastly understudied by social scientists. I did as much digging as I could to find any survey data on this topic and all I could muster is a Time Magazine poll from 2006 that indicates “17% of Christians surveyed said that they consider themselves part of the (prosperity gospel) movement.” But it’s apparent from the data I examined for this post that being in the prosperity gospel is not a dichotomous state, but should really be considered a continuum like most other matters of theology. The questions used for this analysis are a good start, but could always be refined. It would be nice to have longitudinal data to track if this movement rises and falls based on charismatic preachers who extol its virtues. In a previous post I noted that some of the most influential evangelicals on Twitter were prosperity preachers, and it would helpful to understand how this influence plays out both on social media and American society.

It’s also worth mentioning that while mainstream evangelicals like Joel Osteen do dabble in prosperity preaching, televangelists who ask for donations to maintain their ministry have long been seen as pariahs among mainstream evangelicals. But, with Donald Trump’s continued relationship with many in the movement it will be a trend to watch in American Christianity.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.

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