By Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge
Rev. Tony Spell of a Baton Rouge megachurch was in the news again yesterday after missing another court hearing because of his refusal to wear a mask. They may not be representative of the vast majority of churchgoers and pastors, but there is a determined minority with a particular set of beliefs that is leading the charge against public health measures – refusing to maintain social distancing or accept worship limitations, and refusing to wear masks are just the headlines. Our research available now at the Politics & Religion journal documents how adherents of the Prosperity Gospel are tailor-made to resist public health measures during a pandemic.
One of the most popular strains of Protestant theology in recent years is the Prosperity Gospel. This belief system rests on the assumption that those who are faithful to God and God’s church will not just reap benefits in the afterlife, but will also gain health and wealth during this life, as well. With roots in the “power of positive thinking,” Prosperity Gospel adherents vest power in their beliefs and in the church to achieve earthly goals, like health and wealth. From that perspective, it may seem an always sunny theology, but it has a necessary darker side.
A central thread to Prosperity Gospel belief systems is not just that belief can cure life’s deficiencies, but that unbelief can harm. Put another way, poverty and sickness are signs of sin, a lack of belief, and perhaps even the work of the Devil. The latter is (probably) what Paula White was talking about when she called for all “Satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.” Other Prosperity Gospel preachers make the link to the social dimensions of sin. For instance, Joel Osteen explicitly tells followers to avoid the sick and the poor: “You need to be careful about whom you surround yourself with, especially in difficult times. Misery loves company.” One implication is the belief that individuals are responsible for social problems, but also that banding together with other people afflicted by sickness or poverty is to associate with sin – the Prosperity Gospel argues against the essential stuff of politics, collective action.
Our survey from late March 2020 probed both the dimensions of the Prosperity Gospel as well as effects on public health beliefs and attitudes. We measured this belief system with three measures that scaled together well (alpha=.90). As seen below, there is plurality agreement in our national sample (percents in the low 40s) and very little explicit disagreement, though almost a third are on the fence. Simply put, the Prosperity Gospel is incredibly popular in the United States.
Figure 1 – Distribution of Prosperity Gospel Beliefs
We focused on four dimensions of the novel coronavirus response: its threat, whether it has been politicized, and two items capturing resistance to closing churches to stop virus transmission. It’s hard to escape the role of partisanship in American politics, and especially the pandemic, so we looked to see if the effect of the Prosperity Gospel was equivalent across partisan groups. As the following figure shows, the results from our models suggest that Prosperity Gospel beliefs drive up perceptions of threat from the virus, though perhaps not in the way you might assume. Democrats are much more likely to see the virus as a threat, but PG beliefs bring Republicans to the same level.
On the flip side, Republicans are much more likely to see the virus response as politicized (a hoax designed to hurt the president), PG beliefs bring Democrats into alignment with Republicans. There is greater unanimity among partisans that closely tracks their PG beliefs about the priorities of the church. PG believers are more likely to see the First Amendment as a suicide pact – that freedom to worship is too important to close the churches out of concern for public health. They also would be more likely to resist government orders to close a church’s doors (something we found to be much more common among religious men in another paper). If the church is the instrument of religious belief ensuring health and wealth, then we might consider that PG believers see church closure orders as a direct threat to their wellbeing.
Figure 2 – The Public Health Consequences of Prosperity Gospel Beliefs (by Partisanship)
We laid out in brief above why we think Prosperity Gospel beliefs would undercut public health measures, or really any collective action. Fortunately, this survey included a wide variety of measures to assess if PG is linked to them. Shown below, we find that PG believers are much more distrustful, regardless of partisanship and they believe in the presence of evil in the world which would amplify threat and the risks of associating with the wrong people. To confirm that, they tend to ascribe to an exclusive theology that emphasizes the value of the ingroup over outreach to others. And they also are much more likely to believe that we are living through the prophesied “end times” – the end of the world that entails a final battle between good and evil.
Figure 3 – Some Possible Mechanisms Explaining Prosperity Gospel Effects on Public Health Measures
While Prosperity Gospel has gotten considerable attention outside of the United States (and outside of political science), we believe that it should receive greater focus. Its adherence is enormous and PG beliefs are correlated with some of the foundational building blocks that social scientists are concerned with – trust, individualism, collective action, and ingroup boundaries with the world, among others. The coronavirus pandemic happens to be the perfect storm to have drawn out Prosperity Gospelers given how public health measures necessitated the closure of collective gatherings, but the likely social effects of PG beyond the pandemic cannot be understated and should be catalogued by future researchers.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.