The prosperity gospel has brought America's neoliberal, right-wing economics to churches worldwide, writes Verashni Pillay.
We're in a hot classroom at Rhodes University, 2004; a fan is making lazy rotations overhead and a second-year philosophy student is telling us why privatising everything is the biblical solution to economics based on a book he's just read. And my raised hand is being ignored, again.
Welcome to the world of Christian worldview teaching. The idea is a good one and dates back to impressive work since the Reformation. How do we apply our faith – what we believe about God and humanity and the very world we live in – to thinking about social problems and solutions?
It is an area of Christian thinking (supported by the writings of Paul the Apostle and CS Lewis) that has allowed us to make strides in social reforms. The fight to abolish slavery was led by Christians, specifically William Wilberforce, who explained his motivations in his book A Practical View of Christianity (1797). Like other Christians over the centuries, his beliefs also motivated his efforts in prison and health reform.
Then there is the movement for debt relief in the developing world inspired in no small part by the Old Testament idea of a jubilee year.
Call it the antidote to all the ugly stuff Christianity is also known for.
In need of a heart
But something twisted happened along the way. The neoliberal agenda in the United States decided it needed a heart and it chose the church.
"The Religious Right is a polyglot of different agendas, and economic conservatism is generally not a central plan," Jason Hackworth writes in his 2012 book Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States. Hackworth points out the religious right have been co-opted by economic conservatives since at least the 1960s. "It has helped to win elections, but it has also, in my view, helped soften the edges of cold-hearted, bare-knuckled neoliberalism."
Which is why I was in that hot classroom that day in 2006: to figure out how my faith should guide my worldview. But instead of exploring the Bible we were force-fed justifications for the free market. And my campus church wasn't the only one to blame. Many of the churches I attended presented capitalism and minimal state intervention as the best system for any country.
But these conclusions were not arrived at independently, based on the country in question. We were being taught classic American right-wing beliefs: the right to bear arms and defend oneself. The benefits of a tiny state and unfettered markets. The problem with debt relief. A cartoonish understanding of Islam and even more simplistic understanding of the Middle East crisis, based on the fact that, well, Israel was mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, so they had to be right. What did any of this have to do with South Africa?
It was a direct trickle-down from the neoliberal agenda in the US, remixing the Bible to suit their own aims. And in some twist of history and movement of ideas from dominant cultures, a version of this thinking is taught to charismatic and evangelical Christians the world over, regardless of the country's context.
Here's why I care: religious belief is a hidden force in countries and societies the dry economic analyses often ignores. It is people and their choices that make or break an economy, and those actions are often driven by deep-seated beliefs.
Such as the belief that God wants us to have stuff. There is a growing school of thought linking the prosperity gospel to the US's subprime housing crisis in 2008 that precipitated the worst recession the world has seen in 60 years. "God wants to give you your own house," American megachurch pastor Joel Osteen announced in his 2007 bestseller Your Best Life Now. "‘How could that ever happen to me?' you ask. ‘I don't make enough money.' Perhaps not, but our God is well able."
Osteen is infamous for avoiding the tough parts of Christianity, such as personal sin and justice, in favour of the feel-good, if distorted, message of personal blessing. Such teachings have wrecked whole communities.
A Republican supporter outside an evangelical church in Orlando, Florida. (AFP)
In December 2009 US-based magazine the Atlantic told the story of African and Latin-American churches in the US whose pastors told poor congregants that God wanted to bless them. That they should believe God would "prosper" them despite the circumstances. That they should trust, and not be guided by their bank balance. Cue mass foreclosures in those neighbourhoods when the bubble burst.
The language of faith was again misappropriated, this time into a glossy Christian veneer on the New Age beliefs of positive thinking and actualisation: one needs merely to visualise the material comforts one desires, regardless of such middling issues as the economy or one's own financial position.
Root of all evil
Forget the fact that the Bible mostly abhors materialism and Paul directs Timothy to be satisfied with the basics, and that the love of money is the root of all evil. Instead, prosperity teachings and neoliberalism-inspired right-wing Christianity homes in on obscure biblical passages taken out of context.
Isaiah 54:2 says: "Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back." The directive was aimed at Israelite exiles returning to Jerusalem in the 8th-century BCE, but it has become gospel for those wanting to rebrand God as a great cosmic dispensing machine. Similarly with the obscure mention of one Old Testament figure, Jabez, who asked God to enlarge his territory. The line got blown massively out of proportion thanks to the 2000 international top selling The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking through to the Blessed Life, which achieved cult status in Christian churches.
These ambiguous passages and the false theology built around them were focused on the individual: a concept that suited the economic right just fine. The Bible's over-arching message of social justice and our duty to the poor is neglected in favour of a selective gospel, the point of which is to live a prosperous life, as far as possible, within community. That's why traditional churches may be known for their charities, but evangelicals? Not so much.
My church is sadly no exception: I chose Godfirst Church because it ticks my theological boxes. But its efforts on behalf of the poor for a relatively wealthy church leave much to be desired.
I am not opposed to radical free-market teachings because I'm a pinko-liberal; I'm not that sold on left-wing policies that put the state at the centre. But what grates me as a Christian is putting my faith into any one thing that isn't God: a silver bullet, a magical tool that will solve problems. Neither the state nor the markets can do that.
Empty religion seeks neat rules, something we can write down as a list and live by, forgetting about relationship with God. But the true God doesn't give us that. The Bible is not a how-to guide. It is a giant tip: believe in Christ, walk with him and he will show you the way. It is ultimately a relationship in which we work things out through prayer, deep thought and research.
Because every context, every problem is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If we want to know the best socioeconomic system for our country as Christians we can't slap a free market fix-it band-aid on the solution – nor a socialist one.
It takes work and prayer and working together. That is the kind of faith in action that saw the abolition of slavery. And it's the kind of faith I want to live.
Verashni Pillay is an associate editor of the Mail & Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @Verashni.