Did Prosperity Theology Marry Prosperity Politics?

I’ve long felt that many of those who freely and flamboyantly espouse religion do so to compensate for their lack of scruples with regard to the acquisition of money and power. Nothing can better assuage transgression than a marriage of convenience between sin and scripture. While we’re all familiar with the seven deadly sins, I wonder if we’re in the process of identifying an eighth…a super sin that has it’s origin in the union of prosperity theology and prosperity politics…let’s call it the sin of “prosti-peri-tution”…the willingness to sell one’s soul in the pursuit of wealth and power.

Three events triggered my thoughts on the subject. First, the recent reports that Richard Roberts, the son of Oral Roberts (the man who founded Oral Roberts University) may have used his position at the university to enrich himself and his family. Second, the report that Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has launched an investigation to determine whether six prominent televangelists have inappropriately used their ministries to fund lives of luxury. The third and final item is the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid by one of the founding fathers of televangelism, Pat Robertson.

Before I jump any further into the topic, let me acknowledge the slippery nature of this issue…making special note of the well-meaning actions of countless religious individuals and organizations. With that said, it seems that the sins of the few often rise to the surface while the sacrifices of the many go without recognition or reward…a fitting reminder of the biblical parable of the widow’s mite…the story in which Jesus acknowledges that the donation of two mites by a widow was far more meaningful than the large donations made by men of great wealth due to the fact that her gift was all the money she possessed.

For the last three decades, the religious right has made the vilification of gays and opposition to abortion the crown jewels of their crusade for the implementation of biblical law as the preeminent voice for American morality. If one tracks the progression of this movement, two outcomes have prevailed. One, a number of very powerful and influential leaders have emerged…leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson…men who wield tremendous financial and political clout under the guise of creating a new moral order. Two, the Republican Party has hitched it’s political fortunes (monetary support as well as electability) to the voters who comprise this powerful demographic…arguably achieving a period of significant political dominance as well as the creation of iconic evangelical political champions.

Simultaneously, the rights afforded to gays have been advanced and the right to have an abortion has been upheld despite efforts to the contrary. All the while, the Democratic Party has been portrayed as wholly unacceptable due to its permissiveness with regards to these two issues and those politicians who have affiliated with the Democratic Party have been the target of the religious right. For many years, the distinguishing battle cry of evangelicals and the GOP has been to nullify the candidacy of Democrats as allies of the immoral…leaving little, if any, room for their followers to support a Democrat.

This lockstep alliance has been characterized as the politics of principle and an unwavering commitment to long-standing Christian values. Those Democrats who have sought to breech this barrier based upon other voter considerations…including, but not limited to, economic self-interest, health care, the safety net for the elderly and the ill…have been vociferously rebuffed if they indicated or insinuated any remote support for gays or the right to have an abortion.

The equation has been an all or none calculation since the movement emerged…and for years the interests of evangelicals and the GOP were fully aligned to create a seemingly insurmountable mathematical majority. Unfortunately, as with all mirages, eventually the light shifts to illuminate an alternate reality and the house of holiness is exposed as a domicile of deceit to those whose treasure built it but were never actually invited to inhabit it. Such is the nature of manipulation and the power of those who preach purity to the proletariat while partaking of the bounty born of the blood of the beleaguered believers.

Yes, there will be those evangelical leaders who condemn the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani by Pat Robertson…at least for the moment. They will do so for obvious reasons; it undermines the decades of rigid doctrine and runs the risk of alienating the faithful. What will remain to be seen is how many other evangelical emperors will coalesce around morally “inferior” candidates in order to still suckle on the breast of bounty.

I’ve previously argued that men like James Dobson are in the throes of careful calculation…an effort to weigh the benefits of political power against the continuation of their cash cow coalitions. They face a vexing conundrum. If they are unable to position themselves as king makers, they run the risk of waning donations as the minions grow weary with their inability to deliver the promised land. The problem is amplified by the flawed values of the existing candidates they perceive can win next November as well as the risks of backing a sufficiently sinless second tier candidate and proving they cannot deliver the crown.

Should they abandon the party by either endorsing a second tier candidate (which obviously equates with a rejection of the perceived front runners) or by breaking from the party to endorse a third party candidate, they run the risk that the powers that be in the GOP will expose them as opportunists who have been granted deference in exchange for delivering cash and votes; only to suddenly abandon the party when all of their demands weren’t met…regardless of whether that may have insured that the Democrats would gain the upper hand.

In the end, if they cannot deliver victory to the party without compromising the values they demand their followers to blindly embrace nor can they deliver victory to their followers by forcing the party to nominate a purist, their sphere of influence is greatly diminished. What remains to be seen is which potential poison they will choose. If they follow Robertson and back a flawed “winning” candidate, they preserve their influence in the party while damaging their credibility with their followers. If they reject the party’s “flawed” candidate and back a third party candidate they preserve their reputations with the faithful while damaging their ability to influence the party.

Both options run the risk of working against these evangelical and political leaders and either path seems apt to eventually lessen their coffers and their power. Perhaps the question asked in the title of this posting needs to be amended. It may well be that prosperity theology and prosperity politics are far closer to a divorce than to a celebration of their long marriage. That can’t be a pleasant thought for either party in this marriage of convenience.

Given the nature of the divorce equation…one which is based upon division…not multiplication…I suspect both sides are busy consulting their advisors and hoping to come away with as much of the proverbial pie as possible. I have to admit I’m looking forward to the battle and the bickering. What with gays being such a threat to marriage, they’ll surely want to resolve their differences quickly…won’t they?

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

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