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The Osteens’ Prosperity Gospel Is As American As Apple Pie

If Osteen prosperity gospel is heresy, it is a very American heresy.

A short clip was recently leaked out from a service at the megachurch run by the toothy-grinned, perpetually upbeat celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. In video, his wife Victoria Osteen delivers a peculiar little sermon.

I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself. Because that’s what makes God happy. Amen.

This clip sparked a bit of furor. The Osteens are “co-pastors” at Houston’s Lakewood Church, the largest single congregation in America. It’s the most mega of the megachurches, where services are held in a converted basketball arena. This clip is really nothing new. Osteen has always preached a kind of “prosperity gospel,” and his wife just states a bit more baldly what has been the operating theology of his ministry for some time, and one of the engines of its success.

But this has served as a kind of smoking gun for Christians who see this as a perversion of the Christian message, which is about suffering and sacrifice rather than a promise of success. When you pray, you’re supposed to be dedicating yourself to the service of God, not the other way around, and Osteen’s promise to show you how to live Your Best Life Now doesn’t quite jibe with the way Christ set out to live, as one wag put it, His Worst Life Then.

Yet there are long and deep roots to the Osteens’ views, and it is not so easily dismissed. Certainly, if this is heresy, it is a very American heresy.

Listening to Osteen, I immediately remembered what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the religious convictions of the Americans he met on his visit here in the 1830s. In Democracy in America, he described the peculiar character of the sermons preached in our pulpits. See if any of this sounds familiar.

They practice their religion…without shame and without weakness. But in the very midst of their zeal one generally sees something so quiet, to methodical, so calculated that it would seem that the head rather than the heart leads them to the foot of the altar.

In short: Lakewood Church, 1832 edition.

Far from being an aberration, this approach was rooted in a strong Enlightenment tradition of moral and religious philosophy. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith—who in addition to being an economist was also a moral philosopher—complained about the pre-Enlightenment Christian approach to morality.

Wherein consisted the happiness and perfection of a man, considered not only as an individual, but as the member of a family, of a state, and of the great society of mankind, was the object which the ancient moral philosophy proposed to investigate. In that philosophy, the duties of human life were treated of as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life. But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come. In the ancient philosophy the perfection of virtue was represented as necessarily productive, to the person who possessed it, of the most perfect happiness in this life. In the modern philosophy it was frequently represented as generally, or rather as almost always, inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life; and heaven was to be earned only by penance and mortification, by the austerities and abasement of a monk; not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of a man. Casuistry and an ascetic morality made up, in most cases, the greater part of the moral philosophy of the schools. By far the most important of all the different branches of philosophy became in this manner by far the most corrupted.

So the equation of morality with happiness and success was what he admired about Classical philosophy and its system of education, and it was what he wanted to bring back as part of the Enlightenment reforms.

But what about those dour Puritans in New England? Surely they had no truck with this upbeat Enlightenment gospel of prosperity, did they? Except that one of the most popular religious figures in New England, in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, was Jonathan Mayhew, the preacher at Boston’s West Church. The famous Seven Sermons he delivered in 1749 attracted huge crowds and overthrew the old Puritan establishment in favor of a radically latitudinarian Enlightenment Christianity.

Mayhew has since been all but forgotten, but he was no marginal figure in American history. He was best know for delivering fiery sermons against the doctrine of the divine right of kings. His 1750 Discourse on Unlimited Submission—spoiler: he was against it—has been called “the morning gun of the American Revolution.” He also vigorously opposed the Stamp Act of 1765, which touched off the movement for American independence, and he is sometimes credited with promoting the slogan of “no taxation without representation” and the idea of Committees of Correspondence. If he had not died at a relatively young age in 1766, he would almost certainly have been considered one of America’s Founding Fathers. As it is, he influenced a whole generation of young revolutionaries, including John Adams.

The main theme of Mayhew’s Seven Sermons, which you can read online, was “the right of private judgment” in religious matters, as opposed to deference to ecclesiastical authority. This included a defense of private judgment about morality, and the following view of the relationship between morality and happiness.

[I]t being proposed, that there is some particular course or method of acting, which tends to promote our happiness upon the whole; and that a contrary conduct tends to our misery (which by the way are not bare suppositions, but plain facts), a fitness of the former course of action, in opposition to the latter, necessarily follows. For happiness being itself a good, and misery an evil, it is in itself right and reasonable to pursue the former, and to avoid the latter. If to this we add (which experience shows to be fact also), that the same course of action which tends to private happiness, tends to public also, this lays us under a twofold obligation to take that course…. For public happiness is nothing but the happiness of a number of individuals united in society. So that if the individuals of which the society consists, be happy, the community must necessarily be happy also. And on the other hand, the community is rendered miserable in the same degree that individuals are so. Virtue, then, is what we are under obligation to practice, without the consideration of the being of a God, or of a future state, barely from its apparent tendency to make mankind happy at present.

He immediately goes on to bring God back into the equation, but describes him as “a being who created, and who governs the world, in infinite wisdom and goodness: i.e., in such a manner as to communicate the greatest possible happiness to his creatures.”

And this brings us in another way, to the former conclusion, viz. that we are under obligation to practice what is usually called moral virtue; for by this we imitate God and fall in with his benevolent design in creating and governing the Earth.

It’s all a bit wordy for Joel and Victoria Osteen, I suppose, and Mayhew was a far more serious theologian. But it’s much the same notion that God loves us and wants us to be happy. So it’s no accident that America’s Founding Fathers wrote into our Declaration of Independence the “pursuit of happiness,” which was not a mere rhetorical flourish but a fundamental right which government was bound to respect. It’s also no accident that Tocqueville found the same religious views to be widespread seventy years later, or that we find echoes of this theology still bouncing around today.

Of course, the critics of this view have a point. There is a basic tension built in to the Judeo-Christian tradition from the very beginning (as I have explored elsewhere). The same God who commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son went on to promise him and his descendants prosperity, abundant flocks, victory over their enemies, and ownership of a land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Judeo-Christian deity wants us to sacrifice everything for his sake—then gives us dominion over the whole earth and tells us to be fruitful and multiply. So Christians have always taken different interpretations of how to integrate these two elements of their religious tradition and how much emphasis to give them.

As an atheist, I write about this as an outsider, and it is not my place to tell Christians how they ought to resolve this tension. But they should at least acknowledge that, while the Osteens’ prosperity gospel may be somewhat crude and simplistic, it is part of a tradition with deep roots in America and a profound role in shaping our national identity and system of government.

So you may want to consider with a somewhat more open mind the notion that maybe God really does want you to be happy.

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