Liberation Theology: The Prosperity Gospel, Plus Gulags

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By John Zmirak, a Senior Editor of The Stream, Aug. 31, 2017

John ZmirakI can’t believe the speed and glee with which media took up the story. Joel Osteen was supposedly locking refugees out of his Houston megachurch during a hurricane. (See the Stream for some balanced reportage on that.) Did those media look into how mainline, evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic churches were handling the crisis? What about the mosques? Is every one of those facilities open to the public during the storm?

I don’t know, and neither do you. Because no one’s reporting on it. They are carefully watching Osteen, however. That’s for one simple reason: He belongs to a theological movement that many find it easy to ridicule. I’ve chuckled myself at the Twitter feed St. AugOsteen. It mocks the Houston megachurch pastor by contrasting his chipper statements with those of the ascetic Church Father.

The Most Mockable Christians in America

One pastime seems to be popular on the political right and left. That’s singling out for scorn pastors accused of adopting the “Prosperity Gospel.” It doesn’t hurt that some of them were also clergy willing to stand by President Trump. On this, Never Trump Republicans such as Erick Erickson can walk hand in hand with Vatican leftists like Rev. Antonio Spadaro. Spadaro, a Jesuit, tried to smoosh all Evangelical support for a free economy in with the Prosperity Gospel. Spadaro also condemned the pro-life and pro-marriage movements. He called them forms of Christian sharia, aimed at founding a “theocracy.” But never mind. We don’t expect subtle thinking or fine distinctions from a Jesuit.

Here’s Erickson on the subject:

The prosperity gospel is a heresy and it is no wonder a group of heretics getting rich off the poor would like a guy like Trump.— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) October 4, 2016

Spadaro and Erickson wouldn’t agree on much else. But they stand as one in scoffing at Prosperity Gospel preachers and their followers.

The Rodney Dangerfield of Theology

Here is how the centrist Christianity Today defines the movement:

An aberrant theology that teaches God rewards faith — and hefty tithing — with financial blessings, the prosperity gospel was closely associated with prominent 1980s televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker, and is part and parcel of many of today’s charismatic movements in the Global South. Orthodox Christians wary of prosperity doctrine found a friend in Senator Chuck Grassley, who in 2008 began a thorough vetting of the tax-exempt status of six prominent “health and wealth” leaders, including Kenneth Copeland, Bishop Eddie Long, and Paula White.

That’s a pretty stark condemnation. It led me to wonder: How hard-hitting is Christianity Today on other comparable theologies? Those that likewise view the Gospel as a guide to providing material things to those who want them.

It’s All About Getting More Stuff

By that I mean Liberation Theology, and other “progressive” shades of Christianity. Those movements also focus on earthly enrichment. On meeting material needs. On answering people’s hopes for fulfillment of their aspirations in this world, instead of the next. They just pick different means for attaining their worldly goals. The Prosperity Gospel preaches prayer. Liberation Theology preaches armed revolution. Progressive Christians preach government redistribution — socialism on the installment plan.

I looked in Christianity Today’s archives. I found no statement condemning Liberation Theology per se. Instead there were 14 nuanced articles treating Liberation Theology respectfully. That was true even where the authors disagreed with it. Yet isn’t each group simply offering a different interpretation of Jesus’ command that we petition His father for “our daily bread”?

Christianity Today isn’t unique in applying a double standard. The standard response to Prosperity Gospel ministers among outsiders is instant, easy ridicule. But Liberation Theology and the Social Gospel scholars are treated with solemn respect. I’d like to know why.

Because it seems to me that Liberation Theology is nothing more than a gumbo of the worst aspects of the Prosperity Gospel. But spiced up with fantasies of violent revolution, property-grabbing, and vengeful repression of the “haves” by the “have nots.”

Liberation Theology is all about stuff. Who has more stuff? Who has less? How can we organize the people with less to take the stuff from those with more? Who has power? Which groups? How can we help one group that has less power to take more of it? And which Gospel verses can we rip out of context to wrap all this up in a nice quasi-Christian bow?

A New Jerusalem With No Toilet Paper

Liberation Theology replaces Jesus’ “poor” with a revolutionary proletariat, and makes of the Church a militant Party. Its eschatology is a New Jerusalem built right here, right now, by human hands, along the lines of Marx’s utopia. How is this any more elevated than some preacher urging people to pray for money and send him some? In fact, it seems radically worse.

Both movements speak to people without as much property, power, or freedom of action as they’d like to have. Both focus people’s thoughts on using the church to change their state of life in this world. And both can treat the next world as a kind of afterthought. So why is one a standing joke, while we pretend that the other is somehow romantic or prophetic?

Don’t get me started on the perverse “poverty gospel” preached by some wayward Catholics and others. People like Dorothy Day who make a positive virtue out of outright deprivation. (I joke that Day’s utopia was a world that was one big soup kitchen full of hobos, where she held the ladle.) Read my in-depth treatment of this gnostic, quasi-Marcionite worldview published here last year.

The Poor Reject these Envious Daydreams

It’s telling to me that Protestant churches that preach the Prosperity Gospel in Latin America are eating the lunches of Catholic churches that have adopted Liberation Theology. Those good Christian Indios and mestizos might be focusing too much on the worldly benefits they’re seeking. But at least they know better than to seek them from the blood-caked hands of the Marxists.

Jesus does tell us to ask God for earthly blessings. He never once called for the government to seize them from others and redistribute them. You’d have thought if He favored such things He would have put in a word to Herod or Pilate, while He had a little face-time. But He had other priorities, it seems.


John Zmirak is a Senior Editor of The Stream, and author of the new Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. His focus was the English Renaissance, and the novels of Walker Percy. He taught composition at LSU and screenwriting at Tulane University, and has written screenplays for and with director Ronald Maxwell (Gods & Generals and Gettysburg). He was elected alternate delegate to the 1996 Republican Convention, representing Pat Buchanan.

He has been Press Secretary to pro-life Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, and a reporter and editor at Success magazine and Investor’s Business Daily, among other publications. His essays, poems, and other works have appeared in First Things, The Weekly Standard, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, FrontPage Magazine, The American Conservative, The South Carolina Review, Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review, Commonweal, and The National Catholic Register, among other venues. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. From 2000-2004 he served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. During 2012 he was editor of Crisis.

He is author, co-author, or editor of eleven books, including Wilhelm Ropke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, The Grand Inquisitor (graphic novel) and The Race to Save Our Century. He was editor of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s guide to higher education, Choosing the Right College and, for ten years, and is also editor of Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind.