The Prosperity Gospel and the Globalization of American Capitalism

The Prosperity Gospel and the Globalization of American Capitalism
Posted by in Facebook's Pentecostal Theology Group View the Original Post

ATR/92:4
723
Capitalism, Immigration,
and the Prosperity Gospel
Daisy L. Machado*
In her presentation about capitalism, Professor Kathryn Tanner
tells us how certain realities found in a capitalist market can be seen
as positive, such as the way capitalist markets are intertwined so that
the interests of any one group depend on whether or not other people
can further their own interests. Or that capitalist markets create a
need for people we do not love and they force us to interact with
people who are outside of our own groups, thereby breaking social
prejudices. Seen in this light it would seem that the self-interest promoted
by capitalism could indeed be channeled, as Professor Tanner
suggests, “away from its socially destructive potentials.” However,
Professor Tanner also makes this observation: Humans “deceive
themselves about what is in the best interest of others out of simple
ignorance or an arrogant overestimation of their capacities to figure
this out on their own.”1 It is here that I respond by using the words
from Psalm 19:12, “Who can discern their own errors? Forgive my
hidden faults” (TNIV). It is this very inability to perceive our faults
and honestly to define what is the good, as well as our inability as a
nation and a people to live this “good life” within and outside our borders,
that continues to serve the kind of neoliberal ideology that undergirds
our current economic system. In reality, capitalism in the
United States is a deeply entrenched ideology (belief system) that has
survived and benefited from slavery, immigrant labor, and other forms
of exploitation. Social scientists have also shown that there is a relationship
between a belief system and how people make decisions.
1 Kathryn Tanner, “Is Capitalism a Belief System?” Anglican Theological Review
92, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 624, 629.
* Daisy L. Machado is Professor of Church History with a special focus on U.S.
Christianities and Academic Dean at Union Theological Seminary, New York. She is
the first U.S. Latina ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1981 in
the Northeast Region, and has served inner-city congregations in Brooklyn, Houston,
and Fort Worth. This article is based on a response to Kathryn Tanner’s presentation
“Is Capitalism a Belief System?” given at the Trinity Institute Conference in January
2010.
724 Anglican Theological Review
Because systems of belief help us to interpret the world around us,
they shape our perceptions as well as the decisions we as individuals
and as nations make.
As an historian of Christianities in the United States I am very
familiar with what is often referred to as the historical imagination.
All of us have encountered this historical imaginary in a variety of
ways, such as in the textbooks we read in grade school and high school,
in the speeches given by presidents and other politicians, in the rhetoric
used to justify overseas military interventions by our government,
in our national conversation around terrorism, in the analysis of our
economic policies, and even in the discourse about citizenship and
immigration. The vocabulary used both for the written page and the
spoken word in speeches or opinions helps to create an image of
the United States as a nation above all nations, a nation that believes
in its right to be a world leader, a nation that, to use the theological
language of the nation’s early English settlers, was called by God to
be a light to the nations, “a city on the hill,” a nation chosen to be divinely
blessed so it could be a blessing to other nations. This selfunderstanding
is called “exceptionalism,” and like capitalism it is
deeply embedded in the nation’s DNA. Therefore one cannot talk
about capitalism in the United States without also talking about this
historical exceptionalism and how each has fed the other, and has not
only created the economic policies of this country but has also shaped
this nation’s ideas about race, citizenship, and immigration, all of
which are very important issues we face today. Historically, this same
exceptionalism combined with capitalism helped to support slavery
from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, and in the twentyfirst
century continues to undergird the exploitation of immigrants
even while it also fuels our fear of immigrants, especially those who
cross our southern border.
One very clear and recent example of how this exceptionalism
has been linked with existing neoliberal economic policies can be
seen in the formulation of the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA, 1994) and more recently in the Central AmericaDominican
Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA, 2004). Both of
these trade agreements promote deregulation, open borders for goods
and products (but not for people), push job outsourcing, and have
supported privatization of the most basic of services (water, electricity)
in all of Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic.
Capitalism and Immigration 725
NAFTA greatly contributed to expanding the harsh realities of the
maquiladoras, multinational assembly plants along the northern Mexican
border, that in September 2009 hired 1.2 million workers, over
80 percent women ages 18 to 35, who make an average of $50 to $70
USD for a forty-five to sixty hour workweek. In these maquiladora
zones along the U.S.-Mexico border, union organizing is suppressed
and industrial pollution, which remains unregulated, has dramatically
increased cases of hepatitis and birth defects among workers. CAFTA
has expanded the NAFTA market by opening up Central America and
the Dominican Republic to the maquiladoras and in so doing to exploitation,
poverty, and environmental damage. CAFTA also makes it
impossible for these nations to ensure that foreign investment serves
development goals. Here we clearly see how neoliberal economic
ideology can commodify not just workers but also entire nations—
Central American nations become commodities that can be bought
and sold. When faced with the exploitation of workers throughout this
region who have no choice but to live in miserable poverty despite all
their hard work, it is difficult to believe that capitalism can, as Professor
Tanner argues, in any way channel the self-interest so essential to
its functioning into promoting the good of the other. Yet it is one thing
to talk about capitalism and the economic policies it produces and
another to meet the people who are at the receiving end of these realities.
Let me share my experience.
I have been taking seminary students to visit the U.S.-Mexico
border since 1996. Each immersion trip provides an opportunity to
examine the realities of NAFTA from both sides of the border.
Through the years I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to
many maquiladora workers living along the northern Mexico border
with Texas. I have met workers who have been contaminated by exposure
to chemicals and as a result have been either blinded or have
developed seizures; some of the women we met have developed cancer.
Needless to say, these workers have access to very poor quality
medical care, and most times there is no workers’ compensation. In
the maquiladoras there is little concern to provide workers with safety
equipment such as industrial masks or gloves, since it seems that as
soon as one worker becomes ill and is dismissed another is there
to take her or his place. In the many conversations I have had with
these young maquiladora workers, who are teenagers or young adults
in most cases, the plea has been the same. They tell me: “We do not
726 Anglican Theological Review
want to make as much as workers in the U.S., we only want to earn a
just wage. We want to make money so that we may have enough to
eat, to feed our families, to provide for our needs.” I met a young
mother of a two-year-old who has never been able to buy milk, since
milk is a luxury along the border, so she breastfed her child and then
fed the toddler rice-water. I met a young couple who wanted to save
enough to buy small panes of glass to put in the windows they had
made and which were covered up by cardboard. They wanted “real”
windows that would keep the air out of their small shack and still let
the sunlight in. The majority of these workers come from the interior
of Mexico, mostly from rural areas where their families had always
survived by farming. Again and again we were asked to pray for their
families, to pray for their efforts to organize as workers within the
maquiladoras, to pray that God would give them the courage to speak
up against the many injustices they faced in their jobs.
I have seen devastating poverty and great economic injustice in
the scattered colonias where these workers live in homes made of
loading pallets, where there is no electricity, no sewers, no clean
drinking water, and yet I have never heard words of hate. Instead
there have been warm smiles and the acknowledgment that God is
their ultimate source of comfort. These women and men share what
little they own in an effort to help a neighbor. They opened the doors
of their very simple houses and made the students and me feel welcome,
often apologizing that they could not offer us something to
drink or to eat. Here in the midst of this desolation, this great poverty,
this very real commodification of so many human lives by international
corporations (LG, Kohler, Maytag, Ford, AT&T, General
Electric, IBM, DuPont, and others), my seminary students and I encountered
the real-life impact of the policies signed into law by those
in power on both sides of the border. In the faces of the maquiladora
workers I have had the honor and joy of meeting through the years of
my teaching I have seen firsthand what capitalism does every day and
the great despair it brings to so many. In trying to understand why so
many are exploited and live in such grinding poverty, the sad realization
is that millions of workers live in poverty so that nations like the
United States, Germany, France, Japan, and others can maintain a
standard of living that continues to ignore the ethical implications of
its economic policies.
It is not surprising, then, that the great economic upheavals
caused by NAFTA and CAFTA have also led to the northward
Capitalism and Immigration 727
migration of millions of our neighbors to the south—yet the folks in
the United States still don’t seem to “get it.” The bottom line is very
simple: small farmers can no longer sustain their families, and as many
of these displaced farm workers move to urban areas they become the
factory workers employed in the international maquiladoras, thereby
creating a new class of working poor. Or often, facing no hope for
employment in their countries, these women and men migrate to the
United States. Yet while a capitalist ideology led to the creation of the
economic policies that provide for the free movement of goods across
borders, these policies did not make the same provisions for the
movement of workers. As a result, those who were displaced and must
migrate because they can find no work in their countries find that
when they enter this country they are identified as illegal border
crossers, defined as criminals, and treated as such. That is why we
cannot talk about neoliberal economic policies and globalization without
also looking at its impact on immigration. The U.S.-Mexico border
has been and continues to be contested space, a place of conquest,
reconquest, and colonization, where human bodies are at the core of
both experience and history. In today’s borderlands the international
processes of economic, political, and social globalization happen every
day in the midst of terrible poverty, overt and often violent racism,
a rising xenophobia, and fear. The most recent example is the passage
of immigration Senate Bill 1070 and its acceptance by Arizona Governor
Jan Brewer, who signed it into law on Friday, April 23, 2010, in
Phoenix. The passage of this law in Arizona continues the trend
around the country in legislative activity at the state and country level
to restrict or halt immigration. According to Niels Frenzen, director
of the Immigration Clinic of the Gould School of Law at the University
of Southern California in Los Angeles, “in 2007, 1,562 immigration-related
bills were introduced by state policymakers across the
United States, about three times the number introduced in 2006. Of
the bills introduced in 2007, 240 were enacted. In the first half of
2008 alone, 1,267 bills were introduced and at least 175 signed into
law.”2 Can it be that at the core we will find that this nation’s xenophobia
is purely about selfish economic concerns? Are we so blinded by
2 Quoted in Daniel B. Wood, “Arizona Immigration Bill: Just the Latest
Among State Measures,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 2010; http://www.
csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2010/0423/Arizona-immigration-bill-just-the-latest-amongstate-measures.

728 Anglican Theological Review
our complete belief in capitalism that we cannot make the connections
between the economic policies we enact and the ways they hurt
other nations? Why do we continue to persecute and criminalize immigrants
who cross into our borders when they have been victims of
this nation’s economic policies?
The second issue I want to address has to do with this problem:
Kathryn Tanner argues that religion, in our case Christianity, gives a
“deeper and fuller sense to many of the moral concerns that underlie
markets.”3 However, what happens when Christianity is itself being
shaped by ideologies that have little or nothing to do with the gospel
ideals, but have everything to with the ideal of the American Dream
that has been enmeshed with religious faith, a faith that is all about
wealth and blessing with a very clear individualistic bent? I am, of
course, talking about the prosperity gospel and word-of-faith movements
encountered at every religious corner we turn. These religious
movements are found not only in the Pentecostal Nigerian immigrant
church in Brooklyn, New York, but also in the many Euro-American
suburban megachurches in the suburbs of New York, Houston, Phoenix,
and Atlanta as well as in Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Korea.
In these church communities word-of-faith teaching asserts that
Christians have the power to control their physical well-being and financial
fortunes through their faith. What is not promoted is a concern
for issues of social justice because the emphasis is on personal
individualistic economic gain as a result of a very clear-cut relation
with God where negotiation for blessing is a core element; the community’s
welfare has no place in such a theological construction.
Whatever we may think about the prosperity gospel, it is a very real
presence in the twenty-first-century neoliberal religious landscape in
this country and across the globe. So my question is, how do the prosperity
gospel and word-of-faith movements impede Christianity’s
ability to provide a critique to the reality of the capitalist markets that
rule our world? In the prosperity gospel we find another example of
the self-deception to which both the psalmist and Professor Tanner
refer, since there is a very large gap between the religious aspirations
of prosperity gospel adherents and the reality they live. The reality of
the inadequate paycheck, of the recession, or of being unemployed
remains invisible—or at least is not what communion with the divine
is about. Belief that what we speak is equivalent to what God will do
3 Tanner, “Is Capitalism a Belief System,” 627.
Capitalism and Immigration 729
changes the way we understand our present economic reality into one
that is about a hopeful anticipation of the “blessing” that is to come.
This type of thinking harkens back to the exceptionalism of the
founding generation of this nation—we are people who can indeed
expect to be blessed. Russell Conwell preached this in the 1880s and
into the twentieth century. Oral Roberts preached it in the 1950s, as
did Norman Vincent Peale. Today Kenneth Copeland, Fred Price,
Creflo Dollar, and Benny Hinn are but a few of the many prosperity
gospel preachers who use the idea of the spoken word (word of faith),
whose power is discharged to accomplish our desires. Paul Yonggi
Cho, pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, Korea’s largest church,
has developed what he calls the “law of incubation,” where one imagines
a clear-cut goal, draws a vivid image, visualizes it, and then lets it
incubate until it is “spoken into reality.” Joel Olsteen’s message for the
hard economic times the U.S. faces today is: “God will cause two
things, reversal and restoration.”4
In the prosperity gospel and word-of-faith movements we find a
clear connection between capitalism and Evangelicalism. These religious
movements blend a belief in the power of the individual with
the idea that a capitalist society provides equal opportunity for all, and
hold a very strong work ethic combined with a conviction that prosperity
is part of God’s design for humanity. This type of Christianity is
not about sacraments and does not focus on a life beyond death; it
does not seek to address social ills or social injustices, and does not
question or critique any type of economic or government policy. It
promotes the accumulation of capital that is meant to change one’s
social class and can lead to wealth; thus one’s religion is meant to enlarge
and expand one’s vision of what can be in the here and now. Why
drive a Ford when a Bentley waits? Why live in a four-bedroom house
when a mansion is in God’s plan for your life? The kind of person attracted
to the prosperity gospel is one who understands that material
consumption is a good thing, even a godly act, and it is the mixing of
evangelical faith with an uncritical embrace of capitalism that makes
these believers a new kind of neoliberal twenty-first-century Christian.
And the number of these Christians is on the rise.
4 Joel Osteen, from the Hope for Today message “Keep Your Song”; http://
www.joelosteen.com/HopeForToday/ThoughtsOn/Finances/KeepYourSong/Pages/
KeepYourSong.aspx.
730 Anglican Theological Review
This is certainly not the kind of Christianity that Professor Tanner
has in mind—the faith that can or will give a “deeper and fuller sense
to many of the moral concerns that underlie markets.” This is a kind
of Christianity that fully and uncritically embraces capitalism and promotes
it as part of a divine plan. I think the prosperity gospel and
word-of-faith movements challenge the Christian message we have
received in the gospel, and they need to be on the radar screens in our
own church communities. The fact that these religious movements
are so strong in Korea, Columbia, Brazil, Nigeria, and Guatemala
should also get us thinking what this might mean for American Christianity,
when immigrants from these countries are arriving in the
United States in such large numbers. How can we raise the alarm
about the tremendous impact these groups will have on our growing
immigrant population? How will we respond? What do we need to do
as concerned Christians to take on the moral and ethical role Professor
Tanner has identified for the church? These are the pressing questions
for the church of the twenty-first century in the United States.

5 Comments

  • Reply October 14, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    now we are talking Jim Price Michael Ellis Carter Jr.

    • Reply October 15, 2019

      Michael Ellis Carter Jr.

      Troy Day ha so do we consider why the prosperity gospel broke off from its true Pentecostal origins

    • Reply October 15, 2019

      Varnel Watson

      Michael Ellis Carter Jr. not sure if they are TRUE

    • Reply October 15, 2019

      Michael Ellis Carter Jr.

      Troy Day really…

    • Reply October 16, 2019

      Varnel Watson

      Paul L. King did a great study on PROSPERITY GOSPEL You should check it out The protestant CAPITALISM experiment failed in Ireland big time

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.