Monday, December 31, 2007

Sacrificing Self-Sacrifice?

My Google news page linked to an interesting Associated Press article titled "'Gospel of Wealth'Facing Scrutiny" by Eric Gorski. Evidently there are evangelical ministries raking in untold (to the IRS) riches and the various pastors are living the life of luxury. Predictably, all this money has caught the attention of the U.S. government:
The probe by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has brought new scrutiny to the underlying belief that brings in millions of dollars and fills churches from Atlanta to Los Angeles — the "Gospel of Prosperity," or the notion that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches.

All six ministries under investigation preach the prosperity gospel to varying degrees.
This raised a question in my mind. In light of the growth of religion in America in recent decades, could it be that this growth is due not to the appeal of self-sacrifice, the stock in trade of all religions, but to the appeal of self-survival, a morally acceptable self-interest that is ok with God? I think it is so. From the article:
One of the teaching's attractions is that it doesn't dwell on traditional Christian themes of heaven and hell but on answering pressing concerns of the here and now, said Brian McLaren, a liberal evangelical author and pastor.
The result of this appeal is:
Yet the prosperity gospel continues to draw crowds, particularly lower- and middle-income people who, critics say, have the greatest motivation and the most to lose. The prosperity message is spreading to black churches, attracting elderly people with disposable incomes, and reaching huge churches in Africa and other developing parts of the world.
Obviously these ministries are appealing to the desire for the unearned but using self-interest as a hook. They seem to be saying "don't feel guilty for making money but do feel guilty if you don't sacrifice some of it to God's voices here on Earth, (us evangelicals)." A lot of people are looking for a moral sanction that tells them it's ok to be self-interested without feeling guilty about it. It is going to be difficult however to convince people that self-interest is in fact virtuous as long as they insist that virtue must be sacrificial. What's sad is that what most people call a sacrifice really isn't. When I talk to most people today, what they call a sacrifice is actually a trade. But in their mind a trade cannot be virtuous. So they just call their trades sacrifices in order to feel virtuous.

As long as this is the case, these people will always be in the market for something that will make sacrifice work like a trade while allowing them to pretend the transaction is in fact a sacrifice and thus virtuous. It is the need for a moral sanction for earning wealth coupled with the desire to avoid guilt that these ministries are cashing in on.

I recommend reading the entire article. I saw a little humor in the sentence:
One of the pastors in the Grassley probe, Bishop Eddie Long of suburban Atlanta, has written that God told him to get rid of the "ungodly governmental structure" of a deacon board.
And I saw a little honesty in the sentence:
But the prosperity gospel, McLaren said, not only preys on the hope of the vulnerable, it puts too much emphasis on individual success and happiness.
I don't think the tax-exempt status of these ministries is in any danger. Sen. Grassley will hold a hearing, demand more transparency, the pastors will agree, probably ala the Joyce Meyer disclosures, and that will be the end of it.

I do think these ministries however are approaching a contradiction they cannot afford. Is self-sacrifice being sacrificed to self-interest? I think this is what is scaring the other ministries that don't preach the prosperity gospel.
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