The New Prosperity Gospel

Photo by Craig McLachlan on Unsplash



Followers of the prosperity gospel worship the power of positive thinking—above all, the puritan faith that they are preordained for prosperity—and are comically impious as a result.

“Expect great things and great things will come,” said Norman Vincent Peale, friend and counselor to Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Trump.

But just as the cynic is, eventually, often right, those who are sure of their God-given right to prosper will sometimes succeed at their goals, if only because the end can be used to justify most means. They might claim the so-called Protestant work ethic is the best the world has seen, but they admire shortcuts too, such as letting business do as it will.

The prosperity gospel has always been a key in a certain American lock, and in this era it has garnered adherents even more worldly.

A Vox writer says, “[T]he same cultural forces that led to the prosperity gospel’s proliferation in America—individualism, an affinity for ostentatious and charismatic leaders, the Protestant work ethic, and a cultural obsession with the power of ‘positive thinking’—shape how we, as a nation, approach politics.”

A number of people I know of, who might never have identified with a religious movement in the past, now want to be seen in this light. In their cases, the impulses have filtered down until the gospels, prosperity or otherwise, are no longer mentioned, except by that guy I do not know who sends me soft porn and memes about Jesus, unbidden and unwanted, on Messenger.

In groups that I ghost on social media, the idea of President Trump as not just rich, but ostentatiously rich, with a platform for performing it on reality TV, was a big hit. Trump was an influencer. Despite social-media exile on that distant peninsula, he still is.

More than ever these mostly middle-aged (or older) men aspire to be seen as prosperous, even if that only means posting photos of pricey bottles of flavored rum they have bought. Prosperity is demonstrated in a narrowly masculine way by showing others their multiple guns, large knives, bikes they call their war ponies, trucks they call their war horses. Often the item is a watch—which after all can cost thousands—or just a new watchband, or even just a decorative little bobble on the old watchband. The objects are totemic and interspersed with sexual innuendo that—if I might add somewhat rudely—goes unproved. This is the bottom of the pyramid scheme, the lowest common denominator of the prosperity gospel, which is about having.

Or not just having. Being seen as prosperous marks them as being favored, chosen by power, and it is no coincidence that the objects they like to show off represent a desire to serve a specific kind of power. Someone told me a story recently about a stripper in Florida who said the biggest day she ever had for tips was when Osama Bin Laden was killed.

As a corollary, the men must decry all the takers. To take now means to wish for a better life through immigration; to call for affordable healthcare; to want a tax base that will invest in a community’s future through public education and libraries; to expect to reserve a portion of the natural world from development; and to hope to vote.

The men say: “The world doesn’t owe you anything.” This is pretty rich, given they also say that if the federal government is stupid enough to mail stimulus checks, they will not refuse theirs. Many rely on retirement income from the military, which they fail to see as a government program when they decry “socialism.”

“I worked for everything I ever got,” they say, and if they suspect you are the sort who takes instead, well, have a look at this meme of a snarling wolf with the caption, “Don’t consider my kindness as my weakness. The beast in me is sleeping, not dead.”

This combination of beliefs—that prosperity is their due, and hardheartedness is justice—is their defining feature. It is an entitlement that leads to storming the seats of government.

Note that they do not advertise their prosperity with posts about spending the capital of free time with their children. They do not speak of learning more about the world or taking up needlepoint. They may support an old mother but do not mention that. (They do sometimes brag of being able to give generously to their former candidate’s legal fund.)

As I have aged, I notice that society (let’s call it) wants men to play new roles as they age. They are often shown as ridiculous and ineffectual in commercials and on sitcoms. They are portrayed sidelining themselves with grumpy querulousness. Aging men get dad bods. They regret their choices, which is to admit they have ceded power and are done.

Who’s that little old man?

Now I can see why a society might do that. You do not want older men with accumulated skills, resources, connections, hardened beliefs, a sense of entitlement, and some degree of wealth and power—physical, experiential, or otherwise—running around as if they were still aspirational 20-year olds. Even in evolutionary-biology terms, you might not want degraded DNA being passed around. Congress is bad enough.

The men I am talking about do not Tweet, but it was exciting to them when Trump used that presumably democratic technology as a bully pulpit. It made things special again. It pushed back against being sidelined, being confused with the wrong sort of takers. That power may have been sitting on a toilet, not a throne, as it issued its edicts, but the toilet was golden, and that should count for something.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.