Liberation Theology: The Prosperity Gospel, Plus Gulags

By John Zmirak Published on August 30, 2017

I 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:

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.

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  • Hmmm…

    I think of one national teacher of some decades ago who came out of a mainline denomination into what is actually more Bible-based teaching. He had been flogging the flock to give, but now told them, “If you don’t love God, keep your money. I just found out he’s not broke.” I like that – heart giving from those who have freely received. In Deut. 28, it’s clear that God considers poverty a curse and provision a blessing. He represents himself in the NT as a Father and that provision is not just for the birds.

    • Micha_Elyi

      Guilt is a rope that wears thin, as the saying goes.

  • Patmos

    If you listen to the early progenitors of the co called Prosperity Gospel you will hear them explain that it was merely a response to the false claim that the Gospel does not include prosperity. That is to say, they put an emphasis on it to make up for the void in the false Gospel being preached by others.

    The teachings of Jesus settles the matter rather succinctly, as they so often do, by stating to seek the kingdom first and these things will be added to you.

  • robertobellarmino

    Ok, so you make fun of the supposed a Jesuit inability to make subtle distinctions and then you make a straw man discription of Liberation Theology that shows no theological nuance. Try reading Juan Carlos Scannone S.J. then let’s talk about the variants of LT. muerdo la lengua…. no digo más…

  • Kevin Quillen

    Prov 30:8 and 9

  • RodH

    The problem with Liberation Theology is that, like modern fragmented Protestantism, there is no established dogma.

    So Liberationists can deny any description or critique leveled at them simply by doing what the modern Protestants do: proclaiming that “that isn’t ME” or “that isn’t my group”. Don’t have any pressing business if you seek to get an answer from a Liberationist as to the details of what his/her group affirms as doctrine. It’ll be a while…

    Commonalities exist tho, enough to say that Liberationism is fundamentally, religiously syncretistic and heavily materialistic. No surprise since as a movement it is founded on Protestant denials of Catholic truth and heresies that embodied the eventual Dialectical Materialism which clearly rise from its more-or-less generally accepted doctrines.

    So in the general sense Mr Zmirak’s assessment is spot on. Just as “health and wealth Protestantism” is materialistic, so is Liberation Theology.

  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Yeah. Theres lots of duplicity & subterfuge found among the many voices prevalent in todays social , political & irreligious media driven machine. As well as in not too few religious institutions. As for what some call a “prosperity gospel”, sure there has been abuse & manipulation among those who could rightly be called ” money changers’. The kind Jesus didn’t get along w/all that well. On the other hand Biblically speaking there is no such thing as a “prosperity gospel’. There is the gospel of Jesus Christ. W/out naming names there are proponents of what may be falsely called the “prosperity gospel that are proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. There have also been some for whom that dubious distinction is fitting. We who profess an objective faith in a gracious & benevolent Creator need be reasonably certain of what some are actually teaching rather than what we may think they are saying when perceived through the filtration system that secular positing presents …

    • Hmmm…

      I think you are right. There is a lot about money in the NT; it is part of life. Labels shouldn’t be so easily applied to brethren, which term we are loathe to use concerning those in other companies. Jesus spoke on money, had enough of it to meet expenses of his large group and give frequently to the poor, as recorded. It’s part of the full counsel, so it should be addressed. Our Christian groups have different emphases, some strong in various areas. To me, that is no accident or error. Paul cautioned about saying of those, I have no need of you. Every joint supplies. Besides, those who do speak on money, address many other bible truths and have priorities in place. Just avoid abusers, of course, on anything. There are no bad scriptures, even the ones we feel have been abused. Good point; we should not close up on verses or people of God.

  • BXVI

    Liberation Theology is in direct contradiction to the 10th Commandment.

    • James

      As is the Prosperity Gospel.

  • James

    Historically, heresies tended to come in pairs. For example, Arians denied the divinity of Christ, while Marcionists denied His humanity.

    The Prosperity Gospel and Liberation Theology are two sides of the same coin. Both take legitimate Christian principles and put an undue emphasis on them, making economics and materialism the center of the Faith. One subverts the gospel to capitalism, the other to Marxism.

    • Chip Crawford

      Yes, someone has said that one proponent of error is taking a truth and making it “the” truth. It’s scooping up all scriptures that seem to fit, and increasingly ignoring those that should factor in as well.

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