I read an article this week about the divide among evangelical Christians over Donald Trump. Apparently, one thing many supporters of Trump have in common is a belief in a “prosperity gospel.”
According to the prosperity gospel, God materially blesses those who are in his favor. The point of Christianity, then, is to gain the health and wealth God wants us to have. In the political realm, if wealth and economic success equal God’s approval, then Donald Trump is obviously God’s man – despite his personal arrogance, failed marriages, or any stance he takes on moral issues.
An interesting point in the article is that proponents of the prosperity gospel “represent a narrow and often controversial segment of the faith,” and yet “fully half of white evangelicals believe Trump would make a good or great president.” That suggests a lot of Christians believe in a prosperity gospel without even realizing (or admitting) that they do. That’s not surprising when you consider how many people agree with the ideas of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States that were very similar to the prosperity gospel we talk about today.
The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony looked to the promises of the Old Testament and expected God to bless them in the New World if they obeyed God’s commands. They wanted their new colony to be “a city upon a hill,” and they looked to God for their prosperity.
This Puritan ideal of a blessed people influenced many who fought for the freedom of the colonies a century and half later. A number of our Founding Fathers believed God's obvious favor of the colonists in battle proved to them God agreed with their cause. They equated military success with divine approval and a divine mission in the world.
John Adams wrote, “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” George Washington spoke of God as “the Great Author of every public and private good,” and exclaimed that “every step by which [we] have advanced … seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
So when Donald Trump says he wants to make America “great” again, it’s easy for some to equate that with the ideas of the Founders that God intended America to be great. It’s an attractive proposition to say that God favors us as Americans and wants to bless us with peace and prosperity. To think of those things as our birthright means we don’t have to earn them or do anything to deserve them. We just have to take them – “name it to claim it” in the words of prosperity gospel preachers.
The problem, of course, is this is not good Christian theology.
To be Christian is to be like Christ, to be conformed to his image (Romans 8:29). We are told to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” who “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:5,7). Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
When we compare the prosperity and popularity of someone like Donald Trump with the humility and personal sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we might yearn for the former. But we are called to imitate the latter.
To learn more about the problems with the Founding Fathers theology, I hope you will read my book One Nation Under God: A Christian Argument in Favor of Separation of Church and State.
Referenced article: Elizabeth Dias, “Donald Trump’s Prosperity Preachers,” Time, April 17, 2016, http://time.com/donald-trump-prosperity-preachers/
What is my mission as an author? It's a tough question, but I believe the goal dearest to my heart is to help Christians think about what they really believe and then to act as if they really believe it. It all begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian. Then we have to learn to live like a Christian.