Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Prosperity Gospel & Donald Trump

My latest article discussing the religious background of Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, and the Word of Faith prosperity gospel with which she is associated, has been published by On Religion magazine. The full text is below.


Donald Trump’s inauguration was full of religious trappings: kicking off the day with a service and inviting several religious representatives to pray during the proceedings. One such representative was Paula White, a controversial figure amongst Christians, largely because of her associations with the so-called “prosperity gospel” and the broader “Word of Faith” movement in which it is embedded.

Arguably this movement is rooted in the philosophy of Phineas Quimby, a 19th century spiritual teacher and philosopher who is regarded as the father of the “New Thought” movement. A central aspect of the teaching of this movement is that whatever you think about, you attract to yourself. So, by thinking and speaking positive words we can attract positive things into our lives. Conversely, thinking and speaking negative thoughts and words will bring negative things into our lives. Sickness and disease are considered as the result of negative forms of thought and can be avoided or dealt with by changing how we think and what we confess with our mouths. We see the influences of this teaching in numerous movements: New Age, Christian Science, and the Word of Faith movement with its prosperity gospel. One cancer sufferer I knew refused to accept that she had cancer despite all the physical symptoms and the diagnosis of her doctors. She considered these to be deceptions of Satan to force her into saying “I have cancer,” which would – in her thinking – be a negative confession that would make the cancer real.

This notion of speaking things into existence is central in Word of Faith teaching. In an effort to give the idea biblical justification, Word of Faith teachers point out that according to Genesis God spoke the world into existence, and since we are made in His image, we too have this ability to create with the power of speech. In White’s words: “There is creative power in your mouth right now. God spoke and created the universe; you have creative power to speak life and death! If you believe God, you can create anything in your life.” This theology in turn supports the prosperity gospel: if you need money or healing you can speak it into existence through the power of positive confessions, sometimes with the repetition of (typically out of context) Bible passages. Christians, therefore, need never and indeed should never be sick or poor. Kenneth & Gloria Copeland, other leading lights within the movement, even claim to be able to control the weather by speaking words of rebuke to storms and tornados which, they assert, have disappeared before their eyes after a good telling off! Such teachers don’t primarily think of faith as being something we place in God, but rather as a force that you aim at God and the wider universe to get the things you want – health and wealth, or, in the case of the Copelands, clear skies.

Critics label such theology as “name it, and claim it!” and see in it a blurring of the line between Creator and created. There certainly is a tendency within the movement to deify humankind, a propensity which is expressed in the so-called “little gods” doctrine. One leading figure of the movement, Creflo Dollar (undoubtedly a perfect name for a prosperity teacher) writes: “As spiritual beings who possess the nature of God, we have the ability to speak things into existence, just like God did,” because “the real me is just like God!” (I note in passing the irony that whilst drawing on Genesis to support their theology, Word of Faith preachers ignore its suggestion that the root of the fall of humankind was the desire to be just like God).

This theology stems from a certain understanding of the nature of man and the doctrine of the fall. Although the details differ subtly from teacher to teacher, the basic idea is that Adam was, allegedly, an exact duplicate of God. Unfortunately by sinning (how if he was exactly like God?) his godhood was transferred to Satan, and God lost his legal right to the earth and was banished from it. Satan became the legal God of earth. In time, Satan was defeated by Christ, but whereas orthodox Christians hold that this was achieved through his work on the cross, many Word of Faith teachers claim that it was achieved through his suffering “spiritual death” in Hell. Anyhow, when a person is saved he or she regains their lost godhood, and this further helps us to see why those in the Word of Faith movement hold so tenaciously to the prosperity gospel: little gods cannot be sick or impoverished! In his discussion of prayer, Benny Hinn, a darling of the movement, states his belief that when we pray we are giving God license he wouldn’t otherwise have to interfere in earthly affairs. Whilst God has the power, he needs to have our permission. More conservative Christians see here a rather stunning denial of the sovereignty of God, who is Alpha & Omega, eternal, and Almighty.

The prosperity gospel is therefore really just some rotten fruit hanging on a much bigger tree of heterodoxy. However, whereas much of the aforementioned theology is not quite so popular, the prosperity gospel has proven incredibly alluring. It appeals to two of the most basic human desires: to be well and wealthy. “Come to Jesus and you can have health and wealth” is enormously attractive to two kinds of people: the very poor, and the very rich. For the very poor it holds out the hope of rescue from their plight; for the very rich it assures them that they are greatly blessed by God. It’s a theological version of the American Dream, and certainly much more alluring than the traditional Christian message: we are all sinners faced with the wrath of God, and must repent from our sinful lives and embrace the salvation won for us through the atoning death of Christ.

Sometimes such weird and wonderful teaching comes from obscure renderings of the Bible text, but more often arises due to the penchant of Word of Faith leaders for claiming direct experiences and revelations from God. Kenneth Hagin, the father of the Word of Faith movement, claimed to have met Jesus on 8 occasions, and frequently claimed to receive his teachings directly from heaven, despite their uncanny resemblance to the musings of older writers. Not to be outdone by Hagin, Jesse Duplantis – another popular leader – claims to have been brought up into heaven by an angel – via cable car – and asked by God for his opinion about all sorts of matters.

In addition, many of these teachers engage in giving prophetic words. Sometimes these are little more than vague ramblings, but more specific predictions are also made. Many of these turn out to be flat-out false, like Kenneth Copeland’s prophecy in the early 90s that Islam will fall and become nothing in 1995. Or Benny Hinn’s long list of prophetic failures, such as that the 1990s would see the collapse of the US economy, the death of Fidel Castro, and the homosexuals of the world destroyed by fire.

It isn’t just the heterodox theology of the Word of Faith movement that has caused unease amongst many Christians, it’s also the practices that have caused concern, many of which have infected other parts of Christendom. Amongst the more bizarre claims are: the manifestation of gold dust, the appearance of gems and angel feathers, and the
phenomenon of people rolling around the floor barking like dogs or clucking like chickens. However, it is the healing practices and claims that are most closely associated with prosperity teaching.

Many of the standard healing practices are incredibly manipulative. People are often whipped up into an emotional – even hypnotic – state through the use of lighting and music and the repetition of prayers and religious mantras. The reason why we never find faith-healers going to a hospital is because they need to be able to control the atmosphere for their cures – typically placebos – to work. Moreover, most tend to specialise in ailments that can’t be seen: back pain or tinnitus, not amputees or people with Down’s syndrome. Even worse there is almost always financial pressure put on people. At a Benny Hinn rally in Belfast I witnessed these techniques first hand: the offering was lifted right after a short sermonette about how by giving greatly to God we can expect great things in return. The strong implication is that if you give enough you will get your miracle. Of course, when the miracle doesn’t happen the person is left with the nagging guilt that they didn’t give enough. Preachers don’t let the guilt trip end there, thus Benny Hinn remarks: “You cannot receive healing unless your heart is right with God. . . Healing is easily attained when your walk with God is right.”

The theology of the Word of Faith movement is that God always wants to heal, so if healing does not occur the fault must rest with the sick person. Maybe they didn’t believe enough. Maybe they didn’t give enough money to the already obscenely wealthy travelling evangelist. Maybe there’s too much sin in their life. The Word of Faith movement and its attendant prosperity teaching is emotionally manipulative, psychologically disturbing, and leaves spiritual shipwreck in its wake.

I will always remember one elder in a Word of Faith church – Ian – who was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He believed firmly that Christians should never get sick, but if they do they can easily get their miracle through claiming it in faith. Sadly Ian just got sicker and sicker. Another friend went to see him one day and Ian had given up. He said he had no faith left. Ian died a short time later, not only physically destroyed but also psychologically and spiritually devastated.

The danger of this movement is that it sounds Christian. A lot of Christian words and images are present, but underlying it all is a fundamentally non-Christian view of the nature of God and Humankind. Word of Faith critic Justin Peters calls it “cultic theology wrapped in Christianese.” To what extent this theology will influence Donald Trump through his spiritual adviser, Paula White, remains to be seen. But if it does we can add it to a growing list of concerns we might have about him.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Prosperity Gospel, Word of Faith

Miracles in “Traditional Religions” – A Response to Fiona Bowie

In her essay “Miracles in Traditional Religions,” Fiona Bowie, a social anthropologist, makes a case in favour of taking the miracle claims of practitioners of “traditional religions” more seriously.

In the course of her essay she chastises Western thinkers for ridiculing, ignoring, or dismissing what traditional peoples report concerning miraculous phenomena. Bowie’s essay is indeed fascinating, but sadly it contains several basic reasoning mistakes which I’m going to highlight in the course of this response.

Bowie opens her essay with the story of Nigel Barley, an anthropologist who spent time with the Dowayo of Northern Cameroon and in particular their renowned rainmaker the “Old Man of Kpan.” The Old Man kept a number of “rain stones” on a particular mountain, which were used in his rituals to make it rain. Towards the end of Barley’s trip they visited the spot on the mountain where the rain stones were kept, and he asked the Old Man if he could see him actually making rain. The Old Man replied that as he had just splashed the rain stones it was going to downpour and so they better get off the mountain pretty quickly. True enough, whilst they were on their way back down a violent storm broke overhead.

According to Bowie, Westerners tend to be uncomfortable with believing such stories because we’ve lost both the notion of a personalised universe and the belief that our thoughts and actions interact with the powers of nature – be they gods, spirits, or other forces. The problem with this, she argues, is that: “Such a view does not fit easily with the words and actions of the Old Man of Kpan. He had splashed remedies on the stones and as a direct consequence it rained.” What we have here is a fairly clear instance of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we claim that because X happened after Y that Y was the cause of X. From the reports of Nigel Barley all we can conclude is that after the Old Man performed his ritual it rained. We cannot say it rained because he performed his ritual, unless we have good reason for connecting the events. After all, at the time when the Old Man performed his ritual there were millions of other events occurring also. Why not attribute the rain to something else? Maybe an Englishman on the Underground sneezed and caused the rain. Maybe an Australian pulled his bath plug out. Maybe Poseidon woke up cranky and hurled a storm over the land in his fury. Maybe some unknown weather god got sad when he saw his favourite wildebeest killed by a predator and cried tears that manifested as rain. Why suppose the Old Man caused it by splashing his rain stones? Millions of hours of research and study have gone into understanding weather. We now have a good grasp of the physical processes at work. Storms do not manifest due to rituals.

There isn’t anything particularly uncanny about the abilities of the Old Man. He’s lived in that area for a long time. He understands its weather patterns well enough, I’d say. Moreover, when a storm is close it can be easily visible on the horizon from certain vantage points – say, the top of a mountain.

And this brings me to my second criticism. Bowie seems so desperate to embrace the insights of “traditional peoples” and chastise Westerners for their scepticism concerning such things that she ends up forgetting to apply even a rudimentary critical analysis to the various claims she discusses, often adopting a rather naïve face-value acceptance of miracle claims. For example, she discusses a case of two hunters in Alaska, one of whom had fallen through ice. His companion threw a stretch of rope to him and pulled him out. What’s miraculous about this is that the companion claimed to be carrying a rope that was only 5 foot long and when he threw it to his friend in the icy water it miraculously grew longer so as to reach him. Bowie seems to just accept this story without pondering alternative explanations. For instance, perhaps the man had simply underestimated how long his rope was. Alternatively, perhaps – as is common in situations of extreme stress – his perception of reality was skewed, making it seem that his friend was further than he really was. Bowie doesn’t entertain any such alternatives. Why not?

The answer to this question is found at the end of her essay when she quotes approvingly the words of Edith Turner concerning the applicability of Ockham’s razor to our quest for the miraculous. According to Turner we should not: “go out of our way to invent complicated explanations so as to avoid accepting the possibility of the existence of spirit being and powers” rather than learning “simply to listen to what those adept at these matters are saying and begin to take them seriously” However, this strikes me as a misstatement and misuse of Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor does not mean we are obliged to choose the most simplistic answer: The Old Man of Kpan sprinkled water and as a direct result it rained. It doesn’t mean we simply believe whatever people tell us about this or that phenomenon and the reasons for it. Ockham’s razor means that we should – all other things being equal – opt for the simplest adequate explanation. An explanation might remain incredibly complicated, but still be the simplest one that adequately explains some phenomenon or body of data. It is neither simple nor adequate to claim that a rope miraculously grew so as to save a man drowning in icy water, and I have already provided two simpler and more adequate explanations for this event.

Moreover, who exactly are the people described as “adept” at such things? How are we to know who is adept and who isn’t? Given the sheer amount of dubious claims – and even more dubious people making them – it isn’t clear who we are supposed to listen to. What about the Indian clairvoyant who believes he has the ability to find criminals. Is he adept? Should we punish people according to his say so? Rather than rely on thousands of hours of hard work, research, and investment should we view the Old Man of Kpan in equal terms to any meteorologist when it comes to theories as to what causes storms? It seems to me that the only way to answer the question about who is and who is not “adept at these matters” is to investigate the claims that come to our attention. The trouble is that when we do so such claims typically evaporate, and Bowie has done little to convince us that there’s good reason for taking them seriously.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Miracles