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Harvard Professor Explores 'Prosperity Gospel'

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Jonathan Walton/Harvard University
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About 40 years ago, Christian preachers in the U.S. started singing a seldom-heard hymn: God rewards the wealthy. It’s called the prosperity gospel, and though its roots can be traced to the late nineteenth century, it was the rise of televangelism in the 1970s and '80s that lofted prosperity theology to a wide audience.

The theology is not universally embraced. Christianity Today calls it an aberrant theology. In 2009, religion writer Cathleen Falsani labeled it one of the worst ideas of the decade. And most of the critics make the same point: that Jesus of Nazareth was not a rich man, and he didn’t favor people based on their material possessions.

But its proponents defend prosperity theology as a contract with God, one in which adherents will be rewarded with good health or material goods, for living up to certain standards.

Harvard University professor Jonathan Walton studies religion, politics and media. He talked about prosperity gospel at the University of Tennessee Religious Studies Department’s Dungan Memorial Lecture on February 23.

In this interview, Walton speaks with WUOT's Brandon Hollingsworth about prosperity gospel, its appeal, its development and its uniquely American character.