When I was unemployed, I was a devotee (in a totally ironic and hip way, of course) of the latest of late-night television. It was the kind of TV that goes with a third-rate motel room lit by a single hanging bulb, its glow fighting through a nimbus of Marlboro smoke.
There was Tony Robbins, who blamed my troubles on my inability to “feel good now.” A blond woman offered a free month’s supply of pills to enhance “that certain part of the male anatomy.”
A man with a mullet sold knives in one-minute offers. I had one minute to call in for a samurai sword. I had one minute for a stainless-steel flip-open that hid well “in a backpack or a shoe.” Billy Mays pitched marvelous contraptions with magnetic and clip-on properties for several months after his death.
Mostly I watched televangelists. Fred Price, who depending on his mood is the Apostle Fred Price or Dr. Frederick K.C. Price (and who, also depending on his mood, may appear in a double-breasted suit or in a cardinal’s cassock with red piping and sash), told me to pay no attention to the economy because God was bigger than any economy. Joyce Meyer said God would prosper me if I was more enthusiastic at the office, which I could no longer go to.
Mike Murdock held court every night with the same program in a perpetual “Groundhog Day” loop. He explained that because of his tithing, “God has kept me in clothes for thirty-eight years,” including an abundance of suits costing several thousand dollars each with tags still on them. He and T.D. Jakes had put a mutual anointing on each other so that whenever God gave one “a million-dollar donation or a jet,” the other would get the same.
We could share Murdock’s endless bounty if we “planted a seed” (i.e., contributed to his ministry). It was urgent that we do so, because Jesus was “coming back very soon,” so we needed to “have a debt-free home.” The connection eluded me.
Murdock asked the audience to hold up their wallets so he could bless them. Those who did not have a wallet could share the wallet of somebody next to them. At home we could run and get our wallets, or just hold up our hands and imagine wallets in them.
I do not think the “prosperity gospel” has fully arrived. There is a reason it comes on TV at the hour it does. But the movement is big enough to be worrisome. I recommend God’s Profits by Sarah Posner as a primer.
Even prosperity preachers who refrain from obvious extortion (as do the most suave and successful ones, like Meyer, Jakes, and Joel Osteen) still endorse the underlying, tempting mentality. God provides great personal success in exchange for great personal faith. Outside realities do not intervene.
Even before the crash, our society was dangerously susceptible to such preaching, given our fascination with things that are loud, big, shiny, red, never-before-seen, bleeding (see “red”), fifty percent off, and on fire. Now it could be, and likely is, much worse.
I appreciate Catholicism for being mostly immune. We have not preached economic justice consistently. But a still, small voice always survives, keeping detractors at bay.
It appears first in the New Testament (“the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” “and they held all things in common”). It was embodied in the simplicity and intentional community of monasticism, and by individuals like Francis. It was evident to Aquinas, who noted that “those things which some possess in excess of reasonable needs are owed by natural law to the sustenance of the poor” (Summa Theologica II.II, 66, art. 7).
Catholic officialdom eventually climbed aboard. Economic justice has been central to papal social encyclicals from Leo XIII onward. This emphasis freed others to expand on the theme, culminating in liberation theology, with its “preferential option for the poor.” And we can’t forget so many recent prophets: Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, Merton, Romero.
Overall, Catholicism teaches there is enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed. We are not to focus on achieving prosperity by faith or works. We are to seek justice for all.
But this is, as they often say, our best-kept secret. I wish those awesome people occupying Wall Street were all quoting Populorum Progressio. Of course they’re not. I wish Archbishop Timothy Dolan were camping there with a sign saying: “Jesus was one of the 99 Percent.” Of course he isn’t.
And matter how many people support the occupation right now, millions more are lost and alone, flipping channels in the dark and seeking magic. If the Catholic Church can’t reach them in this hour, this deciding hour, we might never live it down.