Mitt Romney’s Prosperity Gospel

Mitt Romney’s endorsement by various televangelists obscures the more important ways in which the candidate himself now projects the essence of televangelism. As the campaign enters the final days, Candidate Romney increasingly exhorts his audiences to dare to have faith in the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11.1), to dare to imagine a whole new life for themselves under this very rich man’s care, to dare to believe in the Gospel of Wealth, and to be saved, finally, from real-world lives that are going nowhere in the $10/hour economy.

Watching Romney’s preacherly side take the stage in the second debate, I mistakenly feared for a time that he was having the better evening because of his way with a microphone and his remarkable capacity to modulate his voice (not to mention outing himself as LDS pastor and bishop). But it was Billy Graham’s endorsement, splashed into our faces via an expensive full-page Sunday New York Times ad, that triggered my flat-out recognition: the 94-year-old daddy of all televangelists is laying his bony patriarchal hands upon a fellow preacher who shares his hawk-like profile, and that man is not Franklin Graham.

Romney wants us to turn away from the false gospel of an impostor, a usurper, a false messiah, who happens to be the sitting president. Pretty much every Romney speech tells the story of how this imposter’s hope proved to be a false hope. Romney is clearly trying to plead for the souls of those who voted for Obama the first time. Romney’s message: “It’s okay, I understand the seduction: they don’t call Satan the ‘Father of Lies’ for nothing.”

But far more potent than the trashing of Obama in the new Romney pitch is the miracle-cure element (and the part that makes Obama people go nuts). To wit: “C’mon, folks! Just walk through these waters and watch that dropsy vanish, watch those deficits just disappear, watch those good American jobs fall like manna from Heaven.” He joins this with a very effective appeal to a still-Puritanical American need to avoid indebtedness and accept austerity as the price of redemption. 

This is what Romney means when he refers to “big things” that need to be resolved. The biggest thing of all, for his purposes, is recovering the will and the capacity to believe. This very much includes believing that some should suffer (working people, “takers,” not plutocrats) in order to achieve national redemption. As Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Jeff Madrick, and many others are quick to say, imposing austerity on workers is the worst possible remedy. But this doesn’t mean that many middle-class and working-class Americans, including many who consider themselves free of any residual Puritanism, don’t buy into the new austerity. 

Obama’s response so far to Romney’s Austerity/Prosperity Gospel: “Do the math.” The professor’s answer to the preacher.

But Mr. President, with respect: Your own Education Department will affirm my suggestion that we are no longer the world’s most mathematically-inclined nation. We’re a scratch-to-win nation. We’re a roll-the-dice people. And our god is that God: the one who makes water flow from the rock (Numbers 20:11); who surprises us all the time by blessing us in the least likely circumstances. Mr. President: You need to understand this. You need to work with this, but very, very carefully.

Because, like it or not, the endgame in this election is going to be about which candidate does religion better, I fervently wish that Mr. Obama would say a bit more about the problem of cheap grace. Reminding us that people who work very hard for very little are not the abusers of cheap grace, but that others in well-feathered nests who are preaching sacrifice might be in real trouble on the cheap grace front.

Obama cannot and should not condemn those in the electorate who buy into Romney’s “there will be showers of blessing” message, but he probably does need to get his preacher voice on to remind folks that all covenant promises are conditional. That is, he should tell us in a religiously-resonant way that expecting God’s favor without loving mercy and doing justice is an utter impossibility. And (this is trickier) that God’s prescribed path of blessing is identical to the path of a bottom-up recovery, which necessarily means casting the rich down from their thrones (Luke 1:51-53—and the proof-texting business here is all mine: God knows that Obama should not be doing this except by implication).

It is not the least bit difficult to see why the Austerity/Prosperity Gospel claims so many Americans: it’s God and Mammon gift-wrapped together with a big shiny bow. It’s likewise not hard to see how a residual Puritanism and the Prosperity Gospel can reinforce each other. 

I don’t expect the president to counter all of this through a few well-chosen words. But with so much at stake, we need a bit more than “do the math.” We need a bit more evocation of the most important part of Winthrop’s “shining city” sermon, which is the part about bearing one another’s burdens and prospering by way of ethical community. And also just a bit about how to recognize the false prophets of any age. That would be those who cry “peace!” when there is no peace, and those who pronounce God’s blessing upon an oppressive status quo.