How prosperity gospel made me hate bootstrapping

Growing up evangelical was my first prompt to ignore what people say, and watch what they do. You might have read here that my story includes that in 2015 I decided to get curious instead of freaked out about money, and changed my approach. So, why was I freaked out about money? 

I was able to see inequity first hand by being raised by people who were messed up about money and morals. I grew up with people who say “God Rewards the Poor in Heaven” but also believe that god rewards the faithful with money here on Earth. Rather than poverty being the worst thing with a focus on eradicating it, wealth was a great thing and the focus was on getting it.

These misguided Christians ultimately taught me to mistrust anyone who preaches that wealth is a reward to the deserving — an oppressive storyline with religious roots that’s seeped all over American culture. Think about how many times a day you get sold the message “If you’re doing it right, the money will come.” Yall: poor and working class people know that’s not true.

That religious theodicy looks on poverty as a momentary indication you are not blessed and instead of relief, offer DIY individualist solutions — handwaving over the different needs people have in lieu of prayer and belief as the road to reward. These beliefs directly cause religious communities to leave people to individually self-help (aka bootstrap), who would otherwise genuinely benefit from external sources of community support. They lift up the wealthy, believing they are blessed as a divine expression of godly favor. And they seek wealth for themselves, to create proof they are “good” with god.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the 80s exemplar of this — they, like current mega preacher Creflo Dollar and others, are often scrutinized by the federal government for the level of income their churches bring in, and where it goes. [In the US, religious institutions don’t pay taxes]. If you want to have some fun, hop over to @preachersandsneakers for a few examples of the “blessings” certain preachers display.

Today, as an atheist (and polticially progressive lesbian!) I know three things:

  1. Their core theology is not true
  2. It’s called Prosperity Gospel
  3. it’s dangerous to our social cohesion to have a class of people you look down on and a class you decide are more valuable, based on extenuating factors

Back then, I felt pretty clear that associating money and gods grace made no sense, and it was part of why I wanted to avoid trifling with money altogether – if having money made me like those people who said “god is love” with their mouths and “god punishes the wicked” with their actions, I wanted to do whatever the opposite of their lives was. 

I eventually figured out that I don’t have to be like them — that having money doesn’t automatically make you a holier than thou asshole. You can be an asshole at any income level, ya know? 

There’s something else going on with prosperity gospel though. Why do people who are certainly not well-off or thriving, ascribe to it? Theologist and former prosperity gospel-er Kate Bowler observed, ”Believers wanted an escape: from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets.”

The promise of prosperity gospel is no different than any hopeful story which leads you to believe that middle-class security and comfort can be yours! This attractive tale is one we each get sold over and over in advertising, content marketing, and social media.

I realized, in understanding prosperity gospel, the root of my discomfort with telling my current story: I don’t want to replicate aspirational show-off tales designed to inspire one to aspire to the same outcome, when I know the game is rigged. 

These stories hinge on our human need for escape from pain into the promise it will be ok. 

The truth is, there is no promise that any preacher, influencer, or thought leader can make about any one’s outcome. There is no guarantee it will all turn out ok. You probably know people for whom it didn’t as well as those for whom it did.

It’s part of why I never tell my personal story as one of bootstrapping, my individual victory from broke to banking it. Because to reinforce the belief that all people will – eventually! – get rewards like happiness and money by doing certain things, we set up a dangerous storyline. One that reinforces that our system might be viable … if you, personally, try harder. One that whitewashes over racial, class, and gender inequality and the reality of all our different starting lines in life. A story that erases the data, data, data, data, data, showing that “starting lines” matter to our socioeconomic (and health) outcomes.

To get good with myself on money, I simply had to heal from the religious trauma AND figure out how to climb up into the career world when everyone I knew had working class jobs AND navigate sexism and homophobia on the way. 

Yeah. That took some work.

This story that it will work out is seductive, and people want to hear it. As a nascent “fin-fluencer” I know I would get more fans, fame, adoption, sales, etc if I were to fly the flag of my personal successes as proof points that you, too, can do what I did! 

Here’s the thing: it *is* possible, but I can not tell you if it’s probable. Drive and hard work matter — and so do straight up luck, the zip code you were born into, and intersecting privileges and oppressions. That’s the rub: There’s more than “believe and it will happen” at play, for all of us. 

As much as I hated those preachers indicating we were somehow “not trying hard enough” and needed more of “gods favor” and that’s why we were poor, I hate to be misleading. 

You can strategize and improve your odds – like I did. But the odds are still part of the gamble that’s life under capitalism. Believing we get wealth when we are good sets us up to believe not getting wealth is a personal failure.

At the end of the day — I didn’t have to get good with god. I had to get good with myself. First, get good with yourself and then you can decide how you want to strategize the money stuff.

Today, I own Ride Free Fearless Money and two other side businesses, have a successful design strategy career, and donate to movement instead of tithe. And I’ll never let go of being on the lookout for faith-based hypocrisy, suspicion about the intentions behind “helping hands,” or double checking assumptions about someones’ value because of their wallet.

Money doesn’t make you holier, better, or smarter y’all. It’s just money. 

These boots were made for riding – not making a show of inidivdualism