Robert Leonard: Democrats missed the message of the prosperity gospel in the 2016 election

Democrats have what may seem to be an unlikely path to gaining influence in largely Christian rural America — its churches.
Democrats have what may seem to be an unlikely path to gaining influence in largely Christian rural America — its churches. AP

Newspaper tucked under my arm, I entered my favorite cafe. A light crowd for lunch, I thought, as the waitress led me to my regular booth. I was ready for lunch, and some quiet time alone with my newspaper. The waitress put her finger to her lips as she put my menu down on the table, and nodded her head toward another table. I looked toward where she was indicating. Two middle-aged women were sitting across the table from each other, holding hands, heads bowed. Saying grace, I thought. Not uncommon around here. I nodded to the waitress that I knew to be quiet, and as I sat down, I realized one of the women was my friend. She owned a shop in town, and her husband has an executive position at a local company. Both are evangelical Republican conservatives well respected in the community. Good people doing good things.

As I pondered my order, I realized that I could hear the women’s earnest prayers. While I tried not to listen, it was impossible not to. When I heard what they were praying for, I was stunned. They weren’t saying grace, they weren’t praying for good health, the safety of the high school basketball players who had a game that night, or for world peace. The were praying for money. Cold, hard, cash.

Thinking back to this moment, I believe that Democrats have what may seem to be an unlikely path to gaining influence in largely Christian rural America. Through our churches.

I’ll admit to being a theologically-challenged lapsed Lutheran, but hearing my friend praying for money chilled me deep down to my Sunday school-educated bones. The woman I saw in the restaurant and many of my friends and family I love and respect, practice what they call the prosperity gospel, where the belief is that financial blessings will be bestowed by God on the faithful. It’s seen that through faith, prayer, positive thought and donations to Christian causes, God will honor them with prosperity. This gospel is very common in red-state America, in part because these churches play such an important role in providing spiritual and social infrastructure. And, for those of us who live paycheck to paycheck and wish for a better life for ourselves and our kids, embracing a spiritual path that offers sound financial advice and great expectations for the future is a hell of a lot better than putting false hopes in a winning lottery ticket or sitting at the end of the bar crying in our beer.

Democrats may have underestimated the role the prosperity gospel played in delivering the rural vote to Donald Trump during the election. Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, with Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, offered a benediction during the inauguration ceremony. Bishop Jackson is a multimillionaire, and preaches that Trump’s wealth shows he is “blessed by God.” Paula White, who is known as a leading prosperity gospel minister, is a spiritual adviser to Trump and gave the invocation at the inauguration.

That praying for money bugs me is irrelevant. What is relevant is that a significant number of pastors and parishioners from the Christian left I speak with and read about find it equally troublesome or more so, and perhaps it’s time for the Democratic party to pay a bit more attention to their perspectives if they want to thrive in rural America.

After a middle school event, I asked a friend what he thought about the prosperity gospel and the angry message of the Christian right. A better Lutheran than I ever was or ever will be, his answer was immediate, and sharp, “It’s not biblical. It’s as if they’ve never even read the Beatitudes. And you can make a lot of money off of rage.” Resuming logically, if Trump is “blessed by God” as indicated by his riches, where does that leave the rest of us? Not blessed? Damned for not being rich? For not praying for money? What about helping the poor, the downtrodden, and the meek? Feeding the hungry, healing the sick? The rest of the Beatitudes? That’s been part of the the gospel of Christianity for two millennia, and is certainly what I was taught growing up in rural Iowa. Sure, many successful prosperity gospel practitioners do all of this good, sacred work, and more. Others seem much more interested in their McMansions, cruises to the Bahamas, and how high and wide they can pile their money.

The Beatitudes say the meek will inherit the earth, even though it seems the rich have planted their plump bottoms on most of its real estate for now. And, if it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, Mr. Trump and his entourage are going to have a damn tight squeeze at the pearly gates. There’s going to be a lot of gut-sucking going on.

As unsettling as the prosperity gospel is, it isn’t as concerning to me as other aspects of the Christian right as it expresses itself in politics. I’ve been covering the Iowa caucuses since the 2007 run-up to the 2008 event through this year, and have interviewed the majority of the presidential candidates, and attended dozens of campaign events.

Ted Cruz won Iowa in 2016, and his small town events were like sermons, where he preached that it was Godly men like him who were going to save America from the evils of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and ISIS. Events by Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson shared the same themes. Illegal immigrants were portrayed as our enemies at best and demonized at worst. The fact that there are more than 60 million refugees fleeing violence in the world today — the largest number since World War II — isn’t a concern for these conservative Christian leaders.

One of the more heartless lines at a forum belonged to Pastor Huckabee. Angrily, Huckabee showed his purported “Christian” nature when he exclaimed to the worked-up audience in Des Moines, “What do we do to stem the tide of people who are rushing over (the border) because they’ve heard that there is a bowl of food just across the border?”

The irony here is palpable. Most pastors I know would say “feed them, offer them comfort and shelter.” I’ve also never thought I would see a Pastor eager for war — Huckabee sure seems to be. Ted Cruz is nearly giddy when he thinks he might be able to nudge the Middle East into war — he and his kindred souls would delight if their “end times” rhetoric came true.

Like my friend said, there is a lot of money to be made off anger. Votes too.

While these days seem bleak to progressives, with what I’ve learned from my friends on the Christian left, it seems there are real opportunities to challenge the message of the Christian right, not only in terms of policy, but in their fundamental worldview. The challenge can come from a variety of fronts, but perhaps the most powerful message to rural America could come from the Christian left. My lefty pastor friends are varyingly outraged, dismayed, and saddened that the right has hijacked the faith they love with messages they don’t believe. They don’t see the prosperity gospel as Biblical, and the hate and anger routinely expressed by conservative political leaders is as far away from the compassion and love embedded in the message of Jesus as the earth is to the moon. Maybe Saturn.

And the Biblical mandate to be stewards of the earth? Who cares as long as the end-times are nigh — “drill baby, drill!” One pastor friend can’t understand the wanton disregard of what he sees as “God’s creation.” Another is puzzled by the kindness and compassion that right-winged members of his congregation can show their neighbors while raging at those who are seeking asylum abroad. To him, when the Christian right considers matters beyond our borders, “Jesus is writ small.”

Another pastor on the left once told me that American Christians are the most privileged people in the history of the planet, but you would have a hard time knowing that just by listening to them. The alleged “war on Christmas” is particularly troubling for him. He sees the war as non-existent and is merely the recurring yearly centerpiece where Christians get to play the “victim.” These same people also see themselves as the “victims” of those who seek equal opportunity, rights, and a maybe a piece of the prosperity pie.

The Democratic Party could once rely on unions and small family farmers who recognized where their bread was buttered to deliver votes, but now most unions are busted and the family farm has gradually been crushed under the boot heel of Big Ag, they need a new constituency. That constituency could come from those who believe the Jesus-centric message of the Christian left. Sure, there are some challenges. Like BIG ones. The Christian right has a near-stranglehold on the mega-churches and Christian radio and television. Yet, Christian leadership has come from the left before — look at the role Dr. Martin Luther King and other religious leaders played in the Civil Rights movement. And while Democrats and Pope Francis won’t agree on everything, much of his message is progressive.

Most critical is that the Christian left needs to share their message not with the leadership of the Christian right, but their constituency. Let rank and file Christians look at the distinctly different messages of the Christian left and Christian right side by side, and make their decision as to which is the Biblical worldview they want to follow

A friend who is the former principal at a local Christian grade school recently told me that when he was raised in a small town Iowa, he was taught that God is a Republican, and that if you love God, you will vote Republican. He said that it was only when he was in his 20s that he figured out that the world is more complex.

While Republicans may teach their children God is a Republican, many Democrats in my neck of the woods teach their children that Jesus is a Democrat. If the Democratic party engages the Christian left such that their message is shared widely among the Christian right who populate pews each week, maybe some of the powerful Sunday school lessons I remember so well will come back to them. With President Trump’s travel ban drawing international outrage, now is the time to act.

It could be a struggle for the soul of America. And Christianity.

Robert Leonard is an anthropologist and hosts a public affairs program for KNIA/KRLS radio in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa.