In 1905 Max Weber wrote "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" in which he described how a religiously instilled work ethic became a moral imperative in forcing capitalist economics. Weber went beyond the surface structure of Protestantism and probed deeper political and economic aspects of how religion became the foundation of pre-corporate capitalism.
The economy has moved on and so has Protestantism. Today the largest and fastest growing Christian churches in America espouse a new type of Christianity called prosperity theology, also known as Gospel prosperity or Christian materialism, which does for 21st century corporate capitalism what early 20th century Protestantism did for regular capitalism: connect economics to God's blessing.
Today prosperity theology is promoted by megachurches and televangelists. Its message is, if you tithe and attend church, God will bless you with material wealth. Some of the best known prosperity theology televangelists are Joel Osteen, the late Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson and Creflo Dollar. Osteen is head of the largest church in America, the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, and today's most prominent televangelist. He is quoted as saying, "God didn't create you to be average or poor," and "God wants you to live in abundance."
Dollar has stated, "Some people say it's about peace, joy and love. No. It's about money." Wealth has become a manifestation of the sacred.
Megachurches catering to middle and upper-middle class parishioners are the core of prosperity churches. The surface message may be born-again salvation, but the theological back-story is material wealth.
The most prominent prosperity theology church in Alaska is the Anchorage Baptist Temple headed by Rev. Jerry Prevo. In a May 15, 2011, "Judgment Day" sermon posted on YouTube, Rev. Prevo concluded, "I've got a lot ... God's blessed me (materially), ... I don't apologize for that ... God says, 'Seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you' (paraphrasing Matthew 6:33). I've just tried to do what God says to do and he's added (wealth to me)."
Were he alive today, Max Weber would almost certainly point out that prosperity theology is much more than the delusion of the blessing of wealth. Prosperity theology is the religious basis of corporate capitalism, promoting the sacrament of consumption and unsustainable development for the material benefit of the very rich (who may or may not be religious at all).
The thinking goes: God has chosen people, both in human and corporate form, to be wealthy. We should seek wealth to seek God's blessing. We should honor that blessing by reducing taxes and other restrictions on the rich and their corporations. It's God's will people are rich and secular governments should not impede God's will. Taxation is tantamount to sin. Poor folks, meanwhile, must be nonbelievers or at least back sliders because they aren't rich and aren't worthy of God's blessing. The sacred becomes the profane.
In Alaska the multinational oil companies' wealth is a sign to prosperity theology adherents of God's blessing, and the demand for lower oil taxes has God's blessing as well. Resource development, if not sacred, is close to it. By implication, those who would channel Alaska's wealth into public use such as roads, schools, and communications infrastructure via oil taxes must be the devil's consorts.
Many prosperity preachers also endorse a pre-tribulation rapture which they believe is coming soon. The combination of consumerism, resource extraction and end times does not bode well for sustainable conservation. The recent change in the mission statement of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources promoting the oxymoron of maximum sustainable development of natural resources is in line with this type of theology.
That Anchorage's most prominent prosperity theology church, the Anchorage Baptist Temple, hopes to erect a cross 100 feet taller than the Captain Cook Hotel would clearly brand Anchorage as the northern capitol of Christian materialism. That, of course, may be true.
Some of the harshest critics of prosperity theology are Pentecostal fundamentalists who call the idea that God blesses through wealth blasphemy. They would note, for example, that a few paragraphs before the passage cited above by Rev. Prevo is Matthew 6:19-21: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Traditional Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches are also critical of prosperity theology.
But prosperity churches will continue to expand as long as materialism is the dominant value of our culture and the corporation's sole purpose is wealth for shareholders.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.