I have opinions on this. I submit the article for your consideration. Then you tell me. Does God want you Rich or Poor?
Poverty (of sorts) is suddenly in fashion. Politicians and commentators blame the financial crisis on greed, not only by malefactors on Wall Street but also by all the denizens of Main Street who live beyond their means, accumulate useless possessions and despoil the environment. It is not quite clear what a nongreedy Wall Street would look like. But for the rest of us, after due repentance, the solution to our financial woes is held to be a more ascetic life. If it is voluntary, rather than compelled by circumstance, it has the glow of moral superiority. "Green is good," says a latter-day Gandhi as he goes to work by bicycle. But if you are really poor, asceticism does not mean giving up your SUV -- it means eating just one meal a day because it is all you can afford.
Far more attractive to poor people, who are a majority of its adherents, is the "prosperity gospel," a version of Christianity asserting that material benefits will come to those who have faith, live a morally upright life and, not so incidentally, give money to the church. Broadly speaking, this is what Max Weber called the Protestant Ethic, but with much less emphasis on self-denial and more on hard work, planning for the future, family loyalty and educating one's children.
The prosperity gospel probably originated among the poorer elements of the evangelical community in America. It is now a global phenomenon, especially among the rapidly spreading Pentecostal churches in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Virtually all outside commentary on the prosperity gospel, both by theologians and by people in the lay media, has been very negative, holding that it is a distortion of Christianity pushed by rogue preachers who enrich themselves by exploiting the poor. There is some validity to these criticisms. It is certainly true that Christianity is not a recipe for acquiring wealth. But in that respect the prosperity gospel -- usually seen as being on the Christian right -- closely resembles the "liberation theology" of the Christian left, except that the latter's enrichment program is collective rather than individual. Liberation theology defined Christianity as essentially being a struggle of poor oppressed people against capitalism and imperialism. And while it is obvious that some preachers of the prosperity gospel are simply motivated by self-interest, one must suppose that, given human nature, some left-leaning clergy are too.
Leaving aside theology and moral philosophy, sociology provides a rather different perspective. A few months ago, I visited a Pentecostal megachurch in a suburb of Johannesburg. The congregation of some 7,000 South Africans, black and white, created enough noise to give me a headache for hours. This was hardly a congenial form of worship for me. But I did hear the sermon, delivered by a highly charismatic preacher. There were two simple but powerful messages. One, "God does not want you to be poor!" And, two, "You can do something about it!" The New Testament strongly suggests that Jesus had a particular concern for the poor, but there is no suggestion that he wanted people to remain poor. As for the idea that God will bestow material blessings on those who remain faithful to him, there are some passages in the Old Testament, often cited by the prosperity preachers, that imply just that.
As I left the church, I asked myself: Would I really want to quarrel with these messages? There is no sentimentality about poverty in the prosperity gospel. There is an appeal to people not as victims but as responsible actors. There is also the confidence that generally people know what is best for themselves, better than any well-meaning outsiders. It is no wonder, then, that research data, from South Africa for instance, show that Pentecostals have an unusual degree of self-confidence and optimism about the future.
In 1968 a conference of Latin American bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia, proclaimed a "preferential option for the poor," which since then has become an important ingredient of Catholic social teaching and has influenced mainline Protestantism. Liberation theologians interpreted the "preferential option" as an option for socialism. But it is helpful to pay attention to the syntax. The option is for the poor. That is, it is an option to be taken by those who are not poor.
The proposition is well-intentioned. But it is not surprising that many of the poor are opting for a less patronizing message. They do not think of themselves as dependent on the compassion of the rich. I have no idea how the current mess in the financial markets is to be fixed. But I am convinced that capitalism provides the only reliable mechanism for lifting large numbers of people out of poverty. In other words, if one is concerned for the poor, one will adopt a preferential option for capitalism. A Mexican bishop returning from the Medellin conference said "No hay otra salida!" -- "There is no other way!" He meant socialism. He was wrong.
Weber believed that the economic consequences of Protestantism were unintentional. The prosperity gospel intends these consequences -- material betterment for individuals, economic growth in the aggregate. It promises poor people that these goals are attainable. It is a promise likely to be kept. It seems to me that this empirical reality must be taken into account in any evaluation of the prosperity gospel -- even by theologians and moral philosophers.
Mr. Berger is director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.