A Financial Times story on the prosperity gospel and Trump’s America reveals a religion far removed from that of a poor, wandering preacher. Jesus becomes invisible in the political religion that seeks to justify massive inequalities of wealth and extreme right-wing politics masquerading as evangelical Christianity. Yet such a corruption of the teachings of Jesus became possible not because Christianity was too complicated, but because it was to simple.
In Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, Casaubon, one of the central characters of the novel comes to a conclusion that the Gospel was too simple:
“Yet someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbour. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words at the right time could turn a chunk of bread and a half-glass of wine into the body and blood of the Son of God, and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle? And then he led the Church fathers to ponder and proclaim that God was One and Triune and that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son but that the Son did not proceed from the Father and the Spirit. Was that some easy formula for hylics? And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp-do-it-yourself salvation- turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite. And they kept on scouring the Mediterranean in their boats, looking for a lost knowledge, of which those thirty-denarii dogmas were but the superficial veil, the parable for the poor in spirit, the allusive hieroglyph, the wink of the eye at the pneumatics. The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it.
But everything is not a bigger secret. There are no “bigger secrets,” because the moment a secret is revealed, it seems little.
Someone-Rubinstein, maybe-once said, when asked if he believed in God: ‘Oh, no, I believe … in something much bigger’. And someone else -was it Chesterton?-said that when men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.”
The desire for something more complex, something more sophisticated, something more amenable to allowing the development of structures of control and power, something that could be used to justify excessive wealth, led to the church, and to generations of preachers who re-presented the story in a way that suited their purpose. The prosperity gospel is the latest in the line of corruptions stretching back over two millennia.