Praying for prosperity, or at least a Super Bowl win

When it comes to tonight’s Super Bowl, 3 in 10 Americans are betting on God.

A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that one-third of the country believes God plays a role in determining which team wins.

And Americans are even more certain about the players themselves. A majority believe God rewards individual athletes who are faithful to God with good health and success.
This kind of thinking about faith and success follows a broader religious trend. Over the past 50 years, American Christians have gravitated toward spiritual explanations for why winners deserve their rewards.

The default rationalizations — Good things happen to good people! Everything happens for a reason! — are no longer simply clichés. They are the theological bedrock for one of the most popular contemporary movements:

The American prosperity gospel.

Millions of American Christians now agree that faith brings health, wealth and victory. This movement, which began in the Pentecostal revivals of the post-World War II years, has become a commonplace theological framework for how faith works to secure God’s blessings.

For the past eight years, I have studied the American prosperity gospel. Basically, it contends that believers must learn to speak positive words (called “positive confessions”) to unleash spiritual forces that move God to act. Faithful people can know that their prayers and actions are working by their effects: a healthy body, a rising bank account, an ability to overcome life’s obstacles. The pursuit of happiness is no longer simply an inalienable right — it’s a divine mandate.

When people say God rewards certain teams or athletes, their opinions usually reflect a range of explanations — from “hard prosperity” to “soft prosperity” — for how people earn wins or losses.

Hard prosperity draws a straight line between the believer’s faith to his circumstances. Did a player tithe 10 percent of his income? Did an unspoken sin block his prayers? Continue reading


Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of American Christianity at Duke University’s Divinity School.


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