October 9th, 2013
07:07 PM ET

Believers in bling: Behold, the prosperity 'Preachers of L.A.'

Opinion by Kate Bowler, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Money. Women. Fame. Church.

That's a day in the life of “The Preachers of L.A.,” a new reality show centered on the lives of megachurch pastors of the so-called “prosperity gospel.”

The show, which premiers Wednesday night on the Oxygen Network, is a chaotic mix of prayer, "house porn," and neatly orchestrated dust-ups between senior pastors and their “first ladies.”

In some ways, the combination of the prosperity gospel with the “Real Housewives” format is a match made in Oprah-produced heaven.

Men of the cloth cruise Southern California in lavish cars weighed down by their gold watches and tiny dogs.

As Ron Gibson, a bishop in the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, explains: “P. Diddy, Jay Z. They’re not the only ones who should be driving Ferraris and living in nice houses.”

Clarence McClendon, said to be so good-looking that he must take out restraining orders on women in his church, concurs: “The Bible says that I wish above all things that you would prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.”

He grins. “I believe that.”

To critics, "The Preachers of L.A." represents the distilled toxicity of Christianity combined with a money-obsessed generation of American preachers.

Even to sympathizers, the show seems to reaffirm all the negative stereotypes about greedy prosperity preachers more interested in bling than the BIble.

So why would six well-established prosperity preachers put so much on the line, with so much to lose?

I have spent the last decade studying the prosperity gospel and trying to convince readers that, underneath all the hype about the lifestyle of its preachers, there is serious theology at work.

The prosperity gospel is an offshoot of Pentecostalism that centers on a new understanding of faith. Faith, rather than simple trust, is re-imagined as a spiritual power released by positive thoughts and words.

This faith formula was a blend of early 20th-century American theologies of self-help, popular psychology, metaphysical philosophy and can-do attitudes about the power of the mind.

During the economic boom of the 1950s, tent-toting Pentecostal healers like Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin and A. A. Allen began to expand on what this newfound spiritual power could do.

By their teaching and their example, they showed a generation of believers how they could use their faith to change their circumstances. Faith could heal bodies, multiply finances, restore families and bring a taste of heaven down to Earth.

The prosperity gospel is predicated on the belief that your life—your body, wallet, family, career and full head of hair—is a witness to whether your faith is effective.

Having traveled the country to visit these churches, I have seen preachers make this point in a thousand ways: from boasting about their perfect health (“I’ve never been sick!”), giving tours of their airplane fleet, even handing out cash in the Sunday service.

In "Preachers of L.A.," when Bishop Noel Jones of the 20,000-member City of Refuge rolls out of his Sunday service with his entourage in a gleaming town car, fawning women pressed up against the glass, his celebrity status is confirmed.

But this is not just show-and-tell bragging. It’s meant to be a spiritual witness, concrete proof that God is present. Look at what God can do!

What's most dangerous for a cast of prosperity preachers, though, are the unwritten rules of all reality shows: The rich and the mighty must prove that they, too, are plagued with “real-life” problems. They might be in a Lear jet, but they are suffering in a Lear jet.

“Being a pastor is very dangerous, because you have to be perfect at all times,” says one L.A. pastor.

“People put you up on a pedestal that you can’t live on,” complains another.

Or as Pastor Deitrick Haddon bemoans behind designer sunglasses: “I’m a pastor, but at the end of the day, I’m a MAN.”

The problem is these ministers gave up being “just a man” when they became prosperity preachers. The movement places a great weight on the spiritual power of leaders as living proof of what the prosperity gospel can do.

You will find a theological justification for this every time a journalist asks a prosperity pastor a few pointed questions about why he or she needs a plane or a vintage muscle car collection or a personal rare bird sanctuary.

The answer is always the same: What I have, I use for the ministry. If the prosperity gospel worked for me, it can work for anyone. I’m commissioned by God with special gifts for special purposes.

These pastors’ Midas touch provides endless sermon illustrations designed to tantalize audiences: If only you believe what I believe, you can have what I have, too.

Because these leaders are symbols of more and better, some argue that the prosperity gospel’s primary aim is to inspire. It infuses people with optimism and a desire to want, expect and make steps toward achieving greater things.

But don't mistake the prosperity gospel and its preachers for religious sideshows or easy targets.

If you look past the Rolexes, Mercedes, gold chains and monogrammed pocket squares, you might see something surprising. These pastors, bejeweled as they are, would never want their lifestyle to be a barrier to their evangelism.

Precisely the opposite. They still want their message and their ministry to transcend—and be mediated through—their material "blessings."

There is a reason why the prosperity gospel represents a powerful stream in American religious life.

As my own research shows, millions of American Christians have turned to the prosperity gospel to help them understand God as deeply invested in their everyday lives. They want a God who cares about their heath, their mortgage payments and their ability to afford a better life.

Many believers in the prosperity gospel will despise the “The Preachers of L.A.” for advertising the humanity of the man behind the message. Still others will tune in because of their deep belief that the high life might actually be divine.

Kate Bowler is assistant professor of the History of Christianity in the United States at Duke Divinity School and author of "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel." The views expressed in this column belong to Bowler.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Entertainment • Faith • Faith & Health • Media • Money & Faith • Pentecostal • Prayer

soundoff (480 Responses)
  1. Bassplayer

    Yet another example of how the great physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg characterized Religion:

    "With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

    October 13, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  2. Farrok

    This "faith" is complete trash. How will it get you through the doorway of Death? How will "wealth" protect you on the Last Day of Judgement? There will be no slick Boston Lawyers to protect you and no one to pay off................ In death any amount of money will be of no use to you. All Souls will taste death - The Holy Quran.

    Allah is merciful and forgiving read the Holy Quran for guidance don't follow some California charlatans that pick your pocket and game with you mind.

    October 13, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  3. Robert L Dolan

    Why did you not have the cajones to call this fraud a fraud in the interview on CNN? Instead you ended up kissing his butt. There has never been a more blatant example of hypocrisy and you dropped the ball on holding this fraud accountable.

    October 13, 2013 at 8:51 am |
  4. Atheists are wrong about Jesus and ancient religion

    What if Atheists are wrong?[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88GTUXvp-50&w=640&h=390]

    October 13, 2013 at 6:09 am |
  5. Jacob

    I thought I seen it all. Nothing surprises me these days.

    There are good Christians out there trying to bring souls to the Lord, but these cats look like they are FLEECING the flock. Yall look like pimps. Uh uh, this looks wrong my brotha, very wrong,

    October 13, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  6. ol' pink

    I once attended a church in Southern California that taught the prosperity gospel, and over time saving the lost was not a priority. Making money was. Eventually the compassion of Christ was no where to be found, it was how to make money and how to screw your fellow man out of theirs. These people never tipped when they dined out after services, but yet they were the most rude and demanding to the servers.120 lost souls slip into eternity every minute, yet the material world is far more important to these people.

    October 12, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  7. Nora Labonte

    John 21:15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
    “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

    October 12, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  8. Real Christian

    This show is a disgrace to God and Christians.... This is more like The Lil Wayne Takeover... I mean come on with the Cribs and cars of the Bishop I would have more respect if they lived in a dump and drove broken down cars and did GODS work instead of worrying about woman and what they accomplished for themselves rather than what they accomplished for GOD.... This world is corrupt with so much T.V. Radio etc is just so horrible and now we have gotten to the point of exploiting GOD real nice for our children.... I'm embarrassed and disgusted..........

    October 12, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    October 12, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      October 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  10. Alvin Chipmunk

    Prosperity teaching is a sham, period. The practice places money (mammon) above God. This in turn shows the world that Christians are no different when it comes to greed. Also, there is a lack of faith in prosperity teaching. A blind-follower of prosperity teaching will believe that because somebody is poor, or hungry, or in any other distress must not be a true believer and thus was shunned by God. That is a very icy way of viewing somebody else.

    Also, thinking that way would certainly put believers in third-world countries in a bad light. What did they do wrong to be so poor and wretched? Oh, they weren't born in the United States and were born in a country with an oppressive leadership who stole from their communities. So, I've come to the conclusion that in prosperity teaching, the only people God helps are Americans...thus making God out to be some cosmic being wearing the American flag.

    In truth, prosperity teaching is just a dangerous cult within Christianity that has desecrated the true form of Christianity. Until, those whose hearts have been hardened by such preaching turns away from said teaching will more Americans realize the love, care, hope and courage that true Christianity bestows on America as well as worldwide.

    October 12, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  11. Robert Brennan

    L Ron Hubbard the founder of Scientology said "If you want to get rich start a religion" . These guys are living the American Dream.

    October 12, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  12. Gee

    My God does NOT want this for his true prophets. Read Huffington's article on the show. Great points made in that article.

    One word last word: LEVITICUS

    October 12, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  13. Moderate this

    You free speech denying sons of beaches!

    October 12, 2013 at 5:31 am |
  14. pas

    If you were ever Saved you would have that evidence in your heart and your actions would bear witness to that, instead of the hate that you write here. And I mean truly Saved, not reciting some nonsense or having some preacher tell you you've been Saved. I mean really Saved; real Charity to want to help others, not the nonsense "charity" the world has fabricated."

    baby. u r so right! what should i do? help me nate. help me

    October 12, 2013 at 1:31 am |
  15. Observer

    Qu eers and atheists sure are responsible for a lot of bad things happening.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  16. Observer

    (Gen. 7:21) “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and ALL HUMAN BEINGS”

    Tough luck, kids.

    Tough luck to other living things, too.

    October 11, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • Tell the whole story

      23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

      October 11, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  17. Universe

    Quran says (Islamic Scripture)

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “Recall that your Lord said to the angels, "I am placing a representative on Earth." They said, "Will You place therein one who will spread evil therein and shed blood, while we sing Your praises, glorify You, and uphold Your absolute authority?" He said, "I know what you do not know." [2:30]

    “They say , "We live only this life; we will not be resurrected. If you could only see them when they stand before their Lord! He would say, "Is this not the truth?" They would say, "Yes, by our Lord." He would say, "You have incurred the retribution by your disbelief." [6:30]

    “We have honored the children of Adam, and provided them with rides on land and in the sea. We provided for them good provisions, and we gave them greater advantages than many of our creatures.” Quran [17:70]

    “O children of Adam, when messengers come to you from among you, and recite My revelations to you, those who take heed and lead a righteous life, will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.” Quran [7:35]

    “O children of Adam, do not let the devil dupe you as he did when he caused the eviction of your parents from Paradise, and the removal of their garments to expose their bodies. He and his tribe see you, while you do not see them. We appoint the devils as companions of those who do not believe.” Quran [7:27]

    “Losers indeed are those who disbelieve in meeting God, until the Hour comes to them suddenly, then say, "We deeply regret wasting our lives in this world." They will carry loads of their sins on their backs; what a miserable load! [6:31]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to visit whyIslam org website.

    October 11, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • originaldiscokid

      I'm not a Muslim, but I like your approach. Are you suggesting that this principle, that if there is a God then this being would have us live lives that are prosperous, worry-free, and full of well-being, crosses theological lines?

      October 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      Again, one must point to the Dark Side of Islam and its book of horror and terror called the koran:

      http://www.muslimaccess.com/quraan/arabic/005.asp et al

      o "Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends." (Surah 5:51)
      "Believers, when you encounter the infidels on the march, do not turn your backs to them in flight. If anyone on that day turns his back to them, except it be for tactical reasons...he shall incur the wrath of God and Hell shall be his home..." (Surah 8:12-)

      "Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God's religion shall reign supreme." (Surah 8:36-)

      "...make war on the leaders of unbelief...Make war on them: God will chastise them at your hands and humble them. He will grant you victory over them..." (Surah 9:12-)

      "Fight against such as those to whom the Scriptures were given [Jews and Christians]...until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued." (Surah 9:27-)

      "It is He who has sent forth His apostle with guidance and the true Faith [Islam] to make it triumphant over all religions, however much the idolaters [non-Muslims] may dislike it." (Surah 9:31-)

      "If you do not fight, He will punish you sternly, and replace you by other men." (Surah 9:37-)

      "Prophet make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home." (Surah 9:73)

      "Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them." (Surah 9:121-)

      "Say: 'Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom..." (Surah 17:111)

      "'How shall I bear a child,' she [Mary] answered, 'when I am a virgin...?' 'Such is the will of the Lord,' he replied. 'That is no difficult thing for Him...God forbid that He [God[ Himself should beget a son!...Those who say: 'The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,' preach a monstrous falsehood..." (Surah 19:12-, 29-, 88)

      "Fight for the cause of God with the devotion due to Him...He has given you the name of Muslims..." (Surah 22:78-)

      "Blessed are the believers...who restrain their carnal desires (except with their wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to them)...These are the heirs of Paradise..." (Surah 23:1-5-)

      "Muhammad is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another." (Surah 48:29)

      "Shall the reward of goodness be anything but good?...Dark-eyed virgins sheltered in their tents...They shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets...Blessed be the name of your Lord..." (Surah 55:52-66-)

      October 11, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  18. Oy vey goyim

    You mean religion... is a scam?


    October 11, 2013 at 10:26 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.