The intertwining of ‘crass materialism’ and theology
Review: Oral Roberts and the Rise of the Prosperity Gospel by Jonathan Root
In his heyday Oral Roberts’ fame as a crusading revivalist was second only to Billy Graham, even over the likes of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, who were famous for the wrong reasons. Unlike Billy Graham, Roberts was obsessed with the material side of his healing ministry, raking in millions of dollars from supporters over decades, establishing a university with a prominent basketball team, and a medical centre that ultimately caused him to become unhinged in his desperation for money, as well as being a prominent advocate of the corrosive prosperity gospel.
Roberts grew up in Oklahoma, in a world of travelling evangelists, tongues, miracles, born-again commitments, strict mores and the economic decline leading to the Great Depression. Jonathan Root tells us in his biography that Roberts was fundamentally insecure, and his focus on wealth was about putting the childhood ‘sickness’ of poverty behind him. His father, a former farmer, became a travelling preacher, but the family had to pick cotton to pay for food.
The name ‘Oral’ was apparently prophetic, his mother intending Roberts to be a preacher, despite a childhood stutter. Healed of either the ‘flu or TB through prayer when young, Roberts felt a calling to heal the sick, which eventually became part of his ministry in 1947. At the same time, he felt 3 John 2 (‘I wish above all thing that you may prosper’) speaking strongly to him. Shortly after stumbling on this verse, he told his wife Evelyn that they would be given a new car – and they were.
From the 1950s onwards he was wildly successful, preaching to millions via radio and in person and taking his tent crusade to the Hollywood Bowl. He supposedly healed thousands, but the nature of that healing is sometimes unclear, even if there is some evidence of surprising medical results. He attracted criticism – even some church leaders thought it was a ‘healing racket’. Roberts allowed that some healing was psychosomatic, but he pioneered in Pentecostal circles the idea that faith healing and modern medical science were not incompatible, in the process creating a middle-class acceptance of faith healing.
By 1954, more than fifty percent of Americans owned a television, and Roberts was quickly on board with a tele-ministry, though this was not uncontroversial. At this time, he also started being involved with the positive thinking movement and joined rich men’s clubs. Roberts’ argument was that God was obviously behind his substantial (financial) success. He started preaching about ‘seed faith’ – the idea that God will bless above and beyond those who generously give – especially to his own ministry. He somehow preached that Jesus was wealthy, which predictably put many mainstream ministers offside, if they weren’t already. But Roberts was able to ride the zeitgeist of a ‘consumer and therapeutic’ age.
In 1965 he opened Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, a ‘school for squares’, which God had told him to build. The ‘God told me’ line became increasingly important for Roberts – and Root relays some of the more fantastic elements of Roberts’ conversations with God deadpan, until the end of his book when he summarises Roberts’ increasingly manic demands on others, all supposedly prompted in conversations with God, as dubious. Root notes that one minister said Roberts was either a liar or psychiatrically ill.
Roberts was certainly an entrepreneur. By the mid-1980s his empire turned over hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and he avoided Bakker and Swaggart-type scandals. But he took the glory and left others to clean up his messes, the biggest of which was the failure of his vision (another directive from God, supposedly) to build a hospital and medical research centre next to his university, where prayer and medicine would combine to, amongst other things, cure cancer. Root notes that this was in the midst of the Reagan era of unrealistic optimism and greed.
The medical facility was a ‘turkey’, according to one critic, an overreach that required Roberts to plead with his followers for more and more money. Increasingly desperate, he threatened that if his followers didn’t raise enough cash, God had told him he would be ‘taken home’. A cartoonist summarised the plea as ‘send money or the preacher gits it!’ This was the straw that broke the back of his credibility, though his ministry was continued by his son, who also eventually took over the university – that is, until he had to resign due to financial scandals.
Roberts died in 2009, but the prosperity gospel lives on, like Oral Roberts University, in the likes of Joel Osteen, who learnt from Roberts to avoid the more overt and controversial fund-raising tactics, and who instead emphasise that, simply, God wants you to be rich. Root argues that Robert’s legacy – not exclusive to Roberts and part of a wider evangelical movement even if Roberts was a leading advocate – is the intertwining of ‘crass materialism’ and theology, so prominent and persistent in America, but hardly compatible with the outlook of the early church.