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Culture Friday: Prosperity Protestants


WORLD Radio - Culture Friday: Prosperity Protestants

A new LifeWay survey finds that half of Protestant churchgoers believe God will bless them for giving more money to the church

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MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s the 1st day of September 2023. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Culture Friday.

Joining us now is John Stonestreet, the president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint Podcast. John, good morning.


EICHER: John, let’s pick up where we left off last week. We were talking about the artist Oliver Anthony and his hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a working-class anthem, well known for that.

Well, before there was an Oliver Anthony, there was “Joe the plumber.” Propelled to renown by this exchange with Senator Barack Obama who was running for president on a platform of spreading the wealth around.

OBAMA: What’s your name?

WURZELBACHER: Name’s Joe Wurzelbacher. I'm getting ready to buy a company that makes 250, 270, $280,000 a year. Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?

OBAMA: Well, here's what's gonna happen.

EICHER: He’d go on to call Obama’s tax plan “socialism” and make the rounds on cable news and on the campaign trail.

Sad to say that Joe the Plumber, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, died on Sunday of pancreatic cancer at age 49.

Some say his story was the story of culture and class. His critics said he stoked division.

How do you think history will remember him?

STONESTREET: Well, you know, I'm not sure that he will be remembered in the history books. I think it's ian all of our collective memories, just because it really wasn't that long ago, in many ways. And the candidacy of Barack Obama was such a juggernaut in the American culture at that time, and then being willing to really ask the real hard policy questions. And, and that's really, I think what he was able to do is get out of the candidate at the time, a real taste of his worldview. You know, I think this was the "you didn't build that" kind of part of President, well, not-yet-President Obama's way of thinking about the world and what belongs to individuals, what are people capable of, what brings dignity and so on to their lives, and how does that relate to the government?

And you go back to that, and certainly the media portrayed that story as one of division, but there was nothing in that exchange, other than an honest question. It wasn't a gotcha moment. It wasn't anything like that, it was an opportunity to ask a question. And it actually shed a lot of light on the issue. And, you know, grateful to find out later where these beliefs for Joe the Plumber came from.

I will say, though, that even the thought that, you know, he was some sort of overly divisive figure, you know, what really bothers me when that sort of narrative just gets repeated by Christians who are embarrassed. And it always seems like there's a group of evangelical that is really embarrassed by everybody on the right and not embarrassed by anyone on the left. So we're really embarrassed by a Joe the Plumber sort of guy who's hardworking, loves his family, does his thing and he gets kind of portrayed as a certain kind of American, you know, along with a whole lot of others, but, you know, someone who is, you know, on the political left on certain issues, even if they've abandoned all kinds of historic teachings, suddenly, you know, they're not an embarrassment at all. And I just think that's a really weird factor. And, you know, I'm not even sure that there's that many people in the Christian world talking about Joe the Plumber now, but you know, I did see the story and, and that was actually a notable exchange. And, you know, and we can at least say that he asked a better question than just about all the reporters did in that same event.

BROWN: Ouch. Yeah. As we're talking about, you know, the Christian world, I want to pivot to a question about a recent LifeWay Research study, the results of this study. And John, just over half of Protestant church-goers say God will bless them if they give money. Now we know that prosperity gospel is alive and well, but apparently it's bigger than we thought. Other than being bad theology, and believe me that that's you know, that's not good. But why else are these results troubling?

STONESTREET: Well, I mean, look, bad theology is bad and it is bad enough because yeah, what you believe about God shapes what you believe about everything else. I think it was A. W. Tozer who said that what comes into our minds, when we think about God is the most important thing about us. And that's because our basic theology is what philosophers call a controlling belief. There's beliefs that we have that are important to us, but they don't necessarily shape anything else. Like I had a real strong belief last March that Duke was really having a resurgence in their season, they had everybody back, they were going into the March Madness tournament, and they had a legit shot really, of being really hard to beat. And that belief was very important to me as a Duke fan, but it ended up not going the way that I wanted. But it didn't control the rest of my life other than, you know, some TV viewing habits. What you believe about God really is something that's both informed by other beliefs and informs other beliefs. It's kind of what kind of world do you think it is.

So for example, if you think of God more as a force, as an energy that you tap into, which many Americans do - in fact, I wonder how these two beliefs would align if we did them together - it's not even so much that they bought into some sophisticated prosperity gospel that's been formulated by some theologians. Most people, I think that believe this, they believe it really because they think of God less as a person, and more as a energy or as a force, they think of God less as the creator, and more like a genie in the bottle. Because it's not just this, I mean, if you expand, for example, the definition of the prosperity gospel to include, for example, one of my former colleagues used to talk about this.

And I, when I first heard it, I was like, you've really identified something important where, you know, we told a generation of youth group students 15 years ago that if they play by the rules, then God will bring along their Prince Charming, or Princess Charming. And we talk about things like when God writes your love story, which God does write our love stories, but he also wrote Hosea's love story. But if you again align that belief up with this belief about God that you've identified from this Lifeway study, it just becomes clear that we think less about God in the way that Aslan is described, you know, Is he safe, of course, he's not safe, he's a lion, but he's good. And Lewis seemed really intent in portraying this Christ-like figure in his stories, to make sure that we got that part of it right, that this is someone who acts on his own. He's not to be manipulated. We can't make him do what we want. We can't dare him into it. We can't pray him into it. We can't woo him into it. We can't, you know, this God is independent. He is the necessary being, goes the apologetics argument and the rest of us are unnecessary. You can imagine the entire realm of existence without any of us. You can't imagine the entire realm of existence without God, God is necessary for everything else to exist. And that just changes where you start. And so that leads me to my recommendation which is read Idea of the Holy from A.W. Tozer.

BROWN: Alright, John, last question, John. A 12-year-old boy in your neck of the woods was kicked out of class this week for having a Gadsden flag patch on the back of his bookbag.

For those who are unfamiliar, that’s a historical American flag with a yellow field, depicting a timber rattlesnake that’s coiled and ready to strike. Beneath the snake are the words, “Don’t Tread On Me.”

The school said the patch had origins with slavery and was disruptive to the classroom environment. The boy’s name is Jaiden. His mom recorded part of a conversation with the school counselor. We pulled some of that sound for you to hear.

MOTHER: I mean, we teach him to always stick up for your beliefs. And I mean, you're going over the Revolution for 7th grade. I mean, the Founding Fathers stood up for what they believed in against unjust laws. This is unjust.

COUNSELOR: Okay, I, like I said, we're upholding a policy that was provided to us, which we have to uphold.

BROWN: So after being kicked out of the class, Jaden and his mom headed over to their local NBC affiliate, to try to get the word out. But the gatekeepers in that TV newsroom declined the interview.

Now, in the end, justice prevailed, the school board held an emergency meeting and backtracked, allowing Jaden and his Gadsden flag patch back in the classroom. So John, what bothers you most that the school kicked the kid out in the first place? Or that the media turned a blind eye?

STONESTREET: Well, you know, it is a school in my neighborhood. It's one of the most prominent schools in the state, which is another factor in this, which I found really interesting. And so you know, whether there was an intent where the media realized how bizarre it was that this teacher was standing beside this claim, which was observably, historically, you know, a quick search of Wikipedia tells you that what she's saying is not true about this symbol and about this patch. I mean, just go back and watch the John Adams mini series. I mean, all those flags were at the beginning of that thing. It's really an odd, odd thing. So I'm trying to give the media the benefit of the doubt. Okay, I know that I insulted reporters at the beginning of the program, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt at the end of the program. Yeah, there you go. But the teacher part really bothers me. And when being repeatedly told in that interview with a student, that this wasn't connected with slavery, and it's so easily rectified; the inability or the unwillingness for this teacher to admit that she was wrong. There's just so many so much about it.

First, that she believed that in the first place, which means that her beliefs are not historically informed. Hey, newsflash, education programs and most colleges do not do a great job teaching subject matter. I just gotta tell you, unless you've gone beyond that what you're getting as an education major, and most college programs that are turning out education majors are a whole lot of education theory, a whole lot of pedagogy, which is influenced by a whole lot of ideas about learning and not learning itself.

Secondly, she was educated by someone else, someone who was historically wrong, which basically locates any old symbols like that. And I think I was talking about this with a colleague today. And I think they were right, when they said, you know, probably what happened was, this is a flag that has been resurrected and shows up in conservative places. And so that probably was a guilt by association, not with slave owners, but with conservatives today, which of course, most educators that are educated in certain places believer are slave, pro slavery anyway, with, you know, no evidence, you know, this is reflected again, and how we saw the media handle Governor DeSantis's response to the shootings in Jacksonville, I mean, he came out as strong as possible, quickly declared what it was supported an institution that had been threatened by an historically black college. And he still basically said, Oh, no, no, this was because of your your racist policies, which, by the way, weren't enacted long enough ago for this shooter who was 20, some years old to ever have gone to those classes, that if it's the it's the, if it's the fault of the curriculum, it's the fault of the old curriculum, not the new curriculum. And then, of course, the inconsistency here and how everything else was, was covered. And so that's what bothers me. It's not even so much the teacher is that what the teacher did and how the teacher then acted reveals something much deeper in the educational process, which is that we're not educating anymore. And I know that's a general statement, and I apologize for all the mail that you'll get at World Magazine and World News Group for what I just said. But listen, the educational project in America is in dreadful shape, which is why we need as much disruption as possible, and may God raise up his people to do it.

EICHER: Alright, John Stonestreet, the president of the Colson Center. That's jstonestreet@.... We'll forward this stuff on to you, John, happily. John, I love these conversations. It's great to talk with you. I hope you have a terrific week and we will talk to you next time, alright?

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

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