Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream
- ISBN: 9781469658957
- Published By: University of North Carolina Press
- Published: August 2020
In his book Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream, sociologist Tony Tian-Ren Lin proposes a connection between the “American dream,” Prosperity Gospel Christianity, and Latino experience in the contemporary United States. Lin does not simply assert Latino Americans are flocking to Prosperity Pentecostalism. Rather, his ethnographic study argues first-generation immigrants become “‘Americans’ through the theology and practices of an inherently American religion” (3). Prosperity Christianity helps Latino-Americans reshape their ambitions, daily lives, and cultural identities (110). With scholars of modern Christianity increasingly interested in migration, transnational linkages, and global Pentecostalism, Lin’s book represents a well-timed and inventive endeavor.
The bedrock of this book is the author’s intimate ethnographic research. Across six chapters Lin introduces readers to the theology, personal lives, and religious experiences of people at three Latino Prosperity congregations: Iglesia Cristiana del Padre (Charlottesville, Virginia), Iglesia del Dios Victorioso (Oceanside, California), and Iglesia Pentecostal del Rey Divino (New York City, New York). Between 2005 and 2014, Lin attended each church for worship services and small-group devotions, and regularly interacted with congregants outside of church. This style of research yields highly personal portrayals of Prosperity religion, offering readers a grassroots perspective beyond the well-trodden media products of leading preachers like T. D. Jakes or Kenneth Copeland. Lin valuably analyzes the everyday beliefs, exercises, and relationships comprising Latino immigrants’ Prosperity faith.
First, Lin shows how Latino Prosperity Gospelers’ sophisticated theology assures “self-empowerment” and “concrete action” through hard-working, authentic faith (72). Second, he explores how this “thoroughly meritocratic religion” (11) encourages followers to “adopt middle-class white American norms” and “become part of America on their own terms” (17). Lin investigates these intersections through people like Juan Pablo. Before and after his forced migration to California, the Tijuana, Mexico-native suffered from poverty, drug addiction, and familial fracture. On the brink of suicide, Pablo told Lin, he suddenly pled with God to save his life. Apparently, God obliged. Pablo was miraculously saved from his suicide attempt and his various debilitating afflictions. With his new life, Pablo and his family explored Prosperity religion. The first day they visited Iglesia del Dios Victorioso in Oceanside, Pastor Pedro Nolasco preached on the “transformation everyone could experience through Jesus” (99). This message rang loudly in Pablo’s ears and just seven months after his suicide attempt, he turned from an unbelieving drug-addict to a redeemed parent, spouse, and entrepreneur. His life really was transformed.
Lin is at his best when using such accounts to describe how Prosperity Gospelers’ strenuous faith and pursuit of the American dream are “evidenced through physical manifestations” (ix, 6). Of course, most Pentecostals affirm that God visibly intervenes in everyday life, but this is particularly important for immigrant believers who measure spirituality and cultural citizenship through material improvements. For example, during one Charlottesville service Pastor Federico Gielis wore a “double-breasted suit, an oversized diamond ring,” and a “diamond-encrusted wedding ring” (30). Each week Pastor Gielis placed his car key on a table centrally located before the pulpit, assuring the visibility of his “large black electronic key with the Mercedes-Benz insignia” (38). While he grew up amidst poverty and substance abuse, his fine clothing, expensive car, and sparkling jewelry were “signs of God’s blessing” and “confirm[ed] that he is a blessed man” (46).
Lin further analyzes materiality through the story of Gerardo—a member of Iglesia Cristiana del Padre. The 27-year-old grounded his faith in trust that God would bless his new landscaping business. With the hope of rewarded faith, he borrowed thousands of dollars from creditors and fellow congregants and began his venture. However, the business quickly failed, forcing him to sell-off his equipment, trade his three-bedroom suburban home for a one-bedroom inner-city apartment, and even forsake his bed. Despite this life-shattering failure, he highlighted the experience and its things as evidence of God’s blessing. He would still tell people of God’s prior blessings. “I had my own company, a house,” Gerardo said. “I had so much work I had to hire other people. God is good” (76-77).
This is the most impressive part of Prosperity Gospel Latinos. Lin gives readers textured pictures of the mundane “manifestations” (e.g., cars and houses) validating the health-and-wealth religion of Latinos. He enriches this conversation further by describing how Prosperity Gospelers tether religion and “prosperous and abundant life” to American soil (72). Once participating in US Prosperity communities, they often construct new religious geographies that turn their Latin American homes into godless places of troubled pasts. When asked if he considered Mexico or the US “home,” Juan Pablo replied, “this country gave me God.” “In Mexico, I have no church, no pastor, no anointing, no power” (100). America became a sacred landscape of new birth, anointing, and remaking. America was not simply privileged—it was an ordained wellspring of opportunity. As Pablo put it, “my blessing is here” (100).
There are issues, however. Though Lin notes the global reach of Prosperity Christianity, he does not adequately situate his study in a global context. This is surprising because any study of modern Pentecostalism is unavoidably a story of global Christianity. This issue is most evident in the book’s claim that the Prosperity Gospel is an “inherently American religion steeped in American ideals” (170). While Lin offers cursory caveats regarding categories like “American ideals,” he treats “America” and “American values” as normative, stable things that have persisted throughout history. Moreover, he repeatedly insists that the Prosperity Christianity, lifestyles, ideas, and consumption practices embraced by the people in his book are all uniquely “American.” This is problematic for various reasons and raises numerous questions. If the world’s largest Prosperity communities lie in the global South, what distinguishes American iterations (other than middle-class aspirations) from Latino traditions? Does Prosperity Pentecostalism help facilitate immigrants’ integration in other directions, such as South-to-South or North-to-South relocations?
Lin correctly suggests Prosperity Christianity offers Southern immigrants a religious “system” that sustains a “sense of divine entitlement” to American middle-class comforts (90). His on-the-ground research provides scholars of Pentecostalism, global Christianity, and modern American religion invaluable perspective on the lived religion of Southern communities in the U.S. However, we may still interrogate the extent to which Prosperity Christianity and its promises are “inherently American.”
Tucker Adkins is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Calvin University.Tucker AdkinsDate Of Review:August 19, 2023