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Things Fall Apart: Faith, Prosperity and Division within the African American Community

  • Author(s): Bass, Jackie
  • Advisor(s): Stoker, Laura
  • et al.
Abstract

During the past decades, tensions have emerged between a relatively new, highly popular theology focused on material prosperity and individual accountability, known as the prosperity gospel, versus a traditional African American doctrine that emphasizes humanitarianism and racial consciousness. Despite the diversity of interests and experiences within the African American community, none of these divisions have manifested themselves systematically in the political arena. I argue that considering the importance of the church in shaping African American political views, values, and norms, a significant shift in church doctrine could dramatically alter not only congregants’ own political values, but also could lead to a significant change in how the church interacts with its surrounding community. The prosperity gospel may be that significant shift. Based on interviews with community and church leaders, participant observation, sermon content analysis, and archival research, I present evidence to suggest that not only do churches that espouse the prosperity gospel reinforce humanitarianism and racial consciousness, in certain circumstances, they do so more aggressively than their traditional counterparts. This dissertation supports numerous scholars’ claims that the prosperity gospel emphasizes individualism and individual versus collective level solutions to societal problems; however, this bias toward individualism and self-accountability is found in all of the younger ministers who participated in the study, even when categorized as a traditional church. I argue that this is evidence of the global trend of the infiltration of neo-liberal ideas into religious institutions. The prosperity gospel provides an effective conduit for neo-liberal ideals, but no longer monopolizes the dispersion of these values.

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