When it comes to this weekend’s Super Bowl, three in 10 Americans are betting on God.
A new study by the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute found that one-third of the United States believes that God plays a role in determining which team wins. And Americans are even more certain about the players themselves: A majority believe that God rewards individual athletes who are faithful to God with good health and success.
This kind of thinking about faith and success follows a broader religious trend. Over the past 50 years, American Christians have gravitated toward spiritual explanations for why winners deserve their rewards. The default rationalizations – Good things happen to good people! Everything happens for a reason! – are no longer simply clichés. They are the theological bedrock for one of the most popular contemporary movements: the American prosperity gospel.
Millions of American Christians agree that faith brings health, wealth and victory. This movement, which began in the Pentecostal revivals after the Second World War, has become a commonplace theological framework for how faith works to secure God’s blessings.
Basically, the American prosperity gospel contends that believers must learn to speak positive words (“positive confessions”) to unleash spiritual forces that move God to act. Faithful people can know that their prayers and actions are working by their effects: a healthy body, a rising bank account, an ability to overcome life’s obstacles. The pursuit of happiness is no longer simply an inalienable right – it’s a divine mandate.
When people say that God rewards certain teams or athletes, their opinions usually reflect a range of explanations – from “hard prosperity” to “soft prosperity” – for how people earn wins or losses.
Hard prosperity draws a straight line from the believer’s faith to their circumstances. Did a player tithe 10 per cent of his income? Did an unspoken sin block his prayers?
When life doesn’t go as planned, Christians learn to comb through their own histories to find the source of their problem. Atlanta televangelist Creflo Dollar, himself a former college football star, urged his 30,000-member World Changers Church International to uncover the spiritual causes of their poverty, sickness or failures. “Stop making excuses,” he said. “You are the only one hindering your progress.” When life’s scoreboard looks grim, they have only themselves to blame.
Soft prosperity, on the other hand, loosely equates faithfulness and success, allowing for temporary setbacks on the steady march to victory. Houston televangelist Joel Osteen has made a career of encouraging people to embrace their identity as victors. His weekly TV audiences of seven million tune in to hear his message of unstoppable success: “You were born to win. You were born for greatness. You were created to be a champion in life.”
When the Baltimore Ravens face off against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, more and more Americans will be looking for something beyond skill or luck – that unseen divine guarantee that separates the masses from the faith-filled few. The prosperity gospel dubbed it “favour.” Said Florida televangelist Paula White: “It’s that feeling that God is on your side.”
Since America’s most-watched sport is now punctuated by midfield prayers, heaven-directed touchdown dances and a Tim Tebow-inspired bended knee (now officially trademarked), this won’t be the last Sunday when the country is looking for a divine way to predict a winner.
Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of American Christianity at Duke University’s Divinity School.