By Kate Bowler
When it comes to today’s Super Bowl, three in 10 Americans are betting on God.
A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that one-third of the country 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 last 50 years, American Christians have gravitated toward spiritual explanations for why winners deserve their rewards. The default rationalizations of “Good things happen to good people!” or “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 now agree that faith brings health, wealth and victory. This movement, which began in the Pentecostal revivals of the post-WWII years, has become a commonplace theological framework for how faith works to secure God’s blessings.
For the past eight years, I have studied the American prosperity gospel. Basically, it contends that believers must learn to speak positive words (called “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 between the believer’s faith to his circumstances. Did a player tithe 10 percent of his income? Did an unspoken sin block his prayers?
When life does not go as planned, Christians learn to comb through their own histories to find the source of their problems. The Atlanta televangelist Creflo Dollar, himself a former college football star, urged his 30,000-member World Changers Church International to uncover the spiritual causes to their poverty, sickness or failures.
“Stop making excuses,” Dollar argued. “You are the only one hindering your progress.”
When life’s scoreboard looks grim, they have only themselves to blame.
Soft prosperity loosely equates faithfulness and success, allowing for temporary setbacks on the steady march to victory. Joel Osteen, senior pastor of America’s largest church, has made a career of encouraging people to embrace their identity as victors.
His weekly television audiences of 7 million tune in to hear Osteen’s 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, more and more Americans will be looking for something beyond skill or luck. They are looking for that unseen divine guarantee that separates the masses from the faith-filled few. The prosperity gospel dubs it “favor.”
“It’s that feeling,” explained Florida televangelist Paula White, “that God is on your side.”
And as America’s most-watched sport is now punctuated by mid-field 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.