Today we welcome a guest post from Tony Tian-Ren Lin, author of Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream, out now from UNC Press.
In this immersive ethnography, Tony Tian-Ren Lin explores the reasons that Latin American immigrants across the United States are increasingly drawn to Prosperity Gospel Pentecostalism, a strand of Protestantism gaining popularity around the world. Lin contends that Latinos embrace Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that believers may achieve both divine salvation and worldly success, because it helps them account for the contradictions of their lives as immigrants. Weaving together his informants’ firsthand accounts of their religious experiences and everyday lives, Lin offers poignant insight into how they see their faith transforming them both as individuals and as communities.
Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream is now available in paperback and ebook editions.
“I prayed with my church and I came” Lizzy, an asylum seeker from Honduras told me. The gang that ruled her neighborhood near San Pedro Sula had demanded that her teenage son join their ranks. When she refused they decided to kill two of her younger children. There are no secrets in a small town so Lizzy was immediately alerted of their intentions. She escaped with her six children with just enough time to grab their passports and birth certificates. The only place they could hide was their church. The pastor and church leaders met her there to pray with her, but they knew they did not have much time. The gang members would soon come looking for them there. The pastor’s wife cried as she asked Lizzy to forgive them for their inability to hide them. They were afraid for their own lives. After fervent prayer for Lizzy and her children, they smuggled them to the bus station in the next town. After 15 days on different buses and traveling through unknown cities with nothing but a bag of crackers and some juice, this single mother who had never left her small town arrived at Eagle Pass, Texas, with her children and presented herself to the US Border Patrol requesting asylum.
It was May 31st, 2018. Her family was detained and processed. Lizzy did not know why the women she met in detention were despondent and depressed. One claimed to have already been there for 25 days. A few hours later she was called to the office with her children and released on parole. She never heard of a policy that threatened to separate her from her children when she entered the US. Political talk, especially the constant wave of racist and xenophobic threats from the American president, take time to trickle down to the average person in Central America who is more concerned with their immediate survival. But the deterrent policy would not have discouraged Lizzy she said. She had faith. No policy could deter her God-given mission of getting her children to safety in the US because she was doing God’s will. She knew God would protect her because she was faithful.
The family separation policy implemented in May of 2018 is only the latest incarnation of the long-held American policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence.” In the mid-1990s, California’s Proposition 187 threatened to withhold healthcare and public education from undocumented residents. In the 2000s, President George W. Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to police the border and signed a bill to erect hundreds of miles of fencing to stop illegal entries. Minutemen crusaders, groups of self-deputized and heavily armed civilians, roamed the US-Mexico border “patrolling” the invisible line where one country ended and the other began. We will never know the effectiveness of such deterrents, but there is evidence that these policies resulted in greater suffering for migrants. The implementation of these practices led to record numbers of deaths, as they force migrants to seek ever more dangerous entry points. The recent family separation policy resulted in thousands of children being removed from their parents, some permanently. Yet migrants continue to come because they believe in miracles.
The religious foundation that motivates Central American migrants to take such big risk is rarely highlighted in these debates. In Migration Miracle (Harvard, 2008), professor Jacqueline Maria Hagan documented the role of religion as it encouraged and sustained migrants through their journey to the US. But it is not simply a generic form of faith that sustains them. It is specifically Prosperity Gospel Christianity.
Prosperity Gospel Christianity teaches that if believers have enough faith, God will answer all their prayers. It is a religion of positive thinking that demands relentless optimism. Believers are never supposed to doubt because Prosperity Gospel cannot fail, regardless of the harsh realities they face. In my recent book, Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), I argue that Prosperity Gospel is the Gospel of the American Dream because it promises that all who have faith, work hard, and live moral lives will receive their earthly rewards in riches, health, and success. According to a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Christians in Honduras, like Lizzy, agree that God will grant wealth and health to those who have enough faith. The percentages are equally high in neighboring countries. 90 percent of Christians in Guatemala, 81 percent in El Salvador, 80 percent in Nicaragua, and 71 percent in both Costa Rica and Mexico believe in the Prosperity Gospel. The logic of this particular form of faith gives them hope that defies their social reality. In the face of hopelessness, the Prosperity Gospel gives them the “good news” that all worldly obstacles can be conquered through faith. Inhumane deterrents set up by foreign governments to avert their survival are not greater than the miracles of their God.
Refugees and asylum seekers desperate for a better life will continue to stream into the US. The Trump administration has responded with threats of punishment to individual migrants and their countries of origin. Yet this administration continues to be oblivious of the religious motivation that both spurs and sustains migrants in the journey. Prosperity Gospel adherents will not be deterred by stricter immigration laws because they answer to a higher power. Any action that does not take this fact into consideration will result in failed policies and increasingly inhumane treatment of Christians on a faith-fueled mission to pursue their American Dream.
Tony Tian-Ren Lin is Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Research at New York Theological Seminary.