What They Learned: Molly Hawkins ’21

The religion major studied prosperity theology’s role in Christian faith-based social services organizations.

Prosperity theology is a belief system that suggests that people’s prosperity is determined by the quality of their relationship with God. 

“Prosperity theology is a Christian belief system that claims that people who are wealthy, healthy, and successful are favored by God, and those who are poor, ill, or not super successful are lacking something in their relationship with God,” said Molly Hawkins ’21. “Prosperity theology claims that once someone brings their relationship with God into right alignment, they can achieve blessings such as financial and material prosperity.”

For her thesis, Hawkins, a religion major with a psychology minor and peace, justice, and human rights concentration, researched how prosperity theology affects the operations of Christian faith-based social service organizations serving people experiencing homelessness.

Hawkins spent the summer of 2019 interning in the San Francisco Bay area, where she noticed a lot of stigma towards the city’s large unhomed population and many people suggesting people experiencing homelessness were to blame for their own situation. 

“This upset me, and I wondered if victim-blaming of those experiencing homelessness was also visible in the frameworks of social services organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “This is what initially inspired me to begin and sustain this research into faith-based social services organizations.” 

Her research found some organizations were built upon prosperity theology, others reject it completely, and many fall somewhere in between. Even though these organizations have a lot in common on paper, this finding suggests that their perspectives and the way they operate vary a lot. 

“This will hopefully help educate donors and supporters of FBOs [faith-based organizations] about how theological belief systems inform how services are delivered by organizations to the populations that they serve,” she said. “I hope that my thesis would also open doors for future research focusing on the different psychological and personal impacts of receiving services from Christian social services organizations according to their theological belief systems.”

What did you learn from working on your thesis?
When I began my thesis research, I expected to find a clear-cut answer to my question. Either organizations would incorporate prosperity theology or they wouldn’t. After conducting the research that I did, I found that this could not be further from the truth. I found a complete spectrum with how much the theology was applied across different organizations. It really opened my eyes as to how much actual variety there is within a seemingly narrow organizational category. Each organization is different and operates according to different manifestations of various theological beliefs and principles. These beliefs and principles do have a significant impact on the people the organization serves.

What are your plans for the future?
Next fall, I will be entering my first year as an MSW [Master of Social Work] student at the University of Pennsylvania. While in graduate school, I hope to be able to continue researching faith-based social services organizations and their impacts on the populations that they serve. Once I obtain my MSW, I hope to go on to have a role in developing community programs that work to combat the stigma surrounding the issue of homelessness. I particularly have an interest in someday working with LGBTQ+ youth who are experiencing, or have experienced, homelessness.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.