by Emily McGowin
Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her first book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices, New Blackfriars, and a collection of essays, Angels on Earth: Mothering, Religion, and Spirituality. Emily is a regular speaker in Denver, CO, where she is theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection. You can learn more about Emily at her website.
After hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston and scenes of catastrophic flooding began to circulate on the internet, Twitter was whipped into a whirlwind of hatred and snark about one particular Houston resident: Joel Osteen, mega-church prosperity preacher and author of the best-selling book, Your Best Life Now. Twitter users across the religious and non-religious spectrum made Osteen an object of their derision because it appeared as though Osteen’s gigantic Lakewood Church (housed in the former Compaq Center Arena, home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets) refused to shelter Harvey’s flood victims. Eventually, the church did open its doors but the PR damage was already done.
In response to the social media storm, Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the critically acclaimed Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, offered her perspective in an article in The Washington Post, appropriately titled, “Why people hate Joel Osteen.” Bowler’s assessment is on point and I don’t want to review her argument here. Rather, I want to suggest another reason for the anti-Osteen outrage: People hate Joel Osteen because he represents the excesses and contradictions of evangelicalism, something brought to the forefront by their overwhelming support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The fact that evangelicals continue to have very favorable views of the president, despite increasing support for impeachment among the rest of the population, continues that trend.
Evangelical leaders would certainly take issue with the claim that Joel Osteen represents evangelicalism. They have never considered Osteen one of their own, criticizing him as much, if not more, than anyone else in America. Across the evangelical spectrum, Osteen’s critics target him for his less-than-fully-orthodox theology and the perceived dangers of his prosperity preaching. And there’s no doubt that, in terms of intellectual genealogy, Osteen’s gospel owes as much to the mothers and fathers of New Thought in the late 19th Century as to the evangelical Great Awakenings (see Bowler’s book for more).
Yet, by all other cultural markers, Osteen is representative of evangelical culture. Osteen reveres the Bible as God’s word without error and mines it for truths that have immediate, practical application to believer’s lives. Osteen’s gospel is privatized, individualistic, and therapeutic, focused on one’s personal relationship with God and its benefits. This simplistic Jesus-fixes-everything approach to faith is ubiquitous in evangelical culture, demonstrated in bestselling books, contemporary Christian music, Christian radio, and innumerable self-help blogs, podcasts, and conferences across the country. The underlying message is one of individual responsibility: You are responsible for your situation in life and the right decisions can change everything. Osteen sees a direct correlation between personal effort and God’s blessing, something evangelicals share, even if they don’t put it quite so starkly.
Osteen pastors a non-denominational church, like most evangelical mega-churches in the US, with an emphasis on emotive music, dramatic preaching, and calls for immediate response (often called “invitations”). Although he pastors one church, Osteen makes creative use of technology and new media to spread his message around the world. (Osteen reaches every US television market and over 100 countries worldwide. He even has his own Sirius XM channel.) Osteen shares the evangelical culture’s commitment to the free market’s invisible hand, never passing up an opportunity to capitalize on prior successes. (Osteen’s personal net worth is estimated to be around $40 million.) Newer and bigger is most definitely better. [Editor’s note: our colleague Zach Spidel has shared his first-hand account of Christian leadership training, which mirrors Osteen’s model.] Osteen also shares in the widespread evangelical myopia regarding broader socio-economic and cultural context for personal problems. By and large, theirs is a decidedly “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach to political issues that necessarily fails those who, in Dr. King’s words, have no boots to begin with.
Yes, evangelical leaders try very hard to distance themselves from Osteen and his prosperity preaching, but such call-outs are standard fare. Evangelicals (and fundamentalists before them) make a habit of publicly condemning those with whom they share the closest family resemblance. In this regard, evangelicals have retained the separatist tendencies of their fundamentalist forebears, who often split from those theologically closest to them over differences in biblical interpretation and ministerial practice. They may criticize Osteen on a regular basis, but evangelical leaders simply cannot disown him. Especially not when their people tune in for his TV broadcasts, stream his sermons over the Internet, listen to his 24-hour XM channel, and help make his books bestsellers.
Interestingly, a similar dynamic plays out between some of the same evangelical leaders and President Donald Trump. By now everyone knows 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election. When Trump proclaims, “the evangelicals love me, and I love them,” it is for good reason. Even as some evangelical leaders seek to separate themselves from Trump, by and large, those sitting in their pews are not following suit.
Yet, what few leaders seem to recognize is the resemblance between Osteen’s message and Trump’s. It’s no coincidence that prosperity preachers occupy Trump’s inner spiritual circle and he has expressed great admiration for his childhood pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Indeed, the slogan “Make America Great Again” is perfectly attuned to prosperity gospel logic while also playing on nostalgia for white evangelical dominance.
Yet, the failings in both Osteen and Trump’s approach to the world are rendered painfully clear in light of disasters like hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Mere weeks after Osteen offered “prayers” rather than housing for displaced flood victims in Houston, Pres. Trump chose to remind Puerto Rico, an American territory devastated by Maria, of their heavy indebtedness to “Wall Street and the banks” and criticized their response to the disaster by suggesting, “They want everything to be done for them.” If God favors “winners” who make their own success, then there’s no good reason to help “losers”, relieve the indebted, or bring good news to the poor. Blessed are the strong, the brash, the bold, those who do for themselves and do not depend on others.
For better or worse, because they voted for him and continue to defend him in droves, evangelicals are now associated with Trump’s excesses. And Trump’s excesses are Osteen’s excesses. Donald Trump offers a less polished, more nationalistic version of Osteen’s prosperity preaching. So, when Twitter explodes over the perceived hypocritical behavior of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church, evangelicals are being targeted too. Hatred for Osteen is also about hatred for evangelicals and what they have come to represent, fairly or unfairly, in the American cultural imagination.
Some evangelicals will interpret this reality as proof they are on the right track. There are always those happy to be hated as evidence they are doing God’s will. But I think more circumspection is in order here. If both Osteen and Trump represent a perversion of the gospel and its truth, and if so many evangelical leaders preach against Joel Osteen and some evangelical leaders cautioned against Donald Trump, then why do so many of their people still throw in their lot with both of them?