Let’s start with the very basics: Christianity, as a religion, is not inherently bad. It’s based around the teachings of Jesus Christ, a man who almost surely existed, and was, by all accounts, a solid hang. Even if he didn’t exist, the quotes attributed to Jesus paint a picture of radical inclusiveness and forgiveness, two things the world needs more of. The guy was all about free hugs, food sharing, and tunic wearing — he would have smashed at Burning Man.
The problem isn’t Jesus. It’s that in the hands of the flawed, the selfish, and the ego-driven, huge sects of Christianity — particularly those led by hypervocal, highly visible Evangelical ministers — have lost their way. They have disregarded the teachings of Christ, while obsessing over Old Testament minutiae; they have commodified and incentivized God’s love, leaving out the weak, the poor, and the persecuted; they have, over and over, allowed their most public figures to fail, without devotees demanding a course correction.
In short: Evangelical Christianity — home to those hand-waving, heart-grasping believers that the very word “Christian” seems to conjure in our heads — has lost its core connection to Christ.
Enter Joel Osteen. The mega-church minister and proponent of the “prosperity gospel” is arguably the most prominent Evangelical in the country. Osteen is also a millionaire many times over, benefitting from his church’s tax exempt status and a congregation that’s been socialized to accept some form of tithing since the days of John the Baptist. (Osteen often claims that he doesn’t take a salary, but his church’s finances are private and his TV deals and speaking fees are unknowable. Certainly running a business with no taxes helps.)
This backdrop set Osteen up for plenty of mockery when his Houston megachurch closed its doors during Hurricane Harvey.
The minister would later double back on the closure, while managing to miss the point completely. It’s not about whether or not the basement of Lakewood Church is flooded, it’s about the metaphor of a huge-ass “House of God” welcoming all comers mid-crisis. It’s about the most famous Evangelical minister in the nation, serving the suffering. It’s about a mainstream champion for unabashed selfishness completely missing his “What would Jesus do?” moment.
Because the truth is, you don’t have to believe in God to know that the man described in the gospels would have been out sandbagging houses. He would have been serving meals. He would have been this guy:
Or this guy:
Not this one:
That Osteen initially responded to the flood by tweeting out pop-psych platitudes and “hopes and prayers” rhetoric indicates a one-percenter who’s lost the common touch (if he ever had it, seeing as he inherited an evangelical empire from his father, John.). Yes, he and his church eventually changed their tune, but it doesn’t take a theologian to savvy out that buckling to public pressure isn’t the same as freely spreading Christ’s love.
The fact that Osteen’s initial inaction didn’t cause more outrage within his community is evidence that the bar for Evangelical leadership is woefully low. Sure, the minister may have inoculated himself against public scorn with a few Tweets, but the question remains: How did we let this man become the face of the nation’s most commonly practiced religion?