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?
The largest failing of Osteen’s Prosperity Gospel is found in its “pick and choose” approach to the life of Jesus Christ. To believe that God wants you to be rich is to blatantly ignore Christ’s famous quote, “…It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” That line, as written, is actually truncated. In the bible it begins with “Again, I tell you…” Because Jesus talked shit on the rich a lot and to willfully disregard that and act like the man described in the gospels is cool with you flying in private jets while people around the world literally still starve to death, requires Simone Biles-level mental gymnastics and an almost-pathological-ability to suspend disbelief.
Ironically, this form of “Cafeteria Christianity” — in which ministers parse the bible, ignoring what fails to resonate with them — has been used as a pejorative by more conservative faith leaders when their congregations break with the church on issues of abortion or gay marriage. Considering that the bible’s Old Testament bans shellfish, sitting where a menstruating woman once sat, and wearing linen-wool blends, throwing out much of the Old Testament is the only sane option for any theist. But direct quotes from Jesus? Are those as flimsy as the laws of Leviticus? Should Christ’s sermons be disregarded as quickly as Deuteronomy’s weird-ass rule about cutting off a woman’s hand if she grabs a guy’s junk during a fight?
Osteen seems to think so. His ministry depends on it.
With seven bestsellers, 6.18 million Twitter followers, 10 million livestream viewers, and 16 million Facebook fans, it’s not a stretch to say that Osteen has had a major influence in shaping modern Evangelical Christianity. He’s the movement’s frontman and at least partly to blame for the willingness of Christians to ignore the gleeful immorality of Donald Trump. 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, versus 74% for McCain over Obama in 2008. Not surprisingly, Trump’s connection to Christianity was via the Prosperity Gospel preachers — those who, like Osteen, believe that wealth is a signifier of God’s grace, rather than the result of a complex matrix of personal, sociological, and geographical factors.
Over and over, Trump has cozied up to Prosperity ministers — who add a spiritual element to his “capitalism über alles” agenda. He’s invited them to introduce him at events, welcomed them to Trump Tower summits, and sung their praises on social media. Osteen didn’t explicitly endorse the president, but did say: “He’s been a friend of our ministry. He’s a good man.” The two also give one another butterfly kisses on social media, which seems odd considering that Trump’s long-standing takes on the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden are directly contradicted by the beatitudes.
In our new era of crowdsourced knowledge and “keeping the receipts,” Evangelical Christianity’s biggest problem may be found in its murkiness. The actual Evangelical doctrine is virtually impossible to pin down and finding a Prosperity Gospel adherent who can explain the details of their philosophy would take a miracle. Evangelicals like Osteen have monetized the idea of gracious acceptance, but also believe — when pressed — that God’s love has some strict parameters. Plus they don’t like offending their conservative-leaning, money-giving, elderly bases. Osteen once advocated religious inclusiveness on Larry King, apologized and retracted it on his website, and later deleted that apology. As King discovered, getting the man to commit to a clear theology is damn near impossible.
This moral/theological mushiness, and a seeming-ignorance of Christ’s actual, historically-recorded behavior, has eroded the relevance of a sect that tens of millions of Americans still practice. It’s certainly pushed the Evangelicals to the background in pop culture. These days, Christianity is rarely treated like a positive trait in mainstream film, TV, or music anymore. (Though Christian-created films are thriving.) Instead, being “a lover of Christ” has become a code for “this person is a little crazy.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t good Evangelical Christians. There undoubtedly are. Literally millions of them. The Nashville Statement is already being rejected by more inclusive believers. Thought leaders like Christena Cleveland preach acceptance and connect communities in the quest for racial equality. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book was an unabashedly Evangelical album that he’s followed with nearly-constant acts of community service and outreach. But Osteen’s inaction during Harvey reminds us of how easy it is for Christian leaders to lose track of their religion’s roots. How quickly they forget that Christ was a freewheeling hippie who served others, fed the hungry, and scorned the accumulation of wealth.
When the creeks stop rising and the silt is scrubbed from the Houston’s streets, Evangelicals might ask themselves: “Is this the guy we want representing us?”
If you’d like to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey (and we highly encourage you to do whatever you can), we’ve compiled a list of organizations you should consider donating to here.