As Russian indictments roiled America’s body politic on Friday, Rev. Joel Osteen led back-to-back worship services at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
There, the day’s cacophony was put on hold, and the audiences inside the building looked more like the America to which religion aspires than most actual congregations. What the Rev. Martin Luther King said still holds true today: “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
Friday afternoon at the Barclays Center, though, the worshippers were indeed integrated—a mixture of races and classes, black and white, working class and the well-off.
Osteen’s talk — similar to the ones he delivers at his Lakewood Church in Houston — is part self-help, part good news, sprinkled with Scripture, and a lot of music and family interspersed in between. Victoria Osteen, Osteen’s wife, preached. His mother, Dolores, talked about her recovery from cancer, and the Osteen children actively participated in the service. Taken together, they imparted a sense that Heaven’s blessings were attainable in the here and now.
To be sure, finances and prosperity were part of Osteen’s message. As Osteen would repeatedly say, God is good. His deity is approachable, beneficent and immanent, someone you can talk to in the car while driving home from work. Hell and brimstone it wasn’t.
But more than that, Osteen’s take on Christianity was imbued with uplift, in which all were special because all were chosen by God. As Osteen told the assembled, they were “victorious, not victims.” Unlike many a preacher, Osteen did not moralize, but he did teach.
Osteen spoke warmly to the Daily Beast about his late father and the message they both sought to impart. When it was suggested that the messenger’s mien might having something to do with the audience, Osteen graciously smiled, but would not comment.
But the fact is that Osteen introduced local ministers who were as racially diverse as his audience. Bishop Hezekiah Walker of Brooklyn’s Love Fellowship Tabernacle shared the stage with Pastor Terry Smith of the Christian Life Church of West Orange, N.J., a ministry known for its strong following among New York’s athletes.
In the seats, Osteen’s 84-year-old mother sat next to Ben Tankard, the gospel musician and former member of the Portland Trailblazers, who regularly attends Osteen’s services. The rapport between Tankard and the older Osteen was visibly warm and genuine.
To be sure, Osteen seemed to express implicit awareness of the controversies that surround him, from Hurricane Harvey to doctrinal orthodoxies. In his talk, Osteen acknowledged that he catches flak from the theological and political left and right. Yet, Osteen appeared to take the criticisms as something that came with the turf. As for the political divide, Joel and Victoria couched it in learning to live with disagreement, while maintaining civility, a feat not so easily accomplished.
Yet while politics were not visible on the surface, they were in the background. In 2015, Bishop Walker backed out of a meeting of black ministers with Donald Trump. Then, in March 2016, Osteen issued a statement shooting down rumors in social media that he had endorsed Trump’s candidacy.
These days, religious affiliation and lack thereof are political markers. Two-thirds of religious “nones” voted for Hillary Clinton. By the same measure, white evangelicals went for Trump by better than four-to-one, and those who worship at least once a month threw their support to Trump by double digits. Significantly, both groupings outnumber religious “nones”. In other words, God won’t be disappearing from the culture wars anytime soon.
Against this backdrop, Osteen should be viewed as standing at a cultural middle ground. He eschews the overt politics of Rev. Franklin Graham, and lacks Graham’s history of personal turmoil. Yet, Osteen reaches an audience that is not necessarily in sync with either mainline or white evangelical Protestantism.
Expect his brand of Christianity to be with us for a long while.