Joel Osteen, the millionaire megachurch preacher, has been an appealing punching bag in the wake of (possibly) closing his 606,000-square-foot megachurch rather than opening to those displaced by Hurricane Harvey. But behind the internet outrage is a telling look into the weird world of Osteen’s “prosperity gospel,” the belief that Jesus wants you to be rich.
Whether or not Osteen actually locked the church doors, Lakewood Church certainly earned the criticism. At first, Lakewood representatives said the site was “inaccessible due to severe flooding.” Then, as photos surfaced showing only a few inches of water on the ground, Lakewood said that it hadn’t opened as a shelter because Houston hadn’t asked it to, even though the site, a former basketball arena before $75 million in renovations, seats 16,000 people and could accommodate thousands of victims.
Finally, Osteen said, in fact, “our doors have always been open” (what happened to the severe flooding?) and that “we were a shelter” (what happened to “we weren’t asked?”).
But this is not merely an internet pile-on, scapegoating Osteen for the terrible tragedy wrought by Harvey. In fact, there is substance behind the schadenfreude, because Osteen’s priorities brought this mess on himself.
Jesus taught that the meek will inherit the earth and that the poor are closer to God, and in America’s early decades, pious Christians preached frugality and shunned wealth. After World War II, however, a new message arose: that “if you have faith, God will bless you with health, wealth, prosperity, and good fortune,” according to Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits, a study of the movement.
Basically, Jesus wants you to be rich.
This “prosperity gospel” has grown enormously popular in the last half century, particularly as the politically active Christian Right has aligned itself with the free-market-capitalism-loving Republican Party. Today, the prosperity gospel “is so pervasive in the United States that you could make a good argument that it has overtaken [mainstream] Christianity,” said Posner.
Now, if Jesus wants you to be rich and healthy, does that mean that you’re a sinner if you’re sick and poor? Or if your home has just been washed away by a flood?
Unlike other natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, no preachers (prosperity or otherwise) have yet blamed Harvey on human sin. Perhaps, as Kimberly Winston wrote in Religion News Service, that’s because Harvey hit Texas—with its large conservative Christian community, its conservative governor and lieutenant governor, and Houston’s recent repeal of a pro-LGBT ordinance—rather than libertine New Orleans or liberal New York. The same thing happened when floods ravaged the Deep South in 2011: Suddenly, God had nothing to do with the weather.
But the prosperity gospel does set priorities. Specifically, it tends to make its churches more concerned about achieving personal success than helping those who are in need. While Lakewood, with over 38,000 members, maintains a roster of service opportunities, ranging from volunteering at the local food bank to going on a church-run mission to Botswana, these are dwarfed in number by the affinity groups, self-help programs, and advertisements on Lakewood’s website.
“When you think about the big prosperity churches like Osteen’s, or Kenneth Copeland’s, the first thing you think of is not their soup kitchen,” Posner said.
“Prosperity churches are focused on selling the merchandise of the pastor,” she continued. “A lot of it is about how you can buy this book or this series, focused on how God loves you, or how to have your best life now.”
This explains the level of incompetence in Lakewood’s initial response to Harvey. In contrast to Houston’s Catholic churches and other congregations, Lakewood seemed taken by surprise by the whole notion that a church might be called upon to serve the needy.
Their focus is simply elsewhere. “It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty,” Osteen has preached. Over the weekend, as Harvey battered the Texas coast, Osteen tweeted inspirational self-help quotes. Because ultimately, that is what the prosperity gospel is all about.
Nor are Osteen’s personal wealth, lavish $10.5 million mansion, and jet-set lifestyle problems for prosperity believers. On the contrary, said Posner, “for people who believe in the prosperity gospel, that’s evidence that the prosperity gospel works. Osteen believes, he’s rich, he lives in this fabulous home—it must work.”
Of course, a skeptic would say what works is Lakewood’s business model, in which promises of health and wealth are exchanged for “sowing seed in a ministry,” i.e., giving money to the church. And of course that exchange is doubly tax free: Lakewood doesn’t pay taxes, and adherents get a deduction for giving.
But to the faithful, the prosperity gospel is serious business.
“They really do believe that if you have faith, God will fix everything for you,” Posner explained. “I interviewed people who used to go to prosperity churches and were told that if things weren’t working out for them, it meant they weren’t sowing enough seed, they’re not having enough faith. People felt guilty that they don’t have enough faith.”
Osteen’s church fumbled the response to Harvey not because they are hypocrites. They fumbled because they are believers. They are focused on personal success, not community service. And like the adherents of New Thought, aka The Secret, aka The Law of Attraction, aka The Teachings of Abraham, prosperity gospel believers think you can manifest your own reality, and God rewards you according to your faith.
And if anyone looks too closely at what that theology means for people whose lives have just been destroyed, the answer is obscene.
Update: After this article was published, two Christian conservatives, radio host Rick Wiles and Ted Cruz ally Kevin Swanson, declared that Hurricane Harvey is divine punishment for Houston’s “aggressively pro-homosexual mayor” and “affinity for the sexual perversion movement.”