Laura Turner: The Backlash Against Joel Osteen is Part of a Larger Anti-Evangelical Spirit in the Age of Trump

Lakewood

I think it is probably fair to say that Joel Osteen could have done a better job in responding to Hurricane Harvey.  Because of his prosperity preaching and wealthy lifestyle he gets hammered by just about everyone other than his Lakewood Church parishioners and his television audience.  When a disaster like Harvey hits Houston, and Osteen fumbles the ball, he is going to get nailed.  I am glad to see that he has finally mobilized Lakewood Church.

As Laura Turner writes at BuzzFeed News, a lot of the criticism of Osteen is part of a larger criticism of evangelicals in the Age of Trump.  I don’t count Osteen as one of the so-called court evangelicals.  As far as I know, he has stayed out of politics.  But his prosperity preaching certainly makes him an honorary court evangelical in the minds of most critics.  For many, Osteen represents the spirit behind the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.  They care about the Supreme Court and the culture wars, but they won’t open their churches to flood victims.

Here is a taste of Turner’s piece:

The backlash against Lakewood Church, and the resentment fueling it, ties into a larger national narrative around the hypocrisy of politically involved evangelical leaders who helped put Donald Trump in office. American evangelicalism in the last four decades has been an increasingly politicized movement, rooted in many ways in the establishment of the Moral Majority, a political action group whose very name declared its concern with rectitude and character. Yet evangelicals are more often known for what they are against — abortion, same-sex marriage — than what they are for. More and more, prominent evangelicals seem to be folding conservative politics into their belief system.

Evangelical leaders like Dinesh D’Souza and Eric Metaxas have devolved into self-parody under the Trump administration. Metaxas, who wrote a best-selling biography of the theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, now tweets about hosting Sebastian Gorka on his radio show and wrote an op-ed about why Christians must vote for Trump. Dinesh D’Souza was a policy adviser for Ronald Reagan and wrote a well-regarded book on Christian apologetics before he launched his career as a pundit railing against Barack Obama, and eventually spent time in jail for making illegal campaign contributions under other peoples’ names. D’Souza tried to return to relevance with a 2013 infomercial for his friend’s artificial Christmas tree, and just this week was retweeted by Donald Trump when he shared a Washington Post article claiming that left-wing demonstrators were the true source of violence at a Berkeley rally.

Criticism of white evangelicals has reached a fever pitch with the Trump administration, and not without reason. A recent PRRI/Brookings poll asked whether a politician can behave ethically in office even if he has committed immoral acts in his personal life; the results showed that “no group has shifted their position more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants,” who went from 30% affirmation in 2011 to 72% in 2016. This practice of changing the rules in service of political expediency drives others — Christians and non-Christians alike — to censurewhite evangelicals, especially those who espouse virtues like chastity out of one side of their mouths and use the other side to support the policies of a groping, thrice-married opportunist who once claimed he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness.

It is also true that there can be a kind of glee with which some people rush to assume the worst about evangelicals and prosperity gospel Christians. “Joel Osteen gets it from both sides,” says Kate Shellnutt, associate editor at the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today. “Plenty of Christians criticize him for offering what they see as shallow, self-help faith, for not preaching enough on sin. Then non-Christians or former Christians will see him as a prime example of their concerns about the church: that it’s too flashy, money-focused, selfish.”

Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, has observed similar attacks on Osteen and argues that he is misunderstood: “Joel Osteen is not the flashy money-grubber that people imagine when they think of a prosperity preacher,” she says. He is an encouraging pastor, Bowler says, but people want to believe that his enthusiastic persona must be a cover for underlying greed and evil.

A storm as severe as Harvey, with all the pain and desperation it brings, puts any pre-existing criticisms of Osteen and his brand of religion into even sharper relief. Bowler says, “In the face of a natural disaster, the prosperity gospel lacks a language with which to account for problems that cannot be remedied by individual faith.”

Read the rest here.

Of course there is another, more accurate, way to understand evangelicals and Hurricane Harvey.  From what I have seen and heard, evangelical churches and ministries have mobilized to bring relief to the suffering and the displaced.  Many of these churches do not associate with Osteen’s brand of prosperity Christianity.  I am confident that stories will emerge showing evangelical Christians at their best, living out the Gospel in the midst of Harvey.  And some of these evangelicals may have even voted for Donald Trump.

Making Sense of Joel Osteen

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Joel Osteen, the prosperity preacher who is the leader of the 38,000 member Lakewood Church in Houston, has been taking a lot of heat for apparently not opening his church to flood victims.

I really don’t have enough information to judge what is happening with Lakewood Church.  Those who don’t like Osteen are taking some pretty hard shots at him on social media.

In the last forty-eight hours I have found two piece sto be helpful.

The first piece is Kate Bowler‘s “Here’s why people hate Joel Osteen.”  She writes:

With his yachts and jets and endlessly-smiling mouth offering promises of “Your Best Life Now” (that’s the name of his best-selling book), Osteen was already a subject of contempt among Americans, in general.

But in the past few days he has been lambasted as being, at best, sluggish in providing emergency aid to those suffering from the disaster and, at worst, a hypocrite who cares more about people’s wealth than welfare. In fairness, the city of Houston has more megachurches than any other metropolitan area in the country, with dozens of big-church celebrities to thrust into the spotlight at a time like this. So what is it about America’s grinning preacher that everyone hates so much?

I’ve been studying the American prosperity gospel for more than a decade, and I have come to the stunning conclusion that Joel Osteen seems to be a pretty nice guy. He is the cheery advertisement for the 606,000-square-foot Lakewood Church and, with the gorgeous Victoria by his side, tours the country in packed-out arenas to bring “A Night of Hope” — a religion-lite, inspirational speech set to music. And, for those who don’t mind waiting a few minutes after the service, he will shake your hand and tolerate your comment about how his hair looks even better in real life. It does.

But there are three main reasons long after this controversy passes, Joel Osteen will still be the preacher America loves to hate — and perhaps for Christians more than others.

Read the rest at the Washington Post.

The other piece is by Wheaton College professor Ed Stetzer and is titled “Some Christians Hate Joel Osteen More Than They Love The Truth. And That’s Wrong.”

Stetzer writes:

Apparently, Osteen had canceled church on Sunday and the church indicated (perhaps inarticulately) that the church was impassable. (They did not say it was flooded, though who needs to worry about facts when we hate someone, right?) The church directed their people, and presumably others, to take shelter with friends, family, or at the George Brown Convention Center.

As the waters rose in Houston, social media spread the word that Lakewood Church, housed in a 16,800 seat arena, was turning people away who were seeking shelter.

Nope. They said that is not what happened.

You can see more facts herehere, and here.

Christians Joining in Spreading a False Narrative

Fast forward twelve hours and the facts began to surface that the church itself was flooded in a few sections. And Lakewood responded that only three people came for shelter, and they had all been helped.

So, well, maybe we might see that facts are our friends.

And just because you hate (or just have theological concerns with him) Osteen does not entitle you to your own set of facts.

I’m not saying they did not bungle their first statement. I am saying that a lot of Christians spread false statements. Let’s let the world spread lies as we stand for truth.

Read the entire piece here.

“Trump plays him like a piano”

RobertsonIf you have not seen it yet, VOX is running Tara Isabella Burton‘s revealing interview with Terry Heaton, the former producer of Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club.   Heaton is the author of a new book on his experience with Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network titled The Gospel of the Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP.

Here is a taste:

Tara Isabella Burton:

In today’s political climate, it seems like there’s an even stronger relationship than ever between CBN and the current administration. Pat Robertson’s been landing exclusive sit-down interviews with Trump, and CBN’s new shows like Faith Nation are further blurring the line between news and opinion. What do you make of that?

Terry Heaton:

First of all, regarding Pat and his relationship with Donald Trump — I think that’s very, very scary. As smart as Pat Robertson is, and as good as he is at marketing, he is also highly susceptible to his own hype. In that way, Trump plays him like a piano. If you watch his most recent interview, some of the things that Trump says to Pat are really way out there in terms of manipulating Pat. He builds him up like a salesman would, and Pat is susceptible to that, I think. But he wouldn’t be susceptible if Trump didn’t speak the language that Pat wants.

There is such fear on the right about the Supreme Court. I remember one show that we were taping in which Pat prayed that God would kill the Supreme Court justices. We had to stop the tape and advise him that he couldn’t say that on TV. But that’s the way he felt. Trump really sings Pat’s tune when it comes to the Supreme Court, also on the issue of religious liberty. When Trump starts talking about how Christianity is going to be “great again,” people like Pat sit up at listen. And they’ll support him whenever necessary — even if it means blowing up North Korea!

Read the entire interview here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Phillip Luke Sinitiere

salvationwithasmilePhillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. This interview is based on his book Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: I wrote Salvation with a Smile out of a long-standing interest in the history of American evangelicalism. After completing a chapter on Joel Osteen in my first book Holy Mavericks (NYU Press, 2009), I wanted to write a larger story on the smiling preacher that considered his place in American religious history. As a life-long Houston resident, I also wanted to explore Osteen and Lakewood Church in relationship to Texas, and to the Sunbelt.

In my research, I found that everyone I spoke with had an opinion about the smiling preacher; folks either loved him or hated him. I wanted to investigate Osteen and Lakewood Church beyond the binary responses I was hearing. After all, there’s a reason why 40,000 people attend Lakewood weekly, millions of people read his New York Times best-selling books, and millions of people tune into his television broadcast. I wrote Salvation with a Smile to figure out why.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile argues that Joel Osteen, and by extension Lakewood Church, is America’s most powerful twenty-first century evangelical minister; it explains how Lakewood became America’s largest megachurch and Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen. While neither represents the sum total of American evangelicalism, the history of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen explains significant developments that illuminate connections between neopentecostalism, the prosperity gospel, televangelism, and religion in the American South.

JF: Why do we need to read Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile shows that Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, along with post-World War II neopentecostalism and the prosperity gospel movement helped to make the smiling preacher. In this regard, I hope the book adds another chapter to the broader history of the prosperity gospel that scholars such as Kate Bowler, Gerardo Marti, and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, among others, have brilliantly documented. Furthermore, Osteen’s nearly two decades of religious television production and broadcasting experience before he became Lakewood’s full-time pastor in 1999 helps to contextualize how in the early 2000s Joel harnessed emerging social media platforms in the service of propagating his prosperity message. In this sense, Osteen and Lakewood’s story connects to the history of American televangelism. Finally, Osteen’s ascendance in American evangelicalism during the Internet Age—and his presence on television and social media—has generated a flurry of criticism, much of it from American evangelicals. Thus, Salvation with a Smile historicizes New Calvinist critiques of the smiling preacher as both an index of his notoriety and as a way to understand the fractures and fissures within contemporary U. S. evangelicalism; in other words, the account of Osteen and his detractors reflects the “crisis of authority” about which historian Molly Worthen has beautifully written.

 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PLS: While I had designs on pursuing a career in professional golf—I was a student-athlete on the golf team at the University of Houston, and later at Sam Houston State University—in college several professors brought history to life and I found that my passions shifted. The late Terry Bilhartz, one of my mentors at Sam Houston State, was one of the most engaging lecturers I’ve ever seen. At the University of Houston, James Kirby Martin always emphasized the importance of writing clearly and accessibly, Kairn Klieman helped me to understand the power of history beyond the classroom, and Gerald Horne modeled the centrality of archival research for academic scholarship. Reconstructing the past at its best tells a story and the ways that my professors and mentors conveyed history in lively, compelling, and comprehensible ways drew me in. Additionally, I found, and still find, archival research both enjoyable and exciting. Sure, the work at times gets tedious, but the detective sleuthing so vital to the art of reconstructing history is great fun. Connecting the dots between past and present is both challenging and exhilarating whether it is in the classroom with students or in moments of solitude when I’m writing. While I may be a professional historian according to industry standards, I remain very much a student of history with many questions for which I continuously seek answers.

JF: What is your next project?

PLS: For Rowman and Littlefield, I’m completing a short biography of 20th century writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. I am also editor of and contributor to two essay collections on the twilight years of W. E. B. Du Bois between the 1930s and 1960s. One volume, under contract with Northwestern University Press, examines Du Bois’s career in global perspective; the second volume, which the University Press of Mississippi will publish, explores concepts of American freedom in Du Bois’s intellectual and political work.

JF: Thanks, Phil!

The Prayer of Pastor Mark Burns

He prays for God to defeat the “liberal democrats.”

He states the GOP is the “conservative party under God.”

He prays that God will protect the GOP “against any attack that comes against us.”

And he prays it all “in Jesus name.”

Prosperity gospel preacher Mark Burns.  He is making a mockery of Christianity and a mockery of Trump’s GOP.

The Courage of Kate Bowler: Part 2

BlessedLast week many of you read Kate Bowler‘s powerful New York Times op-ed on what it is like for a historian of the prosperity gospel movement to have cancer.

Over at Christianity Today, Morgan Lee (a former student of mine at Messiah College!) interviewed Bowler about the themes she first addressed in her op-ed.  Here is a taste:

In what ways have your feelings changed towards the prosperity gospel movement since your diagnosis?

I’m one of the many people who wants an answer when there is no answer, who wants to demand things of God when God does not always connect the dots for us. Even more, I relate to their desire for certainty.

Prosperity gospel makes everyone feel special. It makes everyone feel uniquely chosen. Every detail of your life is God’s ultimate concern. I’ve seen that do wonders for people.

Getting over not being special has been hard. I have to get used to being as beloved by God as everybody else. You want to feel like your personality, your efforts, and your theological insight counts for something. It doesn’t. I just have to be as beloved as everybody else.

Read the entire interview here.  Nice job Morgan!

The Courage of Kate Bowler

BlessedKate Bowler, an American religious history professor at Duke Divinity School, has cancer.

She is also the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

Over at The New York Times, Kate reflects on having cancer and writing about the history of the so-called “health and wealth” gospel.

It’s a courageous piece.

Here is a taste:

CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

I am well aware that news of my cancer will be seen by many in the prosperity community as proof of something. I have heard enough sermons about those who “speak against God’s anointed” to know that it is inevitable, despite the fact that the book I wrote about them is very gentle. I understand. Most everyone likes to poke fun at the prosperity gospel, and I’m not always immune. No word of a lie: I once saw a megachurch pastor almost choke to death on his own fog machine. Someone had cranked it up to the Holy Spirit maximum.

But mostly I find the daily lives of its believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. They face the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to accept crippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospital beds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works.

This is surely an American God, and as I am so far from home, I cannot escape him.

Read the entire piece here.

GOP Candidates and Their Evangelical Constituencies

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Is there a “Billy Graham” wing in American evangelicalism?

Last week I wrote about Marco Rubio’s new religious liberty advisory committee.  In that post I argued that the make-up of the committee suggests Rubio’s attempt to appeal to mainstream evangelicals.  I compared these evangelicals with those evangelicals who support the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump candidacies.

Today I learned that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church, offered a similar analysis.  Here is a quote from an article at Roll Call:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Trump, Cruz and Rubio are appealing to disparate camps of evangelicals.

“I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing,” Moore said, meaning that Cruz has largely followed the classic Moral Majority model that was the face of the conservative movement — he has received endorsements from figures such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson — while Trump “tends to work most closely with the prosperity wing of Pentecostalism” which tends to believe that God would financially reward believers.

I chose to use the adjective “mainstream” to describe the Billy Graham wing of evangelicalism.  This wing of evangelicalism, which I would associate with Christianity Today, Graham, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Campus Crusade for Christ (now called “Cru”) and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, is the kind of evangelicalism that I am familiar with because it is the evangelicalism that  I joined as a teenager in the 1980s.

But after thinking a bit more, I wonder if this wing of evangelicalism is still “mainstream?”  Perhaps Moore’s “Falwell” wing or Trump’s “prosperity” wing may now be more mainstream.

Thoughts?

Donald Trump’s Kryptonite

Donald Trump needs help on the religion front.  Many of you have seen this:



Unlike some of his opponents, including Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and especially Ted Cruz, Trump sounds very awkward whenever he talks about religion.  

I think we have finally found his kryptonite.

If he wants to continue to be taken seriously he is going to need to learn to speak “evangelicalese.” But this language is not easy to learn for non-natives such as Trump. And it is hard to fake.

Take this interview with CBN’s David Brody,  for example:




In this interview Trump says that he always goes to church on Christmas and Easter.  I think Trump thinks that this answer is going to help him win votes among the viewers of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.  He couldn’t be more wrong.  Evangelicals, you see, are very good at distinguishing themselves from other Christians (mostly mainline Protestants) by pointing out that they are not the kind of people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter.  

Anyone who has listened to an evangelical testimony is familiar with this part of the conversion narrative.  It goes something like this: “As a young man or woman I went to church on Christmas and Easter, took communion, and tried to live good moral lives. I always thought I was a Christian. But then I found Jesus and realized that I was just ‘playing church.’  Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not about religion, it is about relationship.”  

Evangelicals have always identified the quality of this born-again experience–this new “relationship” with Jesus–by how often one attends Sunday church, mid-week Bible studies. “small groups,” and other congregational events.

Trump is a smart politician.  He is hoping to find an antidote to the negative effects that this form of kryptonite will have on his campaign.  As a result, he is turning to televangelist Paula White.

According to this article in The Wall Street Journal, Trump has made a previous appearance on the Paula White television show.  Warning: There is some heavy theology in this video. (That is sarcasm):

So who is Paula White?  She is the pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in the Orlando area. She was formerly the pastor of the Without Walls International Church in Tampa, a congregation she founded  with her ex-husband “Bishop” Randy White.  She has been married three times and just recently married the guy who wrote the the song “Don’t Stop Believing.” (Yes, you read that correctly).

Charity Carney has a nice piece on her theology at Religion in American History.  Here is a taste:

White’s prosperity gospel is saturated with gendered anecdotes and analogies, which she uses to make the message relevant to diverse or largely African American audiences. Men and women alike are attracted to the energetic blond, who at once plays into the stereotypes of southern femininity but breaks through traditional barriers of female leadership. She openly references her father’s suicide (often labeling this event as the source of her “daddy issues”), being sexually abused as a child, and former struggles with anorexia and bulimia, using past troubles to contrast current blessings. At the same time that White preachesabout spiritual empowerment and confronting the past to achieve present success, she impresses upon her followers the need to obey male authority within appropriate boundaries. “When I give honor I fill the terms of my commitment,” White teaches, “All of us have a father. So all of us have an obligation according to biblical standards and principals to honor our father. Now maybe you lost your father and he’s not living but you have a spiritual father (for me it’s Bishop Jakes). You have someone in your life that’s a figure of authority. If not, you have anarchy.” White presents an interesting blend of traditional evangelical motifs (the spiritual father is a figure revered since the revivals of the early 19th century) and modern consumer religion that promotes self-help and fulfillment.

Blessings are a constant thread that runs throughout White’s sermons, which rely on consumer culture as reference points. In one 2010 sermon, for instance, White compared God’s blessings to a shipping company, confiding in her audience that she “orders a lot through the mail.” When she wanted “cute shoes for a conference,” she was not there when the company tried to deliver them, much like God tries to send messages to his followers but they do not always receive them. As a result, her shoes, and God’s plans, can be delayed. “The enemy has been trying to discourage you,” she exclaims, “make you disbelieve by DELAY. BUT DELAY doesn’t mean denial.” By comparing God’s blessings to modern consumerism, White makes the prosperity gospel relevant to many women in her congregation but at the expense of playing into and promoting dominant gender stereotypes. At the same time that she admits to her shopping habits, she also presents her destination as that of a conference, indicating her professional status. 

It should be interesting to see the kind of evangelicals White assembles for this meeting with Trump. The Wall Street Journal article does not mention anyone who will be attending, but I am guessing that White will choose leaders from her own prosperity gospel circles who will baptize Trump’s business success and love of free-market capitalism.  Don’t be surprised if Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Creflo Dollar, or Kenneth Copeland show up for this shindig. 

Where is Kate Bowler when we need her?