By Sarah Posner
Last Friday, hours before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, Houston’s most famous pastor tweeted out a teaser for his latest podcast, “The God Who Goes Before You.” In a video excerpt embedded in the tweet, televangelist Joel Osteen, the city’s wealthiest ecclesiastical son, is seen preaching in the altar of his 16,000-seat capacity Lakewood Church, formerly the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets once played basketball. “Many sports champions have been crowned there,” Osteen said when the church took over the property in 2005. “We believe we can crown champions in life.”
That’s the heart of Osteen’s notoriously saccharine version of a theology known as the prosperity gospel: You, too, can be a champion – like Osteen, who’s worth a reported $40 million and lives in a $10 million mansion in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood. Just trust God.
Trusting God was Osteen’s message in his unaccountably sanguine missive ahead of what was forecast to be a catastrophic weather event. Although it’s not clear that the podcast was recorded with Harvey in mind, Osteen’s decision to share it just as Houston was bracing for disaster turns out to have been a fraught one. “The good news is He’s going ahead of you right now, lining up the right people, the right supplies, the right opportunities,” Osteen said in his Texas drawl, his wide-toothed grin fixed like hard plastic across his face. “He has solutions to problems you haven’t had.”
But if God has a solution for the victims of Harvey’s apocalyptic flooding, those solutions were not on display at Lakewood, which quickly came under heavy criticism for not opening its doors to Harvey evacuees, as many houses of worship in Houston did.
One might think Osteen’s theology, anchored by what he calls a “strategic God,” would allow him to point to God’s solutions for, say, being flooded out of one’s home. But the next day, as Houstonians sought shelter amid Harvey’s devastation, Osteen tweeted only that he and his wife Victoria “are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.”
After an onslaught of social media criticism about offering prayers but no shelter in his church of champions, Osteen agreed to open Lakewood’s doors. He protested to the Today Show on Wednesday that he had initially not opened the church because the city had not asked him to, and called the criticism a “false narrative.”
If that sequence of events sounds familiar – a wealthy, out-of-touch man offers platitudes on Twitter, then lashes out at critics who say he should have done more – it’s because the prosperity gospel has completely infected Republican politics. And President Trump represents the pinnacle of the party’s embrace of prosperity gospel values.
In the prosperity gospel, one can clearly see Trump, and vice-versa: the cruel indifference toward the travails of the less fortunate, the magical thinking that supersedes reason, the cult of personality and the evident disdain for the poor, who would be champions but for their insufficient faith in a God who crowns champions and relegates losers to the sidelines.
The prosperity gospel teaches that God will bless those who have faith, and that one’s health – and, particularly, wealth – are a manifestation of that blessing. Its proponents include the cheerful Osteen, who has said, “I don’t think it’s God’s best” to be poor. “Some people have this poverty mindset, and I’m a Christian, and I’m supposed to suffer,” he told CNN in 2012. “That’s just not how I see it.”
Some purveyors of this teaching pressure their congregants with what’s known as seed-faith theology: Sow a seed – meaning, give money to your pastor or a televangelist – and you will receive a thousand-fold “harvest” in return. Often people are shamed into giving money, even money they can’t afford to give. And when they don’t magically get rewarded for their “faith” and “sowing the seed,” they are told it’s because they don’t have enough faith.
Ten years ago I was writing a book about the GOP’s unholy alliance with prosperity preachers – but at the time, the relationship was largely a transactional one, as politicians sought the endorsements of televangelists with huge audiences and influence over their political choices. But with Trump, that relationship has blossomed in unique ways, largely because the president himself was actually drawn to the prosperity gospel with a sort of kismet. Paula White, a longtime friend and spiritual adviser to Trump who spends time in the White House with Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, is a leading figure among prosperity televangelists. According to the lore shared by White and others, Trump became enamored of her more than a decade ago when he saw her preach on television. In 2005, she and her then husband bought a $3.5 million condo in Trump Tower. When Trump appeared on her television program in 2008, White asked him to share life lessons that “caused you to succeed financially today.” The pair agreed that it was “key” to discover one’s passion, and then, in White’s words, to “figure out a way to make money.”
White has emerged as one of Trump’s most impassioned evangelical defenders in the face of the Russia investigation, and even after his widely criticized reaction to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. On a recent appearance, after Charlottesville, on the television program of once-disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, White declared that opposition to Trump is akin to being anti-God. Trump, she said, has been “raised up by God because God says that He raises up and places all people in places of authority. It is God that raises up a king, it is God that sets one down and so when you fight against the plan of God, you’re fighting against the hand of God.” She also seized the opportunity to promote her recent book, Dare to Dream, and its front-cover blurb from Trump: “Read this and you’ll be ready for great success.”
In case there’s any doubt, making money is the coveted side hustle of Trump and his televangelist friends, whether you’re president of the United States or a follower of Jesus. In the store on White’s website, if you “sow your prophetic seed of $77 or more,” she will send you your own “special, anointed prayer cloth as a point of contact for this prophetic word!” When Trump traveled to Texas this week to (not) view Harvey’s devastation, he prominently wore an Official USA 45th Presidential Hat, which sells on his reelection website for $40, prompting criticism from ethics watchdogs. It’s worth remembering the Trump-White mantra: “Figure out a way to make money.”
It’s the use of the church to profit that led the Senate Finance Committee to launch an investigation of six televangelists, including White, in 2007. Although the religious right portrayed the probe as improper government intrusion into church doctrine, the real question under scrutiny was whether the churches were using tax-exempt donations for personal enrichment. The investigation ended with no actual or proposed changes to the law requiring more accountability and transparency from churches that are essentially operating as for-profit enterprises. We’d know more about how this works if churches were required to release their tax returns – but they’re not, just like the president.
In interviewing former followers of prosperity preachers, I found that many of them were in such thrall of the “success” of these pastors that they refused to acknowledge or heed any criticism of them. If the local newspaper were to run a story about their church and any impropriety – financial, sexual or otherwise – they wouldn’t even read it. Prosperity preachers had their followers convinced of “fake news” long before Trump turned it into a national obsession.
Trump is the culmination of the Republican Party’s long love affair with the prosperity gospel. Other Republican politicians have courted prosperity gospel preachers for their huge audiences and influence; Trump is the embodiment of this particular marriage of politics and a religion. When Trump proclaims, “the evangelicals love me, and I love them,” though, he’s talking about a particular evangelical subculture in evangelicalism, one that is closer to Trump than it is to Jesus.