Selling Your Soul for Followers
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law
Some evangelists convince people to join their flock by warning of eternal damnation; Joel Osteen built his following by telling viewers God wants them to be wealthy. That positive message has helped Osteen’s Lakewood Church become the largest church in America, but Osteen is failing to use his position of influence in a positive manner. Instead of linking his crowd-pleasing prosperity theme to a philosophy of tolerance, Osteen is sending a message to his seven million viewers that while God wants them to succeed, He simply wants homosexuals to end their sinning ways.
Osteen never attended seminary but inherited his job as head of Houston’s Lakewood Church after his father’s death in 1999. Under his guidance, Lakewood went from 6,000 members to its present size, with more than 6 times that many weekly attendees. When Houston decided to build a new basketball arena and needed to do something with the old Compaq Center, Lakewood Church stepped up to lease, and later buy, the 16,800 seat former home of the Rockets. Osteen takes his show on the road as well, selling out Yankee and Dodger Stadiums in recent years. All of this is to say, when Joel Osteen speaks, many people listen, and hidden beneath his talk of converting faith into cash is a message that is not far removed from the one coming from Westboro Baptist Church, the “God Hates Fags” funeral protest people.
Osteen made that position clear on a recent appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight. Morgan pressed Osteen to answer the simple question: “Is homosexuality a sin?” Osteen admitted, “I’ve always believed, Piers, the scripture shows that it’s a sin.” Now, to many viewers, this may have seemed entirely in character. After all, we have come to expect our televangelists to espouse a message of intolerance. (Remember Jerry Falwell blaming the 9/11 attacks on several groups, including “the gays and the lesbians”? And, do not forget Pat Robertson, who suggested “gay days” at Disney World were attracting hurricanes to Orlando.)
Why expect anything different from Osteen? You have to admit, “God wants you to be wealthy” is a much happier story than the traditional aphorism that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Maybe it is too much to hope that a religious leader who wears a perpetual smile on his face would teach his flock that it is OK to treat one another with respect, that there is no need to demonize homosexuals since God wants us all to be happy.
It is hard to know for sure what accounts for this message of intolerance, but it is interesting that Osteen seemed to dodge that question for so many years. At least one friend of mine, who knew him when Osteen was merely the guy in charge of the TV broadcasts of his father’s megachurch sermons in Houston, says while John Osteen was a traditional hell-and- damnation preacher, Joel never showed that side of his faith.
In fact, I believe it is not a side of his faith at all. I do not think Joel Osteen believes for a minute that homosexuality is a sin. He knows better, but he also knows there are lines American evangelical leaders do not cross without losing their congregations. It is time for us to demand better of our leaders, for them to stop pandering to the worst elements of human nature and, for God’s sake, start leading. Many of you will have a chance to be among the next generation of American leaders; God may want you to be wealthy but I cannot imagine that it is worth the cost of selling your own soul.