Excerpt: Preaching the Prosperity Gospel

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Televangelist and best-selling author, Joel Osteen, right, and his wife, Victoria, left. In his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat calls Osteen's prosperity theology a heresy. (AP/Jessica Kourkounis)

Excerpted from Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

The most influential work of popular theology published this century comes with a glossy gold dust jacket and a slew of celebrity blurbs on the back. Celebrity Texan blurbs, mostly: Chuck Norris loved the book; so did the former NBA coach Rudy Tomjanovich; so did the then-owner of the Houston Astros, Drayton McLane; so did David Carr, the Houston Texans’ quarterback. The author himself gazes out from the front cover: his black hair is piled up and slick with gel; his hands are extended and touching at the fingertips; his smile is enormous, front teeth like piano keys or filed-down tusks. The book’s title hovers like an angel above his left shoulder, promising Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.

This is Joel Osteen, a Houston-based preacher who inherited a 7,500- seat megachurch from his late father, John Osteen, in 1999, and parlayed his pastorship into the highest-rated religious television show in America, a trio of #1 New York Times bestsellers, and a home for his congregation, Lakewood Church, in Houston’s 18,000-seat Compaq Center. In the fragmented landscape of American religion, Osteen comes as close to Billy Graham’s level of popularity and influence as any contemporary evangelist — and his cultural empire is arguably larger than Graham’s ever was. Your Best Life Now sold more than 4 million copies in the five years following its 2004 release, and it spawned a host of spin-offs — from Daily Readings from Your Best Life Now to a Your Best Life Now 2006 Journal and Daily Calendar. Its 2007 sequel, Become a Better You, followed a similar trajectory, in sales and spin-offs alike. Osteen’s weekly television show runs constantly on Daystar and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, both Christian channels — but also on network affiliates in all of the top thirty markets. (On a typical Sunday in Washington, D.C., in the mid-2000s, you could catch ten different showings of an Osteen service, on eight different channels.) Like Graham, Osteen courts a worldwide audience: More than 200 million people around the globe tune in to his broadcasts. And like Graham, he’s been known to sell out Madison Square Garden.

But there the similarities end. Graham’s persona was warm and inclusive, but theologically he preached a stark, stripped-down gospel — a series of altar calls, with eternity hanging in the balance and Christianity distilled to a yes or no for Christ. Osteen’s message is considerably more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next. Where Graham was inclined to comments like “we’re all on death row . . . the only way out of death row is Jesus,” Osteen prefers cheerier formulations. “Too many times we get stuck in a rut, thinking we’ve reached our limits,” he writes in Your Best Life Now. “But God wants us to constantly be increasing, to be rising to new heights. He wants to increase you in his wisdom and help you make better decisions. God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, and creativity.” And whereas Graham embodied evangelical Christianity’s shift back toward the Christian mainstream, and the beginning of its disassociation from fundamentalist separatism, Osteen embodies a shift of a very different sort— the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in a marriage of God and Mammon.

In the 1980s, this marriage was associated with hucksters and charlatans — preachers who robbed their followers, slept with prostitutes, and sobbed on camera. But in twenty-first-century America, the gospel of wealth has come of age. By linking the spread of the gospel to the habits and mores of entrepreneurial capitalism, and by explicitly baptizing the pursuit of worldly gain, prosperity theology has helped millions of believers reconcile their religious faith with their nation’s seemingly unbiblical wealth and un-Christian consumer culture.

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  • Rbarngrove

    Osteen gives me te willies. Watching him is like listening to a funeral home director try to sell “property with a dwelling unit.” A hot shower to take the slime off is necessary to accomplish a clean feeling. Another disgusting dominionist plain and simple.

  • Cschubert

    Thank you, thank you for speaking out on this.  Osteen as long given me a very uncomfortable feeling and I make it a point to never read or listen to him.  Thanks for confirming my feelings.

  • Hmpascual

    Actually, both Billy Graham and Joel Osteen missed what Jesus’s message really was. Jesus preached the “Kingdom of God,” that is, if God were the king or emperor or CEO if you will, how would God run the affairs of the world? And Jesus would say — God would conduct things with justice, compassion, love, “the golden rule”. Unlike Graham, Jesus was concerned about life here on earth. Yet, unlike Osteen, Jesus talked about liberation from oppression and giving dignity to the marginalized and to the social outcast. 

  • K M Richardson1130

    I think it’s very funny that a man that says nothing but good things, gives people the “willies”.   I have watched his broadcast and every week he speaks of the “golden rule…he has also spoken of liberation from oppression and he certainly has given dignity to the social outcast.  That’s his whole point!  Do good–do God’s will and good will come to you. How is this bad?

  • Peter Gatliff

    These guys are slick. They talk about seed money while ripping off  poor little old ladys off from their SSI checks. I do believe in giving money to the poor and spreading the word. Try giving to local charitys, food and clothing banks or orgs like Toy’s For Tot’s to see your money work.

  • Neal Camp

    I will repeat again and again, I can’t believe anyone as bright as Bill Moyers would post
    a fuzzy, unreadable white font on a black background but evidently noone on his staff reads these comments.

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    Neal, I will pass your comment along to the rest of the staff.

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    Sean
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  • Shannon

     When I read this article I get a whole different message – that Joel Osteen is reaching people in a 21st c. way – of positive messages and God’s love. Joel gave me new ways of understanding what the Bible says, which I never got in all my years of being raised in Christian schools – all the way through my freshman year in college. I had no interest in Christian teachings for many, many years, and Joel brought me back.

  • Romans Ch10 v 9

    I used to listen to and read Joel Osteen’s teachings.  As a believer, saved by the grace of God’s unmerited favor, I always had a check in my spirit that something is not quite all right with his teachings.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for years and I had a perpetual state of “confusion” about what teachers like Joel Osteen preach vs. what the word of God says.  I later found that sometimes these teachers would preach 70% truth and 30% lies which increased my confusion.  I kept thinking….”they’re saying all the right things most of the time, how could they be wrong”.  Well Jeffrey Dahmer “looked like a handsome nice guy”, “said all the right things to throw off his victims”, and even attended colleges, got involved in political campaigns……all the right stuff, but he was a psychotic killer on the inside.  

    Full clarity came to me when I stopped listening to all these teachers, stopped reading their books, stopped listening to their tapes, and started READING MY BIBLE.  Line by line, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book.  I had relied upon these teachers “summarization of stories in the bible” and on “scriptures from the Bible” because I had become lazy and didn’t want to double check what they preached was correct or not.  It sounded good, so I didn’t question it.  As I began devouring the word daily, it was like scales began to fall from my eyes and I could see the truth.

    As much as the Bible, and specifically the New Testament warns about false teachers and false prophets in these last days, why is it that “these teachers” don’t mention those scriptures.  In fact if you question their teaching they try to shame and guilt you into feeling bad for questioning.  The Apostle’s warned us to test the spirits  (1 John 4:1-6, 1 Thessalonians 5:21).

    Jesus warned about those false teachers who do great works in the name of God but do not really know Him (Matthew 7:21-23).  They profess Jesus with their mouths but deny Him by their deeds that have a false motive (Titus 1:16).  I encourage everyone to start reading their Bibles and to pay attention to the tones of scriptures speaking about false teachers and false prophets!!!

  • Ray Anthony

    Mathew 6: 1“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
    2“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
    Also:
    Proverbs11:2 When pride comes, then comes dishonor, But with the humble is wisdom.

  • Anonymous

    Car salesmen, plumbers, stockbrokers, fortune tellers, politicians and, Joel Osteen. The ultimate snake oil salesman. Religion is the biggest con and so is he. Just like oral R. After seeing old people sending critical portions of their SS check to them and receiving a small vial of Jesus oil and a signed picture, I hoist them up to terrorist classification.

  • Anonymous

    Want to see a real godly deed? Tax the wealthy until they are down to one house and one car per person. No jets, no gold toilets, no power to buy the government. Then, and only then, will the earth balance itself and pollution and war will be diminished. If you’re looking for some God to do that for us good luck with that. God was made in the likeness of man by people of power to give hope to those they rule to their detriment. Done to make you docile in your slavery, believing god will make up for how powerful people screwed you your whole life. Alas, the treasure is not there when you die. Kinda like social security.