Unlike most everyone else, Joel Osteen is having a pretty darned good year. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, given that he is the nation’s most popular pitchman for prosperity theology, the belief that God wants you to be rich. But when you get abruptly much less rich, is that God’s will also?
Don’t be such a downer. Instead, head out to Yankee Stadium on April 25, when Osteen will hold a “Historic Night of Hope” prayer service—the first non-baseball event at the monumental new ballpark. (Osteen’s aides heard he beat out the Rolling Stones for the inaugural stadium slot.) The night won’t be full of talk about greedy moneylenders or how we brought this on ourselves. Think of it as a spiritual chuck under the chin for some 50,000 New Yorkers looking for divine stimulus in this hellish economy.
Truth be told, Osteen has a product that may sell even better in bad times than it did when the going was good. “You know what I’m going to tell them?” the soft-spoken Osteen says when I meet up with him in the 35th-floor lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. (He’s in town for Good Morning America.) “It’s going to be the core message: God’s on their side. He’s going to bring us through difficult times. Don’t be talked into being defeated and negative. Know that you can have a blessed year.”
Be positive, be generous, and the blessings—material and spiritual—will flow. That’s the short version—and the long version, actually. You get no fire and brimstone from Osteen, no politics. “If people start seeing me as a political figure, then when they turn on the TV and see you, they think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to watch him, ’cause he’s for this, or he’s a Democrat or a Republican,’ ” he says. “To me it divides the audience I’m trying to reach.” Smart marketing—though his Christianity can sound so much like life-coaching that after an appearance on Larry King Live, he was forced to clarify that yes, he does believe Jesus is the one way to Heaven.
Osteen, an aw-shucks fella from Texas with gelled wavy hair and a Crest Whitestrips smile who happens to lead the biggest church in the country—over 40,000 attend services at the Lakewood Church in Houston each weekend—seems to be the living proof of his appealing message. Sure, followers are generally encouraged to tithe 10 percent of their income to the ministry. But tickets to Osteen’s stadium event are only $15. Hard to beat that.
The real problem is that Osteen’s metaphysics can sound a lot like the kind of magical thinking that helped bring on the economic meltdown in the first place. In an essay last fall, religion scholar Jonathan L. Walton blasted prosperity preachers who “reinforced the notion that difficult economic times signify a lack of faith at best, and a sinful spirit at worst.” And where are they now, Walton demanded, “as parishioners increasingly discover that the extravagant luxury items that they once considered a blessing from God have now become a helluva burden?”
The Yankees might be asking that, too, in their billion-dollar boom-time stadium—not to mention the $441 million free-agent spending spree that doubled the outlay of the rest of the American League. The club certainly seems intent on ignoring the recession. Which makes the stadium the perfect setting for Osteen’s message. When times are good, our possessions are proof that God loves us. When times are tough, well, we just have to have more faith—and tithe, of course. Either way, the fans will flock to the cathedral in the Bronx, for the players in pinstripes or the preacher in a pin-striped suit.