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Here’s why people hate Joel Osteen

August 29, 2017 at 6:56 PM

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Lakewood Church, a 606,000-square-foot megachurch in Houston where Joel Osteen preaches, is being used as a shelter from the flood. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Twitter is loathing Houston’s megawatt-smile, mega-pastor Joel Osteen right now. What gives?

The question over whether Osteen’s 38,000-member Lakewood Church has sufficiently aided in the disaster relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Harvey has, once again, made America’s prince of the prosperity gospel into an object of social media contempt.

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?

Related: [“We were never closed.” Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch disputes claims it shut its doors]

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.

Number 1. Joel Osteen represents the Christian 1 percent. From aerial views of his jaw-dropping mansion to the cut of his navy suits, he always looks like a man with a good reason to be smiling. He is a wealthy man who unapologetically preaches that God has blessed him, with the added bonus that God can bless anyone else, too. The promise of the prosperity gospel is that it has found a formula that guarantees that God always blesses the righteous with health, wealth and happiness. For that reason, churchgoers love to see their preachers thrive as living embodiments of their own message. But the inequality that makes Osteen an inspiration is also what makes him an uncomfortable representation of the deep chasms in the land of opportunity between the haves and the have-nots. When the floodwaters rise, no one wants to see him float by on his yacht, as evidenced by the Christian satire website the Babylon Bee’s shot Tuesday at Osteen: “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now.’ ”

Related: [Why Donald Trump’s glitzy style is attracting evangelical voters]

Number 2. There is a lingering controversy around prosperity megachurches and their charitable giving. When a church that places enormous theological weight on tithes and offerings is not a leader in charitable giving, the most obvious question is about who is the primary beneficiary of the prosperity gospel? The everyman or the man at the front?

Number 3. For many Christians, in particular, the prosperity gospel has an unpopular answer to the problem of evil in the world. Its central claim — “Everyone can be prosperous!”—contains its own conundrum. How do you explain the persistence of suffering? It might be easier to say to someone undergoing a divorce that there is something redemptive about the lessons they learned, but what about a child with cancer? This week, the prosperity gospel came face-to-face with its own theological limits. It was unable to answer the lingering questions around what theologians call “natural evil.” There is a natural curiosity about how someone like Osteen will react in the face of indiscriminate disaster. Is God separating the sheep from the goats? Will only the houses of the ungodly be flooded? The prosperity gospel has never found a robust way to address tragedy when their own theology touts that “Everything Happens for a Reason.”

The good news is that the prosperity gospel, as a movement, is still young. It still has time to be ready when the next natural disaster strikes and people want to be assured that their religious giants are offering more than their thoughts and prayers.

Kate Bowler is the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.” She teaches North American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. She is @katecbowler.

epa06168742 Mindy Walker and her three year old son Connor Martinez are helped out of a boat after being rescued from their home along Cypress Creek at Kuykendal 15 miles northwest of downtown Houston, Texas, USA, 28 August 2017. The areas in and around Houston and south Texas are experiencing record floods after more than 24 inches of rain after Harvey made landfall in the south coast of Texas as a category 4 hurricane, the most powerful to affect the US since 2004. Harvey has weakened and been downgraded to a tropical storm and is expected to cause heavy rain for several days. EPA/MICHAEL WYKE
Alexendre Jorge evacuates Ethan Colman, 4, from a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A Houston fire department rescue boat is seen stranded near a car rental shop during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
A truck driver walks past an abandoned truck while checking the depth of an underpass during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Flood victims walk through a shelter in the George R. Brown Convention Center during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
People wait outside a shelter in the George R. Brown Convention Center during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
A family salvages items from their garage after floodwaters receded during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Ducks make their way through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A home is surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Belinda Penn holds her dogs Winston and Baxter after being rescued from their home as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Joe Garcia carries his dog Heidi from his flooded home as he is rescued from rising floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A row of tractors are surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Cattle are stranded in a flooded pasture on Highway 71 in La Grange, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
People evacuate a neighborhood in west Houston inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Stranded vehicles sit where they got stuck in high water from Hurricane Harvey on Dairy Ashford Drive, August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey made landfall shortly after 11 p.m. Friday, just north of Port Aransas as a Category 4 storm and is being reported as the strongest hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
Firefighters put out a fire during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Local apartment residents cross high water on North Braeswood Blvd to escape the flooding from Hurricane Harvey August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in areas of Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
A Jeep drives through a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Spc. Garth Parks, left, and Pfc. Taylor Garen, center, chat as Garen packs her alert bag at the Tyler Armed Forces Reserve Center in Tyler, Texas, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. Unit 136 military police battalion has deployed some members and equipment for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Houston while the headquarters unit waits for their mission instructions. (Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP)
Robert Dressell of Tyler and Adam Turner of Tyler pack the back of a pickup truck with fuel before leaving from WC Custom Boats in Noonday, Texas to head to areas affected by Hurricane Harvey Monday morning, Aug. 28, 2017. The group took six boats stocked with fuel and water headed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
LA GRANGE, TX-AUGUST, 28: Residents of La Grange view the devastation to parts of the downtown flooded by the Colorado river rising by 54 feet because of rains caused by Hurricane Harvey. Residents from this area were evacuated yesterday and the river flooded the area early this morning
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People get off busses after being rescued as they seek shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: A Coast Guard helicopter lowers someone in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: A man sleeps as people seek shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People move from helicopters to busses as they land on Highway 69 after being rescued in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People move from helicopters to busses as they land on Highway 69 after being rescued in Houston, TX on Monday, Aug 28, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A man helps a woman get covered up at the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Robert Salgado, center, sleep with relatives Jesse Alexander Leija, right, and Leliana Salgado on the floor at the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Sam Speights exits a window of his home that was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
WESTLAKE, TX - AUGUST 29: Texas Army National Guard members help down families that were rescued from their flooded Pine Forest Village neighborhood due to high water from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
A woman is wheeled by first responders into the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
People wait in line for an HEB grocery store to open during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 29, 2017 in Deer Park, Texas. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from their homes near interstate 45 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
In this aerial photo, water is released from the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters rise from Tropical Storm Harvey on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Residents evacuate their homes near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Airplanes sit at a flooded airport near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A Texas flag flies over floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in La Grange, Texas, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Highways around downtown Houston are empty as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey overflow from the bayous around the city Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from their homes near interstate 45 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
US President Donald Trump(C) listens alongside Texas Governor Greg Abbott(L) and First Lady Melania Trump(R) during a firehouse briefing on Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas on August 29, 2017. President Donald Trump flew into storm-ravaged Texas Tuesday in a show of solidarity and leadership in the face of the deadly devastation wrought by Harvey -- as the battered US Gulf Coast braces for even more torrential rain. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSONJIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
REFILE - CLARIFYING LOCATION Isiah Courtney carries his dog Bruce through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont Place, Houston, Texas, U.S., on August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Volunteers line up to sign up to help with the shelter for victims of the flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey at a shelter opened at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Police and volunteers rescue residents flooded by the San Jacinto river in Kingwood, Texas. The boats are on a road that was passable yesterday.
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Volunteer Dustin Langley, who lives two hours North of Houston and came down with a friend to volunteer, helps a family to their escape their flooded apartment in Kingwood, Texas. They placed them on their boat and took them to safety.
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Volunteer Dustin Langley, who lives two hours North of Houston and came down with a friend to help, points to an apartment with stranded residents flooded by the San Jacinto river in Kingwood, Texas
People wait to help evacuees during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has set what forecasters believe is a new rainfall record for the continental United States, officials said Tuesday. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Larry Koser Jr. (L) and his son Matthew look for important papers and heirlooms inside Larry Koser Sr.'s house after it was flooded by heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in the Bear Creek neighborhood of west Houston, Texas. The neighborhood flooded after water was release from nearby Addicks Reservoir. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
People wade through chest deep water down Pine Cliff Drive as Addicks Reservoir nears capacity due to near constant rain from Tropical Storm Harvey Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 in Houston. ( Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Local residents check the water level of the Barker Reservoir after the Army Corp of Engineers started to release water into the Clodine district as Hurricane Harvey caused heavy flooding in Houston, Texas, on August 29, 2017. Harvey has set what forecasters believe is a new rainfall record for the continental US, officials said Tuesday. Harvey, swirling for the past few days off Texas and Louisiana has dumped more than 49 inches (124.5 centimeters) of rain on the region. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTONMARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Volunteers and first responders work together to rescue residents from rising flood waters in Houston on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Forecasters expect the storm to linger over the Gulf before heading back inland east of Houston sometime Wednesday. The system will then head north and lose its tropical strength. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP)
Residents are rescued by a truck from floods caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in east Houston, Texas, U.S. August 29, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Glenda Montelongeo, Richard Martinez and his two sons are helped out of a boat after being rescued near Tidwell Road and Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are unloaded after being rescued by a large truck along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are rescued by large trucks along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Kingwood, TX-AUGUST, 29: Police and volunteers wait to help residents to shore who were saved by police and volunteers in boats from the flood caused by Hurricane Harvey in Kingwood, Texas
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are rescued by large trucks along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Downtown is seen from Highway 69 in North Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: People are rescued by large trucks along Tidwell Road near Toll road 8 in Houston, TX on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday as the had to flee their homes in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Samaritans help push a boat with evacuees to high ground during a rain storm caused by Tropical Storm Harvey along Tidwell Road in east Houston, Texas, U.S. August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WESTLAKE, TX - AUGUST 29: Texas Army National Guard members Sergio Esquivel, left, and Ernest Barmore carry 81-year-old Ramona Bennett after she and other residents were rescued from their Pine Forest Village neighborhood due to high water from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in areas of Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
Photo Gallery: Houston officials described a vast rescue effort and said about 3,500 people had been brought to safety.

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