One of the most remarkable and terrible scenes of Hurricane Katrina ravaging New Orleans in 2005 was the Superdome, the indoor football stadium and home of the New Orleans Saints which became makeshift-public housing for tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Although the conditions were often extremely unsanitary and uncomfortable, it was the only possible options for those whose homes were destroyed by the storm.
Fast forward to 2017, when a very similar disaster was underway in Texas. Houston, like New Orleans, is under sea level, and the same flooding caused by Katrina in Louisiana occurred in the Lone Star State’s largest city. Many displaced persons in Houston were searching for somewhere to escape the flooding after their properties were destroyed. Many turned towards the Lakewood Church, a massive 16,800 megachurch owned by Pastor Joel Osteen.
Osteen had his public relations office publish news on their social media warning flood victims against seeking shelter due to flooding making the facility unsafe for habitation. However, as some passing Houston residents posted on Twitter, the facility was completely undamaged by the storm as well as completely empty. Osteen was soon berated first online as well as later by some media outlets.
One of the questions that struck me regarding this development was how a man of God could so blatantly lie in face of his hurt brethren. The problem lies somewhere within the phrase “man of God." If God is omnipotent, then the problem indeed falls with man and its responsibilities unto Osteen, for the pastor is not a typical Protestant: he is a prominent leader and proponent of a niche revivalist Christian movement known as the prosperity gospel. As one of the leading televangelists of his generation, Osteen used his bully pulpit to promote a unique theological interpretation of Christianity which states that God rewards those who are blessed with material blessings, that is, human, material wealth. Osteen, along with colleagues such as Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis, tell their tens of thousands of devoted followers that God has made them poor because they are sinful, and they can be blessed and achieve earthly success if they donate, or as it is known in their business, plant seeds, money to the preacher and continue to pray to God.
For the majority of us (who do not believe God gets kickbacks from con artists in Italian suits), we ask, "How are these donations used?" In some cases, pastors of the prosperity keep the money for their own purposes. In fact, many preachers of this movement have been criticized for using these seed donations for their own personal benefits, using the hopes and assets of people to buy mansions, private jets and massive arena-like churches to garner more income. When journalists often ask these individuals if they believe it to be wrong that they are taking advantage of their followers, many, such as Kenneth Copeland, make the bold claim that buying a massive private jet helps you communicate with God better and allows him to get across the country faster.
More puzzling, however, is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans, knowing full well that these seeds are used for earthly pleasures, continue to revere men like Osteen and plant seeds with his organization. Even though the phenomenon of the prosperity gospel has only been an occurrence within the last 40 years, the foundations of the psyche among its followers goes back to the birth of this country.
Belief in prosperity theology comes from a mix of a Protestant work ethic as well as the notion of the United States as the land of opportunity. During the early days of Puritan colonialization of New England, life was difficult and work was plentiful. Puritan preachers, through Calvinist influences, began to sermonize about how holy or sinful a person was depended merely on their personal relation to God, in particular their labor in service to God. The Puritans believed that hard work was a means to serve God on Earth. As historian Carl Degler says, “More concerned about his salvation that any mundane matter, the Puritan was compelled, for the sake of his immortal soul, to be a fearless individualist.” A conclusion from this commonplace philosophy of the time is that those who work hard earn the most money as well as serve God dutifully. A correlation emerged between a person’s standing before God and their material possessions.
Dean Gerald Wilson, Duke professor of the American Dreams/American Reality course, says another major change in this view of success came during the age of the robber barons. As ideas such as social Darwinism married classical liberal economics, defenitions of success became more Machievallian, focusing on the ends rather than the means, without any necessary virtues such as godliness as needed in the Puritan philosophy. Said Wilson, "The idea of success had realistically been stripped of its earlier connotations of virtue, morality, and high character, becoming instead an indicator of material prosperity.”
This final change, brought on during the rapid industrialization of the late 19th century, was the final catalyst for the resurrection of the prosperity gospel: the simplified correlation that wealth was equivalent to blessings and vice versa. By any means this practice, as used upon those less fortunate and often in terrible distress, is immoral. But the philosophy that created Joel Osteen created the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The question remains, however, what the pursuit entails.
Jason Beck is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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