Joel Osteen, the ever optimistic megachurch pastor and televangelist has been hitting the media circuits this week promoting his new book, I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life. Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, reportedly the largest church in America, with 43,000 people in attendance each Sunday and millions more through internet and television broadcasts. Though Osteen is primarily known for his “prosperity gospel” books and sermons, as a prominent evangelical figure, the megachurch pastor is often asked to share his opinion on political issues.
Osteen tries to avoid contentious topics and on CNN’s Piers Morgan show (where he has made multiple appearances), Morgan called him out for waffling on important issues. When asked his view of the death penalty, Osteen answered: “You know, it’s a complicated issue, Piers. I haven’t thought a whole lot about it … it’s hard for me.” Morgan told him: “You can’t be the man who influences millions of people and sit on the fence about key moral issues like that.”
The televangelist explained he would like to be able to give everyone a “second chance,” but he still believes people must face consequences for their actions. Osteen concluded: “I believe in our system of justice” and in “people smarter than me that make all the laws.”
Similarly, on CBS This Morning, show co-host Norah O’Donnell asked Osteen what he thought of the presidential race. Again, Osteen hesitated and answered, “Well … it’s an interesting contest, it’s a difficult time for America and so I admire the candidates for running … it’s a hard job, you know, the scriptures tell us to pray for our leaders.” When O’Donnell asked him why he avoids discussing political issues, he said “I feel like I’m called to reach the general public. And if you start dividing yourself, saying ‘I’m a Democrat, I’m a Republican,’ fifty percent don’t agree. I want to throw a broad message of hope to everyone and not have someone turn me off because of my political preferences.”
Osteen’s sunny brand of Christianity leaves little room for delving into serious issues like the death penalty, or any decisive issue in the 2012 presidential election. Previously, the pastor of 43,000 was hesitant to state his view on homosexuality until Oprah interrogated him about the issue a few months ago. I would not expect (or want) him to blatantly campaign for either candidate, but Piers Morgan was right to tell Osteen that as a pastor, he has a responsibility to address serious moral issues – even when they happen to collide with politics.
But Osteen’s theology is too flimsy to answer questions that might make some people dislike him or feel a bit uncomfortable. His books read more like self-help, even new age motivational messages than serious lessons in Christian discipleship, and his most recent is no different. I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life claims to teach Christians how to verbalize their way out of life’s unpleasant circumstances. According to Osteen’s website, after reading and applying the lessons in the book, you will “watch your surroundings change in incredible ways. You will move forward to a promising future from the fruit of your words!”
On CBS This Morning, Osteen explained the message of his book:
“A lot of people have had negative things spoken over them, they weren’t raised in a good environment like I was. They get up every day and they don’t realize it, but they’re speaking defeat, and [saying] ‘I’m not attractive, and nothing good ever happens to me.’ … If you start the day negative, you’re going to draw in negative. So I like to turn it around and say ‘Lord, I want to thank you that this is going to be a great day’ I mean all of us that live here in America, places that I’m sure we’ve all traveled, I mean we can feel very blessed just to have peace and security … You have to get your words going in the right direction or your life is just going to continue to go the wrong way.”
One of Osteen’s “declarations” proclaims God “has solutions to every problem I will ever face already lined up … The right people and the right breaks are in my future. I will fulfill my destiny. This is my declaration.” In the book he shares an anecdote about a man he knew who always “had a negative report.” This man ultimately ended up becoming sick and died at age 55. Osteen writes: “I couldn’t help but think he had been predicting this sad end his entire life … He got what he was calling in.”
I can’t help but wonder what Osteen thinks of Jesus, a “man of sorrows” who told his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble.” Or Paul writing from prison: “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Was Paul imprisoned for being too much of Debbie Downer? What about Christians facing persecution in North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries where believers’ lives are at risk daily because of their faith?
I suspect Osteen might evade answering such questions.