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Jill Filipovic: Joel Osteen criticized for not opening his church this week; situation spotlights "prosperity gospel" problems

Promise of wealth means too many self-identified Christians are happy to leave the poor out in the cold, she writes

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

As of Tuesday, Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church is opening its doors to flood victims in Houston, but only after a spate of public shaming on social media created a big PR problem. Welcome to the compassionate Christianity of this mega-rich megachurch and its prosperity gospel.

Lakewood maintained on Monday that it was inaccessible, but after receiving fierce criticism from those who pointed to other examples of locals – from smaller churches to furniture stores – opening their doors to those who need shelter in Houston, the church changed course. Osteen tweeted Tuesday that he and his wife “care deeply about our fellow Houstonians” and that Lakewood’s doors were open to those in need.

Jill Filipovic
Courtesy of Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic

The hypocritical irony here seems obvious, because Osteen is one of America’s leading proponents of prosperity theology, the so-called theory that God blesses good Christians with material wealth. He makes the case that the Lord has blessed him because of his piousness, and his bank account is proof. Osteen is worth some $50 million, lives in a $10.5 million home, and says “it’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty.”

The problem isn’t just that megachurch pastors like Osteen are getting filthy rich off parishioners, who are told to tithe as much as 10% of their monthly income to these already fabulously wealthy institutions, with the promise that they might strike it rich, too. It’s also that prosperity gospel megachurches feed into income inequality with their specious claims that affluence is a reflection of God’s approval (and on the flip side, that poverty must come from some absence of faith). That impacts both politics and policy. The promise of material wealth for the faithful means that too many self-identified Christians are happy to leave the poor and marginalized out in the cold; it’s no coincidence that the most religious states in America also have some of the worst social services, spending little on welfare, health care and education, and as a result, letting high proportions of their populations languish in poverty and ill health.

Houston, a deeply segregated city, is well-known for housing the nation’s largest megachurch, and for the city’s hyper-capitalist ethos and the near-total freedom offered to developers. That’s what caused the sprawling developments in flood zones, which lined the pockets of developers because the federal government’s flood insurance program was set to foot the bill of any disaster. GOP leaders in the state were helped into office by many evangelicals, some of whom oppose “handouts” to the needy, but are happy to hand out a slew of benefits to wealthy businessmen – and churches, too, which remain tax-exempt.

Lakewood is not the only church that has allowed a charismatic pastor to profit handsomely while shirking its responsibilities to its flock. In North Carolina, Steven Furtick of Elevation megachurch built himself a $1.7 million, 16,000-square-foot home; he doesn’t disclose how much he takes in salary from church coffers. Creflo Dollar says he needs a $65 million Gulfstream jet to help him spread the good word, and had the nerve to ask his parishioners to pay for it.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been a particular favorite of prosperity gospel preachers, including Osteen; the pastor didn’t endorse him (or anyone), but said Trump is “an incredible communicator and brander. He’s been a friend to our ministry. He’s a good man.” Trump, too, seems to enjoy living like a king while denying the poor by proposing drastic cuts to social programs, among other things.

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Lakewood’s message to the tens of thousands of souls Osteen preaches to every Sunday is that if you’re rich and religious, you’ve earned it. And if you’re poor, well, pray harder. It’s great they’ve finally opened their doors to people in need (even if they haven’t taken full responsibility for locking them in the first place). But they, and others in the evangelical Christian community, have a lot more to atone for than just one day of bad press.