In the gospel according to Joel Osteen, the flood myth described in the Old Testament was prime opportunity for Noah to test his mettle as an entrepreneurial DIY kind of guy—MacGyver for the antediluvian age.
“The experts can be wrong,” he posted to Facebook in 2013. “Experts built the Titanic and it sunk. Amateurs built the Ark and it floated. Don’t let the experts talk you out of what God has put in your heart.” Never mind that, at least according to the story in Genesis, the Great Flood wiped nearly all living organisms from the planet—the real lesson here is that if you’re listening to the Lord instead of the smug bureaucrats (and have a ready supply of lumber nearby) you’ll be A-OK.
Osteen has long harbored a single-minded obsession with the rugged individualist path to the old rugged cross, which is why I wasn’t shocked to hear this week’s news: When Tropical Storm Harvey caused a real-life flood of slightly-less-than-biblical proportions when it hit his home base of Houston, the multimillionaire pastor of Lakewood Church didn’t immediately offer up his 15,000-plus seat basketball arena-turned-megachurch, America’s largest, as a safe haven to thousands of victims left without shelter. He simply took to Twitter, offered to pray for the storm’s victims, and moved on to his regular business of tweeting out more faith-themed bromides of self-empowerment. “There’s a simple phrase you have to get down in your spirit, ‘God’s got this.'” he tweeted on Sunday, without specifying whether or not “this” was the torrential storm dropping up to 50 inches of rain on his city.
The milquetoast response to tragedy—paired with pictures that surfaced online seeming to contradict a Lakewood Facebook post announcing that the church remained closed due to flooding conditions—prompted a storm of the social media variety. “Joel Osteen won’t open his church that holds 16,000 to hurricane victims because it only provides shelter from taxes,” read one tweet. Soon, seemingly the Internet seemed to roil with righteous anger: What would Jesus do? Surely, he’d at least open up the former home of the Houston Rockets to people whose homes were just swallowed up by an extreme act of God.
Because hell hath no fury like cable news, Osteen’s church finally began changing its message once CNN and Fox started reporting on it. By Tuesday, Lakewood changed course and announced it was opening its doors to Harvey evacuees and donations and the multimillionaire televangelist himself appeared on CBS This Morning to go on the defensive, claiming Houston officials asked Lakewood Church be a “distribution center.” “The city runs the shelters. They asked for a distribution center,” Osteen said. “We could’ve been a shelter from day one if they needed that.” When CBS inquired about the specifics of his call for cash donations to help Hurricane Harvey victims, he seemed befuddled. “I don’t know how it all works. We’re working with Samaritan’s Purse and different ones,” he explained, barely breaking his ever-toothy smile. ,
Osteen may not comprehend the machinations of the charity arm of his own Christian empire, but the prophet of the prosperity gospel has always confidently bluffed his way through an understanding of the universe. Beneath the megawatt smile and all the patter about God’s love and grace, his theology has more in common with social Darwinism than the old-time religion. He teaches that believers have the ability to shape their own destinies and gain huge rewards in this life and the next—that is, if they simply seize it through bold faith, boundless prayer and a kind of spiritual self-actualization. Those that don’t? Osteen calls them “slaves to mediocrity.” (“As long as you have a slave mentality, it will limit your life,” he wrote earlier this month in a blog post.)
In this bleak, hyper-individualized world of winners and slaves, factors like race, social class, economic systems, and political institutions don’t exist. All that matters is that you believe you’re a conqueror and then you become one. So why bother with actual flood victims? They’re slaves, Osteen might say. They need to be strong, say a prayer, and build themselves a fucking boat—just like Noah.
If that God-helps-those-who-helps-themselves philosophy sounds familiar, it’s because it’s distilled perfectly into the figure of Donald Trump. (He’s more likely to use the term “loser” than “slave.”) It’s not surprising that the two share at least a casual bromance: “Mr. Trump, he’s an incredible communicator and brander. He’s been a friend to our ministry,” Osteen said in 2016. “He’s a good man.”
Like Osteen, Trump is an incredibly rich man who piggybacked off his father’s privilege to build a fortune—yet he tells us that his wealth is self-evident proof of personal greatness. That’s why they seem to share a core fanbase: the striving, ever-anxious white suburban professional who wants to feast on the bounties Osteen says is offered by the invisible hand of God, which is one and the same as Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market.
It’s easy to mock the hucksterism and hypocrisy of Osteen and Trump, but the truth is that a similar kind of magical thinking is everywhere when it comes to capitalism. The floodwaters of wealth inequality, student debt, and flat wages keep inching over the heads of millions of people in America, but the faithful keep preaching the same flagging message of faith in the system to the many victims of laissez-faire, trickle-down economics: Work harder, believe in yourself, go to college, learn to code. If you don’t, well, it’s sink or swim.