You probably saw the viral outrage this week: Houston megapastor Joel Osteen refuses to open the doors of his 16,000-person church, formerly the Compaq Center and home to the Houston Rockets, to help Hurricane Harvey victims. First it was the church was flooded, a statement disproved by intrepid journalists who headed out to Lakewood to document the absence of flooding. Then it was that no one from the city had asked the church to respond, so I guess it just didn’t occur to Osteen to offer, even as he saw countless smaller houses of worship doing so. Then it was that the church was never officially closed–it was just getting ready to respond, even though it has lead time that could have been more effectively used to prepare.
Osteen was properly shamed on social media and TV for his vacuous assurances that “God’s got this,” which is reassuring since Osteen wasn’t lifting a finger.
But I’m not here to beat up on this very, very wealthy and very, very vacuous pastor, even though he should have known better. (If there is one thing Osteen knows–and that is a big IF–it’s how to make his fluffy theology look good. He should have been able to do better here.) His behavior makes perfect sense because his theology says that people become materially rich and their riches are protected by God because of their faith. So when he tells people to just have faith in God (and not, you know, demand help from Houston’s elite), he’s telling a Prosperity Gospel theological truth: if you want out of material poverty, faith is the only thing that will get you there.
Above, a scene from the interior of Lakewood Church in Houston, which is more than 600,000 square feet and can seat more than 16,000 people.
This is a kind of Social Darwinism of religion: the rich are rich because they have faith, and the poor are poor because they don’t. Handing over your faith-earned money isn’t going to help poor people, not really, because they don’t have the faith that is a prerequisite to material wealth. What good would it even do them to have a 10.5 million dollar house if they don’t have faith? For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Osteen quickly moves to argue for the costs of caring for the displaced to be born by taxpayers. In opening the church, the church announced that it was “prepared to shelter people once the cities and county shelters reach capacity.”
In other words, as a last resort.
Christians might argue that this isn’t good enough. It’s the actions of the innkeeper who directs a laboring Mary to the barn, not the Good Samaritan who lifts the injured man onto his own donkey and opens a tab for him an inn where he can be cared for.
What Osteen shows us here is what historian Alison Collis Greene’s No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta (Oxford 2015) documents very clearly: The effort that it takes to keep people safe, housed, fed, and out of poverty is too great for churches. Very simply, they can’t do it.
This doesn’t mean that churches don’t have economic value to a community–they do, though they also have economic costs to communities.
What it does mean is that, like the rest of us, Joel Osteen is a socialist when it comes to (un)natural disasters.
Hurricane Harvey may cost up to $90 billion, according to current conservative predictions. That’s about 24% of the total value that religion adds to our economy each year. To find the funds to cover the costs of Harvey alone, every Christian in America who SAYS they go to church would need to pitch in about $750 this year. That might not seem like a terribly high figure until you realize that 1) half of the people who say they go to church regularly are lying, which means that the honest ones would have to pitch in $1500 and 2) it actually IS a lot.
Churches can’t distribute risk across a large population. All they can do is ask money for the people in their pews. Only a government can force us to do the work of providing for those who are in need.
God may work in mysterious ways sometimes, but we probably shouldn’t believe in a deity who uses natural disasters to make a point–and, anyway, God was quite clear on the matter of flooding in particular.
Can God use Hurricane Harvey convince conservative Christians to stop undermining the social safety net? It’s a miracle I’m praying for.
PS. Readers: Where are you donating to? Mennonite Disaster Service might be a good option if you are interested specifically in an organization with an excellent reputation that focuses on rebuilding houses for the long term. Donate if you like what they do–and, better, yet, donate and start to volunteer NOW so you are ready to go in a few months when they will need more volunteers in Houston.