Back in October of 2015, on Fox News Radio, Brian Kilmeade asked Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s largest congregation and author of “The Power of I Am,” his thoughts on Donald Trump. Although Osteen neither endorsed Trump nor presented himself as an expert on politics, the televangelist did state he believed Trump was a great communicator, a great man, and considered him a friend of Osteen’s ministry, something Osteen had publicly expressed before.
Earlier this week, the Fox clip began circulating on Twitter, with many expressing outrage. How could a man who would certainly encourage his Sunday morning male parishioners to be faithful to their wives and to love their enemies speak glowingly of a serial adulterer who hurls put-downs at his perceived opponents with the frequency of an insult comic on Adderall? Joel Osteen praising Donald Trump is like Elmo telling you that his favorite fellow Muppets are Statler and Waldorf. What gives?
Despite the drastic difference in each man’s demeanor, however, there are two reasons it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Osteen sees something commendable in Trump. The first reason is that Osteen is so irrepressibly optimistic that he probably couldn’t find a critical word for Mussolini.
But the second, and more important, reason that Osteen praising Trump shouldn’t surprise us is because, in a sense, Joel Osteen and Donald Trump are the same person. Or, to paint with a slightly narrower brush, Joel Osteen as a theologian and Donald Trump as a politician are remarkably similar. How are they similar? Let us count three ways.
1. Trump Is Unversed in Policy; Osteen Is Unversed in Doctrine.
During debates and TV appearances, other candidates usually discuss, in some detail, the policies they’d enact to strengthen our military or the legislation they’d seek from Congress to strengthen our economy. Trump, however, generally opts for titanic promises instead of policy talk. “We’re going to fix all the bad things in America” he vows.
When pressed to explain how, exactly, he plans to navigate a rather complicated legal and political terrain to accomplish this, Trump doesn’t get any more specific. “The best people are going to fix the bad things,” we’re told. Don’t worry about the details.
As a theologian, Osteen is remarkably similar. Osteen is, by his own admission, not a doctrinal policy wonk. Rather, he sees arguing over the more minute details of Christian theology—details like, you know, the nature of Christ—as a hindrance to his simple message of “We’re going to fix all the bad things in your life.”
Much like Trump, when confronted with Biblical teachings that effectively say, “Well, actually, according to the Bible, fixing bad things is a bit more complicated than just becoming bolder and more confident,” Osteen stares blankly for a moment, then responds by writing another book promising you can make yourself great again simply by declaring that you’re great again—don’t worry about the particulars.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the cuddly soft preacher has found a bit of a kindred spirit in the rather prickly politician who vows to make Mexico pay for an even bigger wall every time our neighbors to the south refuse to pick up the tab. After all, the substance of Osteen’s preaching is essentially “We’re going to build you a wall of victory. The Lord is going to pay for it. And if God hasn’t agreed to it yet, then you clearly need to make bolder demands.”
2. Both Share an Ideological Unwillingness to Endure Suffering
While not every Republican-Democrat stalemate is justifiable, those who understand the separation of powers know gridlock was actually designed to be a feature, not a bug, of American government. When, for example, a conservative Congress keeps a liberal president in check, or vice versa, this is not an example of government failure but of government working according to its design, of different branches of government refusing to let the other move to protect the interests of those who voted for them.
Trump, however, does not seem to understand this concept. Rather, when he sees government standoffs, Trump is always convinced this is simply a problem of stupid people who are bad at their jobs and need to get out of the way so visionaries like him can accomplish the stuff that’s just waiting to be accomplished. For Trump, there’s no room for an approach to government that says, “Sometimes, when things don’t get fixed, this happened on purpose, so it’s okay if Washington can’t always rid us of all our suffering.”
Osteen has a similar view of suffering in relation to God. It should, of course, be conceivable to him that God allows suffering to befall us and, in fact, that God even refuses to lift it in this earthly life since God says exactly that all over the place in the Bible. However, Osteen’s understanding of theology, much like Trump’s understanding of government, always identifies suffering as a de facto fault in the believer and never as a blessing from the One who is believed on.
If you’re staining your couch with tears like King David, this can’t possibly be what God wants. You must just not be capable of fixing your problems. So read his book, get yourself together, and you can do what none of those weak-faithed wimps before you could—become healthy, wealthy, and totally not decapitated.
Granted, Lakewood’s pastor is too polite to call people morons for failing to declare away their sorrow or unemployment or cancer, but considering their shared antipathy for suffering-by-design, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Osteen sees an ally in Trump.
3. Both Are Considered Experts for the Wrong Reasons
If you’re an American citizen who believes Washington insiders have failed you, it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that a man with a highly successful business resume would be an appropriate substitute for a career politician as the next inhabitant of the White House. Likewise, if you’re an American Christian who believes your run-of-the-mill preachers have failed to improve your spiritual well-being, it also makes sense that you’d think the pastor of America’s largest church and author of multiple New York Times bestsellers might be a superior replacement for traditional pastoral care.
Once again, Trump and Osteen share something in common here—namely, receiving trust, based on the success each man has had in his respective field, from many Americans disenchanted with the political and religious status quo.
But what Trump and Osteen also have in common is that neither of them actually deserves this trust. As Time notes, Trump’s business failures include Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Magazine, Trump Steaks, and, of course, the rather scammy Trump University. According to Forbes, Trump has underperformed in real estate to tune of $13.2 billion.
Likewise, Trump entered the casino world, an industry with a business plan that’s basically “have people with poor impulse control throw free money at you,” and went bankrupt. If the job of a businessman, speaking in a semi-altruistic sense, is to better the world around you through the well-executed provision of goods and services, Trump is certainly not the success he claims to be.
Osteen has is own litany of failures. As many other pastors and theologians have noted, Osteen fails to preach the Word. He fails to talk about sin, repentance, and forgiveness, fails to declare how the real power of I AM, and not the power of positive thinking, has already won the victory over your sorrows and sufferings through the blood of Christ.
America’s most “successful” pastor has fundamentally failed at being a pastor because he fails to understand that Jesus and his forgiveness is the cornerstone of the Christian faith and life, a foundation that cannot be left to other preachers to cover so he can be free to woo the world with his Dolly Parton-esque aphorisms. So if we go with Christ’s own forgiveness-centered pastoral job description, Osteen is anything but successful.
Granted, both Trump and Osteen have been remarkably successful in other ways. What Trump has lacked in business acumen, and what Osteen has lacked as a theologian, both men have compensated for in relentless self-promotion—Trump by plastering his name on tall buildings and reality shows and Osteen by making his face, complete with that Osmond-white smile, one of the most recognizable countenances in Christendom. In other words, Trump is good at business and Osteen is good at Christianity in the way that Madonna is good at music.
But while making millions or billions off your name brand is nothing to scoff at, it doesn’t exactly qualify you to be either America’s president or America’s pastor, any more than cussing out David Letterman in 1994 would have qualified the Material Girl to conduct the London Philharmonic. So even if Osteen seems like your effervescently joyful neighbor and Trump seems like the perpetually perturbed octogenarian across the street, it shouldn’t shock you that Osteen has found a brother in another man who is equally unqualified for a job that a sizeable number of Americans want to give him.
Trump and Osteen Win by Playing the Blame Game
However, as this last point shows, the similarities between Trump and Osteen are perhaps less intrinsic to the men themselves and more the result of what we, as a people, have made them out to be. Granted, not all Trump supporters embrace Osteen’s doctrinal fluff, nor do all Osteen devotees support Trump’s political gruff, but Trumpism and the prosperity gospel are really two sides of the same coin. One side bears the image of anger, the other of folksy charm, but both sides are minted for the same purpose—to punish the leaders of old who, with all their knowledge and experience, couldn’t take away the suffering that someone else was surely responsible for creating.
While Trump and Osteen are similar in that neither has any interest in taking the time to learn the particulars of policy and theology, perhaps the reason for this is because, unlike Solomon, we’d rather have riches and power than wisdom, and we’ve promised to handsomely reward anyone who swears to hand them to us without any buzz-kill details like “that’s not how things work.”
While Trump and Osteen have similarity promised to end all the bad things that never should have afflicted good and faithful people like us, perhaps we’re the ones who pulled these promises out of their mouths when we became an impenitent and proud people who would not be made strong through weakness and who would rather blame Congress or cataracts for our difficulties than consider our own sins.
When the job of both a president and a pastor is to serve those entrusted to their care, perhaps the reason so many Americans have selected two experts in self-aggrandizement to lead us is because our nation has forgotten that lowering yourself for the sake of your neighbor is the highest duty of a citizen and the second half of God’s great commandment.
Perhaps the reason so many Americans would rather take one of 36,000 seats at a Trump rally or an Osteen service than have a one-on-one meeting with a state representative or a parish pastor is because we don’t want someone who actually knows and cares about us to wake us up from the fantasy that everything will be fixed when the dummies and doubters get out of the way. Perhaps we prefer the megalomania and the megachurch because it’s easier to keep dreaming when the noise-machine of the crowd roars around us.