In our interview, Joel Osteen mostly steered clear of controversy. (My full take on his recession-proof message here; full transcript here).
But given that he seems the very model of a modern major mega-church preacher, Osteen may raise some eyebrows with his explanation of why he’s avoided the label “evangelical.”
I asked him why he thought surveys had shown an increase in the number of people declaring no religious affiliation. Conservatives say that’s because the mainline Protestant denominations have become too watered down and inclusive. Others suggest it’s because religious conservatives became associated with controversial culture war issues.
Osteen that he, too, had avoided the word evangelical because it had become too associated with the Republican party and divisive political issues:
BELIEFNET: Do you think it’s possible that kind of engagement in culture war issues has driven people away from Christianity?
OSTEEN: I’m sure it could. I can’t say for sure if I believe it but I do agree with some of that philosophy because I feel myself many times in those same shoes in that there was a time where I thought I don’t want to be known as “an evangelical” because at the time that meant you were a Republican that was against everything. I think that’s changed. That was a few years back.
I don’t want people to look at me as their minister and say he’s a Republican and he’s against this, that and the other because my church is made of up of all different types of people. In some ways I would agree with that. That’s again probably back to a belief my dad had that he didn’t get political because he didn’t want to divide the audience. I feel that same way. I don’t want to be categorized. Our message is about spreading Christ’s love to everybody. If you look at somebody and say he’s against that or that or he’s on that side, to me people start turning you off because of that.”
Of course, people on either side of these important issues — abortion, gay marriage — may find this a cowardly position. Osteen responds that he doesn’t begrudge anyone from working on those causes. It’s just not his “gift.”
I tried to approach gay marriage from an Osteenian perspective, emphasizing a self-esteem angle. How can gays love themselves when the church is telling them their inherently immoral? “It’s an interesting point of view,” he politely says, before gently suggesting that it’s still better to “follow God’s word.”
What about reparative therapy, in which gays are encouraged to reject their homosexuality? He was open to that — comparing being gay, implicitly, to having a drug or alcohol problem — but wouldn’t “push anything down people’s throats,” though he hopes they’d want to change.
And if they don’t want to change but rather want to love themselves as they are?
“I would encourage the person, I would pray with them, I’m not going to force anything down their throats. I would just tell them in a loving way, probably already know, that I believe God’s best is when you come in accordance with his word, that’s when you’ll be the most fulfilled.”
Osteen literally didn’t mention gay marriage in either of his books. He seems to take a traditional position when confronted but tries to avoid the topic.
Somewhere between the conservative Christians fighting against gay marriage and the progressive Christians fighting for it, are folks like Joel Osteen who have a traditional view but want to move it waaaay to the bottom of the agenda — a formula that might be called, “Don’t Ask. Don’t Preach.”