Steven Waldman

Your Best Life Now.Osteen stopped by the Wall Street Journal’s office after scoping out Yankee Stadium where he will preach on April 25. [Here’s a transcript of the full interview ] I asked him, if a positive disposition is supposed to bring you success, how should you interpret it if you’re economically failing? Do hard times flow from grumpy dispositions?”People in tough times, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a great attitude,” Osteen said. “All through the scripture there’s people like Joseph [who] was treated so unfairly, spent 13 years in prison for something he didn’t do. But he kept that good attitude and, in the end, he saw God’s blessing and favor. I wouldn’t ever say if you’re having tough times then there must be something wrong with you or your attitude. Life’s a fight. It’s a good fight of faith. I encourage people to stay up, stay hopeful, stay faith filled.”In fact, rather than making Osteen’s message less relevant, the economic downturn may make it more appealing – a way people can armor themselves for hard times. “I believe that when you think of the negative and you get up discouraged and there’s nothing good in my future, I really believe it almost ties the hands of God. God works where there’s an attitude of faith. I believe faith is all about hope.”In truth, Osteen’s message has always been as much about happiness – peace of mind, good relationships — as financial lucre. He’s a cross between Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking and the theology of “My Name Is Earl,” that if you do bad things to others, bad things will happen to you, and vice versa. “I believe God’s keeping the records and I believe you will be rewarded even in this life, somehow, some way God will make it up to you. It may be he protected you from accident you never knew. You can’t give God something without God giving you more in return, whether its peace or joy or satisfaction. I just think that’s the way our God is.”Osteen’s success at first might seem a bit baffling. There’s something about his glistening white teeth and the sun-will-come-out-tomorrow message that can make him seem plastic and insubstantial. But in fact he’s far more self-disciplined than many of the edgier preachers. He steadfastly steers clear of culture war issues, believing that they would divert from his positive message.In the one part of the interview [full text here] that might create some controversy, Osteen said he had in the past avoided being called an “evangelical” because of its conservative political association. When asked if Christian leaders focusing on culture war issues – gay marriage and abortion – has driven people away from Christianity, he answered, “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.”He attributes this resolute apoliticalness to his father, also a preacher, who avoided politics “because he didn’t want to divide the audience…. 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.”The most endearing thing about Osteen is how often he says, “I don’t know.” When asked what message God might be sending through the bad economy, he said he didn’t know, before describing how people can nonetheless get strength from God for hard times. Contrast that to how Pat Robertson, James Dobson or Jerry Falwell would have answered such a question, ascribing the economic slump to some combination of the ACLU and Tinky Winky.Osteen has been criticized for “cotton candy” Christianity because he de-emphasizes the challenging aspects of Christianity – the sinful nature of man, God’s judgment. But while one can mock Osteen for his relentless cheerfulness, he’s the one who’s best tapped into the current national mood – “it’s all about hope” — a weariness of culture wars, and a desire to focus on God’s love rather than his wrath.Some may view that as inauthentic Christianity, but they have to reckon with the fact that, whatever you call it, Osteen’s message is resonating.Printed first on the Wall Street Journal Online.