Joel Osteen, Hurricane Harvey, and the Twitter Mob

Texas megachurch pastor and “prosperity gospel” promoter Joel Osteen got the Justine Sacco treatment this week.

Don’t know Sacco? She’s the PR professional whose clunky AIDS joke turned her into a Twitter punching bag several years ago and eventually cost her her job and reputation.

Unlike Sacco before her infamous tweet, however, Osteen is already well-known; he is one of the most popular, and powerful, pastors in the country. He lords over Houston’s Lakewood Church, the largest congregation of its kind in the U.S. His smile is wide, his teeth a freakishly bright shade of white, his hair always perfectly coiffed. The “Prosperity Gospel” he promotes to tens of thousands of congregants (and many more television viewers) every week has prompted fierce debate among Christians, especially since Osteen himself lives the life of a one-percenter, to use the Left’s favorite buzzword, with a private jet and an enormous mansion. All of this makes him an easy target, both for his embrace of Christianity and his nonstop promotion of capitalism.

So when a few Twitter users blasted Osteen for not opening his mega-church’s doors as soon as the storm waters rose, the complaints quickly went viral. Memes sprouted on the Internet. “You have taken so much money away from your people to live like a king,” entertainment publicist Danny Deraney blasted. “It’s the least you could do.” The Babylon Bee, a satirical site with a Christian flavor also mocked Osteen. The notion that a man of God would turn his back on his fellow citizens in their hour of need proved to be an irresistible narrative.

Was it true?

It’s hard to say. Osteen quickly began spinning his decision to keep the church closed by claiming, first, that the church was flooded and inaccessible, and, later, that the city of Houston “didn’t ask” him to open his church to offer shelter to Hurricane victims. He became defensive about the social media attacks too. “The main thing is social media doesn’t run our lives. We run our ministry, we do what we were called to do, and, hey, everybody that’s making a difference is going to have critics,” Osteen said. (Osteen eventually opened the doors of the church to donations and those seeking shelter—with plenty of reporters and cameras to witness the event, of course).

But whether or not Osteen was being uncharitable or just “precautious,” as he told news reporters, the story is bigger than just Osteen, because it shows yet again how social media can fuel self-righteous indignation (and fake news) online, even without evidence that the charges are true. Take, for example, how popular gossip site PerezHilton.com assessed the Osteen situation: “People were quick to note on Twitter that he has not donated any money (that anyone can tell anyway), but more importantly he didn’t open the doors of his 16,800-seating megachurch in Lakewood to refugees, despite it being spared from flooding and easily accessible.”

“That anyone can tell?” What a critical line. Whatever you think about his megachurch’s mission or his often unsavory efforts at self-promotion, Osteen was tried, convicted, and sentenced by the Twitterverse without even a semblance of an effort to determine the facts. Assumptions made by a few people on Twitter, exacerbated by the fact that Osteen is a celebrity, was enough for most people to decide that he was fair game – and guilty.

Osteen will survive the attack on his character. He has ready access to the media, a perch on SiriusXM radio and millions to counter any narrative, false or otherwise. Osteen shouldn’t be immune to criticism, of course, and it’s fair to wonder why a person of faith doesn’t steer more of his wealth to the neediest among us, especially since America unfortunately has a long history of populist preachers whose personal lives all too often reveal great hypocrisies.

But our tendency to leap to conclusions and issue indictments of others online without first finding out the facts isn’t something to celebrate—or Tweet.

Image: By RobertMWorsham (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

newsletter-signup