Joel Osteen’s Invitation to Kanye Epitomizes Many Churches’ Complicity in Trumpism
Amid recent buzz about the release of Kanye West’s new gospel album, Jesus Is King, news broke that celebrity pastor, televangelist, and author Joel Osteen invited Kanye’s popular new tour, Sunday Service, to Lakewood Church, the nation’s third-largest megachurch. Lakewood, passed down to Osteen by his father, is arguably one of the first “megachurches” in history. An average of 52,000 members and visitors attend Lakewood weekly, and over 20 million viewers in more than 100 countries stream or tune into Osteen’s televised services monthly. Given the enormous size of Lakewood’s platform, there’s no question whether a partnership between two trailblazing heavyweights in ministry and rap would ensure a huge success. But, politically, would it be a win for the rest of us? One of the world’s biggest congregations extending its worldwide platform to Trump’s most popular and vocal ambassador is not just entertainment or a worship service — there are political implications.
In October 2018, Kanye visited the White House, and explained to a throng of press in the Oval Office that a “victim mentality” had led him to infamously deride former President Bush on NBC, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Photos show Kanye embracing Trump, and sporting the red “Make America Great Again” hat that has become synonymous with Trumpism. Regarding this choice, Kanye Tweeted in January of 2019, “One of my favorite of many things about what the Trump hat represents to me is that people can’t tell me what to do because I’m Black. From now on I’m performing with my motherf-cking hat on.” Months earlier, Kanye stated, “Slavery was a choice.”
Even despite daily headlines about impeachment accusations and scandals, Kanye has recently endorsed Trump. At an October 2019 Sunday Service concert, Kanye ranted about being shamed for endorsing a Republican, taught an ahistorical lesson on Republicans freeing slaves, and doubled down on his support for Trump, arguing that he is a free thinker who will not be boxed for being Black. Earlier this year, Kanye took to Twitter, underscoring the same point, “They will not program me. Blacks are 90% Democrats. That sounds like control to me.”
But this skepticism that Kanye believes has enlightened him is less of a healthy skepticism, and more of a conspiracy theory that oversimplifies structural racism, centers his “genius”, and ignores his class privilege relative to the majority of Black people. It seems that Kanye’s paranoia about confirming stereotypes has misled him to believe that any solidarity with Black people is groupthink. Yet, given that anti-Blackness is hegemonic and pervasive, the reality is that Black people have no choice but to confront and grapple with race. Even Kanye’s effort to transcend the white gaze by distancing himself from Blackness, is still a reaction to racism. What has yet to “click” for Kanye is that colorblindness, Black exceptionalism, the myth of meritocracy, and post-racial fantasies, have never aided Black folks in decolonizing the self, or society.
Audre Lorde already warned us, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” What Lorde asserted is that only a pro-Black politic will protect the rights and welfare of Black people. And unlike Kanye presumes, a pro-Black politic is neither anti-White people, nor does it obligate Black folks to become a cultural monolith. Rather, it responds to this society’s legacy of racism and the reality that American culture racializes all Black people the same way, regardless of political affiliation or proximity to other Black people.
Kanye almost gets this: he does seem to grasp that the hegemonic force of white supremacy disregards the humanity of non-white people and, by extension, their agency and individuality. Yet, his basic, micro-level understanding of white supremacy and structural oppression allowed him to be enticed by assimilationist values that feed right back into the beast that oppresses him.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, central to white supremacy are the core beliefs that: 1) white people should have dominance over non-white people, especially where they co-exist; 2) there should be a whites-only society; 3) white people have a “superior” culture; and 4) white people are genetically superior. “As a full-fledged ideology, white supremacy is far more encompassing than simple racism or bigotry,” ADL guidelines state.
Structural racism, the means by which white supremacy operates, consists of unjust patterns and practices that show up in all sectors––from education and healthcare, to banking and housing––forming mutually reinforcing systems that perpetuate discriminatory attitudes and beliefs, and unequal distribution of resources. Structural oppression, of any form — ableism, homophobia, or sexism — institutionalizes and legislates barriers, exploitation, social stigma, and terrorism, under a seemingly orderly and professional guise.
The Trump administration has provided numerous examples of how a white supremacist agenda manifests as structural oppression: from the FBI labeling Black Lives Matter activists “Black identity extremists”, and a Muslim ban that escalated Islamophobic stereotyping of Arab Americans, to the establishment of concentration camps at the border and ICE checkpoints throughout major cities. Trumpism has also incited attacks on abortion, birth control, legal advocacy services for rape survivors, LGBTQ+ rights, and pro-contraceptive sex-education — all anti-patriarchal causes that white supremacists deem threats to white male power and the projected gradual decrease in the number of white Americans.
These relentless attacks on civil liberties and human rights have emboldened white supremacy in daily life, too. Data on hate crimes reveals an historic uptick in anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues, a surge in anti-gay hate crimes, a 16 percent increase in anti-Black hate crimes from 2016–2017, and a rise in harassment of bilingual Americans and an English-only movement.
Even Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of staunch segregationist George Wallace, has spoken out about the irrational and relentless nature of white supremacy.
“I see my father’s hatred in Donald Trump. The two greatest motivators at Dad’s rallies were fear and hate. There was no policy solution, just white middle-class anger,” she said. Wallace was once known as “the most dangerous segregationist in America”, and is infamous for declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”, during his inaugural address as governor of Alabama.
Though she did not name Trump, Beth Moore, a prominent white Christian author and founder of Living Proof Ministries in Houston, echoed similar sentiments in a Twitter thread about Trump’s brand of nationalism, asserting, “Any “Christ” that can be invoked in support of white nationalism is a false Christ of the highest, most hellish order…No such Christ is the Christ Jesus of Scripture who taught His followers a love that sacrifices life & limb for others.” She continues, “Let it be known, let it be declared by genuine followers of Jesus, that the man who opened fire in El Paso may invoke a Christ of some kind but it is NOT our Christ. His Christ would be unrecognizable to us…We claim no Christ of white nationalism.”
Finally, she implores Christian leaders to be courageous and vocal, “Do not shrink back in cowardice. Be bold. Be clear. Do not assume people know where you stand. History will prove this to be a most critical hour and our silence to have been our shameful complicity.”
Moore’s cry for pastors to speak up highlights a clear pattern among churches: apolitical complicity in evangelical white supremacy. A recent poll showed that ninety-nine percent of Republican white evangelical Protestants oppose impeaching and removing Trump. How do churches account for that? The complicity and side-stepping of many church leaders is undoubtedly a reason. Even among leadership at cause-oriented churches, it often seems as if some clergy are wary of simply encouraging parishioners who are in dire need of resources to become more politically informed, which doesn’t at all entail endorsing a candidate.
When asked about “controversial” issues, it is all too common for church leaders to decline to comment. Most seem to sidestep taking explicitly progressive stances on injustice, as if doing so is too divisive and risky of a move. And some pastors even claim that social causes have no place in the church, and refuse to reckon with scriptures that condone hate.
After attending Lakewood throughout my teens, I could confidently predict that that if a Black church member were shot by police, unarmed, Osteen would offer a statement lamenting a “fatal accident” or “senseless violence”, but not racialized police brutality, specifically. Such distortion is akin to Kanye’s decontextualized political takes and unfounded conspiracies that encourage mainly Black congregations to vote for their own demise. The lies and lies by omission are self-serving, and, ironically, condone societal problems that Jesus, an activist and protestor, railed against — corruption and greed, identity-based persecution, facism, nationalism, and terrorism.
On top of downplaying or ignoring societal issues, many churches have yet to address the oppression that shows up via the culture and practices within their own walls. For example, Black women constitute the majority in Black churches, and yet Black male leaders often uphold patriarchal scriptural interpretations that prohibit Black women from leading and pastoring. The result is often girls and women being shamed from the pulpit, without any formal channel to demand accountability and representation.
Few pastors are principled enough to speak up, let alone equipped to guide parishioners in unlearning their biases and prejudices. But what place is, considering our schools don’t offer a model for education about identity, power, and privilege?
In fact, I see our depoliticized education system as one of the most compelling reasons why churches have a religious duty and social responsibility to denounce moral and political apathy, and promote social change––especially given that seventy-three percent of Americans identify as Christians. Our K-12 schools do not offer a pedagogy for the oppressed. Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” The sanitized version of history in state-approved textbooks distorts such truths that awaken one’s critical consciousness about how believers have wielded religion for harm, and continue to do so.
Neither churches, schools, nor media — three of the most mainstream agents of socialization in America — foster decolonized ethical development. Together, this explains the 2016 election. It is not the myth of a “gay agenda” that threatens values, but instead the total absence of an empowering, liberatory, truthful education: one that teaches diversity alone isn’t equity; that politeness doesn’t negate unconscious racism; that racism doesn’t fade generationally, but adapts to modernity and requires the consciousness of each new generation; that by design, the “American Dream” is impossible for many; that anti-racism work requires humility, labor, and sacrifice, not just an Obama bumper sticker and prayers.
What we have now is a hidden curriculum designed to main the status quo of economically exploitative, evangelical, heteropatriarchal, white supremacist nationalism; or Trumpism. And too many churches are passively complicit, by not urging congregants to question and unlearn the oppressive attitudes and views they have internalized.
It is long overdue that powerful church leaders like Joel Osteen admit that silence is a consequential choice to uphold power structures that require more than thoughts and prayers to dismantle. The swiftness with which Trump ascended to power and rolled back progress proves that we must always remain politically engaged — ever vigilant, never complacent — even in the spiritual domain of our lives. Every church should be encouraging congregants to mobilize against Trumpism, because of their faith, not in spite of it––even if they don’t name him. Far too many lives are at stake. If church leaders truly wish to see Christians align their ethics and morals with prayers for a better society, promoting Trump’s most famous ambassador is certainly the type of unethical business they should avoid and denounce . And their explanation must be intentionally clear.
This political climate demands that clergy courageously speak truth to power.