This is all a far cry from the God of biblical orthodoxy, who is expected to lend a semblance of justice and order to the senseless stuff of suffering, pain and death — while also explaining why the heathen rage, widows and orphans are beggared, and the wicked prosper. That’s why both Trump and Osteen draw fire from traditional religious believers across the political spectrum. But it’s also why each enjoys shocking, unparalleled success in a culture and a polity that are militantly unchastened by the lessons of the 2008 economic collapse. The American Protestant mainstream, weaned for so long on the dogmatic gospel of economic uplift and possessive individualism, no longer processes contradictory information or intimations of a different moral alignment of economic reward and punishment. Like Trump, Osteen obsessively refers to the long, impressive record of his own economic good fortune as Exhibit A in the divine sanctioning of material favor. Like Trump, Osteen cites advantageous real estate deals, zoning abeyances and luxurious personal living circumstances as the pleasing personal tokens of cosmic grace. Indeed, Osteen goes Trump one better and finds the telltale signs and wonders of God’s lovingkindness even in the mundane workings of the service economy — as when he gets an air-travel upgrade or lands an especially convenient parking space.
It’s easy to make sport of such glosses on the biblical scheme of things; one would hope, at the end of the day, that the creator of the universe has more pressing items on his to-do list than Joel Osteen’s search for optimal parking or Donald Trump’s fantasias of boardroom dominance. But before cueing up the punch lines, it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of the working electorate is constantly facing down the rote indignities of the quest for competitive advantage in the workplace, in the housing economy, in the scrum for an unaffordable college degree, on the gridlocked interstates and in the clamor of airport departure gates. Is it any real mystery, then, that they would be tempted to rally to a great-leader figure assuring them that he will make them great again, in this world or the next? Behold, O American believers, the true power of positive thinking.