Is Politics-Averse Joel Osteen Principled--or Cowardly?

The Best Life Now megachurch pastor doesn't like to talk about hot-button issues.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steve Waldman sat down with megapastor Joel Osteen and was taken aback by how unwilling Osteen was to offer political pronouncements. I'm struck by Osteen's forthrightness in admitting that he wants to avoid politics because it risks scaring parishioners out of his pews.

Osteen explains that he is following in the footsteps of his dad, also a preacher, who "didn't get political because he didn't want to divide the audience."

"If you look at somebody and say he's against that or that or he's on that side," Osteen continues, "to me people start turning you off because of that."

Can't these explanations be construed as entirely self-serving, as an embrace of political correctness lest Osteen offend anyone? It's exactly the kind of attitude that cultural conservatives are always decrying.

Watching Joel and Victoria Osteen on Larry King Live this month, I was also struck by their political opacity around issues on which most clergy have well-established views. Check out this exchange on embryonic stem cell research:

LARRY KING: Where do you guys stand on embryonic stem cell research?

JOEL OSTEEN: Well, again, it's complicated for me. I think that—I believe conception starts at the moment that seed is conceived and so I wouldn't want to go in there and tinker with things that is somebody's human life to make another life better. If it goes beyond that, where it's not going to be used—

KING: That's what I mean, the cells aren't going to be used. It could save a life somewhere else.

J. OSTEEN: I don't know that I understand it all. But my general feeling right down in here is anyway we can help people is important. But I wouldn't want to stop another life to get a kidney or whatever—

KING: The question is that going to be a life?

VICTORIA OSTEEN: I don't know.

KING: There's the rub.

J. OSTEEN: It's complicated and that's why I think we have to be careful and not play God and yet be compassionate and help mankind.

It's important to not play God but also be compassionate? Where does that leave us on embryonic stem cell research?

When asked about gay marriage, Joel Osteen was less ambiguous but hardly unequivocal:

KING: Do you think, though, the other side is coming, that eventually many more states are going to allow same sex marriage?

J. OSTEEN: You know, I don't know where it's all going, but again, I just—it's my desire that we keep the family unit, the basis of our society—I'd love to see it stay between a male and a female, not knocking anybody else. But I'm not sure where it's all going. . . .

KING: The proposal is if that should happen, sanctified by the church, the state shouldn't be in the marriage business. That was the other proposal. Why should the state be—just throwing it out there.

J. OSTEEN: I don't know if I'm 100 percent clear on it all. But I guess, Larry, we come back to that—will it undermine the basis of society? I don't know. I think that—I know God's best is for a male and a female to have a marriage and raise their family. It doesn't always happen, but I believe that's much better.

That's not exactly an endorsement of gay unions, but it's not a firm stand against gay marriage, either. Is this kind of talk conciliatory—or mealy-mouthed? Osteen's feel-good preaching style has often been criticized as "Christianity lite." His politics appear to be similarly risk-averse.

Read the full transcript of Larry King's interview with the Osteens here.

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