They propelled Mike Huckabee to a win in Iowa, and he's hoping they'll do the same in states like Georgia. America's evangelical heavyweights have a long history of using their power to make or break GOP candidates. But at the nation's biggest congregation, Houston's Lakewood Church, the pastor has made a point of keeping politics out of the pulpit. Since Joel Osteen inherited the church from his father, it has grown from 6,000 weekly visitors to 47,000. His sermons are also televised in more than 100 countries, with a flock of about 7 million faithful viewers each week. And his books have become best-sellers—the latest having sold roughly 1 million copies since it was published in October. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez asked Osteen about politics, faith and the line between the two. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: As you know, we're in the middle of one hot political season. I hear that any political office holder who attends your service will be recognized, but they are not allowed to address your congregation, and that any current candidates will likely not be recognized at all. Why the policy?
Joel Osteen: Well, I think it started back with my father. Really, it was the size of the church. We had 6,000 members back then. It seemed like with city council races everybody would come through two or three months before the elections. It just got to the point where it didn't seem right. Now that we've grown it's the same thing. The way our services are structured here at the church, we have to keep it, if we can, 100 percent worship. We used to introduce every guest and do birthdays and make announcements. We cut all that out and put it in the bulletin. Having said that, I'm a strong believer in honoring the people who have served and are giving their lives to run. For instance, our police chief was here. He comes out several times a year. I just, before I minister, I honor him and thank him for serving. If one of the presidential candidates were to attend, they certainly deserve honor. I think we'd make an exception on that. I think we say we don't let them speak because, well, who wouldn't want to come to speak to 40,000 people here? We would introduce them and I would always put in a good word, whether they are Democrat or Republican.
Do you plan to lend your support to any of the presidential candidates?
I really don't. I like to keep that to myself. Part of it is how I was raised. My father … kept it out of the pulpit. I think that part of our goal is to reach as many people as we can. Our reach is very broad. Even in the church we are very diverse. There are Republicans, Democrats, independents—everything … I don't want somebody saying, "He's for this party or that party, and that turns me off."
Given the line you've drawn, what would you do if the next president came to you for, say, counsel on an issue like abortion or the war in Iraq?
I would be glad to give it to him. I would be honored. I would just do it personally. We have had—not presidential candidates—plenty of people call. I don't mind being associated with them. It's not the association. It's that I don't endorse one.
Is there ever a time when it's OK for politics and religion to mix?
I have friends that feel like their calling is to push the Christian agenda. I'm 100 percent behind them. They're great debaters. They're great at making their points. I think there are times when we need to get involved.
There's obviously an evangelical bloc that has a significant amount of power in political circles. Is that bloc called to do politically related work?
I think so. I think they stand for what Christians stand for—at least, in their view. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I do think, at times, the evangelical gets a label that becomes more political. That's what I don't like. When it's so politicized. There's a fine line there, but I think we can't just sit back and let everybody else express their views. I think it's important that we as believers in Christ express our views.
What do you think Americans are looking for in their next president?
We're looking for a great leader. We're looking for a person of integrity, a person with experience, a person who has a heart for the people, trust and competence.
Do you see a president among the current candidates?
I think there's more than one. From what I've heard, there are some good people. They have good ideas, experience and fresh vision. Of course, I think there is someone there who will rise up, but my feeling is several of them would make a good president.
Based on your massive appeal, many people liken you to Billy Graham—a man who knows a thing or two about presidents. Your thoughts?
I'm very flattered and humbled to even be mentioned in the same sentence. My other thought is that I don't think anyone is going to be able to replace Billy Graham. I hope myself and other ministers can carry on the legacy that he started by offering hope to the world. I'm really inspired by him. I think the fact that he made a difference in the world leads me to think that our ministry can make a difference.
Then there are your critics who say your preaching is light on scripture, heavy on materialism. How do you respond to that?
I never preach messages of money or anything like that. I feel like my gift is to take part of a scripture, even if it's part of one verse, and make it relevant in our lives today. The fact is, we're all given different gifts. I know pastors that can just go down [a page in] the Bible and explain it, and it's fantastic. I don't think that's my gift. My gift is to say, let me talk to you about forgiveness or having a great attitude, and then I tie the scriptures back in. You know when Jesus was here he taught simply. Believe it or not, he didn't quote the scripture a lot. He quoted sometimes from the Old Testament. He told stories. He told parables. I feel like all my teaching is rooted in the scriptures, but I don't feel like I have to quote so many scriptures to prove myself.
Your latest book "Become a Better You"—what's the overall lesson?
It's don't get stuck in life. Don't get stagnant and think this is as far as you can go in your career or your marriage. I think God wants us to continue to be growing and increasing and be a bigger blessing. No matter where you are, you can improve. God has new victories in store for you. That's the core message.
You often advise worshipers that their best days are ahead of them. Do you think this country's best days are ahead of it?
I definitely do. I think there is great hope in America. There are great things on the horizon. I believe we are going to see a time when we come back together in unity. I do see better days ahead.