On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle published a pretty unflattering report on Lakewood Church and its multimillionaire senior pastor Joel Osteen. According to Chronicle reporter Robert Downen, the nation’s largest church claimed a whopping $4.4 million in federal COVID-19 bailout funds, the third highest loan in the Houston area over the summer.
Obviously, taking millions of dollars meant to keep struggling businesses afloat is not necessarily a great look for Osteen, who’s worth an estimated $100 million. The story raises all sorts of questions about wealthy megachurches that leverage their tax exempt status to luxurious ends. But on social media, this already ugly report took on a new wrinkle: people started saying that Osteen’s ministry had not only accepted millions from the government, but that he had lied about it. On Twitter and Instagram, prominent figures with hundreds of thousands of followers accused Osteen of getting his hand caught claiming Lakewood had accepted no PPP funds while secretly doing so.
This juicy narrative proved irresistible and, as often happens on social media, became accepted fact.
I'm not surprised that Joel Osteen lied about receiving $4.4 million in PPP federal funds. This is the same guy who closed his church to the displaced in Houston after Hurricane Harvey and lied about flood damage. We had to publicly pressure him to open his doors.
— Charlotte Clymer 🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) December 15, 2020
Joel Osteen claimed his church took no PPP money, but his congregation was just one of many that received MILLIONS. This is just another reason why churches should be taxed if they are going to get business benefits. https://t.co/EpAIaHDdRA
— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) December 15, 2020
The confusion may be the result of Lakewood Church announcing that they had declined to apply for PPP funding earlier in the year. “Believing the shutdown would only last a few weeks, Lakewood did not initially apply for PPP assistance during the first half of the program,” Iloff said in a statement. “However, as the shutdown persisted month after month, given the economic uncertainty, Lakewood finally applied for the PPP loan and has been able to provide full salaries and benefits including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families.” In other words, Lakewood leadership pivoted in the face of a worsening pandemic that ended up stretching longer than it initially thought it would be.
Downen, the reporter of the story, spent much of Tuesday trying in vain to get the viral misinformation under control by begging people to actually read the story in question. In many cases, the people posting the misinformation actually had a link to his article in their tweets — an article that would prove their allegations were false if they would just take the time to read it. But of course, on the internet, reading past the headline is optional, and Osteen, who is already a villain in the minds of his many critics, simply didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
People of good conscience might argue about whether or not the church was right to apply for the funds, given Osteen’s $10.5 million mansion and Lakewood’s tax exempt status. That’s an important conversation. Much too important to muddy with untrue data about what Osteen is and is not guilty of doing. Osteen has done a lot of things worth criticizing over the course of his career. There is absolutely no reason to invent new things.
You can — and should — reason the Houston Chronicle’s full report here.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.