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Televangelist Tranquility: Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and the Management of Negative Emotions:


Stepping away from more conventional analyses of televangelist messages as either right-wing political propaganda or instances of the prosperity gospel, this essay seeks to contribute to a fuller understanding of the functions of various televangelist discourses in the context of their implications for the daily lives of their audiences. Specifically, this essay presents a reading of recent televangelist sermons as discursive tools geared toward encouraging viewers to consciously manage their emotional responses to outward stimuli. The desired effect is the acquisition of an emotional state of tranquility in response to the variegated pressures faced by the viewers. This goal is also shown to inform the behaviors and daily habits recommended in televangelist sermons. The analysis focuses on a selection of sermons delivered by Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen from 2010 to 2021.

Key Words:televangelism; emotions; Joyce Meyer; Joel Osteen; self-management


The televangelist: few other figures in twentieth-century U.S. televisual culture have provoked harsher judgments in academic and public debates. Physically hyperkinetic, linguistically glossolalic1, theologically fundamentalist, and politically right-wing, the commonly reproduced image of the televangelist has hardly transformed since the 1980s, roughly the time in which this method of preaching has come to be associated with a host of negative attributes in the wake of several unfavorable news stories (cf. Hadden 113; Bruce 198-212). Clearly, this perception of televangelist preachers has impacted the perception of their audiences as well. Regarded as politically conservative and of low socio-economic status, these audiences often find themselves represented as the gullible victims of the prosperity gospel’s deceitful promises, compelling them to donate more money than they can afford in the hopes that the gesture will supernaturally improve their financial situation.2

The desire to unmask the exploitation of audiences is understandable and commendable. But this way of stereotyping televangelists no longer suffices to explain newer phenomena. The rise of televangelists such as Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen constitutes one such newer phenomenon. The aim of this essay is to turn away from the stereotype and refocus the debate on the messages that these currently popular representatives of the genre broadcast. The argument presented here shows that instead of harnessing either politics or the prosperity gospel in an exploitative manner, recent televangelist messages encourage the cultivation of mindsets and practices that lead to a conscious emotional management of the self. Focusing on Meyer and Osteen, I argue that televangelism in the twenty-first century shows the features of a discursive dispositive that advises viewers to regulate their responses to outward stimuli, formulating tranquility and regularity as the desirable norm. While this norm forms part of combatting evil in Meyer’s and Osteen’s Christian frame of reference, it also addresses frequent mundane pressures related to the increasing complexity and contingency of everyday life. In the face of these pressures, the management of negative emotions and the formation of corresponding habits appear as suggestions for the short-term mitigation of immediate and inescapable stressors.

After a brief excursion into the avenues that the discussion of televangelism has most commonly taken in the last decades, I focus on the strategies with which televangelist broadcasts present the cultivation of tranquility as an emotional norm. Subsequently, the analytical focus shifts towards the proposed projections of this norm into concrete habits, against the backdrop of workplace culture and surveillance—an aspect discussed more broadly in the conclusion. The sermons featured cover the last decade, or roughly a time from 2010 to 2021.

By refocusing the discussion on the content as it has emerged in recent years, this analysis seeks to contribute to a more differentiated evaluation of televangelism’s enduring allure. Naturally, some of the analytical approaches summarized in the following section retain their accuracy for certain varieties of the genre in question.3 Even so, an investigation that focuses on the relationship between televangelism and daily life, in its emotional and behavioral facets, can contribute to a fuller picture and usefully supplement existing political and socioeconomic analyses. In this manner, this text-oriented analysis aims at facilitating a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon.

Importantly, I do not wish to question the televangelists’ motives or the spiritual messages of their sermons; rather I seek to identify how these messages interact with the different spheres and pressures of everyday life. I agree with Michael W. Hughey in that the scandals of earlier decades should not forever cast into doubt that televangelists are principally “honest, dedicated, and pious people who sincerely believe they are doing God’s work as best they can” (31). And arguably, this work and its effects on the listeners should transcend the moment of the sermon. Some empirical research suggests that believers do indeed hope that sermons will enable them “to see everyday life in the light of the gospel” and provide them with some “fresh insight in the reality of faith” (Immink and Pleizier 6). At the same time, pastors acknowledge the need to be familiar with the specific circumstances of their listeners’ lives in order to convey meaningful sermons (e. g., Craddock 85; Willhite 23)—a view reflective of the method of so-called “inductive” preaching (cf. Venter and Bang).4 The conviction that newer televangelist sermons derive their relevance from speaking directly to such specific circumstances, and from their ability to take their audiences seriously in the face of the difficulties that these circumstances can impose, is essential to the argument presented here.

Political and Profit-Oriented: Televangelism in the Academic Debate

The scholarly discourse on the topic of televangelism has favored, overall, two main avenues of analysis, namely the investigation of its connection to U.S. politics and its promotion of the prosperity gospel, which may align with its very own profit-oriented business models. When it comes to the first of these two lines of inquiry, the discussion highlights the relationship between a right-wing political agenda and televangelism against the backdrop of the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s and the Christian Right, as exemplified most prominently by Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson (e. g., Moore and Whitt 425; Freedman 233-34; Brown 34-36).5 To quote Doug Underwood when he refers to Jerry Falwell specifically, scholars widely acknowledge televangelists’ capacity “to clothe religion in politics and politics in religion,” and in spite of the fluctuating nature of televangelism’s influence as a megaphone for a conservative political agenda, “Falwell’s and other televangelists’ use of television as a medium to prod the political establishment to pay attention to the voices of alienated, conservative Christians was one of the most important political developments of the late twentieth century” (254). Here, televangelism is just a mobilization device in the repertoire of the Christian Right (cf. Wilcox 46; Lee 82). As Heather Hendershot states in her case study of radio-evangelist Carl McIntire, the understanding of such programming “as little more than a tool for disseminating propaganda” is pervasive in general when it comes to analyzing the intersection of religion and conservatism (374).

This way of understanding televangelist messages in terms of political propaganda influences the perception of televangelism’s audiences accordingly; it also impacts the perception of these audiences’ reasons for being attracted to such content. It seems to be a consensus view that, as Kevin Howley puts it, “religious television interpellates individuals, in an Althusserian sense” (24). According to Howley, this process of televangelist Althusserian interpellation6 is based on the reinforcement and exploitation of the audiences’ view of their environment as hostile (23) in order to further a right-wing “Christian conservative political agenda” (24). Evidently, this view of audiences as suggestible political agents whose agency needs to be controlled rests on particular expectations regarding the character of the viewers. As Underwood points out, these expectations usually include low socio-economic status, lack of education, and a concomitant degree of manipulability, although there is little evidence for any of these assumptions (255). Yet these expectations determine, overtly and covertly, many analyses of form, content, distribution, and consumption of televangelist programs. In some ways, this understanding of televangelists’ audiences has to be located in a wider context of theorizing evangelical Americans. Referencing Stephen Warner, Benjamin Rolsky underlines that many “class, liberal, and evolutionary” biases tend to impact the representation and production of evangelicals in the academic debate, and these biases need to be reflected and analyzed much more thoroughly (5).

Undoubtedly, the Christian Right’s impact on U.S. politics remains a force to be reckoned with. Broadcasts and book sales in the past two decades suggest, however, that the most visible televangelists have come to be less overtly politicized. The televangelists who reach large audiences and place books on the New York Times best-seller list are far from openly political in a partisan way. Nor do they openly support particular candidates or policies. In fact, they are notoriously hard to pin down on that matter, and carefully avoid conclusive statements to that effect. In particular, Osteen’s capacity to avoid answering questions regarding an endorsement of a political party or candidate has become somewhat of a signature strategy in interviews, whether with CBS’s Gayle King and Charlie Rose during the 2012 presidential election (“Joel Osteen on Faith and Politics,” 00:07:40-00:08:06) or with Larry King (“Joel Osteen on ‘Larry King Now,’” 00:15:25-00:15:32).

The need for effective marketing can explain this evasiveness. In order to avoid alienating audiences in a polarized society, some televangelists shy away from political statements and, instead, focus on something any “quintessential” American (cf. Burton) ought to be able to get behind: striving for economic betterment and overall improvement. In this context, commentators have often equated the entirety of televangelist messaging with the prosperity gospel. Indeed, the messaging of eminent televangelists of the 1970s and 1980s seems to suggest as much in fairly unambiguous terms. As Kate Bowler so poignantly puts it in her investigation of preachers of the prosperity gospel in the 1970s and the following decades, “[t]he movement thrived and survived a decadent decade ruled by supersized churches and televangelists with big hair and bigger promises” (78). And despite the transformation of this messaging in the 1990s toward a more “therapeutic and down-to-earth Christian self-improvement” (78), the image of the flamboyant, hyperkinetic preacher speaking of immense wealth, himself representing a story of considerable financial success, still appears as a symbol and a synonym for the entire phenomenon. As Bowler writes:

The prosperity gospel had become the foremost Christian theology of modern living. In the movement’s peaks and valleys, followers persisted in seeking a God of abundance in scripture, in the example of leaders, but most often, in the twists and turns of their own lives. Prosperity was a gospel of weights and measures. As preachers heaped promise after promise of monetary gain, supporters sought out scales by which to weigh their own rewards. (78)

As these words imply, audiences’ confirmation bias enhances the reception of these messages. Here, the abovementioned Althusserian interpellation seems to come into play again, albeit with a different directionality: The narratives of swift upward social mobility strike a chord with the viewers so that they are ready to incorporate them into the understanding of their own lives, without strictly measurable material proof of this narrative’s objective accuracy.

Related to the focus on prosperity is the spotlight placed on the marketing, branding, and business models employed by televangelist preachers (e. g., Einstein 120-46; Buckser). Televangelism serves as one example of Stuart Sim’s contention that the desire to make money and Christianity in America are mutually defining:

Televangelism is where religion meets the profit motive in a big way, with the earnings to be made from success in this area being very considerable: far more than the standard that a career clergyman employed by the average established church can ever hope to achieve. Religion in America is in general a very prosperous business, which has combined the American commercial creed with the nation’s perceived spiritual needs to striking effect. (Sim 36-37)

On the basis of this focus on financial gain in messaging and marketing, viewer agency and a potential sincerity on the part of the ministers seem difficult to conceptualize, as are the transformations that televangelist discourses on wealth have undergone in the last two decades. While Meyer and Osteen put forward a very positive view of wealth, its accumulation is not at the center of their messages. Rather than a goal in and of itself, affluence is one symptom of many indicating spiritual well-being and progression along the spiritual path. Most often, it is the achievement of a state of financial stability and comfort, rather than coming into great riches, that Meyer and Osteen present as a worthwhile goal in their sermons. The basis for this stability and comfort, however, is a focus on stability and comfort in other aspects of life.

There are also approaches that focus on the experience of televangelist programs in a more holistic way, extending attention beyond politics and money to aspects of lifestyle, psychotherapy, and self-improvement. In his analysis of several Christian broadcasting networks, Justin Wilford observes that “televangelism in general offer[s] models for religious publicness that avoid embodied public engagement with other institutional spheres of power” (520). Expanding the scope of his investigation beyond the detection of political complicities and partisanships, Wilford notices that the specific programming on, for example, the Christian network TBN comprises “musical entertainment, light exegesis, self-help, dieting, fitness, money-management and live church services” (512), therefore representing a “lifestyle choice among competing lifestyle choices in mediatic civil society” (513). How televangelists suggest their viewers shape that lifestyle is part of the following analysis.

This analysis does not deny that political and socioeconomic ideologies, particularly neoliberalism, exert an impact on these lifestyle features. It does assume, however, that this impact manifests itself in more ambiguous ways than straightforward championing. Rather than championing them, televangelist sermons can propose, as a surplus of their religious message, a way of navigating them, while implicitly acknowledging the pressures and stressors they generate. For this navigation, the cultivation of tranquility and of certain disciplined habits are key.

The Cultivation of Calmness

Therapeutic discourses have distinguished some of televangelism’s earliest representatives, chief amongst them Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller (Mulder and Martí 73). It is fair to say that the conjunction of a concern for the viewers’ spiritual well-being with a concern for their emotional well-being has been a key feature of televangelist programs since the phenomenon’s inception. As Mark T. Mulder and Gerardo Martí note, it was “a synthesis of Christian theology and psychology” that characterized Norman Vincent Peale’s most famous publication entitled The Power of Positive Thinking (1952)—a “blockbuster” that exerted massive influence on subsequent televangelists (63). In his brief history of the connections between religion and healing in American culture, Donald Lloyd Turner points out that Peale’s tenets went beyond the repetition of maxims stemming from antecedent spiritual and spiritualist movements such as New Thought, as he was “not a mere popularizer of mind cure, […] and credit is due to him for taking psychiatry seriously and working with professional psychiatrists in a clinic affiliated with his church” (178).

What Mulder and Martí have identified as crucial for much of Schuller’s and Peale’s messaging—namely the “conviction that applying a mindful, positive zeal to any aspiration would surely make it a reality” (65)—holds true for some televangelists of the twenty-first century as well. They, too, encourage practices such as positive affirmations, creative visualization, and the maintenance of a positive mental attitude; all staples not just of Peale’s and Schuller’s brands of televangelism but of self-improvement instruction generally. Elizabeth Anna Claydon and Joanne Whitehouse-Hart locate Meyer and Osteen in the same “theological culture” (37) as Schuller and detect in their various messages across many types of media several themes that lend themselves to discursive analysis “through an anti-dogmatic, psychoanalytically-informed lens” (34). The researchers point out that “[t]here is little hard evidence (beyond the observation that language is echoed) that Meyer and Osteen have consulted the specific psychological ideas we suggest are apparent in their teaching” (37). Nonetheless, “audience-believers” reported a general improvement of their emotional state after engaging with media produced by Meyer and Osteen (30)—an effect which the researchers analyze in its many structural and contradictory facets.

Claydon and Whitehouse-Hart’s empirical research also signals the importance of the disciplining of thought and the achievement of equanimity in televangelist messaging: They contend that “behavioural self-monitoring, emotional management denying feelings, monitoring thoughts,” and “positive thinking” are means to consolidate the viewers’ improved mood, initially produced by the generation of “strong guilt-free attachments between ‘good’ objects and the identity of an ‘overcomer.’” This attachment can in turn generate passing “periods of subjective composure” (49-50). This research indicates that in spite of some overlap, Peale’s and Schuller’s emphasis on a positive mental attitude is not the newer televangelists’ defining feature. Meyer and Osteen place great emphasis on emotional self-management. In addition, this encouragement to control emotional responses to outward stimuli can proceed from negative examples. Therefore, recent televangelist sermons feature repetitions of less upbeat scenarios. Particularly in Meyer’s case, the emphasis on emotional self-management seems at odds with the kind of televangelism that de-emphasized sin so typical of Peale and Schuller (cf. Mulder and Martí 72). Now, sin may lurk everywhere, inviting the devil into the most mundane aspects of everyday life. The scenario Meyer invokes at the beginning of her 2013 sermon entitled “Getting Your Day Started Right” is a fairly representative example of that characteristic view:

What are some of your mornings like? Do you go to bed intending to get up and spend time with God, but then when the alarm goes off, you hit the snooze, then you hit the snooze again, and then you hit the snooze again. And then you’ve laid in bed too long, and so then you get up. And, of course, now you have no time for anything, and you’re in a frenzy, and you’re in a rush, and so that makes you grouchy, and, of course the devil will play the game with you, and he’ll make sure that that’s the day you can’t find your car keys, and that’s the day nobody does anything that’s right, and then you, you know, you’ve yelled at the kids, and now you’re feeling bad about that, and your Mom gave you a call to say good morning; you grouched at her, because you didn’t have time, so now you feel bad about that, and you get in your car, and you get down almost to the entrance of your subdivision, and you realize you’ve left your cell-phone at home, so that adds to your frustration. Now you gotta hurry up and get back and get that. Then you get in the house, and you can’t find it. Then you get on the highway, and the traffic’s bad, and you know you’re gonna be late for work, so you’re thinking of all the excuses you can give. And you finally get there, and you’re basically frustrated, upset, got this little weight of condemnation on you, because of the way you acted. You know you should have spent time with God. You didn’t do it. And the whole day basically just becomes a nightmare. Anybody been there? [The audience applauds.] Done that? Now if you’re honest, you know that more than any other thing the devil will fight you on your time with God. (“Getting Your Day Started Right,” Part 2, 00:01:51-00:03:34)

In this portion, Meyer describes the effects of missing morning prayer—a habit that will feature prominently in the next section. And the quick descent of the narrative is notable: What starts out as the description of a fairly normal, if chaotic, morning, is revealed to be a tale of Satan’s work. What first appears as ordinary tiredness or lack of discipline that makes it difficult to rise on time is finally exposed as the effect of the most evil force conceivable in the context of a Christian worldview. The snooze button, whose use condemns every endeavor to failure, becomes the catalyst of that evil. The symptoms of that failure include states of emotional perturbance such as irritation, frustration, and confusion, which negatively impact relationships with other people.

Another instance of unmasking evil in the mundane appears in the second part of that sermon:

If we’re the least little bit honest with ourselves, we know what our weaknesses are. Don’t wait ‘till you’re in the middle of a tragic situation where you’ve once again given into your temptation and then try to pray your way out of it. Pray ahead of time that when temptation comes you won’t get into it. (00:06:07-00:06:30)

Meyer explains this imperative further in the context of the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus fortifies his disciples against the tribulations to come. While she does not say so explicitly, it is clear that she alludes to the imminent crucifixion. In the light of this most pivotal of events, Meyer’s example of a “tragic situation” in everyday life, ahead of which such pre-emptive praying should be practiced, could strike the listener as anti-climactic: “If food is a temptation for you, don’t wait until you’ve already eaten three plates of food and then pray. Pray about it all the time. Pray about it every morning. God, you got to help me get over this” (00:07:22-00:07:40). Gluttony, of course, should be taken seriously according to Scripture, as well as eating disorders more generally, which can give rise to feelings of powerlessness and induce the wish to seek help. Yet the sermon does not explicitly mention such situations of extreme distress. These strong words instead refer to everyday situations that could potentially provoke negative emotions in the average listener. The suggestion is to avoid such situations and to employ mental practices in order to limit the likely emotional reaction.

Osteen encourages his audience to adopt a similar attitude, counselling his viewers to “try a new approach: Decide ahead of time that you are going to stay in peace and you’ll tap into that power to remain calm” (“Joel Osteen: Protect Your Peace,” 00:07:07-00:07:14). Despite this imperative to calmness, Osteen casts occasions for arguments or irritations as traces of evil forces: “the enemy is offering you the bait” (00:12:15). A conscious determination to eliminate such emotional irritants is therefore paramount in Osteen’s view. Yet he diminishes such irritations as “clutter” in one of his sermons:

You can clear out the clutter. You can get rid of the negative things that are stealing your peace, taking your joy, draining your energy. The Scripture tells us to guard our minds. You have to be pro-active when it comes to keeping your mind in peace, because all through the day, there’s clutter, there’s noise, there’s jealousy, there’s hurts, there’s offence. They may come, but you don’t have to hold on to it. (“Unclutter Your Mind,” 00:03:45-00:04:13)

Here, Osteen advocates for the control of feelings based on the control of the mind, postulating the experience of negative emotions as counter to the divinely mandated norm. He then compares rumination on negative thoughts to the hoarding of trash that makes living in a house and going from first to second floor impossible: “In the same way, if you don’t clear out the clutter, it will keep you from going to new levels. Worry will keep you from rising higher. Living guilty will keep you from pursuing dreams. Going around offended, bitter, will keep you from new opportunities” (00:08:28-00:08:45). Here, in weaker terms than Meyer, Osteen represents these negative emotions as the cause of difficulties in life.

But again, in spite of the apparent de-emphasizing of such feelings as merely “clutter,” Osteen, too, recognizes them as the product of satanic influence:

See, the enemy’s main target is our mind. That’s the control center for our life. If he can keep it cluttered, filled with doubt, “What if it doesn’t work out, Joel? What if my health doesn’t improve? What if I don’t meet the right person?” As long as our mind is cluttered, it keeps God from turning it around. God works where there’s faith. (00:15:23-00:15:45)

Like Meyer, Osteen identifies the daily thoughts of individuals as the “battlefield”7 between the forces of good and evil, between God and Satan. What starts out as an apparent depreciation of unwanted emotions as “clutter”—a noun that invokes the image of distracting items of little worth that need to be eliminated—devolves into the narration of a battle between the most powerful forces in the Christian worldview, with the individual in the middle. In this situation, only peacefulness and equanimity can help defeat evil.

Meyer’s and Osteen’s advice deals with the management of negative emotions that may disrupt daily routines and contribute to conflicts in interpersonal relationships. The intended goal of the proposed mental strategies is quite clear: emotional de-escalation, which would ideally result in the reduction of disruptions and conflicts in everyday life. Anything other than complete peace of mind resulting from the certainty of salvation and divine blessing, coupled with the determination of righteous action, appears as the effect of evil interference in these sermons.

If considered in the context of the jeremiads of old, Meyer’s and Osteen’s use of hyperbole in the classification of events, situations, and urges appears as a traditional stylistic choice. To the extent that such choices provide insights into the underlying mindset, however, this classification is illuminating in its own right. It is a mindset that tends toward the hyperbolizing of mundane events toward the negative, which takes on the form of catastrophizing directed at the past. Psychologists investigate and treat catastrophizing in the context of anxiety disorders and cognitive distortions, defining it as a way of thinking that escalates the negative results anticipated in connection with specific fears beyond a realistic scale (cf. Davey and Levy 576). If catastrophizing as a mental practice denotes the unreasonable expectation of the worst possible consequences for any action, the mental practice exhibited in the quoted sermons resembles catastrophizing backward in time: This logic postulates the worst possible antecedent reason, namely Satan’s influence, for an undesirable outcome.

Evidently, a tension unfolds between emotional de-escalation and retrospective catastrophizing. On the one hand, the goal is to retain tranquility in all situations. On the other, the assumption is that pure evil is constantly present. This paradox imbues everyday life with meaning and importance beyond the immediate event or problem and ascribes significance to a person’s thoughts and emotional states in response to their surroundings. Because the emotional consequences of the interaction between individual and environment are so important, televangelists encourage their audiences to acknowledge their weaknesses in practical ways, such as avoiding irritating situations and adjusting their emotional responses to unavoidable8 negative experiences through mental preparation in the form of pre-emptive praying. While there is a normative framework for emotions at play, Meyer and Osteen valorize their audience’s mental and emotional states and encourage their listeners to modulate their interaction with their surroundings accordingly.

What retrospective catastrophizing and purposeful emotional de-escalation facilitate is a state of increased attentiveness and awareness. That increased attentiveness aims at the immediate management of emotional responses to expected and unexpected outward stimuli, with the goal of remaining calm. The superficially conflicting mental practices of retrospective catastrophizing and emotional de-escalation lead to the same objective of safeguarding the maintenance of tranquility. Another way of facilitating equanimity is the management of everyday habits and practices to guarantee smooth processes. As the management of emotional responses to outward stimuli is conducive to calmness, so is organizing the material interaction with one’s surroundings.

The Habits of Harmony

Televangelists’ recommendations regarding daily practices are many and variegated. This section highlights three that are particularly representative of the connection between practices and emotions established in Meyer’s and Osteen’s sermons. The first is the habit of rising out of bed before 6 a. m., the second concerns the habit of overperforming, and the third deals with habits of speech. It is in this sphere of advice on particular habits that specific life contexts relevant to audiences come into play most overtly. The three habits discussed here bear some importance in various ambits. The following analysis contextualizes them in the area of work and looks at how their spiritual presentation interacts with the navigation of work life pressures.

As Meyer says about herself, she has mastered the habit of waking up early in order to spend time in prayer before the start of the day:

Now, every morning is a fresh start in our lives. Mornings are really wonderful, and you might say, “Well, I’m not a morning person.” But I suggest you pray to get over it and stop saying that. [Audience laughs] And the reason why a lot of you aren’t a morning person is because you don’t go to bed at night. [Meyer leans towards the audience and smiles.] However, even if you’re a person that sleeps ‘till two o’clock in the afternoon, then two o’clock in the afternoon is your morning. So, I can’t dictate to you how you do it. I personally like to go to bed early and get up early. I’m in bed every night by nine o’clock, unless I’m out preaching, and a lotta times I’m asleep somewhere between nine and nine thirty. I get up almost every day between five and five thirty. And I will, I would fight a bear to protect that time that I have with God in the morning, because I know that I absolutely, one hundred percent, for sure, cannot be the kind of person that God needs me to be to glorify me and do what I’m doing if I don’t have that time with God. (“Getting Your Day Started Right,” Part 1 00:06:50-00:08:02)

Here, Meyer speaks from experience, presenting an example of activity patterns to follow. The habit of rising early provides a daily connection with God, and Meyer encourages listeners to continue with their activities only after concentrating on the divine. Highlighting her reliance on this habit, Meyer conveys that she cannot operate successfully without that concentration. This concentration may well imply a centering on the practices of emotional management described above, and seems to be aimed at fostering the aforementioned states of attentiveness and awareness through pre-emptive praying to facilitate a deliberate and calm interaction with the world. Her emphasis stresses this habit’s practical importance by relating it to the processes of subsequent actions. Biblical examples further accentuate the importance of this habit: “Come on now, the Bible’s full of it: Jacob rose up early and sought the Lord, Abraham rose up early and sought the Lord, David rose up early and sought the Lord, Jesus rose up early, as was his habit [spoken emphatically], and went off by himself to pray” (“Getting Your Day Started Right,” Part 2 00:03:31-00:03:51). The parallelism in syntax and the reference to notable Biblical figures, whose actions are framed as “habits,” underline the value of rising early, thus overriding sympathy for alternative times for rising and praying shown in earlier passages of this sermon.

Discipline and regularity accompany this habit. Early rising presupposes early retiring in Meyer’s example, and she encourages listeners to exert effort in order to conform to this norm. For some listeners, conforming requires self-discipline and the regularization of other activities into habits that fit the suggested pattern of rising and going to sleep. This implicit emphasis on discipline and regularity connotes purposeful time management and productivity. While relevant in many aspects of life, these characteristics tend to feature most prominently in the workplace, mostly as enforced imperatives. That “[p]eople who wake up early are more in sync with the traditional corporate schedule and tend to have more proactive personalities, which might lead to better grades in school or higher wages on the job” forms a data-based consensus, although the connection between sleep and productivity is far more complex (Lufkin). In spite of this complexity, “[p]ositive attitudes toward morningness are deeply ingrained” (Randler). Televangelists spiritualize these “positive attitudes” and imbue the associated habits with meaning beyond their material context. Some listeners may thus redirect their attention from the pressure to comply with strict timetables at work or cultural biases toward “morningness” to a search for divine connection. In this manner, an authentic motivation for disciplined and regular adherence to norms can emerge; negative emotions associated with external pressures can soften.

It is, of course, impossible to thematize self-discipline without referencing Michel Foucault. In fact, Meyer employs panoptic imagery when she recommends overperforming, or “going the extra mile” (00:04:38-00:04:50). The sermon “Living a Life of Excellence” underlines the necessity of being aware of God’s constant presence and perception of one’s actions:

And see, everything we do when nobody’s looking, God sees. I’m going to say that again, because getting that revelation in your life, will change your behavior. I mean, it honestly will. If we can realize that everything we do, God sees it. Come on, everything we do, God sees it. And if we can learn to live before an audience of one, realizing that we’re here for His glory—and by the way, you know what the word “glory” means? It means the manifestation of all of the excellencies of God. So, when we say, “Lord, I glorify your name,” what we’re really saying is “I behave with such excellence, that I am making You famous.” Amen? People are watching us, and we need to realize that. (00:22:03-00:23:13)

Meyer’s description coincides with Foucault’s theorization of the internalized imperatives of the supervisor that manifest themselves as discipline in potentially unsupervised situations. Meyer depicts a process in which the knowledge of one’s potential constant supervision reinforces the perception of “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 201). As Foucault further explains, the individual

who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance. (202-03)

Foucault then summarizes the two main characteristics of panoptic power according to Bentham as the state of being “visible and unverifiable” (Foucault 201). Televangelism transforms these characteristics into “believable and unverifiable”—and ultimately “non-corporal” and disembodied through the transposition of the source of surveillance into the realm of the spiritual. The constancy and the profoundness of the resultant self-surveillance increase accordingly.

This internalized control is a central factor in relationships between those in authority and those depending on it. For the latter, this internalization amounts to an effective instrument of appeasement, decreasing the likelihood of punishment. Meyer’s sermons employ a different logic, clarifying that good behavior is not a means to an end, e. g., salvation, as the born-again Christian is saved by grace alone. Rather, as Meyer highlights, good behavior expresses gratitude for the gift of salvation. Once again, the attention shifts from a center of surveillance that is antagonistic to one that is infinitely good, and from internalized control and reactivity to stressors toward authentic motivation and attentive modulation of agency.

A specific area of life that Meyer reframes in this manner is, again, work. One of the first stories told concerns an employee of Meyer’s who exemplifies the principles of “excellence” in caring for others (“Living a Life of Excellence,” 00:09:09-00:15:37). Meyer did not know about her employee’s exemplary behavior at the time, but retells the incident in a fairly detailed manner and publicly validates her employee. The employee, it seems, never sought to bring the incident to Meyer’s attention in the first place, acting out of compassion and kindness, directed at helping others and pleasing God. This story exemplifies the shift of attention from internalized control to authentic motivation in a specific context relevant to most listeners.

Less overtly, this story also exemplifies a vital aspect of modern-day working environments: Various mechanisms of surveillance are in place and accompany more processes than employees often realize (cf. Clawson and Clawson 63-66). Depicting a related scenario, the sermon implicitly acknowledges the pressures of working under surveillance, which can be associated with serious mental health problems and negative emotional states (cf. Indiparambil 82-83). Viewed from a rigidly Foucauldian perspective, the sermon implies a spiritually framed variation on the theme of surveillance, reinforcing the imperative to not allow oneself any slip-ups even when apparently unwatched. In the circumstances of most workplaces, this would be anything but bad advice. Viewed from a position that recognizes the genre, the sermon downplays material workplace surveillance, often based on distrust (82-83), and emphasizes a transformative relationship with the divine based on positive emotions. The habits of exemplary behavior and overperforming become active and motivated choices within a context of greater spiritual meaning.

This framing does not aim at rearranging material conditions for long-term social change. In other words, these messages pose no threat to the status quo. Indeed, the “disciplining of thought processes advocating forms of anxiety management” in Meyer’s and Osteen’s sermons relates to “neo-liberal self-governance” (Claydon and Whitehouse-Hart 35). In the face of the emphasis on individual agency and responsibility, it is easy to spot deep resonances with neoliberal theories and policies, following which governments “have relinquished significant responsibility […] for the social reproduction of their citizens” (Comaroff 20).9 Religious reframing can thus function as a mere restatement of hegemonic ideology.

Yet this restatement does not remain unadulterated, nor does it necessarily follow an exploitative objective. While the goal is not activist agitation for social change, the advocated personal awareness can allow individuals to maneuver the challenges of their surveilled surroundings without getting in the line of fire and without feeling constantly disempowered. In a way, these sermons reflect a pragmatic view on the reality of sophisticated, problematic systems that are slow to change but in which individuals nonetheless need to function on a daily basis. Rather than a plan for long-term change, they provide short-term assistance.

Similar mechanisms are at play when it comes to habits of speech. Osteen often encourages his listeners to monitor their own utterances closely. He frames this issue as one of determinism: speech always carries a “prophetic” quality, though not in the sense of foretelling the future but in the sense of speaking the future into existence:

I want to talk to you today about how your words become your reality. You are where you are today in part because of what you’ve been saying about yourself. Words are like seeds. When you speak something out, you give life to what you’re saying. If you continue to say it, eventually that can become a reality. Whether you realize it or not, you are prophesying your future. And this is great when we’re saying things like, “I’m blessed; I’m strong; I will accomplish my dreams; I’m coming out of debt.” That’s not just being positive; you are prophesying victory, prophesying success, prophesying new levels. Your life will move in the direction of your words. […] If you have a poor mouth, you’re going to have a poor life. And if you don’t like what you’re seeing, start sowing some different seeds. (“Your Words Become Your Reality,” 00:01:37-00:03:42)

The tenet that words have immediate, material, creative power constitutes one of the aforementioned parallels with self-improvement and New Thought that have popularized the practice of positive affirmations. In this conception of causality, descriptive accounts of aggravating present situations or the verbalized anticipation of disagreeable future situations provoke undesirable events. This causality determines every aspect of life, which justifies the great importance Osteen places on conveying this principle.

As Osteen continues in his characteristic style, blending earnest messages with amusing anecdotes, he provides an example of this principle, while also revealing some of its implications:

Sometimes, when we’ve been traveling a lot, been very busy, Victoria would come to church with me and say, “Joel, I am so tired. Look at me. Can you see how red my eyes are?” I always say, “No, Victoria, you look beautiful, you look as great as ever.” She said, “No, I don’t, Joel. I know you. You won’t tell me.” She’s right. I don’t want to speak defeat. I want to speak victory over her life. [Audience applauds.] I wonder what she would do if I ever said, “Yeah, you’re right. You don’t look good at all.” I’m smarter than that. (“Your Words Become Your Reality,” 00:07:19-00:07:49)

Many times, Osteen’s unexpected acquisition of the Compaq Center in Houston features as an inspiring example of this principle (e. g., “Miracles in Your Mouth,” 00:09:12). This humorous anecdote, however, not only exemplifies good habits of speech, it also expresses another material implication of this habit: the deliberate choice of words in different social contexts. The message here is to abstain from verbalizing negative thoughts to the people on whom one depends, especially when those negative thoughts concern them directly. This principle still features as a vital component of office policy and in a myriad of advice columns on workplace etiquette and career success, from Forbes to WikiHow (e. g., Smith; Walters). In the sphere of work, this principle of verbal determinism informs many written and unwritten rules of office culture.

Here, a socially desirable communicative style receives spiritual reframing, shifting the focus from coercion to agency: If words have creative power, then speaking is a consequential, impactful activity that gives great power to the individual. Hence, care and deliberation must prevail. Deliberate speaking thus becomes more than an effect of caution. Much rather, the awareness of a spiritual principle mandates it—as words receive supernatural meaning, a reevaluation of communicative processes sets in. The side-effects of that reevaluation may attune the speaker to social demands. Criticizing authority figures or gossiping at work, for example, may afford a retributive thrill, subversive excitement, or foster a sense of community. The speaker, however, must weigh the material dangers of these thrills against the spiritual value of foregoing them, remaining deliberate and calm.

Conclusion: Stressors and Self-Management

The preservation of tranquility is a major topic in the sermons of Meyer and Osteen. Emotional de-escalation, retrospective catastrophizing, and increased attentiveness to all occurrences constitute the mental strategies for the preservation of a calm mental state according to these televangelists. In their view, disciplined time management, overperforming, and purposeful speech are some of the habits that grow out of—but also maintain—that state of calmness. The sermons suggest an application of these strategies to specific scenarios, addressing some of the pressures that audiences face in different areas of life and the anxieties to which such pressures can give rise. These mental and behavioral strategies divert attention from worries and irritations and emphasize personal agency. The religious context in which these strategies are embedded imbues this personal agency with supreme significance through theological justification and narrativization, framing it as part of a larger spiritual pursuit to live life according to God’s will. In this manner, the sermons give audiences a discursive space in which their everyday concerns are taken seriously, and in which their everyday actions and words are valorized.

The acknowledgement of these concerns is particularly meaningful in the face of changing workplace cultures. Investigating learning in today’s working environments, Noonan et al. posit “five significant trends that are working together” and determine the “highly-digitized workplace.” These are general conditions of “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” of all relevant systems (276), the “information explosion” that renders it difficult to identify reliable information, the “flattening organization” that departs from established models of supervision and prioritizes productive partnership between all employees, the “mobility” of workers in terms of actual movement and in terms of work contracts, as well as “generational diversity” (267-68). While the first two factors speak to the increased contingency and insecurity of work, the third and fourth factors reflect increased demands for less hierarchized relationships and for the flexibilization of everyone involved. The last one mirrors potential challenges in communication between individual colleagues and between employee and employer.

Increased demands for less formal communicative styles and for more flexible working conditions have many implications, including a decreased separation between workspace and private space. Remote work from home is one of the most salient examples. Tammy Katsabian’s synthesis of several studies on the preponderance of “telework” in the United States suggests an upward trend: Different surveys place the percentages of workers who “performed some or all of their work at home” at 24 % in 2015, at 43 % in 2016, at 28,8 % from 2017 to 2018, and at as high as 62 % in 2019, depending on the source (par. 12). Katsabian identifies the home-office as “a hybrid location” which “includes actors and generates relationships that are both private and professional” and which “blurs and sometimes even eliminates the distinction between her [the worker’s] private sphere and her professional one” (par. 18). This effect is compounded by the “the trend toward the gamification of labor and everyday communication” (Silverman 93) to which communication platforms that employees can synchronize across several devices cater (96). Problems arise when the deceptive informality of such communication channels seduces employees into speaking too freely, as these platforms usually archive all correspondence, which may be accessed by supervisors or leaked (98). Thus, the surge of such “hybrid locations” in terms of places and communicative styles poses a variety of sophisticated and sometimes non-transparent problems and pressures.

This merger of work and private spaces has a problematic relationship with another factor of workplace reality, namely surveillance. Digital workplace surveillance is not a new phenomenon: In the early 1990s, researchers already pondered the ethical questions surrounding computerized productivity surveillance, observing “downward pay adjustments” for workers at one “large northeast insurance company” who failed to engage their computer terminal for a specified amount of time. Three decades ago, the researchers noted a turning away from the supervision of “daily output goals” toward uninterrupted surveillance (Ottensmeyer and Heroux 521). Today, these surveillance practices continue in the workplace, but include activities outside of work. The 2018 case of teachers in West Virginia who were nearly forced to document their levels of physical activity in an app (with potential consequences for their salaries and health insurance if they failed to comply) is one of the more extreme examples of this trend (cf. Welch 39; Gaffney). As Liam Welch puts it, “[t]he proposals may have been defeated through industrial action, but the spectre looms large” (39). In less publicized instances, employers investigate social media profiles to make decisions concerning employment and termination (cf. Duffy and Chan 120). Depending on the kind of work, other methods such as keylogging, video and GPS surveillance, or biometric monitoring may find use (cf. Zickuhr; West). Generally, employers can use data collected with such surveillance methods to legitimize measures disadvantageous to the worker, e. g., “disciplinary action or firing” (Zickuhr). And as Halpern, Reville, and Grunewald point out, the legal situation tends to favor the employer: “As an employee, you must almost presume that Big Brother is (legally) watching” (177).10

As the interfaces between work and private spaces become ever larger, adherence to professionally acceptable behavior norms becomes imperative in both. Meyer’s and Osteen’s messages resonate with that merger, and with the impossibility of maintaining a mental and affective compartmentalization of these spheres forever. What their broadcasts provide beyond their overt message is a coherent and unified mindset with particular behaviors and habits geared toward negotiating sustainable attitudes and principles of action while navigating these increasingly ambiguous environments. Their suggestions may not render listeners less exploitable in the long run, but they may become more mindful of this new interconnectivity and therefore less vulnerable in the moment.

In a highly critical analysis, Quentin Schultze classifies televangelist broadcasting as “spiritualized mass marketing” and states that “TV religion’s theology tends to be market driven” (2). Markets undoubtedly dictate much of what happens in televangelist programming, but their influence is more multi-dimensional than many investigations into this subject realize. Market principles influence the presentation and content of religious broadcasting in terms of satisfying the needs and appealing to the preferences of viewers as paying customers. But markets also impact those needs and preferences as viewers have to operate in them and adapt to them constantly in their daily lives. In the face of the increasing complexity of so many aspects of everyday life, televangelist broadcasts address sophisticated problems. This genre has taken it upon itself to combine the discourses of Protestant Christianity, psychology, therapy, life coaching, and career counseling in order to provide its audiences11 with the sort of messages that make them come back and tune in again. No matter how well-produced and visually appealing Meyer’s and Osteen’s broadcasts are, they provide more than entertainment and party-political propaganda, neoliberal ideology, or self-improvement for the mere sake of it. While the broadcasts follow the conventions of the televisual spectacle, a message relevant to the specific contexts of the audience is still front and center in any of these sermons.


[1] Glossolalia refers to the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. Usually, the speakers produce sounds unintelligible to bystanders and to themselves. Televangelists like Robert Tilton frequently included glossolalia in their messages (cf. Bekkering 167).

[2] The episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that dealt with televangelism and has been viewed 35 million times on YouTube since its upload in 2015 deals with the topic along these very lines. Reporting in news media often follows this pattern as well (e. g., Baker).

[3] Among the politically outspoken representatives, it was especially Paula White—a “Uniquely Trumpian Pastor” according to a 2019 New York Times headline—who has merited more recent attention (Peters and Dias).

[4] Experts in homiletics (the field involving all aspects of creating sermons and preaching) often credit Fred B. Craddock as the most important popularizer of this form of “inductive” preaching, in which that which is already known to the listeners functions as the fundament of the sermon in the process of composition and in terms of setting a focus (cf. Phillips 5). Both Meyer and Osteen employ this method to a great extent.

[5] For a critical evaluation of the contemporaneous scholarship and journalism on the Christian Right and its connections with televangelism in the 1980s, see Moen (346-47).

[6] Louis Althusser’s concept of “interpellation” can be defined as “the process of a subject being caught up in an ‘imaginary’ relation to other people and to the social whole” which hinges on the perception of “an illusory freedom” while “ideological State apparatuses” always remain in control (Birdwell 315).

[7] Meyer’s 1995 book Battlefield of the Mind explains these ideas in more detail.

[8] These experiences include death (cf. “Do Not Be Offended by Trouble,” 00:22:52-00:23:24), which Meyer represents as liberation, de-escalating one of the most deeply rooted human fears. Emotional de-escalation thus connects televangelism to Christianity and religion more generally, which draws some of its appeal from the comfort it gives believers who thematize their fear of death (e. g., Jong 87).

[9] As Comaroff notes further, this process often transposed the role of well-fare providers on “faith-based social services” (20).

[10] For an analysis of situations in which workplace surveillance is either justified or necessary, see Vatcha.

[11] For some very thoughtful commentary on the ethnic and racial dynamics of Osteen’s Lakewood church, see Miller and Carlin 45.

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