March 2017 Church & State - March 2017

Pennies [And Lots Of Dollars] From Heaven

  Rokia Hassanein

Prosperity Gospel television preacher Paula White has been widely considered the closest person President Donald J. Trump has to a spiritual adviser or guide. She’s the president’s personal minister, she made history by becoming the second woman to pray at a presidential inauguration this year and she’s set to chair the Trump administration’s Evangelical Advisory Board.

“If somebody wants to characterize that as I’m the ‘God whisperer’ … I’m a person that prays over him every day and the person that goes into prayer for him, a person that can walk into his office pretty openly and freely and pray over him before every rally if I’m there. … That’s not unusual, and if God inspires me to share something with him, I do,” White told Religion News Service about her relationship with Trump in an interview that published on Jan. 19.

But White, a senior evangelical pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Fla., and host of her TV show, “Paula Today,” doesn’t have a hefty history in politics. She does, however, blend capitalism with Christianity in her preaching, which people speculate plays a role in Trump’s appeal toward her.

The Prosperity Gospel relies on the idea that God offers prosperity, such as material wealth and health, to people who are faithful. Although primarily tied to conservative evangelical Christianity, the Prosperity Gospel has appeared in other Christian denominations. 

Some historians argue that this the­o­logical perspective meshes well with the idea and the quest of the American dream. Trump used Prosperity Gospel pastors to vouch for his religiosity during his “Make America Great Again” campaign in an attempt to win the evangelical vote. Alongside White, prosperity pastors Mark Burns and Darrell Scott played a role in Trump’s “spiritual Cabinet.”

“While I would not say that this type of theological perspective is only found within the United States, it is certainly an American phenomenon,” Andrew Gardner, an expert in American religious history and a Baptist Joint Committee board member, told Church & State. “Trump’s affinity towards individuals who preach the Prosperity Gospel makes sense, as this theological perspective would suggest that Trump’s wealth is indicative of God’s favor with him.”

Blending capitalism with Christianity as White does, Gardner notes, goes back centuries.

“I find that the Prosperity Gospel is unique in that it necessitates a charismatic and successful leader,” Gardner said. “Through their wealth, these leaders exemplify the reality that God blesses those who are faithful. In turn these leaders sell their books and collect offerings, becoming more wealthy, further ‘proving’ God’s desire for God’s people to be prosperous.”

White’s approach aligning the Prosperity Gospel with capitalism has been a source of controversy. White and other prosperity preachers’ ministries often rake in large sums thanks to prosperity adherents who donate to churches as a gesture of faith to God with a hope that God will make them wealthy as a reward for their generosity. Some of these people, critics charge, are of modest means and struggle to afford the gifts they make.

Within her own ministry, Paula White Ministries, White has made capital off prosperity preaching by selling multiple books, touring the country for paid speeches, garnering ratings on TV networks and using her wide-reaching social media presence to further market her platform.

Her activities have attracted some scrutiny. In 2007, White’s ministry was among six TV ministries investigated by the U.S. Senate for possible abuse of tax-exempt status.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), then a member of the Senate Finance Committee, released a report on the investigation in 2011, which resulted in no penalty for the ministries after the Senate decided not to subpoena witnesses who feared retaliation.

Grassley’s staff noted at the time that White, whose net worth was found to be $5 million by the Internal Revenue Service, was allegedly not cooperative during the investigation and refused to turn over requested documents. Under fire from Religious Right activists, Grassley soon backed off. (See “Grassley Withers Under Religious Right Heat,” February 2011 Church & State.) 

Still, the report contained some interesting tidbits. It found that ministry members often used donations to elevate their lifestyle. White and her then-husband, Randy, had two palatial homes. Their house in Tampa Bay was worth $2.7 million, and they had a $3.5 million condo at New York City’s Trump Tower. White told NBC Nightly News in a Jan. 19 interview that donations to her ministry helped pay her bills, but she insisted that Prosperity Gospel isn’t all about money.

To Bradley Koch, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia College and a scholar who has studied the Prosperity Gospel, seeing members of wealthy populations be attracted to such theology is unusual. Koch notes that the most likely adherents tend to be members of groups who are low income. This makes Trump – if he truly believes in this theology – something of an outlier.

“Trump is essentially the opposite of those identities,” Koch told Church & State. “As seems to be typical of him more broadly, Trump here is a bit of an enigma.”

But while Trump was born into wealth, White became wealthy only in her adulthood. In a 2016 video posted on her Facebook page, White recalled that her history with poverty began at age 5, when her father died, and her family soon after struggled to pay for essential needs.

“I remember that feeling of feeling poor,” she said. “I’ll never forget there have been many seasons in my life that I’d gone from highs and lows and had different financial situations and circumstances.”

By the time she turned 18, White said that she was living in a trailer. She then credited her financial turnaround to when she became “blessed,” which led her to start her own ministry. Her video’s purpose was to “share the secret of her success” because she claimed she received over 6,000 prayer requests from people seeking similar financial success.

Despite White’s insistence that modern-day Prosperity Gospel preach­ing isn’t about money, her messaging is consistent with correlating faith in God with wealth and financial prosperity. She told NBC that although she often preaches in this manner, she doesn’t always believe it.

“So have I ever said that God would bless you back financially? I’m sure I have. I’m absolutely sure somewhere. But do I principally believe? Like I’m not gonna say, ‘I have never said that,’” White said. “But do I teach fundamentally like, ‘Give to give. Give to get. Get to get?’ No. That is not the principle or the basis of who Paula White is.”

White’s scattered and inconsistent statements appear to be a recurrence. In her 2008 book, Move On, Move Up: Turn Yesterday’s Trials Into To­day’s Triumphs, she writes about instances in which people who suffer due to a variety of life events can use Christianity and faith in God as a mechanism for healing. Her writing reflects on her social-conservative ideation.

Of some widows, she wrote in her book that they can “become confused about how to handle the money and property they inherit.” In one portion of the book, she says that people often aspire to gain material wealth more than spiritual wealth, and she points them toward placing their future and fate in God’s hand.

In another portion, White prioritizes “God’s plan” over psychology and writes that “pain and ongoing frustration are symptoms of a deeper issue that needs resolution and healing” and that suffering, despite scientific research that shows chemical imbalances play a natural role in human emotion, is “not God’s best plan for us.”

“God’s intention is that we move up… but even more so, that we move up to the ever-increasing levels that are according to His plan and purpose,” White continued. Her book repeatedly emphasizes that a person will get what God wants them to get, whether that’s emotional or financial well-being.   

White’s popular following is interesting when factoring in the quantity of American Christians who are prosperity adherents.

According to Koch, around 5 percent of the U.S. population identify as members of a prosperity movement, while 66 percent of American Christians agree with prosperity-related teachings to some extent.

So what led to White’s transition from having a seemingly minor reach  to having the ear of the most powerful man in the country?

Though her political involvement began during Trump’s presidential campaign, White told NBC that she and Trump became acquainted 15 years ago, when Trump, not knowing her at the time, cold-called her after seeing her on TV.

“Mr. Trump called me up out of the blue. He had been watching three sermons on television, and he quoted them back verbatim,” White said.

White delivered an invocation at the Republican National Convention last summer. Since then, she has been present when Trump has asked for spiritual guidance or advice. During Trump’s presidential campaign, White said that Trump repeatedly requested her to bring pastors she knew to pray over him in his office. She added that she envisions her role in the White House to be similar.  

“I would pray for him, pray for his family, pray for his staff, just talk God, talk life. Little did I know 15 years ago Donald Trump would now become [then] President-elect Trump,” she said. “My assignment was always to pray for him and show him who God is.”

As it turns out, Trump and White have developed some similarities over the years. They are worth millions thanks in part to their TV roles, they voice non-traditional thoughts but have a loyal fan base, and they both are thrice-married, which became a source of controversy for White and Trump in terms of validating their devotion to Christianity.  

Some experts in American religion view the Trump-White relationship as unsurprising.   

“If Trump wants mass appeal and hasn’t courted traditional sources of power, then this is a very smart alliance,” Kate Bowler, an American Prosperity Gospel expert and Christian history professor at Duke University, told Time of Trump’s alliance with Prosperity Gospel pastors. “They are like him, they are outsiders with an unusual amount of popular support but not as much cultural credibility.” 

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