Clutching a family-sized Bible, Donald Trump stood solemnly with his trademark pursed lips, surrounded by evangelical royalty. The 40 influential Christian men and women who engulfed the business mogul stretched their hands toward him as they took turns praying for Trump’s presidential candidacy. Among the faces and voices were those of televangelist heavyweights, such as TBN co-founder Jan Crouch, Pastor Kenneth Copeland, Pastor David Jeremiah, Pastor Jentezen Franklin, and Bishop Clarence McClendon, along with meeting organizer Pastor Paula White and quite a few others—all* leaders or proponents of what is commonly called “the prosperity gospel”. Hugs, handshakes and smiles were exchanged. The leaders took turns snapping pictures with the candidate. But until a video of the closing prayer surfaced on the Internet, there were no public reports of the meeting at all.
The Donald’s campaign has been a political sideshow—or not, depending on who you talk to. He is typically portrayed as either a clarion, prophetic voice against p.c. culture or an embodiment of all that is wrong with the partisan structure of politics, with a small smattering of views in between. With such divided opinion, this meeting was important, a symbol of where these mega-church pastors and their church congregations may eventually place their political hope. Their presence represented hundreds of thousands of potential votes, private endorsements, monetary donations, and sources of political capital.Prosperity theology has a logical connection with a candidate like Trump, who is also rooted in a mutual obsession with personal exceptionalism, a lack of spiritual discernment, and a pragmatic approach to life’s problems.
Granted, a meeting does not always equal a full-throated endorsement. Knowing this, some of the ministers have released statements of clarification, presumably to protect their own brands from tainted assumptions about their connection to Trump. By some accounts, the meeting was harmless, merely a discussion of Trump’s positions and what he planned to do if elected. But it also appears to have been a move of platform calculation, not conviction. While some of the pastors have clarified that they’ve visited other presidential candidates as well, such visits have not been as public or high-profile as this one. It is eerily reminiscent of the sort of “see and be seen” mentality that embodies the spirit of the televangelism movement, a mentality that undercuts the Christianity we see throughout the New Testament. But prosperity theology requires this type of tactical positioning. After all, the belief system is all about power.
Those who believe in the prosperity gospel connect intangible, often unseen blessings promised by God in His Word with tangible gain. This way of approaching the Christian life sets up a worldview that demands that the favor of God should be seen in the immediate present. Consequently, it also assumes that any area of Christian life lacking this favor is evidence that the Christian has failed to position herself properly or has sinned against God. Despite the evidence of a much more conflicted life experience in the early church and among Jesus’ own disciples, proponents are confident that their Savior is preoccupied with providing them with their “best life now”.
A common misconception is that prosperity theology comes directly from the charismatic movement; however, while it does seem to flourish in certain charismatic circles, it can be found in any Christian denomination. It may not be as explicit or overt, but American suburbia is filled with doctrinally sound but functionally prosperity-driven churches, with a majority of their congregations trying to fulfill an elusive “dream” for themselves or their family. Some of the more obvious examples found on Christian television have obscured prosperity theology’s tendency to creep into any redeemed worldview where comfort is an implicit expectation. The explicit preaching of this gospel is present in many of the churches represented at Trump’s spiritual council, showing that the candidate wanted an audience with a certain kind of spiritual leader. Prosperity theology has a logical connection with a candidate like Trump, who is also rooted in a mutual obsession with personal exceptionalism, a lack of spiritual discernment, and a pragmatic approach to life’s problems.
The perception that God has blessed one individual more than others, that His favor is intrinsically rooted in one group over another, is a signature element of prosperity circles. Yet it is also a key element of Donald Trump’s campaign. These two circles meeting together so prominently and amicably is not accidental. Trump is fueled by his own personal exceptionalism. He is driven by narcissistic insistence. His lack of political experience and moral superiority be damned, he has the right to stand with other seasoned politicians and vie for the Presidency because…he’s The Donald. And all those who are not like him are given the choice to agree or be belittled. Immigrants don’t get the dignity of being spoken of humanely because they are not Americans. Opponents receive the business end of his reckless critiques because they don’t measure up to his level of wealth, status and accomplishment. He is more powerful, and his lust for power has caused him to set his sights on the highest position of influence in the free world.
Because prosperity pastors themselves connect Jesus’ earthly suffering to the development of our own financial wealth, their fascination with the ego-driven Trump seems inevitable. In Trump, prosperity theology seems to have found its political paragon. In the world of prosperity preaching, connections are made through strength: Ministers merge with their peers because this is the smart, tactical ministry move. This helps to explain why this meeting ended up on the web; it’s part of the “cultural engagement” starter kit for prosperity preachers to meet with a famous person who has endless connections and make sure that someone happens to take a photo. Their meeting, then, feels less like a social stance and more like a theological statement—not a political endorsement as much as a “powerful people only, please” photo op. The video did not appear to show humble piety and obedience to the command for Christians to pray for our leaders. Instead, it feels like a front-row seat to watch these leaders flex their social clout.
Actions like this meeting not only fit the prosperity preaching mold of seeking power, but also suggest a noticeable lack of discernment. (This is surprising, considering prosperity preaching’s fascination with perceiving what others cannot see.) According to some reports, Trump was challenged during the meeting by certain leaders (particularly African-American pastors) on his campaign’s rhetorical tactics. Afterward, some of the leaders remarked that they were “impressed” and “surprised” by Trump’s demeanor, believing that his words and actions were genuine signs of humility. One pastor, during his prayer, said that a Trump presidency “will help us economically and spiritually in every way in this nation.” He later mentioned in a statement that he met with Trump because he “cares deeply about standing up for Christian values.” This group of ministers is known for their ability to discern the hearts of their church members and their television viewing audience. How can they look past the obvious reckless remarks that Trump continues to make on the campaign trail?
One must wonder which Christian values these pastors are convinced Trump will support. He has a subpar record on abortion, has issued confusing statements regarding gay rights, has swiftly dismissed the concerns of Black Lives Matter, and has made a series of outrageous statements regarding immigrants, his presidential opponents, people whom he inspired to harm others, war veterans, etc. What of these statements? What of these inconsistencies? What about “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”? This level of common-sense discernment has always been noticeably selective in the prosperity movement, where some have continued to be elevated despite clear-cut immorality, lies and greed. Thus, though it’s sad, it is also believable that Trump’s record would be quickly skimmed over. This is why a couple of statements in a 3-hour meeting can cover the multitude of his sins. Unfortunately, though, no amount of affirmative ad-libs during a prayer can ever replace true spiritual discernment.
When Hispanic immigrants are generalized as rapists and murderers by Trump, many of these ministers were noticeably silent. When people of color are disproportionally jailed and profiled by law enforcement, yet find no ally in Trump, these pastors simply pray for an African American to speak for him. These “weak”, vulnerable constituencies do not represent a power-base. They would much rather cater to the 1%, the powerful, the ones who can truly “influence” a society. They see gain. They see sway. They see the opportunity to have the ear of the next President. This is the prosperity way.
The most telling aspect of this meeting, however, is that it symbolizes mainstream, mega-church theology’s reliance on the pragmatic to accomplish the spiritual. If someone violates Scriptural commands but could “help” the country, they negotiate. If someone has money, power and influence, they are attractive and should be met with publicly. To be sure, this is present in all spheres of society, but is particularly present when the world is viewed through the sacred vs secular lens. This worldview has led many Christians into a “culture war” mentality that puts what improves Christians’ current situation ahead of what is ultimately culturally redemptive. With a concern for religious liberty at the forefront of many Christians’ presidential requirements, Trump only has to mention a few quick words to convince far too many.
Prosperity theologians routinely forget this key truth about the Gospel: It doesn’t cling to power. God seeks to spread His Gospel not through the strength and intelligence of the wealthy and powerful, but rather through weakness and the embrace of suffering. Jesus was known for this alliance with those who were the outcasts of his society. He proved that Gospel-centered cultural engagement doesn’t require riches and influence, but flourishes in underestimated circles of persecution.
Prosperity theology does not connect with the experience of the American culture, nor does it represent the heart of the Gospel. But it does find a kindred spirit in Donald Trump. While we might not expect these pastors to change, let’s hope that potential voters and parishioners take note of this power-hungry alliance.
*EDIT: Following publication, some of our readers correctly noted that Pastor David Jeremiah is not a proponent of prosperity theology, and has in fact spoken out in criticism of prosperity preaching. We apologize for this mistake.
Photo illustration courtesy of The Daily Beast.