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Opinion Why Donald Trump’s glitzy style is attracting evangelical voters

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the Myrtle Beach Sports Center in South Carolina on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump seems to be the unlikeliest Republican candidate for evangelical voters, with his three marriages, his ownership of casinos and beauty pageants, and his belated opposition to their core issues of abortion and marriage.

Yet he captured the votes of 33 percent of evangelicals in South Carolina on Saturday — a big factor in his win, because evangelicals made up a whopping 72 percent of Republican primary voters there.

Sen. Ted Cruz of (R-Tex.) seems to be the quintessential evangelical candidate: a pastor’s son who can strut a campaign rally stage as though it’s a revival and who pledged to inspire millions of supposedly apathetic evangelicals to vote for a resurgent Christian America.

Cruz amassed the endorsements of more than 300 pastors and other religious leaders in South Carolina. TheBlaze founder Glenn Beck, one of Cruz’s most high-profile supporters, told voters at a South Carolina rally that the senator was “raised for this hour” by the “hand of divine providence.” Cruz was supposed to be a messianic figure to save Christian America from its downward secularist spiral.

But Trump, whose Bible has seemed like more of prop than a campaign-animating principle, understands other impulses of evangelical voters. This intuition also enabled him to best Cruz, 30 to 13 percent, among non-evangelical voters in South Carolina.

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That impulse, which is Trumpism in a nutshell, is the magical thinking of how Americans get rich, whether it’s by surviving a reality television show, getting lucky with an investment, winning the lottery or being blessed by God.

Trump is arguably the candidate most resembling a televangelist.

For many evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, magical thinking has found its expression through the prosperity gospel, much to the consternation of Christians who consider it a heresy and a fraud. A uniquely American contribution to the evolution of Christianity in the modern age, the prosperity gospel teaches that God wants believers to be rich.

It’s also called the health and wealth gospel: Its adherents believe that God blesses the faithful with great wealth, keeps their health robust and cures the faithful of every malady. Successful televangelists boast of revelations received directly from God and of their ability to produce miracles.

If you’re poor or if you’re sick, that’s a sign of a lack of faith. Or in Trump’s parlance, a loser.

Despite countless exposés of prosperity televangelists’ excesses — including Creflo Dollar’s pleas for his followers to fund his $60 million Gulfstream airplane, Benny Hinn’s phony faith healings, and Kenneth Copeland’s luxurious homes, cars and planes — televangelism still thrives in America. It is, according to the scholar Kate Bowler, who wrote a book about it, “one of the most popular forms of American Christianity.” It has permeated evangelical culture, through television, megachurches, conferences and books that are found not just in Christian bookstores but also at the checkout line at supermarkets and in airports. It is everywhere.

Election Day exit polls typically ask voters whether they are “born-again or evangelical” or not. That’s not particularly helpful in discerning the varieties of evangelicals in America, or in understanding whether there are trends in their Republican presidential preferences.

But Trump’s style is nonetheless a marker of how prosperity theology has pervaded political culture as well. Trump, who was raised on the power-of-positive-thinking theology of the late Norman Vincent Peale, has fully assimilated the supernatural appeal of the prosperity message. He doesn’t have an economic policy platform. Instead, he touts his own wealth and success as the evidence of how he will “make America great again.”

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Every presidential candidate, of course, relies in part on aspirational oratory. But Trump’s stump speeches are particularly devoid of policy proposals, focusing instead on his celebrity. When Trump boasts that his great deal-making skills will make him a great president, he’s telling his supporters to just have faith that a victor will keep replicating his victories. “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning,” he says, as he jets to campaign stops in a luxury private jet with 24-carat gold-plated seat belts and faucets.

Copeland’s television program is called “The Believer’s Voice of Victory.” Winning. Copeland was one of a roomful of televangelists who laid hands on Trump last year, thanking God “for a bold man, a strong man and an obedient man.” If you’ve been inside the world of the prosperity gospel, you know how obedience — meaning to a preacher like Copeland — is central to how these televangelists make money.

Followers are told that “sowing a seed” is evidence of their obedience to God, who, the gullible are promised, will bless them with a “supernatural” return on their investment. “Sow a seed” means you must give Copeland (or one of his many imitators) your money.

Successful televangelists are seen as evidence that the prosperity gospel works, even as their followers fall behind economically. Their followers look at their own empty bank accounts, and at the televangelists’ great wealth, and conclude: They have faith, and I don’t have enough faith. I’ll keep on giving, and maybe eventually God will see my obedience and bless me enough to be like them.

Trump draws his most significant support from voters who make less than $50,000 a year. He has led them to believe that only a rich, successful entertainer can make America great again. Like a televangelist, Trump’s success is seen as evidence of his prowess, but even more important, of God’s good favor. His supporters seem to believe, too, that he will bring them along for the ride.

America is broken and sick; Trump will cure it, they think. He’s like the faith-healer who makes the blind man see and the wheelchair-bound woman walk again. “I will be the greatest jobs president God has ever created,” Trump is fond of saying.

Like televangelists, though, he’s obscuring the truth that your money has helped him along. He repeatedly claims his campaign is self-funded, but it isn’t. Some of his campaign money comes from supporters’ donations and from sales of his “Make America Great Again” merchandise, and some of that money goes to pay Trump’s own companies.

But that’s all part of the game. Trump’s supporters — both evangelical and not — apparently are willing to believe that worshiping self-serving hype will somehow produce a miracle for them.

Sarah Posner is the author of “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.” Her coverage of religion and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The Week, Rolling Stone and many other publications.

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