The election of Donald Trump has lifted fringe ideologies, such as the alt-right, and little-known political figures, such as Trump’s immigration adviser Kris Kobach, to new levels of national prominence.
The president-elect identifies as a Presbyterian. But his rhetoric during the campaign often reflected the language of the prosperity gospel, a diffuse American Christian movement that links faith, positive thinking and material wealth into “the American religion of winning,” as journalist Jeff Sharlet described it this year.
More than once, Trump has cited the influence of minister Norman Vincent Peale, whose concept of positive thinking is a close relative of the prosperity gospel. And like prosperity gospel preachers, Trump made the appeal of his personal fortune central to his pitch.
The prosperity gospel is often associated with ostentatious fundraisers such as Oral Roberts, Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, the Atlanta megachurch pastor who tried to raise $65 million in 2015 to buy a private plane.
These nondenominational pastors rarely become involved in politics, and they do not wield the same institutional power as the more conventional leaders of major evangelical denominations. Perhaps because it has no single denominational structure, no clear leadership, and a stronger presence among less-educated Americans and people of color, the prosperity movement has often been treated as marginal.
Bradley Koch, a sociologist at Georgia College who has studied the demographics of prosperity gospel traditions, explained that “there is a dearth of data” about the movement, in part because of scholars “historically just not taking the prosperity movement seriously.”
Still, the movement’s influence is significant. Surveys can be unreliable tools for gauging religious beliefs, but, according to Koch, about 5 percent of Americans seem to identify explicitly with the prosperity movement. Far more Americans, though — perhaps close to two-thirds — identify with at least some prosperity gospel teachings, such as the idea that God wants people to succeed financially.
“They might not identify with the prosperity gospel, in the same way people don’t identify as Presbyterian, but they may identify with ideas that are central to these teachings,” Koch said.
“There’s something in the air in American religion that has valorized business success, that has valorized wealth, and that has valorized quote-unquote language of vigor,” said Jonathan Walton, a professor and minister at Harvard and the author of a book about black televangelists and the prosperity gospel. That valorization is there “at the highest levels,” he said. “Not just Pentecostals, not just folks of color. I’m talking about mainstream Presbyterians, Methodists.”
Walton said he was not surprised that more than four-fifths of white evangelicals voted for Trump, a twice-divorced candidate who boasted about committing sexual assault. “I think the same mistake that political theorists and political pollsters made in relationship to Donald Trump’s rise and success is the same mistake scholars of religion have made as it relates to the role of the prosperity gospel in American society,” Walton said. “They underestimated just how much at the center it is, versus it being something that’s marginalized or marginal.”
Trump’s affinity for the language and style of the prosperity gospel is part of a larger end run around traditional evangelical authorities, many of whom see the prosperity gospel as a kind of heresy, and many of whom were hesitant to embrace Trump’s candidacy.
Nowhere is that end run more stark than in Trump’s informal spiritual Cabinet — a small group of pastors who helped him burnish his moral bona fides early in the campaign. The three most central of those pastors — Paula White, Mark Burns and Darrell Scott — all came from the prosperity gospel-infused world of black televangelism. Each spoke at the Republican National Convention, and Burns, in particular, was a high-profile, and often controversial, Trump surrogate during the campaign.
Scott oversees a church and radio ministry in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Burns runs a Christian TV network out of a tiny studio in Easley, S.C. And White, a popular TV preacher, is the pastor of a megachurch in an Orlando suburb.
White is not black, but she got her start under the tutelage of the black megachurch icon T.D. Jakes, had a breakout gig on BET, and continues to preach to largely African American crowds. She and Trump became friends after he saw her on television (“He is a fan of Christian television,” Burns said).
White introduced Scott to Trump in 2011, when Trump asked her to organize a meeting with pastors when he was considering a presidential run. Scott and Trump’s counsel, Michael Cohen, became friends, and they organized a high-profile meeting between Trump and black pastors during the primaries last fall. They also introduced Burns, the South Carolina pastor, to Trump.
In interviews, Scott and Cohen insisted that Trump’s campaign had successfully reached African American voters (he won 8 percent of the African American vote), and Cohen said that, of the 100 black pastors invited to meet with Trump last year, 98 had filled out endorsement cards. Asked for a list of those 98, he refused, berated a reporter for wasting his time with frivolous requests, and then said that a list might be on the website of Trump’s National Diversity Coalition (it is not; in an interview with the National Review, Darrell Scott estimated that only 35 to 50 of the pastors filled out endorsement cards).
Asked what members of his church think of his association with Trump, Scott said that “you always have those who take umbrage to it, who listen to CNN more than they listen to me.”
Rather than win over black Christian voters, Scott and Burns seem more likely to have helped assure white Christians that Trump is neither impious nor a racist, despite his history of racist comments.
In return, they — along with White — have received a national platform. Burns spoke gratefully about how the campaign had raised his profile. Trump “did not have to allow this black preacher from a small town in South Carolina to have those things, he did not have to do that,” he said before recalling, warmly, the day Trump had asked him to speak at the Republican convention.
“I’m not sure if I’ll be doing anything for the inauguration,” he said. “I’m praying that I will.”
Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist and an associate editor at Religion Dispatches, where he co-produces a section on science, religion, technology and ethics.