When Barack Obama picked the Rev. Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration, the outcry was tremendous, with both Democrats and Republicans criticizing Warren’s role in the ceremony because of the pastor’s opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. When Obama picked the Rev. Louie Giglio for his next inauguration, criticism of the pastor’s anti-gay views was so intense that Giglio backed out.
After Donald Trump’s inaugural committee announced its chosen clergy to The Washington Post on Wednesday, the dissent was quieter — and it was not about political issues, but theological ones.
What little criticism emerged on Wednesday mostly focused on one of the six clergy members who will pray at Trump’s inauguration: Paula White, a Florida-based televangelist who has long been close to Trump.
White is known for embracing the prosperity gospel — the theology that God will bless true believers not just with eternal salvation but with material wealth here on Earth. To many believers, the prosperity gospel offers hope and promise. But to other Christians, it’s heretical; and to some, prosperity gospel preachers’ motives are suspect, especially when they seem to be enriching themselves by asking for money from their followers.
When White’s role in the swearing-in ceremony was reported Wednesday, the Daily Beast said in a headline, “Shady Pastor to Pray With Trump at Inauguration.” Erick Erickson, an influential Christian writer who strongly opposed Trump during his campaign, fumed on his website: “An Actual Trinity-Denying Heretic Will Pray at Trump’s Inauguration.”
To explain the theology that he took issue with, Erickson posted a video of a televised conversation in which White listened to a man say, “Jesus is not the only begotten son of God. He is not. I’m a son of God.” White agreed: “He’s the first fruit.”
Erickson wrote on Wednesday: “The President of the United States putting a heretic on stage who claims to believe in Jesus, but does not really believe in Jesus, risks leading others astray. … I’d rather a Hindu pray on Inauguration Day and not risk the souls of men, than one whose heresy lures in souls with promises of comfort only to damn them in eternity. At least no one would mistake a Hindu, a Buddhist, or an atheist with being a representative of Christ’s kingdom.”
Trump picked a more diverse set of clergy to deliver biblical readings and prayers than most recent presidents, who have picked just one or two people to pray at their inaugurations. He will have six clergy members on stage, including a rabbi, a Catholic cardinal and black and Hispanic Protestant leaders.
White is the second woman ever chosen to pray at an inauguration, and the first female clergy member to participate: Obama tapped the first female prayer leader in 2013 when he asked Myrlie Evers-Williams, a layperson and the widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, to pray at his second swearing-in.
White has long been close to Trump. She helped orchestrate his meeting with hundreds of evangelical leaders in June and is now chair of his evangelical advisory board. In a statement on Wednesday, she said she will ask God to “richly bless our extraordinary home, the United States of America” when she prays at the inauguration.
And Trump’s association with the prosperity gospel dates back far longer than his friendship with White. His parents joined Marble Collegiate Church in New York, where Trump was strongly impressed by Norman Vincent Peale, one of America’s earliest and most prominent prosperity gospel thinkers. Peale officiated at Trump’s first wedding, and Trump co-hosted a 90th birthday party for Peale, who died in 1993.
The Associated Press said that Trump’s inauguration will be the first time a prosperity gospel preacher takes the national stage at an inauguration.
“You’ve got millions of people who will see them perform,” Rice University religion professor Anthony Pinn said to the AP. “There’s a tremendous amount of benefit that goes along with that.”