This opinion piece is by Michael Horton, a theology professor at Westminster Seminary California.
Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration will include Paula White and possibly other members of his inner circle, Darrell Scott, “Apostle” Wayne T. Jackson and Mark Burns. They’re all televangelists who hail from the “prosperity gospel” camp. They advocate a brand of Pentecostal Christianity known as Word of Faith.
Inaugurations are always curious rituals of American civil religion. It would not be surprising to see a non-Christian religious leader participating. But what’s problematic for me as an evangelical is how Trump’s ceremony is helping to mainstream this heretical movement.
The prosperity gospel — the idea that God dispenses material wealth and health based on what we “decree” — is not just fluff. It’s also not just another branch of Pentecostalism, a tradition that emphasizes the continuation of the gifts of healing, prophecy and tongues. It’s another religion.
In terms of religion, this inauguration exhibits the confluence of two major currents of indigenous American spirituality.
One stream is represented by Norman Vincent Peale’s longtime bestseller “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952). The famous Manhattan pastor is Trump’s tenuous connection to Christianity, having heard the preacher frequently in his youth. For Peale and his protege, the late Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame, the gospel of Christ’s death for human sin and resurrection for justification and everlasting life was transformed into a “feel-good” therapy. Self-esteem was the true salvation.
Another stream is represented by the most famous TV preachers, especially those associated with the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen and Paula White are the stars of this movement, known as Word of Faith.
The headwater for both streams is New Thought, formulated especially by Phineas Quimby, a late 19th-century mesmerist whose mind-cures attracted Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. The basic idea of his “gnostic medicine” was that we’re sick only because we think bad thoughts. Illness and death are an illusion.
Harvard’s William James took note of the phenomenon in his 1902 classic, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” He described it as “an optimistic scheme of life” rooted in Emerson and “spiritism,” suggesting that even “Hinduism has contributed a strain.” “But the most characteristic feature of the mind-cure movement is an inspiration much more direct,” he surmised. “The leaders in this faith have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such …”
The Word of Faith movement was largely the brainchild of E.W. Kenyon (1867-1948), who blended Quimby’s Emersonian transcendentalism with his more evangelical “Victorious Life” beliefs. “I know that I am healed,” he wrote, “because [God] said that I am healed and it makes no difference what the symptoms may be in my body.” Kenyon shaped many of the distinctive Word of Faith teachings, including the central idea of “positive confession.” “What I confess, I possess,” he said — in other words, “name it, claim it.”
As a student of Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin, revered as “granddaddy” in Word of Faith circles, gave the faith-healing movement its theological core. It included odd teachings about us all being “little gods.” Those who are born again, Hagin said, “are as much the incarnation [of God] as Jesus of Nazareth.” “You don’t have a God living in you,” says Hagin’s student Kenneth Copeland. “You are one.” Creflo Dollar adds, “[The] only human part of you is the flesh you’re wearing.”
The positive-thinking movement appealed to urbane movers-and-shakers. Peale and Schuller were counselors to CEOs and U.S. presidents. Word of Faith has been more popular among rural sections of the Bible Belt, where faith healers have had a long and successful history. But in the 1980s, the two streams blended publicly, with Copeland, Hinn and Schuller showing up regularly together on TBN.
In the 1950s, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described Peale’s message as a false gospel: “The basic sin of this cult is its egocentricity,” he said. “It puts ‘self’ instead of the cross at the center of the picture.” The Word of Faith teachings, conveyed from Quimby via Kenyon and Hagin, are similarly centered on not making God a supporting actor in our life movie.
Televangelist White has a lot in common with Trump, besides being fans of Osteen. Both are in their third marriage and have endured decades of moral and financial scandal. According to family values spokesman James Dobson, another Trump adviser, White “personally led [Trump] to Christ.”
Like her mentor, T. D. Jakes, White adheres closely to the Word of Faith teachings. Besides throwing out doctrines like the Trinity and confusing ourselves with God, the movement teaches that Jesus went to the cross not to bring forgiveness of our sins but to get us out of financial debt, not to reconcile us to God but to give us the power to claim our prosperity, not to remove the curse of death, injustice and bondage to ourselves but to give us our best life now. White says emphatically that Jesus is “not the only begotten Son of God,” just the first. We’re all divine and have the power to speak worlds into existence.
So if you’re still a wreck, that’s your fault. Negative thinking. You’re the creator, so why not be a successful one? White puts it this way in a television TBN program: “There is creative power in your mouth right now. God spoke and created the universe; you have creative power to speak life and death! If you believe God, you can create anything in your life.”
Of course, to be a “little god,” you have to do your part, often involving a financial commitment. It’s what they call “seed faith.” White even gives her viewers the words to tell themselves: “So I’m going to activate my miracle by my obedience right now. I’m going to get up and go to the phone.” When you do that, she says, and “put a demand on the anointing,” you’re “going to make God get off His ivory throne.” “Don’t you miss this moment! If you miss your moment, you miss your miracle!” When Jesus raised Lazarus, according to the old King James Version, “his face was bound with a napkin.” It’s taken from John 11:44, so for everyone who sends $1144 (get it?), White said, she would send a napkin she blessed.
Some representatives, like Osteen, offer an easy-listening version that seems as harmless as a fortune cookie. It’s when he tries to interpret the Bible that he gets into trouble, as in his latest book, “The Power of I Am.” “Romans 4 says to ‘call the things that are not as though they were,’” he says, but the biblical passage is actually referring to God.
But it’s not really about God. In fact, one gets the impression that God isn’t necessary at all in the system. God set up these spiritual laws and if you know the secrets, you’re in charge of your destiny. You “release wealth,” as they often put it, by commanding it to come to you. “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan,” White told a television TBN audience in 2007. Oops. It was Jesus who said “anyone who would come after me” must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Most evangelical pastors I know would shake their heads at all of this. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore tweeted, “Paula White is a charlatan and recognized as a heretic by every orthodox Christian, of whatever tribe.” Yet increasingly one wonders whether modified versions of the prosperity gospel — religion as personal therapy for our best life now — has become more mainstream than we realize.
Thanks to the First Amendment, Christian orthodoxy has never been a test for public office. But it is striking that Trump has surrounded himself with cadre of prosperity evangelists who cheerfully attack basic Christian doctrines. The focus of this unity is a gospel that is about as diametrically opposed to the biblical one as you can imagine.
Since “evangelical” comes from the word “gospel,” that should make more of a difference to those who wear the label than it does at the moment. The prosperity gospel may be our nation’s new civil religion. It doesn’t offend anyone (but picky Christians). It tells us everything we want to hear and nothing that we need to hear most.
Michael Horton is author of “Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God’s Story.” He blogs at whitehorseinn.org.