The Pentecostal-Charismatic movement overlaps with evangelical traditions in many ways, especially in their conservative ideas about political issues such as abortion, marriage and prayer in schools. But the groups are historically distinct — until the mid-20th century, Pentecostals and their Charismatic descendants weren’t routinely grouped with their evangelical counterparts.
1. Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrity culture
Trump has cultivated support among Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrities such as Jim Bakker, Paula White and Mark Burns, who, like the president, are media moguls with scandalous histories. These televangelists attain authority as Pentecostal-Charismatic leaders through celebrity culture over (and in some cases, against) traditional qualifications for the ministry, such as ordination or seminary education.
By inviting Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrities into his orbit, Trump is giving them the kind of public access that historically went to their evangelical cousins. Middle-class white evangelicals have been seen as a voting bloc worth courting for many years, ensuring enduring access to presidents for their leaders. For example, as counselor to decades of presidents, the late Billy Graham became in many ways a proxy for his evangelical followers. Through Graham’s access, many evangelicals felt the president heard their concerns.
In contrast, the general public historically viewed tongue-speaking, emotive Pentecostals — who burst onto the 20th century American religious scene with a black leader (William J. Seymour), interracial services and female preachers — as delusional or even dangerous. Famous (and infamous) celebrity Pentecostal-Charismatic preachers, like early 20th-century radio star Aimee Semple McPherson, midcentury television preacher Oral Roberts, 1980s televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and 21st-century prosperity preacher Creflo Dollar, have been viewed with extra suspicion.
Small wonder, then, that they didn’t receive the same invitations as evangelical celebrities like Graham to play roles in the pomp and circumstance of the presidency. For the most part, the televangelists and their worldwide audiences had to settle for access to the White House through their more respectable evangelical counterparts.
Yet Pentecostals have long engaged in politics despite this lack of access, and, as the movement grew, presidents seemingly warmed up to Pentecostal-Charismatics — even the televangelists. Televangelist Oral Roberts met with Kennedy, Nixon and Carter; in 1985, Ronald Reagan gave a very friendly interview to Charismatic Baptist media mogul Pat Robertson.
Trump’s invitation to Charismatic televangelist Paula White to deliver an inaugural prayer alongside evangelical legacy Franklin Graham — a role traditionally performed by respectable religious leaders from mainstream and mainline religious organizations — reflects the changing terms of politics and religion in the U.S. It is a cultural coup to promote White, seen in more traditional evangelical quarters as a “heretic” and “charlatan,” into these honorable ranks.
But White’s unconventional resume and flashy aesthetic make her a perfect fit for Donald Trump, whose own use of celebrity culture as authority catapulted him to the presidency. Moreover, Trump’s embrace of Pentecostal-Charismatic leaders is savvy: Already nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population, the movement is a political force with “big league” potential.
Engaging with devotees of the “prosperity gospel” — whose believers celebrate overt displays of wealth as clear signs of God’s favor (see: the cast of Preachers of LA) — makes sense for the wealthy, celebrity-friendly Trump. His prosperity theology, coupled with his unabashed embodiment of conspicuous consumption, resonates with Pentecostal-Charismatics, who are leading creators and purveyors of this much-maligned theology. While many evangelicals trade in status symbols, it is prosperity gospelists who can credibly angle for personal jets, and for whom glitz is welcomed as a sacred aesthetic.
Pentecostal-Charismatics hail from a long line of anti-institutionalists. In the early American republic, radical evangelicals insisted on a God who was accessible to common folks through prayer, Bible reading and expressive bodily worship — activities in which anyone can participate — and refused to allow God to be privatized by elite expertise. Their rejection of other forms of cultural authority is partly what made them “radicals.” Not all U.S. evangelicals hail from these radically anti-elitist camps, but Pentecostalism arose in part from this tradition.
Some present-day Pentecostals perpetuate this anti-authoritarian stance, preferring (by wide margins) common sense to intellectual know-how, and viewing cultural elites with deep suspicion and antipathy. Trump’s repeated rejection of scientific consensus regarding climate change and his rowdy approach to foreign policy resonate with Pentecostal-Charismatics. In their view, educated elites don’t faithfully describe the world as Pentecostal-Charismatics know it, and those elites sure don’t know how to fix it.
Like many evangelicals, especially those who identify as fundamentalist, Pentecostal-Charismatics have been steadfast, passionate supporters of Israel, an integral part of their beliefs about “the end times.” Indeed, Pentecostal-Charismatic support for Israel precedes and exceeds their support for Trump. In particular, they emphasize the fate of Jerusalem in their eschatology (the theology of the end of time) and congregants animate their love for ancient Israel with, for example, their use of the shofar and prayer shawls in worship rites.
Trump’s moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, therefore, is not just fulfilling a campaign promise; to many Pentecostal-Charismatics, it’s fulfilling God’s plan for the end of days. The value of this move can’t be overstated, because it confirms and gives physical reality to Pentecostals’ mystical perceptions of Trump as more potentate than president — a ruler in the order of the biblical kings of Israel.
The relationship between church and state has never been easy for American Christians who seek to be members of God’s kingdom while also being citizens of the United States. For Pentecostals, how America’s democratic government works in tandem with God’s monarchy isn’t always clear. But for most, “the people” don’t ultimately decide the fate of the United States or the world. God decides the future and “brings it to pass” through his own means.
Taking cues from biblical accounts of Israel’s kings (and pagan kings over Israel), Pentecostals believe anyone can be a vessel for God’s ultimate purposes. A person’s limitations do not matter, instead, what really matters is whether the person is “anointed” for the task. In fact, Pentecostals expect God to anoint surprising people to accomplish divine work in the world.
In the early days of Pentecostalism, “surprising” figures were often practitioners from humble beginnings like William J. Seymour, the son of formerly enslaved parents who led a revival in Los Angeles that many historians think of as the beginning of the movement. Now, the surprising figure is a wealthy businessman who was once a reality television star and now commands the world’s largest military.
Thus, when some Pentecostal-Charismatics talk about Trump’s election, they speak of his “anointing” or “appointing” for “this time.” When he disregards conventional wisdom, they see someone who, like themselves, goes against a coercive mainstream intellectual grain. When he supports Israel, they see a king, however flawed, and an instrument for the purposes of God. When he moves his embassy to Jerusalem, they see verification of their sacred narrative.
When Pentecostal-Charismatic advisers to Trump talk about their role in this divine drama, it is as godly intercessors on the president’s behalf.
From this vantage point, it hardly matters whether Trump behaves morally, won the popular vote or even colluded with Russia. Trump is not just a leader selected by the people: he is an intervention — God’s anointed, divinely elevated ruler. Actually, the sheer unlikeliness of Trump’s win fits the Pentecostal-Charismatic imagination for miraculous intervention, and moves Trump far above the reach of critique.
When viewed through the prism of Pentecostal-Charismatic tastes and theologies, the enthusiastic support among the faithful for Donald Trump becomes clear — to them, he’s God’s anointed king.