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How the prosperity gospel explains Donald Trump’s popularity with Christian voters

Like Joel Osteen, Trump's brand is rooted in his own success.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump told a rally Feb. 1 that evangelical Christians, "understand me better than anybody." (Video: Reuters)

As the Republican convention kicks off next week, longtime observers of the evangelical-activist wing of the GOP are in for a long bout of cognitive dissonance. Heading up the party of the values-voting, pro-family right will be the boorish, lewd and wealth-worshiping avatar of “New York values,” Donald Trump.

For many traditional leaders of the religious right, the primary phase of campaign 2016 must have seemed like a bad dream — to be precise, the nightmare sequence that plunged George Bailey and his idyllic New England village of Bedford Falls into the unlicensed fleshpots of Pottersville in Frank Capra’s wholesome holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yet early indications are that white evangelical Protestants are making a wary peace with Trump, according him a 61-point lead over Democrat Hillary Clinton in a poll released this past week by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life. That’s a nine-point bigger lead than Mitt Romney held over President Obama at this point four years ago — and Trump is determined to keep pushing his margin higher.

He’s not wrong to sense a big opportunity. Trump’s bromance with evangelicals looks unexpected only because we’re approaching it backward. It’s not so much that Trump has somehow hoodwinked or bullied the true-believing American right into an awkward set of ill-fitting cultural and political postures. It’s that a large part of the Protestant world has for decades now been embracing the brash capitalist gospel of Trumpism.

The key bulwark of faith-based Trumpism is the prosperity gospel — a movement rooted in Pentecostal preaching that holds that God directly dispenses divine favor in the capitalist marketplace to his steadfast believers. Trump assiduously courted the leading lights of the prosperity faith well before his presidential run got serious enough for him to make the obligatory rounds at hard-line evangelical gatherings, such as last month’s Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference. Last year, he hosted a conclave of three dozen leading prosperity preachers at Trump Tower, and his effort promptly netted him the vocal support of prosperity televangelist Paula White. Indeed, White is reputed to have presided over Trump’s born-again conversion.

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Still, the most influential religious figure associated with Trump hasn’t officially aligned with him. Joel Osteen, head pastor of the Houston-based Lakewood congregation — the country’s largest megachurch — has a commercial brand that’s too valuable to be associated with partisan politics, so he’s tried to remain above the campaign fray (though this spring there were rumors that he had endorsed Trump). Nevertheless, the two men share an affinity of character and outlook that runs much deeper than the provisional, camera-ready alliances that make up a presidential campaign. Osteen said as much in that misconstrued would-be endorsement during a Fox News interview last fall: “Mr. Trump, he’s an incredible communicator and brander. He’s been a friend to our ministry. He’s a good man.” When Osteen launched his Sirius XM radio show in 2014, Trump was his first guest. “You can’t find a more giving, gracious person than Mr. Trump. So we feel very blessed to have him as a friend,” Osteen fawned in his trademark aw-shucks drawl.

I helped start the Moral Majority. Trump is the opposite of what we wanted.

Osteen, like Trump, has been blessed with lavish worldly success; his net worth is reported to be north of $50 million, he has seven New York Times bestsellers to his credit and his weekly Trinity Broadcast Network show yields an average viewership of more than 7 million households, making it the largest inspirational broadcast in America.

The overlaps between the two men’s lives and career arcs must make each feel like it’s a blessing to be in the other’s company. Osteen, like Trump, is the younger-child scion of his father’s legacy: Lakewood was his father, John Osteen’s, flagship congregation, and Joel was an initially unenthusiastic successor to the pulpit — much as Donald was the junior and (initially) lesser player in the family real estate empire until the early death of his elder brother, Freddy.

Osteen was at first an indifferent apprentice to the family vocation. He has no formal theological training and dropped out of Oral Roberts University. He launched his preaching career after his father’s sudden death and has largely improvised his vision of divinely sanctioned worldly success. In much the same fashion, Trump leveraged his inherited real estate fortune into a national brand, and that brand is much more about Trump’s outsize reputation than about his material achievements — the idea of a savvy, browbeating business deal as opposed to its substance.

Osteen and Trump share the same core prosperity precepts, holding that God pushes them and their discerning followers undeviatingly upward to greater success. “Don’t put limits on God” is the mantra of Osteen’s preaching — which means, in turn, that you shouldn’t put limits on yourself and your worldly achievements. This may be why Trump appears to bristle instinctively at the notion of seeking the Lord’s forgiveness — his preferred image of the deity, too, is as a single-minded enabler of success. It’s also why Osteen praises God as a uniform promoter of personal power. “You are an amazing, wonderful masterpiece,” Osteen announces in his latest book, “The Power of I Am,” and he assures his readers that once they get in the habit of repeating success nostrums to themselves, “amazing comes chasing you down. Awesome starts heading in your direction. You won’t have that weak, defeated ‘I’m just average’ mentality. You’ll carry yourself like a king, like a queen . . . with the knowledge that you’ve been handpicked by the Creator of the universe and you have something amazing to offer this world.”

When it comes to the particular behavioral preachments of Trumpism and Osteenism, the parallels are even more striking. Each espouses wealth as an expression of personal greatness — and vice versa. True, Trump announces this message with a self-hymning candor that doesn’t strike our ears as especially spiritual. But the broader affinities that his crude songs share with Osteen’s superficially scriptural prosperity faith are unmistakable. “You have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say,” the mogul declared at a North Dakota campaign stopin May. Osteen, if anything, wouldn’t bother to append the “I’m sorry to say” disclaimer. Osteen’s TV broadcasts and best-selling books harp on the same basic theme: God favors believers with great riches — in recompense for their total trust in God’s worldly designs for the faithful.

He drives this point home in a homily about his father. Not long after the elder Osteen left his home denomination of Southern Baptists to preach in the Pentecostal Word of Faith tradition, he and his family hosted a visiting businessman for a week. As a gesture of gratitude, a Lakewood congregant gave the struggling minister a check for $1,000 — significant for anyone in the 1960s and especially for a struggling minister preaching to a poor flock. Nevertheless, Osteen’s father hewed to the principles of Christian charity and deposited the offering intended for his family into Lakewood Church’s collection plate.

A huge mistake, as Trump might say. Here’s Osteen’s own gloss on this 20th-century parable of the talents, from his breakout 2004 bestseller “Your Best Life Now”: “God was trying to increase my dad. He was trying to prosper him, but because of Daddy’s deeply imbedded poverty mentality, he couldn’t receive it. . . . God was trying to get him to step up to the banquet table, but because of Daddy’s limited mind-set, he couldn’t see himself having an extra thousand dollars.”

Or, translated into the rhetoric of Trumpism: John Osteen couldn’t let God lift him up from loser-dom. Sad! But since the elder Osteen’s saga is ultimately a narrative of conversion to the dictums of the modern American money cult, it of course has an inspirational happy ending. Once John Osteen set aside the pinched and confining precepts of his inherited poverty mind-set, God took control, and the Osteen clan was launched into the true American creed of material wealth. As son Joel preaches, his dad “didn’t get stuck in the rut of defeat and mediocrity. He refused to limit God. He believed that God had more in store for him. And because he stayed focused on that dream and was willing to step out in faith, because he was willing to go beyond the barriers of the past, he broke the curse of poverty for our family.”

Trump’s success with evangelical voters isn’t surprising. It was inevitable.

This is all a far cry from the God of biblical orthodoxy, who is expected to lend a semblance of justice and order to the senseless stuff of suffering, pain and death — while also explaining why the heathen rage, widows and orphans are beggared, and the wicked prosper. That’s why both Trump and Osteen draw fire from traditional religious believers across the political spectrum. But it’s also why each enjoys shocking, unparalleled success in a culture and a polity that are militantly unchastened by the lessons of the 2008 economic collapse. The American Protestant mainstream, weaned for so long on the dogmatic gospel of economic uplift and possessive individualism, no longer processes contradictory information or intimations of a different moral alignment of economic reward and punishment. Like Trump, Osteen obsessively refers to the long, impressive record of his own economic good fortune as Exhibit A in the divine sanctioning of material favor. Like Trump, Osteen cites advantageous real estate deals, zoning abeyances and luxurious personal living circumstances as the pleasing personal tokens of cosmic grace. Indeed, Osteen goes Trump one better and finds the telltale signs and wonders of God’s lovingkindness even in the mundane workings of the service economy — as when he gets an air-travel upgrade or lands an especially convenient parking space.

It’s easy to make sport of such glosses on the biblical scheme of things; one would hope, at the end of the day, that the creator of the universe has more pressing items on his to-do list than Joel Osteen’s search for optimal parking or Donald Trump’s fantasias of boardroom dominance. But before cueing up the punch lines, it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of the working electorate is constantly facing down the rote indignities of the quest for competitive advantage in the workplace, in the housing economy, in the scrum for an unaffordable college degree, on the gridlocked interstates and in the clamor of airport departure gates. Is it any real mystery, then, that they would be tempted to rally to a great-leader figure assuring them that he will make them great again, in this world or the next? Behold, O American believers, the true power of positive thinking.

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