Republican presidential candidates have always sought prominent pastors for endorsements and votes from their loyal congregants and followers. Unlike his predecessors, Trump has not received the usual slate of well-known evangelicals for endorsement. Rather, Trump has received endorsements from lesser-known prosperity gospel pastors who admire his business acumen. These relatively unknown pastors, like Mark Burns, Jackson and Darryl Scott, are the most prominent in the Trump campaign. Though these kind of churches don’t publish membership numbers, their churches are typically smaller than the stadium-sized spaces that major prosperity preachers enjoy, and their congregations are smaller as well. While better-known prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen have followings in the thousands, multicity meetings and New York Times bestsellers, Trump’s preachers are not at that level. They are the D-list prosperity preachers. Connecting to Trump gives them a huge boost in national visibility. In return, Trump gets photo-ops with black congregations and pastors and credibility with white voters and some evangelicals. It may be tempting to think of these relationships as solid endorsements, but they are best seen as “entrepreneurial relationships” benefiting both parties. Here’s why.
First, Trump has allied himself most closely not with mainstream Evangelical pastors but with lesser-known prosperity preachers. The prosperity gospel, formerly called the health and wealth gospel, attracts entrepreneurial types of religious leaders. They are fond of lavish religious ceremonies, such as the laying on of the tallit. These types of preachers intentionally create many opportunities for followers to give money to their ministries, emulating motivational speakers rather than Bible expositors. All use television and the Internet to preach and spread their unique take on the prosperity gospel. Burns has a small television studio and a regular show on Bishop Jackson’s Impact network, which bills itself as the largest African American founded and operated national Christian Network. No surprise then that Omarosa Manigault, director of Trump’s African American outreach and a former contestant on Trump’s first season of “The Apprentice,” is a pastor as well.
These networks of prosperity preachers, with larger luminaries like Osteen, Paula White and Creflo Dollar commanding millions of dollars, represent a different type of religious endorsement than Evangelicals typically do for GOP candidates. These prosperity preachers are often neo-Pentecostals or charismatics who believe in healing and “gifts of the spirit,” unlike predominately mainline white Evangelicals. Their congregations are often, but not always, interracial. While many prosperity preachers are against abortion and same-sex marriage, their major concerns and messages are about the financial prosperity of themselves and their flocks. They are more apt to have schools about running businesses, obtaining home loans and investing. For these churches, Trump is the living, breathing proof that God’s blessings have financial rewards. Endorsing and promoting Trump is a way for them to gain visibility on an international scale, and more followers, opportunity and money.
That endorsement and visibility can come with problems. Burns also tweeted a picture of Hillary Clinton in blackface on his Twitter account, which he has since deleted. Defending his actions, Burns said that he was tired of having to defend his tweet. Burns is married to a white woman and preaches about how interracial marriage will save America. Later the same week, CNN uncovered that Burns lied about graduating from college and being in the Army Reserve. Burns became so fed up during the interview disputing his credentials that he got up and walked out.
Both of Burns’s faux pas generated much press, but in this election cycle, Trump seems to be sticking with his “pastor” for now. That has not been the case in other cycles.
In 2008, both Sen. John McCain and President Obama had problems. Obama had an issue with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose sermon line “God Damn America” ran on a nonstop loop during the campaign. Obama responded by repudiating Wright and giving his now-famous “Race Speech” in Philadelphia.
McCain was not well-liked or trusted by evangelical leaders at the beginning of his campaign. As a result, he went outside Evangelicalism to Pentecostals for endorsements, such as from the Rev. John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church and founder of Christians United for Israel, and the Rev. Rod Parsley, megachurch pastor. Both hailed from large voting states, Texas and Ohio, and McCain was forced to repudiate both pastors after segments of their sermons regarding Jews and Muslims were made public.
In 2012, Mitt Romney struggled with Robert Jeffress regarding Romney’s Mormonism, but in the end received Jeffress’s endorsement. Romney also garnered Billy Graham’s endorsement and a promise to do “all I can to help you” in October 2012. Graham helped Romney by removing Mormonism from the list of cults on the Billy Graham Evangelical Association website.
So while Burns, Trump’s pastor, may have embarrassed the campaign, there is a very good chance he will not be jettisoned. For Trump, the optics of having a black preacher or two at his side far outweigh the problem of a racist tweet. With support among black voters registering in the low single digits in some polls and zero in others, Trump needs Burns to help him recover from a reputation for racism that’s also putting off young and white voters.
It is also worth mentioning that this recent black church visit was likely the suggestion of Manigault, who is savvy enough to know that sending Trump to a social justice-oriented black church is out of the question. By aligning with black prosperity churches that are focused on economics and that downplay racial tension, Trump can gain the optics and credibility with white Christian voters who may be on the fence about voting for him.
While Trump’s visit to Jackson’s church may be the beginning of a counter to Hillary Clinton’s well-publicized visits and embrace of African American pastors and churches, it is also an investment in the future. If it is true that Trump really wants a media empire instead of being president, than who better to court than prosperity preachers who love the camera, love money and want to be famous? Trump and his black prosperity preachers are a match made in media heaven, but it remains to be seen if they can bring him any miracles at the polls come November.