To ensure his re-election to the White House, Donald Trump must retain the backing of the white evangelicals who put him there in the first place, writes Bette Browne
US televangelist Paula White firmly believes God wanted Donald Trump to become president.
As the US leader’s newly minted spiritual adviser, she is now playing a pivotal role in his quest for re-election.
“I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there,” she declared.
More recently, she proclaimed:
Pastor Paula, as she is known, is also a proponent of ‘prosperity gospel’, which holds that God will reward faith and generous giving with financial rewards. A person’s material wealth, therefore, can be seen as a sign of God’s favour.
White’s beliefs and pronouncements have dismayed some Americans but delighted many of the president’s evangelical supporters, 81% of whom voted for him in 2016.
Evangelicals make up about 25% of the US population of 327m, according to the Pew Research Centre, and White will be aiming to keep them on side in the 2020 election.
She is already on record as saying there are “consequences from God for those who don’t stand with the president” and anyone who goes against him is “fighting the hand of God.”
White, 53, has known Trump for about two decades and has been his unofficial spiritual adviser since his 2016 presidential run, but this month she moved up a notch to an official government role as his faith adviser in the White House Office of Public Liaison.
This will involve advising members of Trump’s Faith and Opportunities Initiative, which he established by executive order in May 2018 to help faith-based organisations to compete “on a level playing field” for federal funding opportunities.
It is also aimed at strengthening “the institutions of civil society and American families and communities.”
In remarks after White’s appointment, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said White “is someone who has the respect and admiration of the faith community across the country”, adding:
White has come on board Trump’s White House team at a time when the president faces impeachment woes and is in trouble with some evangelicals over his controversial agreement with Turkey to pull back US troops in northern Syria.
Evangelicals say this threatens the safety of Christians in the region and could lead to a resurgence of Islamic State.
The country’s leading evangelical, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, condemned the Syria decision, saying “the president of the United States is in great danger of losing the mandate of heaven”.
White’s high-profile appointment may change all that and shore up Trump’s support among evangelicals as he heads into the 2020 election.
White evangelical Protestants in the US continue to overwhelmingly support Trump, at nearly 70%, according to data from the Pew Research Centre.
By contrast, in most of the 11 surveys conducted by the centre since Trump’s inauguration, between 46% and 55% of white mainline Protestants have approved of the president, while around half of white Catholics have approved of his performance.
US evangelicalism is essentially an umbrella group of Protestant Christians, affirming traditional Protestant teachings on the authority of the Bible. They are drawn from a variety of denominational backgrounds, including Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, Reformed, and non-denominational churches.
During the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, many white evangelicals either opposed Martin Luther King or, like Billy Graham, believed that racial harmony would only come about when the nation turned to God.
In the 1970s, evangelicalism became synonymous with being “born again” and with strong opposition to abortion.
With the rise in the 1970s of the Moral Majority, a political organisation associated with the Christian right and Republican Party and founded by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, evangelicals began to seek not only moral, but political power. They have continued to do so in recent decades.
Evangelicals thus decided to hitch their wagon to Trump’s presidency, even though he is twice divorced, married three times, has been accused of extra-marital affairs, and was once heard boasting on tape that he could assault women because he was famous.
The main reasons is they sought political power, particularly in the White House, to drive their ultra-conservative agenda, according to conservative commentator Ben Howe.
In his his recently published book The Immoral Majority, subtitled ‘Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values’, Howe, the son of a pastor, said evangelicals remained loyal to Trump even after his boast about being able to assault women because they could look past all that as long as he worked to deliver their objectives, such as his election pledge to overturn the 1973 US Supreme court Roe vs Wade ruling that legalised abortion.
Certainly, their support for the president has yielded rewards. Since his election, he has appointed two conservative judges to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, whose rulings are likely to tilt the court to the right and could ultimately overturn the 1973 abortion ruling.
At the Florida rally at which Trump launched his re-election bid, on June 18 this year, White condemned what she termed “demonic networks” that oppose “the calling” of Trump.
“We are in a spiritual war right now,” she said. “Let every demonic network that has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus.
“I declare that President Trump will overcome every strategy from hell and every strategy from the enemy, every strategy. And he will fulfill his calling and his destiny.”
When some evangelicals criticised aspects of Trump’s immigration policies, especially after it emerged last year that his administration separated children from their parents who were trying to enter the US illegally, White told the Christian Broadcasting Network that people cannot break the law.
White has described herself this way: “[I was] a former messed-up Mississippi girl who lived in a trailer that they called trailer trash. Got pregnant out of wedlock, been married, been divorced, not once but twice.”
She was sexually and physically abused from the ages of 6 to 13 by different people, she said in a CNN interview on November 26, 2007.
She was never religious, she admitted, but that all changed when the uncle of a friend introduced her to the Bible.
“I had an awakening,” she said. “It was a moment that so transformed my life.”
God spoke to her when she was 18, she said, and declared:
She began attending “ministry school” and then became a preacher.
She was the co-pastor of Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Florida, which she co-founded with pastor and then-husband Randy White in 1991. From 2014 until May 2019, she was senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Orlando.
In 2007, White, along with five other televangelists who also preach some form of the ‘prosperity gospel’, were the subject of a US Senate Finance Committee investigation into church spending and their churches tax-exempt status. The probe, led by Iowa Republican senator Chuck Grassley, ended in 2011 with no findings of wrongdoing.
Her website lists an array of causes, from the Africa Orphans Ministry to the Prison Inmate Ministry to the Emergency-relief Ministry.
She also offers a “Salvation Plan” and a range of books, videos and CDs — all at the touch of a “donate” button.
She urges people to become “a ministry of sustainer” to keep their “dream” alive.
She has rejected criticism of the “prosperity gospel” she espouses. It’s really all about charity, says a spokesperson said.
“Charity is at the heart of Christianity, as it is at the heart of every religious tradition in the world, and anyone who has listened to White’s teaching within its proper context should come to this conclusion as well.”
Trump first contacted White in the early 2000s after seeing the evangelist on television in Florida.
White reportedly prayed for Trump during significant moments in his life, and Trump appeared on White’s television show. Trump named White as his unofficial spiritual adviser in 2016, making the role official this month. He invited her to lead the inaugural prayer when he took the oath of office in 2017.
Trump is a Presbyterian. As a child, he and his parents attended the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, New York. In the 1970s, his parents joined the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, which was founded in 1628 and is one of the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in North America.
When questioned about his moral beliefs, the president said he is “not sure” if he ever asked God for forgiveness.
“If I do something wrong, I just try and make it right,” he said. “I don’t bring God into that picture.”
He has referred to his own book, The Art of the Deal, as his second favorite book, adding:
Trump, of course, is not unique among American presidents in associating himself with religious preachers. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton all prayed with the late evangelist Billy Graham. Today, Graham’s son, Franklin, is one of Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters.
Trump also delights in the annual national prayer breakfast, which has been popular among US presidents for more than 60 years.
Clinton, a Baptist, famously attended a national prayer breakfast meeting with clerics and asked for their blessing just hours before special counsel Kenneth Starr delivered his damning report on the president’s infidelity and his attempts to cover it up.
Bush, an Episcopalian, known in his younger days for his flamboyant, hard-drinking lifestyle, became a born-again Christian in 1985 with the help of Billy Graham.
More recently, Barack Obama was engulfed in controversy during his 2008 election because of his association with the controversial black preacher Jeremiah Wright, who was accused of making racist remarks.
But not all evangelists are happy with Trump. One of Billy Graham’s granddaughters, Jerushah Armfield, has criticised her uncle Franklin and other evangelical leaders for their willingness to overlook Trump’s behaviour.
“It’s sending the wrong message to the world about what Christianity is, and what evangelicals are, or I guess, have become,” Armfield said in a 2018 CNN interview.
She said many in the evangelical community feel that “if they support his policies, they also feel like they have to stay hush on his behaviour ... My president doesn’t have to be a Christian, I just don’t want him to be held up as the poster boy for Christian evangelical because he doesn’t represent most of us.”
Like some of their Catholic counterparts, US evangelicals have also been hit by scandals over the years. In the 1980s, sexual and financial scandals involving televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker sent shock waves through the evangelical world.
In 1988, Swaggart was implicated in a sex scandal involving a prostitute that resulted initially in his suspension, and ultimately defrocking, by the Assemblies of God church. Three years later he was implicated in another scandal involving a prostitute.
In 1989, a jury found Bakker guilty on 24 counts of financial fraud. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison and ordered to pay a $500,000 fine.
Ted Haggard, who was once a mega church pastor and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, resigned in 2006 after a male prostitute said Haggard had paid him for sex. Haggard now leads a church in Colorado Springs.
A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute last month shows how how substantial Trump’s support is among white evangelicals: 99% of Republican-leaning white evangelical Protestants oppose impeaching and removing him from office and 63% say he has done nothing to damage the dignity of the presidency.
But if that suggests all will be plain sailing for Pastor Paula, a poll last month by Fox News told a surprisingly different story. It found nearly three in 10 white evangelicals want the president impeached and removed from office.
And in an NPR/Marist survey, which was taken after Democrats began their impeachment inquiry, only 62% of white evangelicals said they definitely plan to vote for Trump next year, down from 81% in 2016. Pastor Paula could find the concept of biblical generosity may not extend to politics.