On Friday, for only the second time in American history, a woman will say a prayer during a presidential inauguration. Bearing the honor will be “Prosperity Gospel” televangelist Paula White, credited with the impressive task of leading Donald Trump to Christ.
Paula White’s strain of Christianity differs from the mainstream Biblical teachings of sacrifice exemplified by Mother Theresa. The prosperity doctrine teaches that Christians who are living their lives according to certain Biblical rules—as well as giving generously to the church—will receive financial blessings. As Trump’s spiritual advisor, White and Trump’s beliefs that affluence is proof of spiritual fitness manifests itself in her lifestyle and his stance on public policy and cabinet appointments.
Currently the senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, White was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and describes her young self as “messed up.” Her testimony (the story of one’s conversion to Christianity) begins with physical and sexual abuses during childhood as well as living in poverty with an alcoholic mother. White, who became a Christian at 18, claims she was given a vision by God: “[E]very time I opened my mouth and declared the Word of the Lord, there was a manifestation of His Spirit where people were either healed, delivered, or saved. When I shut my mouth, they fell off into utter darkness.” Shortly after this experience, she began a ministry in Washington, DC. When she returns to the city for Inauguration on Friday, it will be as a multi-millionaire who has owned multiple homes, including ones in Trump Towers on 5th Avenue and Park Avenue. Her choice of residence is not all she has in common with the President-elect; like Trump, White has been through financial problems, tabloid headlines, and marital woes.
White’s marriage to her her first husband, Dean Knight, at 18, was short-lived. Her second husband, Randy White helped Paula White found Paula White Ministries, which led to sold-out conferences, over a dozen books, and status as one of the most watched preachers on the BET network. In 1991, Randy and Paula built the 7th largest mega-church in Tampa, Florida, reaching a membership of 20,000.
Because of what was seen as lavish and inappropriate use of church funds, the Whites and several other prosperity preachers became the focus of a 2007 congressional investigation initiated by Republican Senator Charles Grassley. Paula and Randy refused to provide full financial information for the case, a move similar to Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. The non-profit status of churches combined with the congressional committee not subpoenaing witnesses because some feared retaliation, the investigation concluded in 2011.
The same year the investigation began, Paula and Randy White divorced. Christian newspapers and blogs lit up with what, in Christian ministry, was seen as a scandal. Yet, like Trump, what is traditionally seen as failure among a conservative community became embraced as another trial they overcame.
White led the Tampa church by herself after the divorce before she was appointed senior pastor at New Destiny Christian Church in Apopka. A mostly African-American congregation, New Destiny was in turmoil after then-pastor Zachary Tims was found in a Times Square hotel room, dead from a cocaine overdose.
Paula White’s ministry and career continued to expand. Known as the progeny of Reverend T. D. Jakes, considered the most well-known of the prosperity gospel preachers, Paula White began to pump out books like Move On, Move Up and You’re All That. The books, and her message, struck a chord with many by combining positive psychology with Bible verses laced with triumphant imagery. Her popular Paula White Today, a Christian talk show, and Hope For Today podcast launched the tiny, stiletto-heeled woman who preached, “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan,” into a selective group of America’s most influential prosperity gospel leaders.
From Jim and Tammy Baker to Joel Osteen, prosperity preachers intertwine finances with holiness. Embracing the belief that the Bible verse John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” is speaking about the worldly offerings of health and wealth, Paula White has found herself holding her own in the male-dominated world of Robert Tiltons and Kenneth Copelands. The fact that she lives extravagantly, including gifting her mentor T.J. Jakes with a Bentley, is not reason for spiritual scrutiny in this strain of Christianity. Monetary blessings are a sign of spiritual fitness.
Also known as the “Name-it-and-claim-it gospel,” the prosperity gospel doctrine was formed by focusing on Biblical verses and stories that include the words or theme of abundance, blessings, and wealth. The origins of the movement are attributed to Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin, Jr. However, it was Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, known as Revered Ike, who popularized it, especially among African-American Christians.
This “gospel” is not just attractive to white businessmen like Trump (which suits him handily), but it has become the fastest growing form of Christianity among black people in the U.S. Raising hands in prayer, dancing in the aisles, and casting out demons, all accompany the Jesus that wants to disassemble racism by empowering blacks financially. The Bravo Network’s TV show Thicker Than Water depicts a prosperity gospel church in Tennessee where the pastor says God is “all about the bling.”
And the gospel has received criticism: in 2015, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar argued in Time that the property gospel is just another war on poor black people. He wrote: “[T]here is something wrong when some people exploit the poor, the fearful and the desperate to enrich themselves through donations and tax-exemptions by pretending to be spiritual leaders.”
For White, it is more than just the money—it’s about a Trumpian mentality. She counts celebrities like Darryl Strawberry (who has since become a pastor), Tyra Banks, and the late Michael Jackson, among those she coached toward success. Any positive result of affiliation with her ministry, financial or otherwise, is taken as approval that God is on her side. That extends to Trump and his campaign.
White rode with the Trump family to the Republican Convention venue. When Eric Trump’s teleprompter stopped working during his speech, White prayed. White recounts that Eric said, “I thought I was going to have to wing 15 minutes to them all,” he said. “You prayed, and the prompter went back on.”
When Paula White prays, it is often with a conquering military imagery denoted in the Bible. She has classified criticism of herself, from inside as well as outside Christianity, as attacks from Satan himself. This extends to her Trumps. After the Republican Convention, White said to TIME: “I probably [interceded] against any plot or plan or weapon of the enemy to interfere with the plan or the will of God.” The results of the election can be seen as a direct result of conquering the enemy and the fulfillment of the Divine’s plan in the mind of White and Trump.
The similarities between Paula White and Trump don’t just stop at their beliefs and public declarations of personal victory over detractors. They have both been married three times and been the subject of infidelity rumors.
In 2010, White was seen leaving a hotel in Italy with televangelist Benny Hinn. Snapped by the National Enquirer walking hand in hand through an Italian shopping district, both parties publicly denied allegations of an affair on their ministry websites. (Both statements later disappeared.) Hinn, an Israeli-born faith healer who wears collar-less Nehru suits, is known for his television show where he puts his hand on believers’ foreheads and they fall to the floor. Hinn was going through a divorce at the time the photo was taken. Although White still denies a romantic association, Hinn eventually admitted to an “inappropriate” relationship, but denied any sexual wrongdoing.
Paula White married her third husband, Jonathan Cain, in 2015. Credited with bringing Cain back to Christ, he is keyboardist and the writer of mega-hits Don’t Stop Believing and Faithfully for his band Journey. White is Cain’s fourth wife. Speaking to The Christian Post, Cain always felt God had called him to be special although he wavered in and out of Christianity most of his life. It wasn’t until he met White on a Southwest flight that he renewed his faith. “She spoke to the king in me and gave me new hope.”
The newlyweds are rocketing towards becoming the foremost Christian power couple. Cain and Journey just announced a 2017 tour in Asia and the U.S. On Inauguration Day, Paula White will be taking the stage herself, one that will put her and the message of prosperity front and center.
While there are many evangelical critics of the prosperity gospel, it would probably be hard to convince the President-elect or his spiritual advisor that they are not fulfilling God’s destiny for the country. The Midas Touch is the result of God’s Touch. What does this say about Trump’s view of the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrants, those who aren’t Christians? Perhaps pundits are not seeing it through his and White’s eyes. The verbal threat to register Muslims, the dismantling of healthcare and financial help for the poor, the Twitter attacks on those who speak against him—this is the war few are paying attention to. This is the spiritual war that White and Trump are waging on the American people who do not align with their view of a Christian nation.
This is not your parent’s “Love one another” Christianity. The message of peace and unity has disappeared from the podium. Welcome to the Trump-era, where each American is seen as either an ally or an enemy. And it’s the enemies who will lose: “No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, declares the Lord (Isaiah 54:17).”
Karen Alea is a writer and teacher in Franklin, TN. Her former life was spent as a missionary in Asia and the Caribbean. www.karenalea.com @karenaleaford