Though she rejects the label, televangelist Paula White is part of the prosperity gospel movement, which goes by many names: "Name it and claim it." "Health and wealth." "Word of faith." "Seed faith." Even just "faith." What these titles to varying degrees reveal and obscure is the transactional nature of this scam at the fringes of Christianity. God wants to give you money, good health, and happiness, the prosperity gospel preacher says, but you've gotta work with him a little first. You have to demonstrate the sincerity of your faith — do for him before he'll do for you — and as it turns out, a really great demonstration of faith is sending a check to this very preacher, who just happens to be in the market for a new personal plane.
White also happens to be the latest Trump administration hire, reportedly brought on to advise on the White House's Faith and Opportunity Initiative. This is exactly right. A shameless religious grifter is a perfect fit for this presidency, an administration built on giving desperate people false hope for personal gain.
To the outside observer, the prosperity gospel may look like a mere extension of more theologically conservative and liturgically demonstrative types of Christianity, a close relative of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or Pentecostalism. There is overlap with each, to be sure, but the prosperity gospel is a unique creature. Though popular around the world, especially in the Global South, it has American roots and what Kate Bowler, a professor of religion at Duke Divinity School, has described as a "triumph of American optimism over the realities of a fickle economy, entrenched racism, pervasive poverty, and theological pessimism."
There are two chief problems with the prosperity gospel. One is its clever theological perversion, which offers a funhouse mirror take on basic Christian affirmations that God loves us, wants good things for us, and is working through his people toward a final victory over evil, sin, and death itself.
In the prosperity gospel's telling, God is a divine vending machine: You put in your coin of faith (check or credit also accepted) and out pops your health, wealth, and victory, the latter degraded from a cosmic triumph to positive feelings about your personal life. The New Testament speaks often of the necessity of self-denial, the reality of suffering (including suffering because of your faith), and the dangers and temptations of wealth. The prosperity gospel offers "your best life now," purchasable escape from pain, and wealth as proof of God's favor. God here is a means, not an end.
The second problem with the prosperity gospel is its utterly inexcusable targeting of vulnerable people. This movement does not flourish among the upper class. Those who make $10,000 or less per year are twice as likely to adhere to the prosperity gospel as those making $35,000 to $50,000 per year. It is but a slight exaggeration to say the only people getting the promised wealth are those making the promises. The reality of poverty is not overcome by opportunistic religious lies.
Thus, as Bowler notes, "when many people say ‘prosperity,' they mean survival." The prosperity gospel's promises appeal because of course they do when you don't have money for rent. Offers of miraculous good health sound great when you're rationing insulin. Who would turn down a chance at personal victory if your view from "back-row America" is nothing but failure?
The faces of these offers are people like White: shiny, rich, happy, and now officially ensconced in the halls of power. "Your FIRST FRUITS Offering for 2019" — namely, a donation to White's organization (I refuse to call it a "ministry"), preferably of $75 or more — "WILL release you from your past and align your future for [God's] blessing!" a page on her website claims. "I am decreeing and declaring 2019 will become a year of supernatural recovery and advancement, and I am agreeing with you now that with God all things are possible." Sure, that $75 should probably go to rent, but White's got a whole slew of context-free Bible verses she's presenting as an ironclad contract with God to expand your bank account, if only you'll expand hers first. (She has also promised donations will result in God harming your enemies and assigning you an angel.)
This strain of scummy televangelism has a lot in common with politics, as I've argued before. Politicians fundraise on similarly sweeping pledges of a better life for their donors, albeit a life improved by policy rather than prayer. "Every president has to promise a mechanism by which the world can be made fair," Bowler told Harvard Political Review.
But with President Trump the links are especially strong. His pre-White House career borrowed from the prosperity gospel playbook, most blatantly in Trump University, for which the president paid a $25 million settlement in a lawsuit where a former employee described the seminars as "a fraudulent scheme [that] preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money."
Trump's political populism takes this dynamic national while continuing to benefit the Trump bottom line. He promises his base a newly great America bristling with strong farms and reliable factory jobs. Then he delivers blow after blow to farmers and has, if anything, hastened the U.S. steel industry's demise. His "promises made, promises kept" theme for 2020 is simply not true — but it's not difficult to understand why, whatever else attracts them to Trump, supporters would find his vision of economic victory appealing. With White's hire, it's a vision that will have an even thicker prosperity gospel gloss.
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