At Trump’s Right Hand
With Paula White’s elevation to a position of power in the White House, the prosperity gospel has achieved its highest level of national exposure.
The president is prayed on by evangelical pastors. Joyce Boghosian/White House
By Mark I. Pinsky
Just hours before the House Intelligence Committee’s first impeachment vote on October 31, 2019, the White House released a group photo taken in the Roosevelt Room. It shows Donald Trump, solemnly standing, eyes closed in his best approximation of fervent prayer. He is surrounded by about two dozen evangelical leaders, mostly older white men in dark suits.
But at Trump’s right hand is a petite woman, her face obscured by a shock of blond hair, grasping the president’s shoulder with both hands. The photo is similar to a dozen or more others taken over the previous two years, of conservative religious leaders demonstrating their support for Trump and his agenda. And, as in almost every previous shot, televangelist Paula White is touching the president. When not pictured laying on hands, she is seen seated at his right hand, standing next to him at a podium, bending down to hear a whispered message from him, or bracing him with both arms.
Whether White maneuvered herself into these positions, or was beckoned to the inner circle spotlight by Trump, with his showman’s instinct for evangelical eye candy, is of little consequence. But just after the photo was released, Trump named White an advisor to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, part of the Office of Public Liaison. With this appointment, she was officially elevated to primus inter pares, the first among the nation’s religious equals.
“It made sense for Trump to do that,” said Frances FitzGerald, author of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. “It’s perfect. He likes pretty women.”
White is like Trump in many ways, said Duke University Divinity School professor Kate Bowler, author of The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, in my February 10 phone interview with her. “She wasn’t respected but did well anyway. He loves loyalty, and she will be unfailingly loyal. She’s willing to say more extreme theological things as gestures of support.”
In the eyes of some, White now assumes the mantle of Billy Graham, the venerated counselor to presidents. However upset—or even horrified—others in the current evangelical establishment may be by that notion, for now they seem resigned to the fact that this outsider has Trump’s ear and his confidence.
At 53, despite a troubled, impoverished childhood and no formal education beyond high school, Paula White has parlayed a natural gift for preaching, good looks, and limitless ambition to clamber to the pinnacle of religious influence in government in the United States.
The timing of White’s presidential appointment was more calculated than it was providential, for both the president and the televangelist.
Trump needed to shore up and mobilize white evangelicals, the most stalwart part of his base, in the face of the coming impeachment battle and 2020 election. That support, 81 percent in the 2016 election, had dropped by as much as 10 points over the past year, reflecting issues like the government shutdown and the lack of support for the Syrian Kurds. Still, polls suggested near unanimous opposition to impeachment among this demographic.
“To say ‘no’ to President Trump would be saying ‘no’ to God,” White said of the impeachment on the PBS Newshour.1
On December 19, 2019, the day after Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, the evangelical world was rocked when Mark Galli, the retiring editor of Christianity Today magazine, a publication founded by Billy Graham, published an editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office. “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents,” Galli wrote. “That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.” In addition, he stated, Trump “has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration.”2
Although widely reported in the secular media, the editorial was condemned by Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, a strong Trump backer, and by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas. The next day, in a characteristic series of tweets, the president lashed back, inaccurately denouncing Christianity Today as “a far left magazine.” He added that “no President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close.”
Paula White remained largely silent in the days that followed the editorial, and did not respond to Christianity Today’s attack on her boss. On December 23, White joined 200 other evangelicals in a letter condemning the editorial. Perhaps, some speculated, she declined to enter the internal fray because she was looking toward her position among evangelicals in a post-Trump world.
Then, on January 3, White introduced the president at an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally at El Rey Jesus megachurch in Miami. She was not a featured speaker, but in the main photo of the event, White is in her customary position, gripping Trump’s right arm, her pink ensemble glowing among a sea of black and brown suits.
In the short term, the timing of White’s appointment worked for this star of religious television with a Twitter following of 700,000. A prominent proponent of the health-and-wealth “prosperity gospel,” she had just released her latest book, Something Greater: Finding Triumph over Trials, which she was relentlessly promoting.
Until her appointment, White’s two potential rivals for the title of Trump’s favorite evangelical were Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., and Jeffress. But, unlike these two men, she no longer had ministerial responsibilities keeping her from a full-time commitment to Trump. In the spring of 2019, White turned over her pulpit at New Destiny Christian Center (since renamed City of Destiny), a predominantly African American and Latino megachurch in the Orlando suburb of Apopka, to her son Brad. At the same time, she adopted the title of “Apostle for Christ.” She has continued her daily TV chat show on the Daystar satellite network.
White, who now uses White-Cain as her last name—she is married to Christian rocker and Journey member Jonathan Cain—may have decamped from her Central Florida pulpit at just the right time.
The day before her White House appointment was announced, the Orlando Sentinel carried an editorial accusing her of “weaponizing faith for politics.” The editorial cited comments made recently on a Christian television show in which she said Christians will “stand accountable before God” if they oppose Trump. In doing so, the paper wrote, “She’s trying to frighten believers with apocalyptic consequences if they don’t get in line behind this president.”3
“Unfortunately,” the editorial continued, “the national attention on these self-promoting evangelical opportunists risks overshadowing the selfless work of Christian churches and missions that help people who are hungry, poor, sick and homeless.”
Apart from their denominational differences (Trump is a non-church-attending Presbyterian; White is a Pentecostal), and being born into vastly different economic circumstances, the two have much in common.
Each has been accused of being a shameless huckster and has faced charges of financial improprieties—Trump in his business dealings, White in her fundraising.
Both are thrice married and twice divorced, and both owe their prominence to their television appearances. Each has been accused of being a shameless huckster and has faced charges of financial improprieties—Trump in his business dealings, White in her fundraising, at one point drawing the scrutiny of a U.S. Senate investigating committee. There are also claims of extramarital improprieties by both. In Trump’s case, the allegations are too numerous to list. In White’s case, it was an alleged affair with fellow televangelist Benny Hinn, with photos of the two leaving a Rome hotel splashed on the front page of the National Enquirer in 2010. Trump and White both have apartments at Trump Tower.4
A decade ago, given these liabilities, few would have predicted their respective rises—yet another thing they have in common.
“The hierarchy in the evangelical community would never have selected Paula for a variety of reasons,” said Steven Strang, publisher of Charisma, the nation’s largest independent Pentecostal magazine. Strang has clashed with her in the past, but they are reconciled and he supports her appointment. “I believe that God uses imperfect people.”
Trump first encountered White in 2002. As he recalled, he was doing some late-night channel surfing at Mar-a-Lago when he saw White, then 36, on her television show. In these broadcasts—an upbeat, interview show—the televangelist displayed her toned, fit body on exercise segments and appeared in increasingly form-fitting outfits.
White makes no apologies for trading on her appearance on television, on her website, or in the pulpit. At arena revivals around the country, she likes to say, “I work my hips and lips.” A supporter on her Facebook page described her as “a smokin’ Barbie.” In 2004, the men’s magazine Maxim carried a fashion glamour shoot of White, over an article with the headline, “Sexy Televangelist.” Among the personal profile photos she has posted on her Facebook personal profile page are hundreds of glamour headshots.
Apparently, none of this was lost on Trump when he first saw her on the screen. White told the Christian Post website in 2016, that Trump told her then that she was “fantastic.” “After watching my television show,” she said, “he tracked me down. He literally called me out of the blue, and I was amazed by how he remembered my sermon, almost word for word.” In November 2019, White repeated to an interviewer on CBN’s The 700 Club that in their first conversation Trump told her, “You have the ‘it’ factor,” a story she recounts in her new book.5
Trump was soon being featured on White’s show, now called Paula Today, and in return he was endorsing her books. White’s memoir reveals that she believes her relationship with Trump is divinely transactional: “I know God has sent me into Donald Trump’s life to pray for him and his family and be a person who wants nothing from him but to show him God. . . . God used Donald Trump in my life as much as I was used in his life.”6 Their friendship continued through 2016.
During the GOP primary, Trump asked White, a lifelong Republican, to put together—and lead—an advisory group of evangelical supporters. During the campaign, she emerged as one of his most energetic boosters in public, and she spoke at the Republican National Convention. In private, she met often with Trump and his family. In the run-up to the general election, she began appearing at GOP rallies and, after Trump’s election, she spoke at the inauguration.
There followed frequent White House meetings with a growing group of national evangelical leaders, where White and others supported the Trump agenda. She parroted his talking points, including the building of a border wall, comments she usually cloaked in biblical imagery.
In November 2019, White led a mission she called “Operation Border Blessing” in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. But instead of ministering to confined immigrant children and separated families, as other religious groups have, her focus was on Border Patrol agents and their families. White and other ministers posed in front of a recently completed section of Trump’s border wall. “Over the past six months Paula White Ministries has brought over 250 pastors and ministry leaders to the border to experience firsthand the professionalism of the US Border Patrol agents,” a mass email from Paula White Ministries reported.
Trump himself remained largely unmentioned in her sermons, tweets, or in regular emails from her ministry, which is independent of the church, or in her sermons, possibly to preserve their tax-exempt status. Normally the ministry emails feature unceasing self-promotion, fundraising, and merchandizing to promote White’s books and appearances.
One conspicuous exception occurred on June 2, 2019, when White joined a national coalition of 250 evangelical pastors convened by Franklin Graham to offer a special Sunday message of support for Trump.
In a 40-minute special message, White prayed from the pulpit of New Destiny: “We submit President Donald J. Trump to your hand, God.” She called on the Lord to defend him from “all wickedness that is aligned itself against him,” and “any demonic attack against him.”
More recently, on January 5, 2020, she prayed from the Destiny City pulpit that “any strange winds that have been sent to hurt the church, sent against this nation, sent against our President, sent against myself, against others, we break it by the superior blood of Jesus right now.” The sermon became better known for another section, in which White asked for “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now,” later backpedaling that her words, upsetting to some in the pro-life community, had been taken “out of context for political gain.”7
Even among Trump-supporting evangelical leaders, White’s appointment raised a gender role issue. More traditionalist evangelicals, like those in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), stubbornly oppose women as leaders or pastors. According to their doctrine, those are not among “those roles assigned to her by God.”8
Few of those clustered around Trump in the White House photos—what evangelicals sometimes refer to as a “holy huddle”—would allow White’s brand of charismatic worship in their own congregations: speaking in tongues, waving both arms, faith healing, shouting prophecies and collapsing in the pews, being “slain in the spirit.” Likewise, many have distaste for her ostentatious, jet-setting lifestyle, including lavish clothing purchases and multi-million-dollar houses and condos.
The majority of evangelical leaders, at least in public, appear to accept White’s ascent as a fait accompli, taking the line that she is an imperfect vessel necessary to advance their agenda.
But the majority of evangelical leaders, at least in public, appear to accept White’s ascent as a fait accompli, much as they have Trump’s, taking the line that she is an imperfect vessel necessary to advance their agenda.
Evangelist Johnnie Moore, who also is seen in White House group photos with Trump, put the best, bland face on these contradictions when he told Christianity Today, “Total theological congruence is not a prerequisite for cooperation in advancing the common good.”9
Though accepting White as their standard-bearer represents more a marriage of convenience than a match made in heaven, it is a compromise these leaders are willing to accept. These kinds of compromises are not uncommon when they suit the social and political purposes of evanglicals; for example, they have made common political cause with Catholics and Mormons over their shared opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Paula Furr was born in 1966 to a stable, middle-class family in Tupelo, Mississippi. In her book, Something Greater, she retells her version of how this idyllic upbringing suddenly crumbled and led to a troubled early life. These events include her father’s suicide when she five, resulting in poverty and her mother’s alcoholism, Paula’s abuse by various caregivers, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity and drug use as a teen, unwed motherhood, and a short spell living life in a trailer park. This is the dramatic centerpiece of her testimony, which she often recycles in the pulpit and in arena appearances, as well as in previous books.
According to White’s official bio on pbspeakers.com, “Paula’s childhood was marred by sexual and physical abuse, leading to feelings of abandonment, confusion, and betrayal during her teenage years.” However, it goes unmentioned that some of these years were spent in suburban Central Florida and Maryland, where her mother’s second husband, a Navy admiral, was stationed. The remarriage, during Paula’s adolescence, put her squarely back into a secure, stable, middle-class family, complete with a modest trust fund from her late father.
As she tells it, something was missing from her life. At the age of 18, married to the father of her young son, Paula joined Damascus Church of God, a Pentecostal congregation in suburban Maryland. There, she met Randy White, a magnetic youth pastor. In her book, she presents a somewhat sanitized version of the previous accounts she has given of this transformative period.10 After they each divorced their partners, the couple married and White moved with her son to Tampa, Florida, where Randy was hired as a youth pastor. But he had larger ambitions and, with Paula’s support, started a diverse new ministry, later called Without Walls International Church. The congregation enjoyed explosive growth and success in the next two decades, sponsoring numerous social service and outreach ministries.
Paula also had larger ambitions. “I never wanted to be called ‘a pastor’s wife,’ ” she recalled telling her husband. “Why not?” he asked. “Because they all look miserable.” So Paula watched and learned from her husband, and studied on her own. Though she never received any formal theological training, she became a dedicated, hermeneutic autodidact and evolved into Randy’s co-pastor. Over time, she developed into a magnetic, exuberant preacher, often stalking stages in thigh-high boots and four-inch stiletto heels. And she was inspired. “Since being saved, I’d always had clarity when God spoke to me,” she wrote.11
While her preaching style appears intuitive, she understands exactly what she is doing: “There is a rhythm to the sentences I use, a cadence to my words,” she writes in Something Greater. “There is an unexpected fire in my preaching. . . . I deliver an impassioned message, with a voice that almost roars, that drives home points with alliteration and action, that shouts, that encourages every single woman to dig out of their despair and hopelessness.”12
With Paula White’s ascension to her White House position, the controversial theology known as “the prosperity gospel” on which she has based her preaching career has achieved its highest level of national exposure and, arguably, of respectability.
“The prosperity gospel is a wildly popular Christian message of spiritual, physical, and financial mastery that dominates not only much of the American religious scene but some of the largest churches around the globe,” Bowler writes in Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Largely led by independent ministers, the theology “operate[s] as a major force in American religion, generating vast audiences and financial donations.”13
White’s appointment gives her version of the prosperity gospel added credibility, says Bowler, at least “insofar as the old guard of the religious right have to ask her opinion and, occasionally, tolerate her leadership,” she said in our phone interview. “The moment she’s out, there will be little tolerance for the prosperity gospel.”
The guiding belief of this theology is that God wants you to have health, wealth, and happiness. Its saving grace is the joyful, uplifting expectation that things will get better, whether or not they actually do. Bowler dates the roots of the prosperity gospel to the “New Thought” movement of the nineteenth century. But what evolved as today’s prosperity gospel, Bowler writes, was “hatched inside Pentecostalism,” and “thrives in diverse forms on the American religious terrain.”14
At its genesis at the 1906 Azusa Street revival, Pentecostalism was multiracial, but in the decades that followed, the denomination became segregated and had to work to regain racial harmony. And—now as then—for many poorer Pentecostals of both races, praying for prosperity means asking for financial stability, rather than for wealth. “When many people say ‘prosperity,’ they mean survival,” Bowler writes.15
The theology’s special appeal was that it
guaranteed a special form of Christian power to reach into God’s treasure trove and pull out a miracle. It represented the triumph of American optimism over the realities of a fickle economy, entrenched racism, pervasive poverty, and theological pessimism that foretold the future as dangling by a thread. Countless listeners reimagined their ability as good Christians—and good Americans—to leapfrog over any obstacles.16
A prosperity gospel–infused Pentecostalism became a center point with the explosion of televangelism beginning in the 1980s, called by some the “name it and claim it” theology. More critical observers say it operates on the slot machine model: the more you give, the more you are likely to receive. Like others, White exhorts supporters to donate to their pastor, church, or ministry what she and others call a “seed offering” of your “first fruits.” Key to that is the drumbeat appeal to donate “sacrificially”—code for more than they think they can afford, often beyond the expected tithe on their gross income. The promised return is, variously, “a double portion,” “sevenfold,” or “a hundredfold.”
For White, as with other leading advocates, the prosperity gospel is “the narrative glue of virtually every sermon, book, and piece of merchandise to emerge from their churches,” Bowler writes. “To their fellow pastors, they were sovereigns of ministerial kingdoms, whose coveted endorsements, preaching platforms, and financial support fueled the aspirations of the thousands below them.”17
But unlike the slots and the lottery—another haven for the hopeless and powerless—the prosperity gospel offers the illusion of potential agency.
“We aren’t buying a miracle,” White said in one appeal. “We’re simply being obedient.” This appeal is very specific, keyed to each believer’s level of contributions. In return for their faith and monetary support, White promised in a recent series of emails that she is “asking God for a revival of finances in your life . . . You cannot ignore the prophetic and apostolic instruction that follows . . . YOU MUST GIVE . . . the biggest tool of Satan to sabotage the prophetic promises of God from manifesting is to get His people to withhold their resources . . . Do not cheat yourself . . . by withholding! . . . In this season . . . you must give something sacrificial!”
Sometimes her appeals can be heavy-handed, as when she is shown in a video by an anti-Trump Republican group telling a congregation: “If you do not write that P.O. box, and you do not call that toll-free number, you will never see sustainment in your life and your dream will die.”18 And White told members of the predominately Latinx Jesus El Rey congregation in Miami that they needed to give to the church before paying their mortgage or electric bills, as well as donating their first month’s paycheck.
Prosperity gospel proponents tend to prooftext their theology with such verses from the Hebrew Bible as Proverbs 11:25 and Deuteronomy 8:18.19 But perhaps the most used are these New Testament passages: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38, NIV); and 2 Corinthians 9:8: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (NIV).
A particularly pernicious aspect of the prosperity gospel, as it is preached in megachurches, is the conflation of anecdote with cause-and-effect and statistical probability.
A particularly pernicious aspect of the prosperity gospel, as it is preached in megachurches, is the conflation of anecdote with cause-and-effect and statistical probability. That is, on a Sunday morning the preacher will ask members of a large congregation who have given sacrificially to testify about the goodness that has come to them in the week previous: a financial windfall, a new job, a healing, a romantic partner. Unsurprisingly, given the size of the congregation, there will always be several who can rise and speak to the power of giving.
“They read biography from the details of their lives, and extrapolate into spiritual laws,” Bowler told me.
It is not surprising that the prosperity gospel has an aspirational appeal to the poor, less educated, and faithful believers eager for some semblance of success both in North America and in the third world. As White likes to say, “I don’t want pie in the sky. I want ham where I am.”
But it is not just the poor and powerless who buy in to versions of the prosperity gospel. Trump often cites Norman Vincent Peale as a theological influence, since his family attended Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Peale’s “positive thinking” was, in turn, an influence on televangelist Robert Schuller and, through him, on Joel Osteen, one of the leading prosperity gospel advocates today.
If Trump has his own theology, it is one that neatly dovetails with White’s version of the prosperity gospel. One episode of Paula Today was titled “Millionaire God’s Way.” Not long after White and Trump met, she invited him on the show to promote his latest book, Why We Want You to Be Rich. Trump returned the favor by blurbing her next book.
For his part, Trump’s statements and policies reveal an adherence to the gospel of economic determinism: God wants you to be rich, and if you’re not, it’s your own damn fault. Those who choose low-paying jobs of public service are chumps. There is no mention in either Trump’s or White’s version of scripture of having to choose between serving God and serving Mammon.
More traditionalist evangelicals, like those in the Southern Baptist Convention, have long condemned White’s embrace of the prosperity gospel as anathema. One prominent Southern Baptist, Russell Moore (no relation to Johnnie Moore), president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, denounced her as a “charlatan” and “heretic” in a tweet on June 28, 2016.
But none of these critiques have kept the prosperity gospel from spreading within and beyond the United States. Its global reach in the Southern Hemisphere has been especially dramatic.
The growth of prosperity gospel churches in Sub-Saharan Africa has been “explosive,” posing a threat to established Christian churches, write Thinandavha D. Mashau and Mookgo S. Kgatle:
Christianity in post-colonial Africa is highly influenced and shaped by the prosperity message. The popular and materialistic gospel is sweeping across the continent like a gale-force wind, which is irresistible.20
They and other experts cite three reasons for this growth, especially in countries like Nigeria and Uganda: the patriarchal nature of the prosperity gospel (Paula White notwithstanding); U.S. media saturation—the influence of broadcasts by pastors like T. D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar; and the pulpit energy of African preachers of the prosperity gospel.
The prosperity gospel is also “particularly popular in Latin America,” according to Jairo Namnún. He explains:
In fact, the charismatic, Word-of-faith, prosperity form of Christianity is, by and large, the only form of Protestantism people know. In our region, a non-Catholic churchgoer is almost guaranteed to belong to a church that falls somewhere on the spectrum of this movement. . . . In Latin America, prosperity theology is not just a system of belief, but the culture in which we live.21
One Aspect of the prosperity gospel that is sometimes lost in mainstream media accounts is the healing part of its appeal (it is also called the “health and wealth” gospel). And in this dimension, White’s story—her “personal testimony” in evangelical parlance—positions her ideally. White tells members of her congregation, viewers, readers, and conference goers that she is the best evidence of this part of the prosperity gospel.
White admits, in the evangelical nomenclature, that she is “broken,” a sinner. Her central appeal is that if God was able to heal her, with all her failings and tribulations, then God can save all who hear or read her words of encouragement, to break whatever “generational curses” they are living with. Sharing such intimate details of her past goes a long way in explaining why supporters stand by her in the face of more recent allegations of transgressions, lifestyle excesses, and sexual impropriety. She is armored with Pentecostal Teflon.
Without question, White herself has richly prospered by preaching the gospel. She likes that her redemption has enabled her to go “from a pit to a palace,” and she is not exaggerating. She has enjoyed the kind of wealth that most of her followers can only dream of.
According to a series of groundbreaking, investigative articles by Baird Helgeson and Michelle Bearden that were published in the Tampa Tribune, beginning in 2007, based on an independent audit, the Whites’ ministries generated nearly $40 million in revenues the previous year. In 2006, the newspaper reported, the couple took a combined $600,000 in salary and benefits, although a church financial adviser said that in some years their combined compensation was up to $1.5 million. Other White family members were thought to account for much of the ministry’s $5 million annual payroll. Paula’s separate broadcast and television business, Paula White Ministries, was bringing in $50,000 to $80,000 a week at one point, according to the Tribune.
Like most prosperity gospel organizations, Paula White Ministries and Church Without Walls International were incorporated as a tax-exempt church, and thus not required to file an annual IRS 990 form revealing salaries, compensation, and fundraising information.
All of this enabled the Whites to live a life of private jets, luxury vehicles, vacations at exotic resorts, multimillion-dollar condos at two separate Trump properties in New York, plus a $2 million home on Tampa Bay. To be fair, the Whites spread some of their resources around, funding ambitious and generous community social programs and relief efforts.
But ultimately, Paula’s second marriage to Randy failed. As Paula rose as a minister and evangelist, eclipsing her husband, his career crashed and burned. “My life was spiraling downward in the mid-2000s,” she recalls in her book. In 2007, the couple’s fundraising and lifestyle drew the scrutiny of Iowa senator Charles Grassley, who subpoenaed their records, along with those of half a dozen other prosperity gospel ministries and televangelists. The Whites refused to cooperate and the Senate investigation fizzled.
About the same time, Randy confessed to infidelity, sank into depression, and forced Paula out of their church. After moving to Texas, Paula launched a solo career, returning to lead the Church Without Walls congregation after she and Randy divorced and he resigned, with the church facing bankruptcy. In 2012, she moved across the state to Orlando, the unlikely choice to replace Zachary Tims as pastor of the overwhelmingly African American New Destiny Christian Center.
White’s national following is thought to be largely female, working and lower middle class, with a strong segment of African American women.
Much like New Destiny’s congregation, White’s national following is thought to be largely female, working and lower middle class, with a strong segment of African American women. One of her skills—or gifts—is the ability to “preach black,” using African American rhythms, idiom, vernacular, and even dialect in a way that does not sound artificial or contrived.
This is no accident. White claims as her mentor and “spiritual daddy” the Rev. T. D. Jakes, the national televangelist and pastor of the 30,000-member Potter’s House Church in Dallas. In her books and testimonies, White likes to recount how Jakes plucked her out of a post-revival receiving line in 2000, and then launched her career by featuring her at his national arena women’s conferences, “Woman, Thou Art Loosed!” which draw predominantly African American audiences.22
In the early 2000s, White’s television show was also carried on BET, the Black Entertainment Network, where it did well enough to attract the attention of Ebony magazine. “You know you’re on to something new and significant when the most popular woman preacher on the Black Entertainment Network is a white woman,” the magazine reported in 2004, quoting one of her admirers.23
Curiously, even as White’s prominence as a Trump advocate accelerated during this period, she rarely mentioned the president in her home pulpit, perhaps because of the congregation’s racial composition.
On the surface, White’s continuing African American support might seem counterintuitive, if not contradictory. Anthea Butler wrote a piece for NBC’s Think explaining the “the history of evangelicals’ participation in and support for racist structures in America.”24 Curtis J. Evans of the University of Chicago Divinity School told me that White’s enduring appeal to African American evangelicals has left him “just as puzzled by White as others have been.”
Other observers point to a variety of factors in common, theologically and culturally, especially the fact that White spent her early childhood in the Deep South, some of it in poverty.
“For someone like Paula White to embrace this commonality, and begin to cross that very small cultural division, it is not that difficult to effectively code switch, and begin speaking in the African American vernacular,” said Charles Gilmer in an interview. Gilmer is a fifth-generation African American Baptist minister, and a doctoral student at Duquesne University.
Many African American Christians subscribe to the prosperity gospel in one form or another, Gilmer explained, and “it is also traditional in the African American community to be really hospitable to people who enter their space and present themselves as being there either neutrally, or in the position of providing some benefit.”
In an interview with Shayne Lee, associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston, he told me that White’s “early Christian experience was in Pentecostal circles, and she continues to draw from that cultural toolkit.” He said, “I think that’s why Jakes and other black preachers also took an early liking to her.” Lee, co-author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, which devotes a chapter to White, adds that “her appeal to African Americans may have something to do with her humble beginnings.”
Once, Lee saw White preach at a festival in New Orleans that drew tens of thousands of African Americans from all over the nation. She was the only white speaker, and yet she drew more people than anyone. “She seemed like she was right at home amongst thousands of African American spectators listening to every word,” Lee told me. “She really had the crowd going and I think that’s when I realized her Pentecostal toolkit speaks to her appeal.”
By combining “a message of hope for the underdog with the cultural dynamism of Pentecostal preaching, you may have a formula for success among multiple minority groups,” Lee said. This is reinforced by White’s continuing social outreach and hunger and relief efforts funded by Destiny City, most recently to victims of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.
The Evangelical establishment is not nearly as comfortable with Paula White as her strong base of supporters are. Paula White’s 2019 appointment to the White House Office of Public Liaison “raised eyebrows among Trump’s most loyal Christian supporters, who view White with disdain because of her gender, her Pentecostal roots, and her prosperity gospel message,” according to former Charisma editor and columnist Lee Grady.25
There is also a class dimension to this discomfort with White. While the demographic of Southern Baptists and Pentecostals is nearly identical now, historically the Baptists have disdained Pentecostals as rural rubes and lower class, more comfortable with emotional rather than restrained and dignified worship.26
Liberal evangelicals (they do exist, if in relatively minute numbers) reacted predictably to their conservative coreligionists’ support for White’s appointment, but for substantive political reasons.
“Nothing could be more unwise if you were a spiritual leader with any integrity,” said Richard Cizik in an interview. Cizik, the former vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, has founded a group called the New Evangelical Partnership, which focuses on climate change. He added, “What Paula White is doing is baptizing Trump’s religious beliefs, his promiscuous and criminal behavior.”
Serious internal divisions remain around White’s position of power, if out of sight of the general public.
Having written about Sun Belt evangelicals over the past two decades, I know that, from the outside, America’s white evangelical leadership may seem monolithic. But from the inside, and off the record, it is often restive and contentious. Serious internal divisions remain around White’s position of power, if out of sight of the general public.
For example, the initial reception some evangelicals gave White’s new book Something Greater, which debuted at No. 5 on Amazon’s Christian Inspirational bestseller list just a week before her appointment, appeared to be the latest example of a pragmatic—some would say opportunistic—circle-the-wagons approach of other white evangelical leaders around Trump. Prominent Southern Baptist leaders like Falwell, Jeffress, Greg Laurie, and Franklin Graham tweeted favorably about White’s book. However, after blowback from evangelicals who felt this support was ironic if not inconsistent, Graham later deleted his.
Beth Moore (no relation to the other Moores), a more moderate Southern Baptist, tweeted on October 15, 2019, about the book: “Nothing on earth can make sober people drunker than being invited to a table where they can sip on power. It is a drug like no other.”
And reviewer David Robertson panned White’s book as “revealing, disturbing and depressing.” The memoir, he wrote, “demonstrates why so much of the US evangelical church is in deep trouble.”27
In a Christianity Today article, written before White’s appointment was announced, Leah Payne and Aaron Griffith concluded:
The fact that a good number of evangelicals are fretting about White-Cain’s doctrinal stances and her endorsers’ apparent disregard for them is surely proof that theology does matter in how we think about evangelicalism. . . . And yet, American evangelicals’ theology is also embedded in culture. This cultural blend of pragmatism, self-help, celebrity, and conservative politics, intertwined with doctrinal hallmarks, offers a more comprehensive description of how modern evangelicalism actually works.
For those who do not share her theological disposition, it is wishful thinking to pretend that she is not a major force within American evangelicalism. It is now Paula White-Cain’s world. The question is how we should live in it.28
As a high-profile woman, White’s future may be problematic—and precarious. If White should stumble or somehow become a Trump liability, her decline could be as precipitous as her meteoric ascent. The long knives would quickly come out by those pictured with her in those White House holy-huddle photos.
“They will support her until the day they don’t have to,” Bowler said in our conversation. “But it’s always been this way for women in evangelical leadership—hard to rise and easy to fall.”
For White, there is ample reason for concern on this score, most recently in the backlash to her call for “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry.” A few conservative commentators have already started calling for prominent evangelicals to distance themselves from White.29
A prominent evangelical leader in the Southern Baptist Convention agrees with this estimation of White, albeit sotto voce, and without allowing himself to be quoted by name. “Personally I don’t feel comfortable with her in that role,” he said, citing her personal life and theology. “I think if I polled 10 of the guys, the leaders, especially in the SBC, you’d get the same result.”
There is even unease about White’s appointment among other Pentecostal preachers, many of whom are women.
“You can hear my reluctance in my voice,” a male Pentecostal minister and touring motivational speaker, told me. “I’m not standing up and applauding the decision to appoint her.”
His concerns, he said, centered on both White’s personal life and her advocacy of the prosperity gospel. Since the appointment was announced, he has received texts and had conversations with other Pentecostals who are equally troubled. But he is resigned.
“I just say, ‘I encourage you to pray for her.’ ”
This deeper discomfort about White is not only evident among evangelical and Pentecostal leaders, but among the grassroots. “A statue would see there is unease about Paula,” said one Sun Belt megachurch pastor, who counts himself as one of those won over by working with White. “Some are adamant about her, including members of my congregation.”
And what of the fear that Paula White, an embarrassing evangelical arriviste, is assuming Billy Graham’s mantle?
“I don’t think anyone will wear that,” said Charisma’s Grady.
- James Crowley, “Anti-Trump Republican Group Takes Aim at ‘MAGA Church’ in New Video,” Newsweek, January 9, 2020.
- Mark Galli, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” Christianity Today, December 19, 2019.
- Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board, “Paula White Is an Example of Religious Leaders Weaponizing Faith for Politics,” Orlando Sentinel, October 31, 2019.
- White has described her acquisition of the Trump Tower condo a “supernatural miracle,” which in a way it was: Trump dramatically cut the price, according to her book.
- Steven Warren, “New Evangelical White House Hire Paula White-Cain Reveals Trump’s Spiritual Journey from 2001,” CBNNEWS.com, November 1, 2019.
- Paula White-Cain, Something Greater: Finding Triumph over Trials (Faith Words, 2019). 207.
- See, e.g., Mihir Zaveri and Johnny Diaz, “Paula White Says Video about ‘Satanic Pregnancies’ Was Taken Out of Context,” New York Times, January 27, 2020.
- Richard R. Melick, Jr., “Women Pastors: What Does the Bible Teach?” SBC Life 6, no. 7 (May 1998).
- Kate Shellnutt, “White House Appoints Paula White to Oversee Faith Outreach,” Christianity Today, November 1, 2019.
- For example, she does not include the fact that she began her affair with White when both were married to others, and both were parents of young children.
- White-Cain, Something Greater, xii.
- Ibid., 107, 108.
- Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013), 3, 5.
- Ibid., 42, 5.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 6.
- Crowley, “Anti-Trump Republican Group Takes Aim.”
- “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (Prov. 11:25, New International Version). “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today” (Deut. 8:18, NIV).
- Thinandavha D. Mashau and Mookgo S. Kgatle, “Prosperity Gospel and the Culture of Greed in Post-Colonial Africa: Constructing an Alternative African Christian Theology of Ubuntu,” Verbum et Ecclesia 40, no. 1 (April 2019): 1. Mashau and Kgatle are both at the University of South Africa, Pretoria, and their paper can be downloaded at www.researchgate.net.
- Jairo Namnún, “Encountering Prosperity Theology in Latin America,” The Gospel Coalition, June 19, 2015.
- In 2007, at the peak of her subsequent success, White returned the favor by giving Jakes a black Bentley convertible for his 50th birthday.
- White is not unique in this crossover appeal, even in the Orlando area. Pentecostal bishop Clint Brown, a national gospel-recording artist, who is white, pastors the FaithWorld megachurch, whose congregation is made up of African Americans. See Mark I. Pinsky and Linda Shrieves, “Singer-Pastor Took Long Road to Prosperity,” Orlando Sentinel, February 13, 2005.
- Anthea Butler, “White Evangelicals Love Trump and Aren’t Confused about Why: No one Should Be,” Think, nbcnews.com, September 27, 2019.
- J. Lee Grady, “Instead of Judging Paula White Cain, I’ll Pray for Her,” Charisma News, November 9, 2019.
- Pentecostals “were, like their neighbors, country-living, working-class folks with the level of education typical of the time,” Bowler writes in Blessed (30). But even in the post-WWII boom, “Pentecostals felt poor and, worse, discounted. Pentecostals had experienced the derision of the press and their fellow Christians, further reinforcing the distance they kept between themselves and the world” (51–52).
- David Robertson, “Paula White’s New Book ‘Something Greater’ Is Revealing, Disturbing and Depressing,” Christian Today, October 19, 2019.
- Leah Payne and Aaron Griffith, “Paula White-Cain’s Evangelical Support Squad Isn’t as Surprising as It Seems,” Christianity Today, October 22, 2019.
- Madeline Fry’s January 27, 2020, opinion column for the Washington Examiner, “What on Earth is Wrong with Paula White, Trump’s Spiritual Guru?” declared: “Paula White needs to stop talking. Trump’s spiritual adviser, White has a long history of religiously tinged absurdity.” Fry acknowledged, though, that “Even if Christian leaders make clear that they want no association with her, White still has one prominent ally—in the White House.”
Orlando-based journalist Mark I. Pinsky specializes in religion and politics. He has covered Paula White since 2012 for local and national publications. He is the author of A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.