On Halloween, President Trump announced the appointment of televangelist Prosperity Gospel preacher Paula White as an official member of the White House staff. She has been Trump’s personal spiritual adviser for some time, but now she will be with the Office of Public Liaison as special adviser for the administration’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. Halloween was a perfectly chosen date for this announcement, since Ms. White is nothing more than a mega-church, self-help huckster wearing the costume of a Christian minister.
In Ms. White’s case, this costume consists of expensive designer dresses impeccably tailored to show off her striking good looks and svelte figure. She literally “looks like a million bucks.” This is not an irrelevant sexist comment because she does, indeed, have millions of bucks, which is only perfectly fitting (pun intended) since, according to her version of Christianity, worldly success and monetary rewards are the outward signs of God’s favor. Her message is, literally, believing (and donating!) to her religious cause, to her church(s), will not only save your soul, but it will assuredly make you successful and rich at the same time — like she is!
The only problem with her message is that her version of Christianity is heresy — pure and simple and blatant. This is not merely my personal opinion, but the opinion of many well-known American evangelical figures, such as Southern Baptist theologian Russell D. Moore, who has said, “Paula is a charlatan and recognized as a heretic by every orthodox Christian, of whatever tribe” (as cited in The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2017). Prof. Michael Horton of the Westminster Seminary California has stated much the same thing. Well-known Christian radio host Erick Erickson has said, “The president of the U.S. is putting a heretic on stage who claims to believe in Jesus, but does not ...” Of course, many Catholic theologians have long held that Prosperity Gospel Christianity is a form of heresy.
What is this “Prosperity Gospel,” also known as “Prosperity Theology”? It has its deep roots in the Protestant Reformation teaching of John Calvin (1509-64), but was more recently taken up in full force in America during the Healing Revivals of the 1950s, run by figures such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jack Cole and others. One of the most famous figures in this Christian heresy was Norman Vincent Peale, who was pastor at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City from 1932 to 1984. His most famous work was his book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Donald Trump’s parents went to Peale’s church and brought their young son with them almost every Sunday. Peale’s teachings were, and remain, highly controversial and condemned by countless theologians and psychologists over the last 50-plus years.
Be that as it may, the only religion Trump ever had growing up was the heresy of Norman Vincent Peale, which was a form of anti-Christianity that placed the individual human ego, in all its glory, as the be-all and end-all of all human health and well-being. World-respected psychologist Albert Ellis, who also worked in New York City at that time, went so far as to say the regular and repeated use of Peale’s “hypnotic techniques” often led to serious mental health issues. Ellis treated many individuals who had had mental breakdowns while engaging in Peale’s “self-improvement” methods.
Frankly, Paula White is just a flashier, sexier, female version of Norman Vincent Peale. Let me be as clear as I can possibly be: these are dangerous people, dangerous charlatans who are using a false mantel of “Christianity” to promote their sale of snake-oil theology on a massive scale via the modern miracle of mass media. A look at White’s career and her three marriages reveals her to be an opportunist who has left a fair amount of wrack, ruin and bankruptcies in her wake. Her current husband (as of 2015) is rock star Jonathan Cain.
All this would be one thing if White were merely a “pastor” of sorts, doing her own thing, whatever that might be. But the fact is that, since 2017, she has been placed center stage in the spotlight by Donald Trump again and again. She has now been officially brought into the White House administration. She now has, arguably, the highest-placed role in national governmental affairs of any Christian pastor in America. But the question remains: What is she a pastor of? She has no degree from any college, bachelor’s or master’s, and no theological training of any sort. Period. Moreover, she and the whole Prosperity Gospel movement have been roundly condemned by bona fide Christians as a whole — evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics. Yet here she now is, sitting at the right hand of our president in an official capacity and (one has to assume) receiving a government salary.
But there may be a silver lining in this dark cloud. Since Trump is so deeply ignorant of all aspects of religion in America (and the world), he may very well be unaware of how unpopular Paula White is with so many in his own evangelical religious-right voter base. The Prosperity Gospel message is counter to almost everything that almost all Christians hold dear — so much so that it’s quite likely White’s appointment will backfire on Trump. Instead of gaining more Christian-right support, this could well be another significant step down the road of losing that support.
There is an element of pathos involved in all this. The single greatest failing of Prosperity Gospel teaching is its complete lack of interest in or empathy for the harsh, painful experiences of life — of real lives lived in the real world filled with disappointments, disadvantages, dysfunction and disasters. Trump shows the same lack of interest and empathy. Real Christianity, going straight back to the teachings of the Rabbi Jesus, is built upon the Sermon on the Mount — probably the greatest words ever spoken concerning the trauma of the human condition and God’s and our own roles in dealing with that condition in this imperfect world.
The heresy of the Prosperity Gospel is based on many lies. Top among them is the teaching that one’s wealth and success in the world demonstrate God’s favor and blessings placed upon you because you are “saved” and this is God’s reward to you. Anybody with common sense knows — today just as 2,000 years ago — that worldly success is often more than 50% pure luck, and also often more than 50% disreputable business practices.
The Prosperity Gospel has brought those disreputable business practices right into church and placed them on the altar. If that’s not heresy, I don’t know what is.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.