Why Donald Trump’s biggest Christian champions love him so much.
Observers have characterized evangelical support for President Trump as reluctant yet highly durable. But this depiction ignores Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians who, from the beginning, have been largely enthusiastic Trump supporters.
Sixty-one percent of Pentecostal pastors surveyed in 2016 planned to vote for Trump, and they are a force on Trump’s “evangelical advisory board.” And notably, the Pentecostal-Charismatic media consistently gives the president favorable coverage. Unlike the evangelicals who see Trump as a necessary, but distasteful, conduit for their policy preferences, sincere theological conviction drives many Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians to see the president as a prophetically foretold leader.
.. he uncannily demonstrates deep affinities with certain Pentecostal-Charismatic subcultures. Here are five historic subcultures and theologies that explain why some Pentecostal-Charismatics proudly support Trump.
1. Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrity culture
Trump has cultivated support among Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrities such as Jim Bakker, Paula White and Mark Burns, who, like the president, are media moguls with scandalous histories. These televangelists attain authority as Pentecostal-Charismatic leaders through celebrity culture over (and in some cases, against) traditional qualifications for the ministry, such as ordination or seminary education.
.. the general public historically viewed tongue-speaking, emotive Pentecostals — who burst onto the 20th century American religious scene with a black leader (William J. Seymour), interracial services and female preachers — as delusional or even dangerous.
.. as the movement grew, presidents seemingly warmed up to Pentecostal-Charismatics — even the televangelists. Televangelist Oral Roberts met with Kennedy, Nixon and Carter; in 1985, Ronald Reagan gave a very friendly interview to Charismatic Baptist media mogul Pat Robertson.
.. Trump’s invitation to Charismatic televangelist Paula White to deliver an inaugural prayer alongside evangelical legacy Franklin Graham — a role traditionally performed by respectable religious leaders from mainstream and mainline religious organizations — reflects the changing terms of politics and religion in the U.S. It is a cultural coup to promote White, seen in more traditional evangelical quarters as a “heretic” and “charlatan,” into these honorable ranks.
.. 2. Prosperity
Engaging with devotees of the “prosperity gospel” — whose believers celebrate overt displays of wealth as clear signs of God’s favor (see: the cast of Preachers of LA) — makes sense for the wealthy, celebrity-friendly Trump. His prosperity theology, coupled with his unabashed embodiment of conspicuous consumption, resonates with Pentecostal-Charismatics, who are leading creators and purveyorsof this much-maligned theology.
.. 3. Lowbrow know-how
Pentecostal-Charismatics hail from a long line of anti-institutionalists.
.. Some present-day Pentecostals perpetuate this anti-authoritarian stance, preferring (by wide margins) common sense to intellectual know-how, and viewing cultural elites with deep suspicion and antipathy. Trump’s repeated rejection of scientific consensus regarding climate change and his rowdy approach to foreign policy resonate with Pentecostal-Charismatics. In their view, educated elites don’t faithfully describe the world as Pentecostal-Charismatics know it, and those elites sure don’t know how to fix it.
Like many evangelicals, especially those who identify as fundamentalist, Pentecostal-Charismatics have been steadfast, passionate supporters of Israel, an integral part of their beliefs about “the end times.”
.. Trump’s moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, therefore, is not just fulfilling a campaign promise; to many Pentecostal-Charismatics, it’s fulfilling God’s plan for the end of days. The value of this move can’t be overstated, because it confirms and gives physical reality to Pentecostals’ mystical perceptions of Trump as more potentate than president — a ruler in the order of the biblical kings of Israel.
.. 5. Monarchy
.. For Pentecostals, how America’s democratic government works in tandem with God’s monarchy isn’t always clear. But for most, “the people” don’t ultimately decide the fate of the United States or the world. God decides the future and “brings it to pass” through his own means.
.. When he disregards conventional wisdom, they see someone who, like themselves, goes against a coercive mainstream intellectual grain. When he supports Israel, they see a king, however flawed, and an instrument for the purposes of God. When he moves his embassy to Jerusalem, they see verification of their sacred narrative.
.. When Pentecostal-Charismatic advisers to Trump talk about their role in this divine drama, it is as godly intercessors on the president’s behalf.
From this vantage point, it hardly matters whether Trump behaves morally, won the popular vote or even colluded with Russia. Trump is not just a leader selected by the people: he is an intervention — God’s anointed, divinely elevated ruler. Actually, the sheer unlikeliness of Trump’s win fits the Pentecostal-Charismatic imagination for miraculous intervention, and moves Trump far above the reach of critique.
The famous televangelist Jim Bakker, who is preaching again on television after a rape accusation and a prison term for financial fraud, recently warned that Christians would start an armed insurrection if President Trump were impeached. “If it happens, there will be civil war in the United States of America,” Bakker told his television audience. “The Christians will finally come out of the shadows, because we are going to be shut up permanently if we’re not careful.”
.. In polls, white evangelicals went from the group most likely to say that personal morality mattered in politics to the group least likely to say that — in just five years. These are values voters?”
.. Bakker: “But God, you put Trump in power! So many evangelical leaders, like Robert Jeffress, have pointed out that Trump could have been elected only if that was your doing.”
Bakker: “Pastor Paula White said the other day on my television show that since Trump’s presidency is God’s will, opposition to Trump amounts to resisting ‘the hand of God.’ ”
God: “Hmm. Did she say that when Barack Obama was serving two terms?”
And Trump and White share personal track records — divorce, bankruptcy, embracing views outside of the Republican and evangelical mainstreams — that raise hackles among the influential Christian leaders Trump needs on his team as he seeks to consolidate the Republican base.
.. White tells stories of walking up Fifth Avenue in New York with Trump and watching the real estate mogul cross the street to shake hands with construction workers. And there was the time he was showing her a new golf course in California and got out of the golf cart to thank a Latino man who was taking care of his sand traps. White, who still owns a unit at a Trump property in New York, said his employees at his buildings were loyal to him.
To her, this serves as evidence that the cussing, controversial Trump is ultimately a man of God.
White is aiming to line up endorsements, ready to offer stories of Trump’s kindnesses behind the scenes. She was central to establishing Trump’s evangelical advisory board, which includes several pillars of the traditionally powerful religious right, such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr. And some members of the board, like pastor Mark Burns, a vocal Trump surrogate, have developed a fierce loyalty to White.
.. But her ability to convince the evangelical world that Trump is a man of faith is impeded by the man himself. Trump has bragged about his sexual conquests, says he’s never asked God for forgiveness, struggles to cite Bible verses (“two Corinthians”) and has waffled on abortion and marriage. What’s more, White is seen as an imperfect messenger for an already deeply flawed candidate.
.. But like Trump, she has a track record of talking about money — a lot — and that rubs some in the evangelical establishment the wrong way. In one televised sit-down with Trump, White asked him about “those life lessons that really caused you to succeed financially today.” Trump pointed to his father, a workaholic who was passionate about his career.
“That’s the principle I teach,” White responded. “Find your passion in life and figure out a way to make money.”