How Donald Trump has found common ground with televangelists

Many of the Pentecostal televangelists who met with Donald Trump Monday are known for their media savvy and gospel of health and wealth – and have endured many of the same kinds of criticisms as the candidate.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, holds up a bible given to him by his mother as he speaks during the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

In a conference room on the 25th floor of the Trump Tower in Manhattan earlier this week, a group of about 40 Pentecostal televangelists and other evangelical ministers gathered in a prayer circle, laid their hands on Donald Trump, and with the exuberance for which many of their congregations are known, asked the Lord to give the candidate wisdom, strength, and courage as he seeks to become president of the United States.

Such admiration for the Manhattan billionaire has bewildered many other conservative Evangelicals, many of whom have begun to issue blistering criticisms of the GOP frontrunner's lifestyle and awkward expressions of Christian piety.

But many of the influential, charismatic ministers who met with Mr. Trump on Monday – known for their own media savvy, theatrical preaching, and gospel of health and wealth – have endured many of the same kinds of criticisms the candidate has, and in many ways he seems one of their own.

“Part of it is the fire,” says Darrell Scott, pastor of the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland, Ohio, who attended the meeting in Manhattan. “Pentecostal preachers are probably the most fiery preachers, and we appreciate directness, we appreciate bluntness, we’re more in-your-face. That’s the Pentecostal style: fire. I’m not going to add the brimstone, but a lot of us add that, too.”

In the prayer circle, those who could not lay hands on Mr. Trump – who held a Bible in his hands during the meeting on Monday – simply touched the person next to him or her, offering “Amen” or “Yes Lord” as a number of the leaders prayed.

“Any man that wavers is like the blowing wind on the water – let not that man think he shall receive anything,” prayed Kenneth Copeland, a well-known Fort Worth, Texas, televangelist, his hand on Trump’s shoulder. “And so we ask you today to give this man your wisdom, boldly. Make sure and certain that he hears, manifest yourself to him, and we thank you and praise you for a bold man, a strong man, and an obedient man.

Reverend Copeland and his wife, Gloria, have become quite wealthy after four decades preaching the prosperity gospel, which holds that God’s blessings, financial and otherwise, will come to those who exhibit true faith – which they often urge as faith donations to their ministry. HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” recently aired a scathing satiric expose on the couple’s ministry.

Such ministers, and an unknown number of their millions of TV viewers, have found common ground with Trump. In the circle at Trump’s side, too, the televangelist Paula White offered a prayer of protection for the candidate, saying, “no weapon formed against him will be able to prosper. Pastor White, one of the organizers of the Manhattan meeting and the senior pastor of a Florida megachurch, is also twice divorced. This year, she married the musician Jonathan Cain, a member of the rock group Journey and the author of the '80s anthem, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Next to the orange-coiffed Trump, who is often mocked for his hair, Jan Crouch extended her arm in prayer. The co-founder of Trinity Broadcast Network with Jim and Tammy Faye Baker decades ago is known, too, for her flamboyant pink wigs and generous applications of makeup.   

Yet even as the twice-divorced real estate tycoon with erstwhile abortion-rights views continues to maintain a double-digit lead over his GOP rivals, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released this week, he has been reaching out to this particular segment of evangelical Christianity, seeking to shore up his support after suffering some recent setbacks.  

Last Friday, Trump was booed by activists at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Family Research Council, after referring to his rival Sen. Marc Rubio of Florida as "this clown."

And Trump only received 56 votes, or 5 percent of the Summit's straw poll, which was won by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 408 votes. The fast-rising retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was the evangelical activists' second choice with 204 votes, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Senator Rubio each nearly tripling Trump’s total, garnering about 150 votes each.

Still, Trump’s support among Evangelicals remains relatively robust in the crowded, sharp-elbowed race for the GOP nomination, and he has been consistently drawing about 25 percent of this diverse and influential Christian sub-group over the past few months.

"But I do see Evangelical support for Trump lessening to a degree," says Trump supporter James Linzey, executive director of Modern English Version, a publisher updating the King James Version of the Bible. "But I still think he is a genuine friend of the Evangelicals, and I think if we give our vote to Huckabee or Ted Cruz, who I greatly admire, I simply think we will lose the election.”

Many of the 75 percent of Evangelicals who have not joined the Trump juggernaut, however, may not be so convinced. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, said the Republican frontrunner’s attitude toward women was that of a “Bronze Age warlord,” adding that that the casino owner amassed a fortune off the “moral vice and economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate.”

And now, “Trump seems to be positioning himself as a secular version of the health-and-wealth televangelists,” Mr. Moore told Politico this week. “What Donald Trump is doing in terms of promises for the future is very similar to what’s going on among these prosperity gospel hawkers,” who he says are considered heretics by other Evangelicals.

But Trump brought up themes dear to many of the televangelists and ministers, remarking that he felt religious liberty and Christianity were under attack in America – and that it particularly annoyed him that “Merry Christmas” is often replaced with “Happy Holidays.” He also emphasized his support for Israel, and said he would defeat Islamic State.

Some of the ministers in the room “admonished and mildly rebuked” the candidate for mocking his rivals, including calling some of the “morons” and “clowns.”  

“And then when they became more and more emphatic about it, I actually stepped up and said, ‘Listen, I understand that you’re going to tone it down, but don’t tone it down so much that you are no longer the person that you are,” says Pastor Scott.

“I don’t know what kind of legislator Donald Trump would be; I don’t know what kind of judge he’d be,” Scott continues. “But to be honest, in this Republican field, I can think of no better candidate to be the chief executive, the CEO, than Donald Trump.”

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