Trump as an 'apostle of affluence'

Many scholars see the prosperity gospel as part of a broader trajectory in the country’s religious and cultural history: a self-understanding of American exceptionalism.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Pastor Joshua Nink, right, prays for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Jan. 31, as wife, Melania, left, watches after a Sunday service at First Christian Church, in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Good health and billions in wealth may not necessarily be part of a gospel according to Donald Trump, but for many of the Evangelicals who support the presumptive Republican nominee, they could be seen as marks of divine favor.

Mr. Trump, many have noted, is a somewhat clumsy fit within Evangelical circles. His flamboyant Manhattan lifestyle, his ownership of casinos and beauty pageants, and his numerous gaffes have turned many Evangelicals decisively away.

But the candidate has been working to solidify his support from the group that, as a whole, has been the most reliable Republican base for decades. And among those evangelical leaders most supportive of the real estate mogul, many adhere to what is called the “prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth gospel.” This is the idea that God materially rewards those who are faithful to his commands.

At the end of June, the Trump campaign announced the names of 25 prominent religious leaders serving on his evangelical executive advisory board, which agreed to advise the presumptive Republican nominee on the issues most important to them. These included Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University; the televangelists Kenneth and Gloria Copeland; and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

“It certainly seems that the majority of the evangelical leaders who are supporting him are in the prosperity gospel camp,” says Carter Turner, professor of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia. “And, really, Trump’s brilliant in so many ways, because he’s been forging these relationships with the prosperity people for a long time, knowing that when he ran for president, they were going to be the ones who defended him in front of Evangelicals and defended his wealth. 

“How could they say, ‘Wealth is a good thing, God wants you to have wealth, wealth is a sign of your blessing from God,’ and then say, ‘Well, except in the case of Donald Trump,’ ” he continues.

But as it has with the Republican Party, Trump’s candidacy has strained the coalition that has faithfully supported the GOP for decades. Russell Moore, a vociferous Trump critic and president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, said the Manhattan billionaire indeed seemed to be positioning himself as a secular version of the health and wealth gospel, a huckster similar to many televangelists. Many of these, Mr. Moore suggested, were heretics.

The evangelical thinker Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote a much-read op-ed in The New York Times, arguing that Trump’s world view had more in common with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche than Christ Jesus, and that his evangelical supporters had abandoned Christian moral teachings for the sake of raw political power.

American exceptionalism through hard work and frugality

But many scholars see the prosperity gospel as part of a broader trajectory in the country’s religious and cultural history: a self-understanding of American exceptionalism, maintained through hard work and a kind of moral and mental purity.

The sociologist Max Weber famously called it a “Protestant work ethic,” in which the values of disciplined hard work and frugal living were essentially sacred acts – acts that dovetailed with the evolving principles of capitalism.  

“The Christian enterprise in this way of thinking means working hard and being rewarded for it,” says Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “It’s not about the poor will always be with you and you give them charity. In some ways, your success in the world is a validation of divine favor.”

And inasmuch as Trump has a theology, Professor Silk says, it would be rooted in the ideas of his former pastor Norman Vincent Peale, who officiated at the first of Trump’s three weddings. In 1938, Peale wrote the book “You Can Win,” a forerunner to his runaway bestseller in 1952, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

“He would give a sermon. You never wanted to leave,” Trump said about his experiences with Peale at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit last July. “It was unbelievable. I still remember his sermons. What he would do is he would bring real-life situations, modern-day situations, into the sermon. And you could listen to him all day long. When you left the church, you were disappointed it was over. He was the greatest guy.”

Though not considered an Evangelical, Peale taught a version of the prosperity gospel, as Silk points out.

“There was a time when I acquiesced in the silly idea that there is no relationship between faith and prosperity; that when one talked about religion he should never relate it to achievement, that it dealt only with ethics and morals or social values,” Peale wrote in “The Power of Positive Thinking.” “But now I realize that such a viewpoint limits the power of God and the development of the individual.”

“Trump’s evangelical supporters, they are entrepreneurs, they have a sense of what they’re about – and these folks write self-help books themselves, and there is a tradition in American evangelism of appreciating highly successful people,” says Silk.

Peale’s positive thinking “mind cure” movement, with antecedents in the 19th century, is also itself part of the idea of American exceptionalism, and the danger of failing to work to maintain what is believed to be the country’s special place in the world – ideas still held close by many Evangelicals.

'Shining city upon a hill'

Theologically, scholars say, this idea was expressed by the early Puritan settlers. In a still-iconic sermon preached by John Winthrop to a group of shivering immigrants traveling to a new world, he proclaimed the new settlement would be “a shining city upon a hill” – a phrase cited often by Ronald Reagan – and used at a meeting of more than 1,000 evangelical leaders meeting to support Donald Trump in New York City.

But the sermon also proclaimed a sweeping prophecy of doom for failure to heed God’s commands. “The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken ... we shall be made a story and a byword through the world,” Winthrop preached in his “Model of Christian Charity” in 1630.

“This declension narrative is a very strong and recurring theme in American history,” says Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “The whole ‘Make America Great Again’ is drawing on this whole rhetoric of declension that is supposedly besetting the nation – like the Puritans who were already bemoaning the declension from the piety of their founders.”

During the campaign, Trump has in many ways played the role of a preacher who warns that America’s exceptional place in the world is indeed in danger of becoming just a story and a byword through the world.  

“How many times does Trump say, ‘America is a laughingstock, everybody’s laughing at us – Mexico, ISIS, China – everybody’s laughing at us,’ ” says Professor Turner at Radford University, noting how much Winthrop's sermon still informs a particularly American way of thinking. “For many Evangelicals, this is God’s chosen nation, this is the shining city on a hill. How is it that people are laughing at us?”

“So then the question is, what does God want from us in order to bless us?” Turner continues. “ ‘To be a winner’ kind of sounds like the answer Trump is putting out.”

But Trump’s current popularity among many Evangelicals, which many still find bewildering, is not simply because he may fit into a theology of health and wealth, says Professor Balmer, a leading historian of American Evangelicalism. 

“I think the bigger problem is that the religious right has painted itself into a corner, and this is something decades in the making. By having thrown their lot in with the hard right fringes of the Republican Party, now it’s hard for them the step outside of that,” Balmer says.

In the racially charged politics of moment, including Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim proclamations, this may be tearing apart the Republican and Evangelical coalition.

Still, for many of these supporters, Trump remains an icon of success. “In some ways, Trump does embody the prosperity gospel, a prosperity theology – unwittingly, I’m sure, not intentionally,” says Balmer. “But he could still see himself as a kind of apostle for affluence.”

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