Who is Mark Burns? Prosperity gospel takes center stage at Republican National Convention

Who is the Rev. Mark Burns?

That's what some may be wondering after the South Carolina pastor's prayer caused a minor kerfuffle on the opening night of the Republican National Convention (as opposed to the major social media storm over apparent plagiarism in Melania Trump's speech).

Plenty of folks, on the left and right, were not amused by what Burns had to say.

Here's a hint for journalists: When delving into Trump's faith, it seems, the prosperity gospel is an appropriate place to start. That is not exactly breaking news. Nonetheless, it's certainly a relevant, timely topic for journalists to explore. Especially when it comes to Burns. So what happened in the coverage in this prayer mini-firestorm?

A personal note: I was not familiar with Burns until he stepped to the podium of a Donald Trump rally that I covered earlier this year for The Christian Chronicle:

As thousands welcomed Trump to the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City on Friday, an African-American pastor named Mark Burns -- who preaches for the Harvest Praise and Worship Center in Easley, S.C. -- led an opening prayer.

Burns assured the crowd that Trump believes in Jesus Christ and said -- with his election -- “Christians will again have a friend in the White House.”

“It’s not about who’s the best Christian because we’re not voting for the next pastor in chief,” Burns said. “We’re voting for the next president of the United States.”

In much of the press reaction, it's pretty clear that most journalists at the GOP gig were convinced that Burns was going right to the edge of saying Trump was God's nominee for pastor in chief.

Here's the text of Burns' prayer in Cleveland last night, via veteran religion writer G. Jeffrey MacDonald:

Sullivan wrote about the prayer at Yahoo, and she wasn't the only one who noticed it. 

Jack Jenkins of ThinkProgress used the "most partisan prayer in convention history" line, too:

And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called it "a malediction, not a benediction":

The Associated Press -- as one would expect -- played the story much more down the middle in the only mainstream media coverage that I found in a quick Google search, and the AP item was a brief:

CLEVELAND (AP) -- One of Donald Trump's most ardent African-American supporters has led Republican convention delegates in a prayer for his electoral success.
South Carolina Pastor Mark Burns said the GOP should unite behind Trump, who he said is a man who "believes in the name of Jesus Christ."
In the afternoon benediction, he prayed "that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party."
Burns called presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton "our enemy" and asked God to give Trump "the power and the authority to be the next president of the United States of America."

That leads us back to the original journalism question: Who is Mark Burns?

It's a question that Godbeat pro Elizabeth Dias of Time magazine has devoted a bunch of words -- in written and video form -- to answering in recent months.

Back in April, Dias took a deep dive into "the evangelical outsiders supporting Donald Trump." Short version: Meet the pastors of the prosperity gospel (the belief that God rewards signs of faith with wealth, health, and happiness).

A big chunk of the opening of that Time story:

It would be hard to find a pastor more perfect to stump for Donald Trump than Mark Burns.
At a March Trump rally in Illinois, Burns leapt up to the stage, pumping up the crowd in chants of Trump’s name. “Lord, this will be the greatest Tuesday that ever existed, come Super Tuesday Three,” he prophesied in prayer, naming and claiming a Trump victory. He opened his eyes. “There is no black person, there is no white person, there is no yellow person, there is no red person, there’s only green people!” he shouted. “Green is money! Green are jobs!!”
Until Trump plucked Burns out of the tiny town of Easley, S.C., few Christians knew the black pastor’s name. But it is God, Burns says, who has economically transformed his life—before he found Jesus, he relied on food stamps, lived in section 8 housing, went to jail, and faced a charge of simple assault as part of his self-described “baby mama drama” past. Then last year, Burns decided to transition his ministry to a for-profit televangelism business, so he and his followers could achieve economic success.
“Jesus said, above all things, I pray that you prosper, I pray that you have life more abundantly,” Burns, 36, explained to TIME in an interview, quoting a verse not from the Gospels but another New Testament passage. “It was never Jesus’ intention for us to be broke.” All of this is wisdom is now contained in a candidate for President. “I think that is what Donald Trump represents,” Burns says.
Trump is making inroads in the evangelical world by cloaking himself with pastors like Burns, who represent a narrow and often controversial segment of the faith. The preachers who often stand with him are born-again Christians, but most are evangelical outsiders—many are Pentecostal televangelists who often preach a version of what’s often called the “prosperity gospel,” a controversial theological belief that God wants people to be wealthy and healthy.

In advance of this week's convention, Dias and a colleague produced a mini-documentary on Burns. The title: "Meet Donald Trump's Top Pastor":

Of course, Burns wasn't the only prosperity pastor to take the stage last night, as The Associated Press' Rachel Zoll noted:

Who is Mark Burns? And who is Paula White? To answer those questions, Godbeat pros know where to start — by asking, what is the prosperity gospel?

Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

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