While many Christians of the evangelical and charismatic variety have run for cover whenever a discussion of Donald Trump comes up, others have run into the spotlight. One of the latter is Pastor Paula White, a Florida preacher who’s the closest thing the candidate has to a spiritual guide.
I first became aware of Paula back in 1994, when I encountered her second husband, Randy, at a prayer meeting I was assigned to cover for an article on the “holy laughter” movement so popular 20+ years ago. They were a husband-and-wife team leading the 10,000-member Church Without Walls in Tampa.
As the years went by, Paula’s star went up as she founded her own media ministry in 2001, which included a TV show. By the time I heard her preach several years later at the National Church of God in Fort Washington, just east of Washington, DC, I was amazed at the wardrobe, her confidence and the professionalism of her entourage.
Recently, The Forward, a news and commentary publication that until last year was known as The Jewish Daily Forward, ran a piece proclaiming “David Trump’s favorite female evangelist wears a Jewish prayer shawl -- just like him,” referring to an incident last month where Trump was presented with a prayer shawl by a pastor, which I wrote about here. Here’s how it starts:
High Holiday appeals for money are nothing new to North American synagogue-goers.
But for sheer chutzpah, few could compare with the Yom Kippur video appeal from Paula White, Donald Trump’s most visible evangelical supporter.
White stares into the camera, with cascading blond hair and Botox-swollen lips. She tells those on her ministry email list that this is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, “God’s most holy day of the year [in a] supernatural miracle–working season.”
For the next three-and-a-half minutes, White, 50, explains why viewers need to contribute “sacrificially” to her Orlando-based organization -- $10,000, or just a thousand –- on this special day.
She quotes verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and notes that she, too, is fasting on this day. However, the times of the Temple, when animals were sacrificed and the high priest emerged from the tabernacle’s holy of holies, are long gone.
“We are released from the old rituals of the Old Testament -- but not the principles,” she says. “We know that Jesus Christ became our atonement.”
Now I’d been watching a tape of Paula and was wondering what was up with her lips, so now we know.
But to be fair, here is a question for journalists both male and female: Would a male evangelist get similar observations about his looks?
The article continues in describing how she hustles her listeners to donations (running an expensive TV ministry means lots of bills) and mixes up all sorts of religious symbols.
The Yom Kippur appeal was not White’s first foray into mixing Jewish symbols with evangelical Christianity. In a 2012 episode of her nationally syndicated TV talk show, “Paula White Today,” preserved on YouTube, White allowed herself to be wrapped in a Torah scroll by a Messianic “rabbi” named Ralph Messer, a “coronation” ceremony that she explained embodied being “wrapped in the Word of God.”
Years earlier, Donald Trump became a fan of White’s show, and made a guest appearance on another episode entitled “Millionaire God’s Way.” About that time, Trump and White began a lengthy personal and professional relationship, praying together and promoting each other’s books.
The prayer shawl angle is not super original. To the consternation and annoyance of many Jews, evangelical Protestants have been draping such shawls around themselves for decades.
Then follows descriptions of White’s jet-set (she literally owned a Gulfstream) lifestyle and occasional scandal:
A sex scandal linking White to fellow prosperity gospel advocate (and then married) Benny Hinn landed her on the front page of the National Inquirer. Still, White was able to make a comeback, thanks in large part to her charisma and her TV show, which often features its host showing off her buff figure in exercise segments.
At least one theologian has compared White to two equally flamboyant Pentecostal icons, Kathryn Kuhlman and Aimee Semple McPherson, both of whom built followings through broadcast ministries and arena revivals.
Benny Hinn, by the way, is still married. Yes, he and Suzanne divorced the same year that the National Inquirer piece came out, but they reconciled three years later.
I think the “one theologian” comparing White to Kuhlman and Semple-McPherson hasn’t watched any videos of the three. Listen to Paula preach and you’ll see she’s nothing like the other two. Kuhlman and Semple-McPherson videos show both women dressed in long, flowing white dresses and both concentrated on praying over people for healing. Paula is more of a Bible teacher and evangelist. She is more like Juanita Bynum in style.
Hey, but do those kinds of facts matter these days? The piece continues with:
Today, White pastors a largely African American megachurch in Apopka, Florida, just outside Orlando, assuming the pulpit in 2012 after the congregation’s founding pastor was found dead of a drug overdose in a Times Square hotel. Her preaching, usually in four-inch stilettos, walks a fine line between classic, stem-winding Pentecostalism and creepy minstrelsy.
In a backhanded way, the piece points out one thing White never gets credit for is that she was colorblind long before it became fashionable. She preaches and hangs around mainly black churches, which isn’t something I’ve heard other white evangelists do.
Now, I know that Paula White is problematic in many ways and there are whole sites devoted to some of her failings. I still think the woman deserves some impartial coverage and at least one or two quotes from experts who would praise her among a bevy of quotes relegating her to the trash heap.
Back when I first heard about her in the mid-1990s, husband Randy was very much running the show. I want to hear about how White woke up one day and figured out that she could do better than simply being the wife of a megachurch pastor. She could be her own celebrity. And 20 years later, here she is advising a presidential candidate.
What caused her to strike out on her own? There might be a story there.
As far as we know, she’s broken no law, so what the writer finds fault with has to do with style: Her cheesy way of asking for money and her cluelessness about sacred Jewish objects. But don’t even televangelists deserve fair treatment from journalists? The team at The Forward should know better. Of course they know better.