The mystery of Donald Trump’s religion: Inspired by Peale, or by Paula White?

Attempting to comprehend the mystery of Donald Trump’s religion, his critics can’t decide whether to blame Peale or Paula.

Some consider that “positive thinking” guru, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), the inspiration for what they dislike. (Reports say Trump, a boyhood Presbyterian, never actually joined  Peale’s New York City congregation, which is part of the Reformed Church in America.) For other skeptics, it’s not Peale who’s appalling but Paula White.

Writers with and then have recently profiled White,  a popular broadcaster, speaker, author and since 2012 senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Fla. This is one of America’s countless high-growth independent congregations with a “Charismatic” or “Neo-Pentecostal” flavor.

White, a 50-year-old grandmother, and her ministries deserve further reportage with two angles, Trump’s creed and a major fissure in the unruly U.S. evangelical movement.

Veteran activist James Dobson alerted media to the White connection by passing along reports that Trump, a “baby Christian,” was led to renewed faith by White. Trump and White were pals long before she helped broker his 2015 and 2016 meetings with evangelical types. Trump endorsed one of her books in 2007 calling her “a beautiful person,” appeared on White’s TV show, and White rents a New York apartment in a Trump building.

So let's turn to Trump’s fiercest evangelical foe, the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, the Washington D.C. voice for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. Does gender foster wariness when we're talking about White? The SBC’s official “Baptist Faith and Message” declares that “while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

As with the thrice-wed Trump himself, there’s also the marital issue. Charisma magazine reports that White married Dean Knight as a teen but divorced him “after she got saved.” Second husband Randy White is the co-founder and current bishop leading Tampa’s Without Walls International Church that Paula also led for a time. The couple divorced in 2007 and last year she married Jonathan Cain, a rock keyboardist best known for his work with Journey.

But Moore emphasizes that White is a “charlatan” because she preaches the “prosperity Gospel.” Other clergy given that label include Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen. This movement, excoriated by mainstream and denominational evangelicals like Moore, argues that those who are generous with God receive in turn economic and physical benefits. Often the implication is that such generosity should fund the preacher’s own ministry.

White herself rejected that label in a scoop interview with the online Christian Post: “I do not believe in the ‘prosperity Gospel’ as I’ve been accused of believing it. I do believe that all good things come from God, and I also believe that God teaches us so much through our suffering.” For herself, “my life has not been an easy one, from my childhood and, at times, in my adulthood.”

So journalists need to take some time, in stories, to define the “prosperity” theology and let expert voices debate whether that term fairly describes White and those other personalities. And then, why do prominent evangelicals spurn this as a biblical heresy?

Regarding Trump, White promoted the would-be president but declined to specify her own role in any purported Christian turn. She said: “I have heard Mr. Trump verbally acknowledge his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins through prayer, and I absolutely believe he is a Christian who is growing like the rest of us.”

That statement certainly invites follow-up questions.

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