During Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, five Christian leaders and one rabbi will offer readings and prayer for the new administration. At first glance, the standout among those religious figures might be Rabbi Marvin Hier, the first Jewish leader to pray at a presidential swearing-in since Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in 1985.
Still, President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to choose a Jewish leader isn’t particularly surprising, since his daughter converted to Judaism and his son-in-law’s parents have a longstanding relationship with Hier.
The more controversial picks may be the two Christian leaders who preach the so-called prosperity gospel. According to Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, the authors of “When Helping Hurts,” this form of theology “teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth.” This belief typically incorporates preaching from the pulpit that true believers must open up their pockets if they want God to shower them with abundant blessings.
Who else will be speaking?
Paula White, Trump’s spiritual advisor
Trump has confided in Paula White as his spiritual advisor for over 14 years. White is the only woman speaking at the inauguration and will chair his Evangelical Advisory Board during his administration. As the senior pastor of the non-denominational church New Destiny Christian Center, she previously hosted her own show, “Paula White Today,” on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), a global Christian TV channel.
“I can absolutely tell you that Mr. Trump has a relationship with God. He is a Christian, he accepts Jesus as his Lord and savior,” White said in an interview with POLITICO last year.
According to the interview, Trump first noticed her while he was watching Christian television. He says she’s “fantastic.”
Prior to New Destiny, White co-founded Tampa, Florida-based Without Walls International Church with her now ex-husband, Randy White. In 2007, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, launched an investigation into the financial practices of the churches led by the Whites and some of the country’s other big televangelists like Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer.
The findings of that investigation suggested White had a lavish lifestyle. For example, the Whites owned a $2.6 million, 8,000-square-foot waterfront home with a concrete pool and spa in Tampa, according to property records cited by the Senate Finance Committee. White and her then-husband also purchased a $3.5 million condo in (none other than) Trump Tower in New York City, an “insider” told the Senate committee. An “insider” familiar with the church also told the committee that the Whites received housing allowances for both residences.
The Whites also each received compensation of more than $1 million, an insider told the Senate committee. That’s despite the fact that the church itself seemed to be in financial trouble.
In August 2008, Without Walls International defaulted on a $1 million loan due to a credit union and had to file for bankruptcy, the Senate report noted. While the Senate committee ended the probe without penalizing any of the churches involved, the investigation did bring to light some unsavory allegations.
Earlier this month, theologian Michael Horton criticized White in an op-ed in the Washington Post, noting: “Televangelist White has a lot in common with Trump…Both are in their third marriage and have endured decades of moral and financial scandal.”
In response to attacks like Horton’s, White said, in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, “Yes, I have gone through divorce, yes I’ve gone through things. I believe marriage is an absolute sacred institution of God…These are things that happen in life. Not everything is perfect in my life but I don’t think everything is perfect in anybody’s life. And that is why we need salvation. That is what redemption is all about. Thank God for his goodness or we’d all be in trouble.”
We also reached out to White for comment on criticisms of the prosperity gospel but did not immediately receive a response.
Despite the criticisms, White has a huge following, and a sort of celebrity status (she’s now married to Jonathan Cain, the keyboard player for the band Journey).
White even shares Trump’s affinity for Twitter, regularly pushing out motivational messages to her 503,000 followers, encouraging people to pray for God to turn their life around if they’re dealing with hard times.
I pray that God intervenes and turns everything around for you in an instant! Trust Him and watch Him fight for you- in the name of Jesus!
— Paula White-Cain (@Paula_White) January 18, 2017
— Paula White-Cain (@Paula_White) January 18, 2017
Adding the caveat that blessings can extend beyond money and riches, many of her tweets read like excerpts from a self-help book. It’s a common theme often associated with megachurch pastors and televangelists.
Wayne T. Jackson, a prominent African American supporter of Trump
Bishop Wayne T. Jackson echoes this gospel. Last September, Jackson hosted Trump at his church, Great Faith Ministries, in Detroit, Michigan. Jackson also interviewed the president-elect on Impact Network, the only African American founded and operated Christian TV network in the US, according to its website. Shortly after, a community activist group, New Era Detroit, staged a protest during a worship service that quickly escalated into a brawl.
Describing himself as a “business and political leader, philanthropist, pastor and broadcast entrepreneur,” as well as a “charismatic individual with over 20 years of television experience,” Jackson’s bio packages him as a businessman first, religious leader second.
And that’s precisely the reason New Era Detroit decided to take him to task. “Zeek,” the group’s organizer, told Fox 2 News, “The situation is bigger than just Wayne T. Jackson. This is about black churches and black pastors who live a lavish life on behalf of the people and they are not giving back to their community.” The now-viral video of the protest shows Jackson responding to the protester in a similar fashion to how Trump has addressed protesters in the past. “Get him! Get him! Get him!” he demanded. “Move him out quickly! Move him out! Move him out now! On my birthday, move him out now!”
Zeek’s accusations are in reference to Jackson driving a Rolls Royce and living in a mansion — at the expense of his congregation.
“This guy has networks, churches, fancy cars, million dollar houses,” Zeek said. “And there’s babies in this community that doesn’t have food at night. They started the offering at a thousand dollars. And then they said if you don’t have $1,000 then do $300. If you don’t have cash, then we got ATM machines.”
Jackson, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, said he takes issue with being labeled a preacher of the prosperity gospel.
“I preach on love, acceptance, character, holiness. God represents us as a heavenly father. And what earthly father wouldn’t want his child to prosper? You have the right to prosper.”
“I’m a businessman; my father was a businessman. Business is in my blood. I’ve been in business for over 30 years. You don’t go into business to fail. Whatever I have, I have earned. And, I have paid my taxes,” he added.
Jackson told Yahoo Finance that he believes Zeek and New Era Detroit are merely “a group of thugs — radicalists — who came into [his] church and tried to stampede [his] pulpit.” He also asserted that their claims are misguided because he is the biggest giver in his church.
“We give to our communities, to overseas efforts in Israel and in Africa. Is it a sin to have money? We are giving to people who are starving and those who don’t have the clothing or shelter that they need,” he said.
Sam Rodriguez, Jr., a prominent figure among Christian Hispanics
Those preaching the prosperity gospel aren’t the only media savvy religious leaders who will be at the inauguration. Among the other religious leaders speaking is Reverend Sam Rodriguez, Jr., the founder of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). Rodriguez will pray at Trump’s inauguration and is a household name in the predominantly Christian Spanish-speaking world.
The NHCLC serves as a voice for more than 100 million Hispanic evangelicals assembled in over 40,118 US churches and over 450,000 churches around the world. He harnesses Instagram to showcase his charismatic and emphatic preaching as well as selfie videos to connect with his 47,000 followers.
And though Rodriguez has not been characterized as a pundit of the prosperity gospel per se, he has suggested that if you’re a believer you’ll do well financially.
Take, for instance, a recent video post, in which he passionately discusses what Christians should focus on in the New Year. “What possesses you on the inside will determine what you possess on the outside,” he says, preaching that what you believe determines what you receive.
A fiery and dynamic speaker, Rodriguez has previously been a featured speaker at the White House and Congressional meetings to share his thoughts on Hispanic issues and has been a frequent critic of Trump, particularly regarding his promises to build a wall between the US and Mexico and deport undocumented immigrants.
He has decided to keep an open mind, however, after he was asked to participate in the swearing-in ceremony. In a statement, he said “there is truly no greater honor than to serve one’s country in such a special way on such a momentous occasion.”
Franklin Graham, son of the famous Billy Graham
Franklin Graham is the CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization, and the son of evangelist Billy Graham, who has prayed at several presidential inaugurations himself.
Billy Graham has openly denounced the prosperity gospel, claiming “you cannot serve both God and money.” Billy Graham, 98, has hosted his own television and radio programs, written over 30 books and has an estimated net worth of $25 million.
The younger Graham has more of a behind-the-scenes persona than his father did and serves as the president of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which received $100.6 million in donations in 2015. Certainly business savvy, the Grahams have made a successful empire of the gospel.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York
Cardinal Timothy Dolan will also pray at the Inauguration. Though he may be the most universally recognizable name among the group, he’s perhaps the least controversial. He was named Archbishop of New York by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and has been a charismatic personality, appearing frequently on television. His fame may have been cemented when he played the intermediary — and was strategically seated — between Hillary Clinton and Trump at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual fundraiser for Catholic charities, in October. He told the “Today” show he had the two candidates pray together before the event and that he witnessed the two share “some very touching moments.”
It seems Trump has always been drawn to larger-than-life religious celebrities.
“I’m Protestant, I’m Presbyterian, and I go to church, and I love God, and I love my church. And Norman Vincent Peale — the great Norman Vincent Peale was my pastor, the power of positive thinking. Everybody has heard of Norman Vincent Peale. He was so great,” he said during an interview at the Family Leadership Summit, a conservative political organization.
Trump’s picks for spiritual advisors may say a lot more about his personality than his personal faith — particularly White, Rodriguez and Jackson, who are flashy, business-minded and media savvy, just like the 45th president himself.