How Donald Trump Gained Support from Evangelical Outsiders

Inside the world of prosperity gospel

By Elizabeth Dias

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.

People attend a rally led by evangelist Franklin Graham in Atlanta on Feb. 10, 2016.
Stacy Kranitz for TIMEPeople attend a rally led by evangelist Franklin Graham in Atlanta on Feb. 10, 2016.

Prosperity preachers like Burns have introduced Trump at rallies. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., son of one of America’s most prominent televangelists, has endorsed Trump and says he reminds him of his father. Joel Osteen, America’s best-known preacher of prosperity through Jesus recently called Trump “an incredible communicator and brander,” “a good man,” and “a friend to our ministry,” and Trump once tweeted that Joel is a “real friend.”

And while there has always been a softer stream of self-help gospel in the evangelical mainline, the brand Trump is raising up explicitly tracks with his own ideology of winning and success. “It is not a far leap from televangelists marketing their vitamin shakes to a political candidate marketing his brand of steaks,” Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy leader, says. “It exposes divides that were already present, and it is bringing conversations that were happening in private out into the public.”

That is an understatement. Fully half of white evangelicals believe Trump would make a good or great president, according to the Pew Research Center. That support is creating an identity crisis for the traditional Christian right, which has historically prized conservative policies above all. Unlike the moral majority leaders of the past 30 years, prosperity preachers don’t just want Americans to be saved. They want them to be successful.

Until now, this kind of evangelicalism has had little power in national politics. And as Washington’s evangelical establishment pushes back against Trump as racist, misogynist, and fundamentally anti-Christian, a new set of believers is rising up to defend him, breaking open a fight for the born-again.


GOD IS GREEN

Trump does not need the come-to-Jesus conversion long required of American politicians to have the ideal testimony for prosperity believers. His economic success is the truest sign of God’s blessing. It even frees Trump’s supporters to accept what would traditionally be seen as evangelical failings: his three marriages, past support for abortion, and public refusal to ask for forgiveness.

Trump is a longtime disciple of “the great Norman Vincent Peale,” as he calls him on the campaign trail, the famous twentieth-century evangelist who preached positive thinking and reached millions through his television and radio programs. Growing up, Trump’s family attended Peale’s church, Marble Collegiate in Manhattan. He married his first wife there, hosted Peale’s 90th birthday party at the Waldorf Astoria in 1988, and embraced his message of self-realization.

Lesley Chambers and Brensley Baker sing before Donald Trump arrives at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. on Jan. 18, 2016.
Joshua Roberts—ReutersLesley Chambers and Brensley Baker sing before Donald Trump arrives at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. on Jan. 18, 2016.

Like the popular preacher, he developed a following. He billed himself as “the very definition of the American success story” in his bestselling autobiography The Art of the Deal, and built a career turning celebrity into profit. He founded Trump University, with motivational speakers as professors. Mark Burnett, the television producer of “Survivor” and “Shark Tank”—who is also an evangelical and keynoted the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast—produced Trump’s “Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” television shows.

He became friends with televangelist Paula White, senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida. Preacher Mike Murdock, 69, a Texas-based televangelist of The Wisdom Center and an Oral Roberts mentee, says Trump is definitely “not God Jr.,” but that is beside the point. “He has the core values of the Scriptures where you produce,” Murdock says. “He has so much honor given to him because he has had so much.”

Theologically, the belief that God wants people to be rich is controversial. Prosperity preachers often interpret Jesus’ teachings about abundant life in Christ financially, and that has earned them a bad name in many evangelical circles. White says her message is not “all about the money,” but a holistic gospel message of “well-being and opportunity,” which also addresses suffering. “How can you create jobs for people who want to work?” she says. “If you want to call that prosperity, yes, I believe in prosperity.”

Explicit prosperity theology is also fairly new in the nation’s history but it has deep roots. It began with a group of early 20th-century disenfranchised black preachers, and then gained strength through the decades with the rise of Pentecostalism and as televangelism became a moneymaker. A 2006 TIME cover story on prosperity’s growth found than nearly one in five Christians named themselves followers, even as leading evangelicals like pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California firmly rejected it.

“If Trump wants mass appeal and hasn’t courted traditional sources of power, then this is a very smart alliance,” Kate Bowler, professor of Christian history at Duke University and an expert on American prosperity gospel, says. “They are like him, they are outsiders with an unusual amount of popular support but not as a much cultural credibility.”

A new, loose coalition of prosperity-minded preachers has been quietly uniting for Trump behind the scenes. When Trump was considering a 2012 presidential run, White gathered a group of about 40 pastors to meet with him. Cleveland pastor Darrell Scott says it was there that he met Trump’s right hand Michael Cohen, who reached out to get his support last June when Trump was thinking about running.

Cooper Neill (L), Shawn Thew—Getty ImagesPastor Joel Osteen during MegaFest on Aug. 30, 2013 in Dallas (left) and Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 4, 2016 in Washington.

In September, White invited several dozen prominent preachers to pray for Trump again at Trump Tower, including many Pentecostal preachers. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Jan Crouch, “Preachers of LA” reality star Clarence McClendon, Murdock, and newer ones like Burns prayed around a table with a “Make America Great Again” hat on it. Rabbi Kirt Schneider, a Jewish Christian televangelist who says he saw Jesus at age 20, prophesied, placing his fingers over Trump’s eyes.

Their reasons for supporting Trump are varied. Scott says Trump reminds him of Cyrus, a Persian king in the Bible who rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls. McClendon has said he feels called “to reach the up and out as well as the down and out,” and compares Trump to Zacchaeus, a reviled Jewish tax collector that Jesus saved. Murdock says he has sensed Trump’s spirit is “a phenomena” needed at a time when “we smell the odor of disrespect coming from the government.”

The more mainstream pastor Jentezen Franklin, who leads a 16,000-member congregation in Georgia and an international television ministry that reaches millions of people, says he sees his peers with large media ministries speaking out for the first time politically, especially for a candidate who can be pro-Israel, pro-life, and who can empower the middle class. “We need a radical change in this nation,” he says. “That has been the weakness of many of the right-wing evangelical community, they are quick to point out what they are for on social issues, but where is the compassion on the poor and the needy?”

The reach of such independent pastors is expansive, if often difficult to calculate. All have vast direct-to-consumer media networks, act autonomously, and many run for-profit ministries not just traditional churches. Copeland, who has also voiced support for Cruz, gained international attention when he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014, shortly after the pontiff met with Osteen. Leaders report their own numbers.

Osteen has said he reaches 20 million on television a month and brings in some $90 million a year. Scott says his radio station reaches 4.5 million homes in northeast Ohio alone, and he reports 150,000 listeners online every day. Burns, new to the scene, says he is available in 11 million homes in the U.S and Canada.

Their individual businesses make them powerhouses, and partnering with one another can be a ministry strategy when they want to expand. “The message is an end-run around political systems,” Bowler says. “It says, I don’t need the government to provide for the conditions of my life. Theologically speaking, they shouldn’t need a politician.” Trump isn’t a politician, at least until recently, yet he is the master of their own trade.

The theology also gives Trump an unlikely platform to tout his outreach to racial minorities. Many of the pastors stumping for Trump are African American, and Pentecostal churches are, on average, more racially diverse than evangelical Americans as a whole. Burns says he wants “to break this horrible notion that Trump is a racists and a bigot.”

Scott is working with Omarosa Manigault, an original Apprentice star turned Baptist minister, to bring together a group of Muslims and Sikhs to collectively endorse Trump in early April. Scott helped to organize a meeting between African American pastors and Trump in November, an event that became controversial when not all the listed participants actually supported Trump.

McClendon, the “Preachers of LA” television star, chose not to attend the meeting, but then defended his support for Trump in a Periscope to his followers: “I am weary of these self-appointed and barely anointed African-American preachers who posture themselves as official mouthpieces for the African American community,” he said. And while this strategy’s impact on Latino traditions is more a wildcard, Latino evangelical communities are largely Pentecostal, they are growing in the U.S., and they often share the belief that God will supernaturally provide for needs like health care.


THE CONSERVATIVE BACKLASH

But if half of white evangelicals believe Trump would make a good or great president, half do not, and the divide is threatening the GOP’s anchor base. Popular evangelical writer Max Lucado denounced Trump, and the editors of the Christian Post came out against him in their a first-ever political stand. The evangelical stars of Duck Dynasty are split—father Phil endorsed Cruz, son Willie supports Trump.

Evangelical leaders meanwhile have been trying to rev up their base after their presidential picks fell short in 2012 and 2008. Evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, is hosting prayer rallies in every state capital to get evangelicals to commit to vote Biblical values. Conservative activist David Lane’s American Renewal Project is training hundreds of pastors to run for political office. Johnnie Moore, a National Association of Evangelicals board member, is pushing the new MyFaithVotes initiative to get 25 million evangelicals to the polls in November. “There is a certain triumphalism in evangelical theology,” says Moore, 32, who has no relation to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore. “Evangelicals like to win, it is one of the reasons they got into politics in the first place.”

Protesters outside a church at Lenior-Rhyne University before a rally for Donald Trump in Hickory, N.C. on March 14, 2016.
Chuck Burton—APProtesters outside a church at Lenior-Rhyne University before a rally for Donald Trump in Hickory, N.C. on March 14, 2016.

Trump’s rise with new theological support disrupts the evangelical right’s long-held political strategy of championing Biblical social policies. President of the Family Research Council Tony Perkins endorsed Cruz early, ahead of the Iowa caucus—if Trump is the GOP nominee, Perkins says his support would hinge on Trump’s choice of running mate and vision for judicial appointments.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention is urging the faithful not to vote for either nominee if both are “morally disqualified”—Trump for his racist statements, Hillary Clinton for her views on abortion and gay marriage. Instead, he proposes they write in a candidate. “We are in the phase of knowing that the next four years are going to have horrible consequences, no matter if Trump or Clinton is the president,” Moore says. “The question is what sort of witness will we be able to bear in the aftermath.”

That is the very attitude that infuriates and motivates Trump’s born-again base. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, disavows prosperity gospel—“it is heresy to teach that God wants every Christian to be healthy and wealthy,” he says—but he does resonate with Trump’s message. “There is a huge disconnect between what I call the evangelical elite and the average person in the pew,” says Jeffress. “And frankly, I think that is why some of the elites are digging in and saying, ‘Never Trump’—they are personally offended they have had no more influence over the electorate than they have had.”

Burns meanwhile is praying Trump’s way to victory. He started an #IPrayedForTrump hashtag and leads phone conference calls for followers to pray over Trump when he speaks. He says 10,000 people have joined for a five-minute prayer. Ultimately, Burns hopes Trump will help his hometown. “I fantasize about bringing a company like Microsoft to Easley, to bring car manufactures to Greenville, to create more and more jobs,” he says. “You need people like the Trump family to learn.”

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