The Televangelist Inside the White House

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S1: As Slate’s Ruth Graham to watch this video with me tape from a Trump rally back in June we’re in Central or central Florida right now in Orlando Florida at the Amway Center.

S2: This is President Trump’s official bid for the presidential election for 2020.

S1: The president’s family was there warming up the crowd. Erik Dorn Junior but I wanted Ruth to help me understand someone else up on stage. Her name is Paula White okay. Let’s watch the video. Let’s let me let me call it up too. We can like watch it together.

S3: Right. Good evening. Are you ready for a great night of victory.

S4: Waits a pastor she’s turned up at a few of these Trump events and as the crowd was settling in for the show she offered a prayer and ask you to grab that person’s hand next to you if you don’t mind standing up all over this beautiful arena and just was a church move to make everyone stand up and hold hands.

S5: Ruth covers the Christian Right for Slate. She’s been watching as Paula White moves from the fringes of the evangelical church closer and closer to the White House and her theology like she’s considered heretical by a lot of mainstream evangelicals.

S6: So for her to become you know one of really the president’s top evangelical supporters and someone that he’s trotting out a lot is super interesting and that was surprising to me. I believe in the power of unity.

S1: Father I come to you in the name of Jesus and first that day in Orlando white riffed on the Bible smoothly flowing from one verse to another before turning to the president himself.

S7: John chapter twelve verse seventeen I declare that President Trump will overcome every strategy from hell and every strategy of the enemy every strategy.

S5: And he will fulfill his calling and it feels like she’s crescendo ing.

S6: Yeah it’s you can feel the momentum building and kind of the energy building and she she’s absolutely positioning him as like a figure of sort of prophetic importance. Let the secret counsel of wickedness be turned to foolishness. Right now. In Jesus name. And I declare that no weapon for you know she’s urging people there to to sort of add their prayers for you know for their prayers to become armor around town to protect him from these demonic forces and from enemies you know certainly conjuring you know sort of spiritual that their spiritual powers and principalities against him but also you know it’s this common refrain from Trump that there are no haters and enemies and there’s this kind of conspiracy against him and that Christians need to be praying to to protect him from this nation. And for my life the name of Jesus Christ and everybody said. A man.

S8: You know watching this I feel like she’s taking Trump ism and making it Christian.

S6: Yeah absolutely. I mean that’s her you know that’s that’s her job and now it’s our official job to sort of wear those together. And it’s incredible how successful it’s bad over the last few years Paula White has helped change the way evangelicals see Trump.

S9: While she works as the president’s personal adviser. Now she’s taken on a new role in charge of religious outreach going into 2020. So today on the show Ruth is going to explain what it means that whites particular brand of Christianity has moved into the West Wing. Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S4: Let me just say something at the outset here. It’s easy to write off televangelists all that performative zeal the sanctimony the weird blend of piety and commercialism. Wherever I go God rules. What I walk on White House grounds God walks on White House grounds. When Paul White epitomizes that zeal with her flashy outfits and her fiery sermons I had every right and authority to declare. The White House as holy ground because I was standing there.

S1: And where I stand is holy. But you underestimate Paula White at your own risk. Ruth Graham said to me Look American religion is a marketplace. And Paula White is the consummate entrepreneur.

S10: She doesn’t have a college degree let alone a seminary degree. So she’s very much self trained. She grew up in Mississippi. But her career has really developed in Florida. That’s where her two churches have been. Her first church was called Without Walls is in Tampa. She co-founded it with her now ex-husband. It was huge. I mean it was thousands and thousands of people I want to say up to 20000 maybe at the peak Without Walls was a pretty heavily black church pretty low income. She was a very very effective fundraiser even within a population that was pretty low income.

S11: It’s striking because Paula White is white and she’s not just white. She’s very thin very blond. She has a particular brand of whiteness. And it’s it’s interesting to me that she has really found her voice preaching to people of color.

S12: Yeah. And I mean that also made it interesting when she spoke up for Trump in the wake of Charlottesville a few years ago and you know really vouched for him as you know 1000 percent not a racist I think that carried some extra weight given her audience and who she is appeal to and her relationships over the years. So is this quote supposedly from Ebony magazine it says you know you’re on to something new and significant when the most popular woman preacher on the Black Entertainment Network as a white woman said you know that black BBT was one of the places where her show Paula White today has been syndicated over the years has been shown over the years along with places like Trinity Broadcasting Network and you know a lot of the other kind of mainstream televangelist networks by.

S10: But she is also on Beatty T.D. Jakes who’s a really influential black pastor. She she calls him her spiritual father. She has a close relationship with him. She’s participated in his conferences so yeah that’s that’s sort of the the theological and cultural circles that she’s in are really heavily black which is interesting and she preaches something called the Prosperity Gospel for people who don’t know what that is.

S11: Can you explain it.

S12: Yeah the prosperity gospel is both really popular and really controversial. So it basically assures people that God wants everyone to be materially successful. And it promises direct material reward in return to obedience to God. So it’s sort of if you if you pray the right way if you give offerings the right way if you kind of have a correct relationship to God then you will be rewarded in this lifetime.

S10: You know financially that is not anywhere to be found in the Bible. Needless to say it can obviously be really predatory. And Paula White and her churches have come under some pretty intense criticism from the way that she pressures parishioners who again many of whom are low income and yet it’s also just bad theology a kind of implicitly blames people who are suffering for their own misery. She has denied you know she says I don’t preach the prosperity gospel but it’s it’s right there I mean it is it’s I think that’s a very hard denial to make when you look at her preaching. The truth is the Bible doesn’t promise any kind of material like earthly relief from any kind of suffering of anything it emphasizes that a lot of life is suffering and we won’t be comforted until the afterlife but that you know that’s a long time to wait. So the prosperity gospel sort of gives people a more immediate hope and a lot of times appeals to really desperate people.

S11: A lot of places of worship asked people for money but I guess the difference is just the specificity and the idea that somehow there’s a promise at the end of it. There was one story that she was asking people for I think fourteen hundred dollars and the idea that resurrection would somehow be involved. It was around Easter and then there was another story of her asking people to give jewelry and actually personally sorting through the jewelry herself and picking out the better pieces and putting them in a drawer in her desk.

S12: Yeah that was one of her I think church elders made that accusation that is not standard. And you know it’s a huge violation of the expectation that parishioners have when they make that kind of offering. I think the differences. Yes it is true every church asks attendees and members to make voluntary offerings. You know every Sunday and every church I’ve ever belonged to or attended. They’ll pass in offering basket around.

S13: It happens pretty quickly it happens without a lot of fanfare. There’s no kind of emotional manipulation to make me feel guilty or make me feel more generous. And that’s really different than what you see in some of these prosperity gospel spaces where there’s kind of an emotional crescendo leading up to the giving. That really puts a lot of pressure on people in that space. There’s high production value music you know the lights like everything is kind of swirling around to to encourage you to feel like really in the moment that you owe something or you know that that it would be good for you to give in that moment you come out in the light after a service like that and you can kind of shake your head and you’re like whoa what wasn’t high had you know even when I’ve been in these spaces as a reporter you sort of can’t help but get swept up in the moment to a certain degree when you’re there. It’s there it’s a really emotionally and affective you know effective space.

S11: So her church has been controversial for a while. She was one of a number of megachurch pastors that Senator Chuck Grassley investigated in 2011. How did that investigation get started.

S10: Grassley was interested in a handful of these televangelists to see that they were following IRS rules for nonprofits and for churches. That investigation opened up I think in 2007 and it went on for several years. It Grassley wrapped it up when he was leaving the committee and ultimately there were no charges. You know no major findings coming out from it.

S11: Looking at it it’s like there’s a lot of smoke but no fire or so much smoke.

S10: And she really stonewalled them. You know she her church refused to supply the documents that were requested but the reports that have come out since then you know even from people who used to work with her people who used to work in the churches people really disturbed by the way that she was soliciting and handling money. So she’s off on you know private jets doing sort of nominally church related business. What meanwhile asking parishioners to give a month’s worth of salary to her.

S13: I think that disturbs a lot of people even if it’s technically not violating IRS rules. And she’s also not transparent about where the money is going. So most churches fiscally responsible churches are very clear to their members about where their money goes and you know they produce annual reports and it’s very easy it should be very easy as a church member to see where your money is going. Her church is both not transparent and the money that you can see being spent is very obviously a lot of it is going to her and her family.

S11: It’s surprising that nothing was able to be done after the federal government opens an investigation you sort of you expect there to be some kind of resolution.

S10: There’s a lot of leeway for churches to operate as they see fit just because it gets so sticky and difficult. You know once you introduce the idea of the government kind of getting involved in how exactly an institution like this can spend its own money you know people are giving voluntarily Paula White is not stealing money. Her critics say she’s manipulating people into giving more money than is wise for them. But they’re making that decision independently. They see the way that she’s spending that money. They haven’t stopped. You know I think it’s incredibly morally problematic that I I understand the reason that the government wants to let churches be churches.

S11: So how did Paula White first get connected with President Trump.

S12: They met in the early 2000s. This was just a few years before Trump started The Apprentice Paula White was also pretty new to TV. He was a New York real estate guy. She was a Florida pastor but she was coming up to New York often. She had a Bible study with the New York Yankees for a while she was sort of mentoring Darryl Strawberry. So they both had these kind of New York and Florida ties and yeah he thought she was a charismatic. You know that she had this kind of presence and he identified her as an up and comer that he eventually helped her become.

S11: You know Paula White’s message really spread through tell evangelism. And I wanted to talk about that a little bit because a year or so ago you wrote this article for Politico where you talked about Trump’s relationship with Christian television and how it’s even potentially more important than his relationship with Fox News. Can you explain that a little bit.

S14: Yeah Christian television has been among Trump’s strongest you know really unwavering bases of support and kind of almost propaganda level support.

S10: So the Christian Broadcasting Network is where you see that the most because this is Pat Robertson’s network and they have a news division and so there’s a lot of like overt political content news coverage analysis.

S15: There’s a difference a distinction that has to be made between lefties and liberals. What does have a very militant and radical agenda. They’re very much anti-American and anti wealth and the whole network kind of has that.

S10: It’s a similar argument that Paula White makes where it’s that Trump has been incredibly effective for evangelicals so it’s not necessarily trying to make an argument that Trump is an evangelical that really hitting this idea hard like look what he’s done on decreasing access to abortion and all these federal judges that he’s put in place. I just looked at CBN News as home page this morning and there was an article about him hitting like a milestone of 150 federal judges in place and then there’s of course Supreme Court judges and and Christian broadcasting is there to remind evangelicals that he’s doing this. It’s almost invisible to it just doesn’t get covered nearly as much as Fox does but it reaches a lot of people still and it’s an incredibly strong voice for for Trump and his agenda.

S16: Going into 2020 Trump is looking to amplify voices like this so around the beginning of this month he brought Paula White into his administration in an official capacity. The White House says she’s not on the payroll.

S10: So her new role is she’s an adviser to the faith and opportunity initiative which basically means that she’s going to continue doing outreach outreach to faith communities. One thing that’s interesting to me is that that position had gone empty in the Trump administration until this. You know now we’re about a year out from the election that it wasn’t true in the Obama White House that he you know clearly it’s time to devote a little bit more attention to that office. Now it’s a role that she’s been playing informally for a long time. She’s she’s been on his advisory board since before the election. She’s you know prayed for him she prayed at the RNC but now she has this formal role in the White House.

S11: Other presidents have had spiritual advisers too. And so I’m wondering how Trump is approaching this differently. What do you see in how this office is being built and who’s being put inside of it that makes it stand out.

S10: I think it’s the group of evangelicals that he has put around him are really unusual for a president. Yes like almost I think you know probably every president going you know at least back to sort of mid century has had like has had a Christian advisers Billy Graham famously did this for four Nixon and several other presidents and it basically is sort of it’s the person you prop up next to you the pastor who pop up next to you to show that you’re a man of faith. What’s unusual is kind of how Motley the group of evangelicals around Trump is.

S11: It’s interesting that you call the group of evangelicals around the president Motley because you know Tony Perkins the president the Family Research Council said the president has cooked up this evangelical gumbo where he’s mixed all these people who wouldn’t necessarily be talking to each other or appreciating each other’s points of view. And that’s that’s who’s advising him.

S12: Yeah I agree with Tony Perkins that that’s exactly right.

S10: And you could actually see it when Paula White had this book come out a few weeks ago. It’s sort of a inspirational like memoir slash self-help kind of spiritual memoir. And so it came out a few weeks ago and all of these Trump evangelicals came out online you know on Twitter and they were promoting it and saying read my friend Paula White’s book. And a lot of them then got a lot of backlash from their own religious circles saying you know wait a minute Paul White is a heretic. Like what are you doing in some of them. Robert Jeffress ended up saying like well you know I haven’t really read it but you know I just know Paula. But certainly yeah. Trump has assembled this group that theologically has had really sharp divisions over the years. But yeah he’s brought them all in into one room and found the things they agreed on which is which is him and his leadership.

S11: Well that’s fascinating because as we look at 2020 there’s no doubt that evangelicals are really important to the president’s support. And he seems to be empowering and promoting someone who is not necessarily going to bring factions of evangelicals together.

S10: Well you could say the same about Trump himself that on paper you know if you would have talked about this 10 years ago it would have been impossible to predict that he would be this person who would get like record high evangelical support. It’s the same as Paula White someone who has major you know controversial fundraising controversial theology not a terribly well-known person before she entered Trump’s orbit and now has become you know the leader of this group of evangelicals drawing from a lot of really different traditions. So but just kind of because she’s standing near Trump has green gained a lot of credibility and a lot of fame and you know she she definitely has some she she has a lot of influence. So I think evangelicals will support Trump. I would think just as strongly in 2020 as they did in 2016. And that’s because Trump will be running against a particular Democrat whoever it turns out to be. But my guess would be that evangelicals would find that person you know will end up finding that person unacceptable and even if they kind of have to hold their nose that they’ll hold their noses as much as they did in 2016 and vote for him overwhelmingly Ruth Graham thank you so much for joining me.

S17: Thank you. This was fun. Ruth Graham is a staff writer here at Slate where she covers the Christian right. And religion and sometimes dogs all right.

S18: That’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason de Leone Daniel Hewett and Maurice silvers. I’m Mary Harris. Catch me on Twitter at Mary’s desk and I will see you back here tomorrow.