Charlatan or saviour: What will Trump’s controversial new pastor bring to the White House?

Andrew Buncombe
Ms White is an the adviser in the White House office of liaison: Getty

She is frequently described as the woman who brought Donald Trump to God.

She offered a blessing at his inauguration, said prayers at the launch of his re-election campaign, and recently claimed while publicising a new book that he once wanted to construct a vast, glass cathedral, telling her “let’s build this before we’re too old”. Others have called her a fraud.

Now Paula White-Cain, better known as Paula White, a 53-year-old televangelist from Florida, has an official White House role. In what appears part of an attempt to lock down support from evangelical Christians as he seeks a second term, Mr Trump has added Ms White to his office of public liaison, the part of the administration concerned with outreach to groups and individuals the president considers important.

“Paula White is the adviser to the faith and opportunity initiative,” the White House told reporters in a statement. “She is heading up that initiative.”

Ms White enters the job with a reputation for shaking things up. This summer she told a congregation in Florida: “When I walk on White House grounds, God walks on White House grounds. Wherever I go, God rules. When I walked in the river, God walked in the river.” She has praised the president’s intellect, calling him “very much a strategic thinker”, and sometimes she speaks in tongues.

Despite claiming the Bible was either his favourite or second-favourite book, telling different interviewers over the years that his own Art of the Deal was his number one read, the president has never made a very convincing man of God.

Attending a church service during the 2016 Iowa caucus, he struggled to differentiate between a sacrament plate and a collection bowl, reaching into his pockets for change. He testily declined to tell journalists his favourite Bible stories, and completely mashed up scriptural references when he spoke to students at the Christian Liberty University.

Yet he has always understood the importance of keeping the support of the religious right, and in particular evangelicals, perhaps as many as 80 per cent of whom voted for him in 2016.

Evangelical leaders rarely defended the thrice-married former casino magnate’s private life, or his paying of hush money to a porn star on the eve of the election. But they approve of his appointment to the supreme court of conservative justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, his defence of “religious freedom” and his willingness to permit “religious exemptions” for laws seeking to provide workplace equality to members of the LGBT+ community.

Ms White is not just any pastor. She has also been married three times – her current husband, Jonathan Cain, plays keyboards with the band Journey – and she built up a megachurch in Florida only to file for bankruptcy. She espouses a brand of Christianity sometimes called “prosperity theology”, which states God can reward people by making them wealthy, and at the same time, people can also be blessed for donating to good causes such as churches.

Her website quotes part of the Proverbs chapter from the Old Testament that talks of “honouring the Lord with the first fruits of your increase”. She then writes: “I prophetically decree and declare deliverance and prosperity are yours in 2019 – this is the year YOU inherit YOUR promised land!”

Ms White has also sparked controversy with some of her other alleged doctrinal statements, which have questioned the so-called Trinity, a tradition that sees God in three persons – the father, son, and holy spirit. Ms White has denied making such a comment.

She has also triggered outcry with remarks made last year amid the Central American immigration crisis, when she claimed that although Jesus was a refugee, he was “not illegal”. She added: “If he had broken the law, then he would have been sinful and he would not have been our messiah.”

Mark Tooley, a Methodist and founder of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, based in Washington DC, told The Independent Ms White’s appointment underscored the ascendancy of evangelical - or “born again” - Christianity in the Trump administration. (Mike Pence is also an evangelical Christian, which is one of the reasons some among the religious right are less concerned about the president’s possible impeachment and removal from office.)

“She represents a modern, entrepreneurial style that built up her ministry and now has political influence,” Mr Tooley said.

He claimed she was a controversial figure, even among some evangelicals, who did not agree with her views on prosperity theology, even though the idea – espoused also by the likes of the hugely popular Joel Osteen - has been around in the US for many decades.

As to what change she might bring to Mr Trump, he said: “He’s never made a good job of pretending to be a person of faith, and people have been pretty upfront about that. [Evangelicals] have adopted a sort of realpolitik approach, on the basis he will protect them and address their concerns.”

There is nothing new about a US president associating himself with a leading religious figure. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan prayed with Billy Graham.

Bill Clinton tearfully attended a national prayer breakfast meeting with clerics and asked for their blessing, just hours before special counsel Kenneth Starr delivered his damning report on the president’s infidelity and his attempts to cover it up to Congress.

George W Bush became a born-again Christian in 1985, part of an effort overseen by his wife, Laura, to turn from him around from being a virtual alcoholic. Barack Obama got into trouble for his association with the black preacher Jeremiah Wright. He also led a congregation in a rendition of Amazing Grace at the funeral of the Rev Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the Charleston church massacre, demonstrating his ease in a religious setting.

Jimmy Carter, 95, perhaps the most persistently observant of all recent presidents, still delivers lessons at the Maranatha Baptist Church in the town of Plains, Georgia.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr Trump’s pastor is rather different – outspoken, controversial, with her own media empire and a website where people can sign up for a daily homily.

In 2014, her church, Without Walls International Church, in Apopka, a congregation that was once 20,000 strong, was obliged to file for bankruptcy protection. Russell Moore, an influential figure with the Southern Baptist Convention called her a “charlatan”. Others have questioned just how long she has known the president, and what role she played, if any, in his religious journey. Earlier this year, she announced she was handing over responsibly of her church to her son.

“I never would have guessed that Paula White and Donald Trump would be the preacher-president duo people remember like Billy Graham and Richard Nixon,” Kate Bowler, a professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School,” told the New York Times.

“Paula White survived scandal and little support from the religious right to become one of the only stand-alone women in the male-dominated world of televangelism. She has done what no one thought she could do, scraping out a place for an unpopular theology beside an unpopular president.”

It seems clear she is here to stay, at least for now. Ms White has been photographed often with the president, and when she prayed at his re-election campaign launch, she declared: “Right now, let every demonic network who has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of president Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus!”

Ms White did not respond to requests for comment.

In an interview with the Washington Examiner, while promoting her book, Something Greater: Finding Triumph Over Trials, she claimed her relationship with the president went back two decades, when he contacted her after seeing her on television.

“He is a Christian,” she said, explaining he was “quiet” about it, not like Mr Clinton, who often quoted the Bible. She added: “He doesn’t know ‘Christian-ese’. Most people don’t.”

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