How the evangelical faithful embraced Donald Trump as a man of God
The image seemed tailor-made for controversy: a gleaming, six-foot-tall gilded statue of Donald Trump at the 2021 edition of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Social media lit up with accusations that CPAC was quite literally featuring an idol of the forty-fifth president. But statue creator and former youth pastor Tommy Zegan seemed caught off guard by the outcry. “I know what the biblical definition of an idol is,” he said. “This is not an idol. It’s a sculpture.” Where some saw a flagrant violation of religious norms, he saw a fitting homage to a great leader.
This incident highlights a disconnect in the religious discourse around Trump. To critics, Trump’s words, actions, and policies contradict foundational tenets of Christianity. Yet an evangelical community that routinely positions itself as the custodian and defender of Christian values ushered him into power and nearly delivered him a second term. How do we make sense of this support?
One explanation is that Trump tapped so powerfully into culture war grievances around race, class, and gender that evangelicals gave his blatant disregard for Christian values a pass. This account captures key elements of the Trump phenomenon. But it also presumes that evangelicals knowingly compromised their morals in a cynical play for political influence. Many evangelicals compare Trump to King David—the biblical figure notoriously flawed in some ways, exemplary in others, and ultimately held up as a man of God. Like Zegan defending his CPAC statue, they seem baffled that others don’t see him this way. Taking their earnestness at face value pushes us to ask: What kind of Christianity sees piety in a figure like Trump? To that end, let’s examine a vastly influential movement in American Christianity with deep ties to Trumpworld: the prosperity gospel.
The prosperity gospel drew inspiration from the New Thought movement in nineteenth-century America. Adherents maintained that the power of the mind could be harnessed to heal the body of disease or court financial success. Twentieth-century religious leaders melded these approaches with Christian belief, arguing that God rewarded spiritual faith with health and wealth. The process begins with the individual declaring their desired material outcome. They must then validate their declaration in some tangible way, often by donating to their faith community. If they complete these steps in faith—if they believe strongly enough—God will give them what they ask for. This launched what we now know as the prosperity gospel and its distinctive name-it-and-claim-it approach.
The prosperity gospel broke into the American religious mainstream in the mid-twentieth century and has steadily grown in popularity. It catapulted the careers of figures such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Kenneth Copeland and transformed Joel and Victoria Osteen into household names. Yet despite its cultural clout and pervasive influence in evangelical circles, the prosperity gospel played a marginal role in American presidential politics—until 2016.
When Trump announced his candidacy, it seemed highly improbable that he would capture the evangelical vote, let alone the Republican nomination. He defied convention: a womanizing casino mogul crashing the party of family values; a foul-mouthed New Yorker wooing prim and proper middle America; a business magnate rebranding as working-class champion. His lack of knowledge of the Bible, church ritual, or the bedrock theological importance of repentance and forgiveness seemed destined to disqualify him in the eyes of the GOP’s evangelical base.
From a prosperity gospel standpoint, however, Trump possessed a surefire sign of divine favor: God had lavished him with wealth. Criticisms of his personal character, allegations of shoddy business practices, and accusations of predatory sexual behavior crumbled before this one awesome fact. And in true name-it-and-claim-it fashion, he declared, against seemingly overwhelming odds, that he would become president—and then proceeded to pour tens of millions of dollars of his fortune into the campaign. This was the most audacious high-stakes act of naming and claiming in American political history. Evangelicals who had internalized prosperity gospel modes of thinking were enthralled. They turned out in unprecedented numbers to help him claim what he named. Even after the election, they kept packing Trump’s rallies. Nothing quite compared to seeing this man of God for themselves and reveling in his success.
Trump is no stranger to prosperity gospel logic. As a youth, he attended the church of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the self-help classic The Power of Positive Thinking. In Peale’s hands, faith became a means of courting worldly success by cultivating self-belief. Trump’s unrivaled ability to promote himself and his brand has helped him overcome bankruptcies, lawsuits, and fraud allegations. Although he has repeatedly broken Christian ethical norms, he has practiced positive thinking with unwavering consistency.
Trump’s affinity for the prosperity gospel also explains televangelist Paula White-Cain’s emergence as his primary spiritual adviser. White-Cain built a lucrative ministry by convincing people that God would prosper them as a reward for their donations. She had been in Trump’s orbit since the early 2000s, was among the first to endorse Trump’s candidacy in 2016, and enjoyed the kind of visibility in the Trump White House that previous administrations had reserved for Billy Graham. And she named and claimed the 2020 election for Trump even after it became apparent Biden would win. From a prosperity gospel vantage point, a man of God failing on such a scale was unthinkable.
Those puzzled by Trump’s enduring popularity even after his defeat may wonder why the prosperity gospel flourishes among the down and out. By hallowing celebrities such as White-Cain and Trump, it fosters a sense of connection to those God has prospered: the unblessed get to bask in the reflected glory of the blessed. Even after such figures fall from their perches the prosperity gospel continues to meet a deep psychic need: It imparts cosmic significance to, and a sense of control over, overwhelmingly complex market forces. But what kind of God do these forces reveal? A God who favors the one percent at the expense of ninety-nine, who opposes the humble and gives grace to the proud, who shoves the needy into the ash heap and keeps the mighty on their thrones. Jesus taught that one cannot serve both God and money. When money is the primary medium through which the divine speaks, it is not the God of the Bible doing the talking. But the desire for agency runs so deep that people would rather believe that personal misfortune flows from their own lack of faith—or that a figure like Trump must possess faith—than confront the moral bankruptcy underlying how markets sort winners from losers.
Trump came to personify the sense of agency that the prosperity gospel gives its adherents. To salvage this sense, many supporters continue to assert that he will ultimately emerge victorious and that the CPAC statue is a worthy tribute to his greatness. But the biblical record is scathingly clear about graven images, golden statues, and the love of money and praise. Which raises the unsettling question: what God does Trumpworld serve?
Jeremy Sabella lectures at Dartmouth College and is the author of An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.