In “Don’t Forget Trump’s Pentecostal Fans,” Arlene Sánchez-Walsh (Azusa Pacific University), responds to David Barr’s (University of Chicago) essay featured in this month’s issue of the Forum, “Evangelical Support for Trump as a Moral Project: Description and Critique.” The rise of Donald J. Trump to the presidency has caused a crisis of misunderstanding in American politics. From the perspective of his critics, his ethos, rhetoric, and politics are so self-evidently evil, they cannot imagine how anyone could support him from anything other than depravity or ignorance. Barr’s essay makes the case that there is a deeper meaning beyond this apparently obvious one, and realistic political analysis requires that we recognize it. Barr argues that many American evangelical Christians support President Trump as an expression of a positive moral vision for American government and society.
Sánchez-Walsh cautions against monolithic renderings of “evangelical” Christianity that predominate in the commentary and scholarly analysis of the place of religion in the Trump presidency. Particularly, as a scholar of American Pentecostal religion, she reminds us that some of Trump’s primary faith advisers are Pentecostal leaders. She identifies two reasons, among others, as to why considering the distinctiveness of Pentecostal theology (especially in relation to their white evangelical coreligionists) is instructive for understanding Christian support of Trump: 1) the influence of the “Prosperity Gospel” and 2) the Pentecostal tendency to identify moral authority in “redemption narratives.”
- David Barr, Evangelical Support for Trump as a Moral Project: Description and Critique
- Benjamin Lynerd, On Political Theology and Religious Nationalism
- John G. Stackhouse, Jr., American Evangelical Support for Donald Trump: Mostly American, and Only Sort-of ‘Evangelical’
- Samuel Perry, A War for the Soul of American Evangelicalism
- Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, Don’t Forget Trump’s Pentecostal Fans
We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions below.
by Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh
I read David Barr’s piece with some trepidation. Knowing that excusing vast corruption, racism, and the all-out assault on decency that is Trump was not part of Barr’s thesis, I wondered how one should make sense of what Barr describes as evangelicals’ otherwise consistent moral-political logic. Though I found the desire to find a deeper motive admirable, I remain unconvinced that evangelical political theology has much, if any, resonance with Trump’s “other” evangelical fans, namely at least 6 particularly prominent Pentecostals on Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council. I would like to suggest that the Pentecostals Trump has surrounded himself are not representative of Pentecostalism generally; most, if not all of them, come from Pentecostalism’s “Prosperity Gospel” camp (or, maybe better, “resort”). Advisors like Paula White-Cain, Mark Burns, Gloria and Kenneth Copeland being the most prominent of the TV prosperity preachers. Let me suggest two reasons (perhaps among others) why scholars and commentators alike should take Pentecostals—who, I might add, are generally younger, more diverse, and more representative of immigrant communities—into account in their analyses of evangelical support of Donald Trump: First, many Pentecostals, to a greater extent than their white evangelical coreligionists, have been shaped by the emergence of the “Prosperity Gospel.” And, second, many Pentecostals locate moral authority not in the demonstration of a moral life but in “redemption narratives.”
The Prosperity Gospel is an emergent American theological tradition that believes there is a reciprocal relationship between human beings and God, particularly in the sense that God will reward those who demonstrate their faith through financial giving and sacrifice. A lack of faith corresponds to a lack of material abundance, and the presence of true faith corresponds to material blessing. In this respect, I think Barr has it right, though I’d add that Pentecostals are more than just fiscal libertarians. Pentecostals subvert the notion that economic freedom comes from a Randian economic script by suggesting something more audacious—that God creates and distributes wealth, and that anyone who believes can be free from financial insecurity. Though I doubt that any of Trump’s Pentecostal fans are familiar with Niebuhr, they would not be as worried as Barr seems to be that Niebuhr is warning us that “wealth is power” and that this power leads to intransigent inequality. Faith is the fix for inequality, and this is why, even for Trump’s African American and Latino Pentecostal fans, inequality is not a governmental issue—it’s a faith issue. All one has to do is turn on the Christian Broadcasting Network or another religious TV station to watch these prosperity preachers ply their trade. Prosperity preachers appreciate showmanship, wealth, and spectacle. The ability to take pre-recorded, edited shows and maximize their emotional effectiveness to secure the continued support of millions of fans and millions of dollars not only demonstrates that they walk a very fine line between authenticity and entertainment, but they support Trump because they see themselves in Trump. Like prosperity preachers, who are often one private jet away from pushing their demands too far, Trump skirts the edge of scandal continually and knows he will be forgiven because he offers political access to Pentecostal prosperity preachers who, aside from their audiences, are viewed with scorn and derision in the larger culture.
The second point I’d add is that scholars and commentators on religion in politics should consider the basis of Pentecostal beliefs about the source(s) of moral authority, whether it’s in the life of faith or the realm of politics. A good place to start is by looking at Pentecostal leaders. Consider, for example, televangelists like Paula White-Cain, whose own scandals are legendary (married and divorced several times and allegations of misuse of funds), and who Southern Baptist leader Russell D. Moore (not part of the Trump fan club) called a “charlatan.” Oddly enough, none of this seems to matter. (Sound familiar?) Why? For Pentecostals, moral authority rests not in the demonstration of the moral life (think about the main arguments of the Christian Right of the 1980/90s), but in one’s redemption. And Trump’s Pentecostal fans have projected these redemption narratives onto him, and thus are willing to accommodate his vulgarity, his immorality, and perhaps most unusual, his utter lack of contrition. It’s perhaps less surprising, then, that leaders (whether religious or political) are so rarely taken to task by their Pentecostal supporters when news of moral failing surfaces. Paula White doesn’t care if Russell Moore doesn’t like her. Mark Burns can get into Twitter battles with the “liberal” media and his base will love him even more. This goes for even the most egregious of Prosperity Gospel proponents, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, whose shameless craving for private jets is only to be outdone by “anti-vaxxer” Gloria’s insistence that God’s inoculations are all one needs to combat this year’s particularly deadly flu. Because Pentecostals tend to inhabit lower class strata in U.S. society, they are enamored by wealth and consider the people that have it to be divinely blessed. Trump’s lack of an authentic exculpatory narrative matters little to his Pentecostal fans because they project their own narratives onto him, truly believing that he has been “reborn,” that he is a changed person, that he is a biblical David leading them, the chosen ones. That they do so without a shred of evidence should not be so surprising—they have scripted the narrative for him, and all he has to do is play along. ♦
Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh is associate professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society. She has authored over a dozen articles and book chapters on the subject of Latino/a religion and has served as a media expert for outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and On Being with Krista Tippett. Sánchez-Walsh’s current projects include a monograph on Latino/as, American exceptionalism, and the prosperity gospel. Her new book, Pentecostals In America, will be published in May 2018 by Columbia University Press.
* Feature image: Donald Trump receives a prayer at a church in