When it comes to the religious realm, businessman and Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has a hard time finding friends.
Although he now boasts the endorsement of Liberty University president and influential conservative Christian Jerry Falwell Jr., several prominent members of the Religious Right have repeatedly disavowed his candidacy, such as when Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore said Trump represents “everything” evangelicals should stand against. Meanwhile, Trump has racked up an ever-growing list of rejections from non-evangelical religious groups: Pope Francis implied in February that the real estate mogul is “not Christian”; his own claimed Presbyterian denomination openly discussed revoking his membership last year; and when Trump argued that a meeting with black pastors constituted an endorsement in December, several attendees took to the press to make it clear that they were not, in fact, backing The Donald’s campaign for president.
But in the midst of this whirlwind of divine dismissals, there is one group of faithful that has consistently called Trump a friend, and vice-versa: preachers of the so-called “prosperity gospel.”
In its simplest form, the prosperity gospel is an American Christian movement that teaches followers they can become rich though the art of positive thinking — and, more importantly, cutting large checks to their church and pastor. The controversial theology has long been criticized by progressive and conservative Christian leaders alike, especially the spending habits it encourages among ministers who uphold it, such as when Creflo Dollar (his actual name) of College Park, Georgia, asked his constituents to help him buy a private jet.
But just like Trump’s unexpected rise to power within the GOP, prosperity preaching has proven inexplicably attractive: Lakewood Church, the congregation of megapastor and New York Times bestseller Joel Osteen, is now the largest church in the United States, filling seats in the retrofitted former home of the Houston Astros with as many as 40,000 worshippers every Sunday, all eager to hear the ostensibly lucrative message of the prosperity gospel.
The movement’s expansive influence is likely why Trump met with 40 prosperity gospel preachers and televangelists on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in September 2015. The meeting, which included prominent prosperity preachers such as Gloria and Kenneth Copeland, was blasted by Russell Moore as a gathering of “heretics,” but Trump won over the glitzy crowd anyway.
“I believe there’s a reason why Mr. Trump is making such an impact with such a broad range of constituents,” prosperity preacher Clarence McClendon, known for his stint on the reality television show Preachers of L.A., told CNN.
Other prosperity preachers have heaped praise on Trump over the past few months. Mike Murdock, known for being skewered by HBO talk show host Jon Oliver for exploiting his parishioners with shady money-making schemes, endorsed Trump ahead of the South Carolina primary, saying he “has a warrior spirit for restoring America in the eyes of the world and he has a warrior’s heart.” And on March 5, prosperity preacher Paula White told the 10,000-plus crowd at a Trump rally in Orlando that the businessman “needs to be our next president,” reminiscing about the time she gave him a Bible signed by famous evangelist Billy Graham.
While political support for Trump among “health and wealth” ministers is a new phenomenon, his ties to the group are several years in the making. Joel Osteen, who was not present at the September meeting, hinted at his longstanding support for Trump during an October 2015 interview on Fox News radio show Kilmeade & Friends. Host Brian Kilmeade set up a segment with Osteen by playing a clip of Bill Clinton describing the allure of the real estate mogul’s “macho” style, then asked the preacher whether he agreed.
“I’m not really up to speed on all the politics,” Osteen replied. “[But] Mr. Trump is an incredible communicator and brander, like President Clinton said. He’s been a friend to our ministry. He’s a good man.”
Osteen’s resistance to criticism of The Donald was also on display a month later, when he surprised the crew of Sirius XM’s The Karen Hunter Show in December.
“What do we do about Donald Trump?” Hunter asked, only half-jokingly, after Osteen entered the studio. “I prayed already, he’s still around…Can you lay hands on him or something?”
Osteen initially responded with nervous laughter, saying, “You put me in the hot seat!” A few seconds later he blurted out, “I love everybody!”
Indeed, Osteen and Trump have reportedly forged a close friendship over the years, in part because Osteen is a natural spiritual partner for Trump. He doesn’t share The Donald’s proclivity for boasting and inflammatory rhetoric, but both enjoy a deep appreciation of riches: Osteen lives in a $10 million dollar mansion in Houston, Texas, and has an estimated net worth of $40 million — relatively little by Trump standards, but an astronomical income for a pastor.
They are also both favorite targets of some within the Religious Right. Just as Trump has been chastised by Moore and others for his religious illiteracy and apparent allergy to humility, so too have the same Christian thinkers condemned Osteen and other preachers of the prosperity gospel as unnecessarily wealth-centered. Osteen was even criticized by conservatives in 2014 for his apparent lack of biblical knowledge, just as many scoffed at Trump last year for his inability to name his favorite Bible verse.
Granted, Osteen has a long history of avoiding negative criticism of public officials, and has invited a number of political leaders from both parties to his church. President Bill Clinton and his family even attended Sunday services at Lakewood Church during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president.
But Osteen’s kind words for Trump are but the latest example of a relationship unusual for both its coziness and its reciprocity. Trump himself spoke highly of his friendship with the megapastor in 2013, tweeting that the two are “REAL friends.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2013
Osteen even advertised the launch of his Sirius XM radio program in 2014 by using Trump’s name, noting that the opening show would include “specials guests” such as “Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, and Donald Trump.” Osteen lauded Trump for his generosity when he called into the show, thanking him for donating to various ministries — including his own.
“What a lot of people don’t know about Mr. Trump is he’s a giver,” Osteen said. “He gives to not just to our ministry, but all sorts of causes, friends that I know. You can’t find a more giving, gracious person than Mr. Trump. And we can’t feel more blessed to have him as a friend.”
Trump has yet to release his full tax returns, making it impossible to know how much he donated to Osteen and other prosperity ministries. But he has endorsed a book penned by Osteen’s sister, Lisa Osteen Comes, which repeats many of the “self-help” axioms common among prosperity gospel circles.
“Lisa is a terrific woman who is passionate about helping people succeed in life,” Trump wrote. “I applaud her on her new book You Are Made For More!, and I know you will be motivated and encouraged to step into your More!”
As others such as Sarah Posner have pointed out, Trump’s own allure among voters mirrors that of prosperity preachers, often flaunting his riches and influence as proof that he will “make America great again” — if only people would give him their votes. It’s also clear that Trump, who was raised on the early prosperity theology of Norman Vincent Peale, inculcated a number of prosperity gospel tactics into his own business practices: his notorious Trump University, for instance, encouraged low-income students to max out their credit cards to pay for the school, promising them a top-notch education that did not exist.
Despite Trump’s affinity for theology that rewards financial and spiritual dedication to pastors, it’s not clear that his support for prosperity preachers will give him a return on investment if he makes it to the general election.
Osteen’s relationship with Trump — explicit or otherwise — wasn’t enough to help him achieve victory in the Texas primary, which Ted Cruz won soundly (including Harris County, where Osteen’s church resides). It’s also unlikely that the historically apolitical preacher will endorse Trump publicly, especially now that his admiration for the New York Presbyterian has come under fire from some in his flock. Trump is also reportedly deeply unpopular among members of Lakewood Church, which includes many Hispanic Americans.
“Donald Trump? Forget it!” Patrick Campbell, a member of Osteen’s congregation, told the Huffington Post as he left church in February with his Latina wife and children.