An Ultra-Capitalist Christian Sect Is Taking Center Stage At The RNC, Thanks To Donald Trump

Televangelist and prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JESSICA KOURKOUNIS
Televangelist and prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JESSICA KOURKOUNIS

The Republican Party unveiled its list of speakers for their upcoming national convention this week, presenting reporters with a slate of dignitaries meant to represent a spectrum of voices within the modern GOP. Most of those listed are elected officials and right-wing heroes such as Tim Tebow, but hidden among schedule the is the relatively unknown Rev. Mark Burns, an enigmatic and sometimes gaffe-prone African American pastor from South Carolina who has made a name for himself stumping for Trump on the campaign trail.

It’d be easy to dismiss Burns’ mention as humdrum, or even predictable. The pastor is a reliable Trump surrogate, and while it’s relatively rare for a religious professional to deliver an address instead of a prayer at a convention of either party, Republicans — long bolstered by the Religious Right and their legions of “values voters” — are hardly strangers to fusions of faith and politics.

Still, Burns’ presence onstage will represent a noteworthy — and altogether new — shift in the religious character of the Republican Party. Here’s why.

A new kind of religious kingmaker

Burns is not your rank-and-file right-wing evangelical minister, but a preacher of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a loose but growing Christian movement that teaches followers they can become wealthy and successful through faith — and by giving money to their church. Although “health and wealth” clerics head up churches that boast memberships in the tens of thousands, they have historically avoided divisive political conversations.

This is the culmination of several decades of building political capital within the prosperity gospel movement.

That was, at least, until the rise of Trump. In a twist that has perplexed and angered many leaders of the traditional Religious Right, the mogul has surrounded himself with a cadre of jet-setting prosperity gospel preachers throughout his campaign, snubbing the old-time religion of traditional conservative Christians in favor of the glitzy theology of ministers who share his adoration of the Almighty Dollar.

And now, with Burns speaking before the RNC, the prosperity gospel — long dismissed by progressive and conservative Christians alike as flawed or even heretical — is having its political moment.

“This is the culmination of several decades of building political capital within the prosperity gospel movement,” Kate Bowler, an expert on the prosperity gospel and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, told ThinkProgress. “This is a new political moment for the prosperity gospel — it’s a really remarkable moment.”

A political match made in heaven, or at least Trump Tower

The modern prosperity movement dates back to the 1970s, and much has been written about Trump’s personal affinity for the prosperity ideology of “the great” Norman Vincent Peale, an early leader in the community. Trump also isn’t shy about naming the number of big-name prosperity preachers who have longstanding relationships with his soul, or at least his money: Joel Osteen, head of one of the largest churches in the United States, refers to the businessman as a “friend” of his ministry, and Paula White, pastor of a church in Orlando, Florida, is now known as Trump’s “God whisperer.”

These are not people who trumpet typical Religious Right issues…These are not the John Hagee’s of yesteryear.

As the Donald ascends to the rank of presumptive GOP nominee, he has elevated these connections — and their preaching — beyond the halls of their already sizable sanctuaries and into the even larger arena of national discourse. But while it’s obvious prosperity Gospel preachers are gravitating to Trump, it’s less clear how they plan to spend their moment in the spotlight: famously conflict-averse as a way to keep politically disparate churchgoers happy, Burns and others are only now starting to map out firm political positions, and then typically only in a vague, incomplete fashion.

“These are not people who trumpet typical Religious Right issues,” Bowler said. “[The pastors] are most likely pro-life, most likely anti-homosexual — they could probably check all the boxes. But that’s not why people tune in, and that’s not what [the pastors] are known for.”

“These are not the John Hagee’s of yesteryear,” she added, referencing the influential — and unabashedly political — evangelical pastor. “It’s nothing you can put on a manifesto.”

But can they get souls to the polls?

Many of the preachers — like Trump himself — also exhibit shaky levels of party loyalty, assuming they have any at all. Although White says she has voted Republican her “entire adult life,” for instance, Politico’s investigation of Federal Election Commission records show that she has donated to both parties over the years, including the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, a similar ThinkProgress investigation of Osteen revealed that he does not appear to have donated to any presidential candidate in the past 14 years.

What’s more, questions remain as to whether these otherwise popular pastors even have the charismatic power to turn their followers out for Trump, an ability enjoyed by more traditional evangelical thought leaders. Despite Osteen’s quiet affinity for Trump, for instance, voters in Texas — where his congregation of nearly 40,000 resides — supported Sen. Ted Cruz in the primary election, and the Huffington Post reported that members of Osteen’s congregation have openly expressed disdain for Trump. And while South Carolina Republicans backed Trump earlier this year, Burns has yet to make any major inroads with the state’s vast African American community.

Trump and prosperity preachers don’t see money as something you don’t have to be afraid of.

Granted, White could potentially help Trump in the battleground state of Florida, where she told a 10,000-plus crowd in Orlando earlier this year that he “needs to be our next president.” Moreover, all of these pastors have expansive followings outside their church walls, using televangelism, internet livestreams, podcasts, and books to win devotees — and their money — all over the country.

But courting tithes is not the same thing as winning votes, and the prosperity community, large as it is, is unlikely to swing an election on its own. This is an especially worrisome for a Republican: several members of Trump’s own Evangelical Executive Advisory Board — most of whom have not endorsed him — passionately condemn health and wealth theology, making electoral coalitions between the two factions difficult at best.

Ultimately, Bowler noted that the political marriage of Trump and prosperity preachers seems to be more about shared personal and economic beliefs, not necessarily shared policy goals. At best, the political ambitions of the prosperity movement, such as they are, currently resemble how many of their critics describe their theology: vague, unsustainable, and primarily self-serving.

“Trump and prosperity preachers don’t see money as something you don’t have to be afraid of,” she said. “Everyone makes fun of Trump for being garish. But both have theologies that justify and baptize the wealth they accrue.”