President-elect Donald Trump’s longtime religious adviser, Paula White, is firing back at critics who have called her a heretic and questioned her personal finances and romantic history.
…Her critics include conservative blogger Erick Erickson, who this week published a video of White in which she denies that Jesus Christ is the only begotten son of God, calling Him instead the firstborn of creation.
…Also this week, Westminster Seminary California theologian Michael Horton published an op-ed in The Washington Post, calling out White for promoting the “prosperity gospel” and saying that she believes that “Jesus went to the cross not to bring forgiveness of our sins but to get us out of financial debt.”
…In her statement White denies the accusations, saying she believes in the Trinity and “in the exclusivity and divinity of Jesus Christ, His saving grace and substitutionary atonement made available to all by His death on the cross.” She disputes the “prosperity gospel” claim noting, “I also reject any theology that doesn’t affirm or acknowledge the entirety of scriptural teaching about God’s presence and blessing in suffering as much as in times of prosperity.”
White also gave an interview on CNN, prompting a rare reference on CNN’s website to the Nicene Creed.
It should be noted that White has had little formal theological education – instead, she learnt her craft on the job as the young wife of a pastor who was himself a pastor’s son, and the motivational emphasis in her teaching reflects her early experiences of dealing with family dysfunction and sexual abuse. She describes herself as a “Messed-up Mississippi Girl”, and I doubt that any heterodox statement from her reflects a deeply considered position on Christology. White has backtracked on unorthodox religious ideas in the past: in 2012 she disavowed “Rabbi” Ralph Messner, after allowing Messner to wrap her in a Torah scroll in a bizarre on-stage ritual.
The Prosperity Gospel appears predatory and is easy to mock (case in point: “Televangelist Paula White Hawks ‘Resurrection Life’ for $1,144 ‘Seed'”), but there are also practical and genuinely pastoral aspects to motivational Christian preaching that cannot be reduced to its worst elements. An abstract for a chapter on White by Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere in their 2009 book Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace gives a fair assessment:
…Paula White strategically integrates her message and ministry into mainstream American religious culture and crafts a model of the emotionally healthy Christian who is honest about her shortcomings… Her message infuses an emphasis on God’s transforming power with the raw and honest faith of postmodern confessional culture. As the “Oprah Winfrey” of the evangelical world, White finesses dialogues with celebrity experts about self-actualization and the nitty-gritty, day-to-day realities of life. By integrating religion with American longings for youth, beauty, health, and sexual fulfillment, she offers an empowering and self-therapeutic brand of Christianity that teaches people how to become physically fit, mentally tough, and biblically literate, while trusting in the promises of God for dramatic change in life
White converted to Christianity in 1984, aged 18 and living in Baltimore. A 2005 profile in Charisma has some details, explaining that she converted “while living with a boyfriend”:
White eventually found a church home in the city, and when the janitor at her church quit, her pastor–T.L. Lowery, of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)–asked White to clean the church nursery. Lowery noticed her commitment to that job and asked her to teach the 2- and 3-year-olds, and later the 4- and 5-year-olds.
White says she must have studied 80 hours a week just to make sure her lesson plans were doctrinally correct and on a level the children could understand.
She was working at the Church of God headquarters in Baltimore when she met Randy, a divorcé, who was an associate pastor at a small church in the area. The two were married two years later against the advice of a few church members who said Paula wasn’t “ministry material.”
Lowery was a celebrated Pentescostal pastor who died a year ago, after 71 years in ministry; in 2015 his 70th anniversary was noted by the likes of T.D. Jakes and John Hagee. Randy, meanwhile, was the son of Franklin White, who pastored the Damascus Church of God (Damascus being the name of a town in Maryland).
However, a 2012 magazine profile in Orlando by Mark Pinsky (former religion reporter for the Orlando Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times) has a slightly different version of the origin story, in which it is suggested that Randy White was not in fact divorced when he met Paula – who was herself married, too:
Another transfer [in her step-father’s work], this one to the National Naval Medical Center in Washington, D.C., brought the family to suburban Maryland, where Paula, at 18, had a child out of wedlock and married the father, a young musician. She joined the Damascus Church of God and got saved. The experience had an odd effect. She soon left her first husband and took off for Tampa with the congregation’s associate pastor, Randy White, who left his wife and three young children. The couple married and eventually bought a vacant warehouse and set it up as a church. Its predominantly African-American congregation grew at a phenomenal rate through the late 1990s and early 2000s, at one point claiming 23,000 members.
White’s first husband, glossed over by Charisma in 2005, was named Dean Knight.
Pinsky goes on to chronicle how the Whites’ church brought them great personal wealth – and controversy:
While Randy led the growth of the Tampa congregation, his wife concentrated on building a nationally recognized, television-based brand known simply as Paula.
…Before the couple amicably divorced in 2007, their extravagances included private jets, luxury vehicles, a condo in Trump Park Avenue and another costing $3.5 million in Trump Tower on New York’s 5th Avenue, and a $2 million family home fronting Tampa Bay.
…Paula, in 2007, gave Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas a black Bentley convertible for his 50th birthday. Paula credits Jakes, pastor of the black megachurch The Potter’s House, with catapulting her career to stardom when he invited her to speak at an African-American women’s conference in 2000.
…The Whites’ lavish spending caught the attention of the IRS in 2004, and later a U.S. senator, who, in 2007, launched a congressional investigation into the financial dealings of six churches led by televangelists, including [the Whites’] Without Walls.
The senator was Charles Grassley, and I discussed his investigation at the time. The Whites’ church eventually fell into bankruptcy; there was also a scandal in 2010 involving Benny Hinn,
when the National Enquirer reported that they had a three-day “sexy Rome tryst” in a five-star hotel. The story ran with two photos showing Hinn and White leaving a hotel and strolling in Rome, holding hands. Both White, who was divorced, and Hinn, who had recently separated from his wife, denied they were romantically involved.
Hinn later confessed that the relationship had been “inappropriate”. This prompted the Christian media mogul Stephen Strang to sue Hinn, on the grounds that Hinn had “violated a morality clause” in a book contract.
More recently, White has become known as “Donald Trump’s God whisperer”; the two have been in contact for years, since Trump saw her on Christian television, and along with Kenneth Copeland she was among the televangelists and pastors who laid hands on Trump at a religious anointing ceremony in September 2015 (indeed, she was closest to him, literally at his right hand). White’s claim that Trump had recently become a Christian was cited by the evangelical Christian Right activist James Dobson, who came up with the formulation “baby Christian” as a rationalision for why Christians should support Trump without expecting much evidence of a new-found godliness (Dobson even went to so far as to invoke the principle of forgiveness to shrug off claims that Trump had committed sexual assaults).
One of White’s sternest conservative evangelical critics is Russell Moore, who claimed in June that “Paula White is a charlatan and recognized as a heretic by every orthodox Christian, of whatever tribe.” That’s a point of view, but it gives the false impression that White is some sort of obscure para-Christian outlier. Instead, she is deeply embedded in broader evangelical networks.
In a more recent profile, Pinsky notes that
Although Politico magazine described her as Trump’s “God whisperer,” White has thus far shown no interest in power or political influence, no desire to set social policy or pick future Supreme Court justices.
What she does care about is flash, and her long-standing personal connection to the president-elect.
When it comes to Trump’s inauguration I would personally be more worried about another pastor who has been invited to offer up prayers: a bitter Christian Right ideologue who expects to enjoy worldly influence under a man he helped to elect while not taking full ownership of his position with an explicit endorsement. I refer, of course, to a clashing cymbal by the name of Franklin Graham.