As I’m a traditional Mainline Protestant, evangelist Paula White seems to me kind of crazy and probably semi-heretical. She gets lots of attention because she’s a prominent Trump supporter. But her flamboyant charismatic form of big dollar Christianity, with claims of direct interaction with God, is not particularly unusual in American religious life.
Most recently White’s critics are circulating a preaching video in which she claims she was, in a vision, taken to the “throne room of heaven,” where she saw God’s face, though it was apparently cloudy and obscured. There she received a new “mantle” of authority or divine blessing.
“I literally went to the Throne Room of God,” she said. “There was a mist that was coming off the water, and I went to the throne of God, and I didn’t see God’s face clearly, but I saw the face of God … I knew it was the face of God.”
Her last major controversy was only last month, with a video in which she prays for “miscarriages” of “satanic pregnancies.” A gazillion people on social media, who seem to think White is a monster, angrily denounced her, apparently assuming she was urging literal miscarriages of literal pregnancies. As White later explained, she was deploying charismatic language of spiritual warfare to describe opposition to wickedness in its early stages, not literal pregnancies.
Most Christians outside White’s particular brand of charismatic faith would not recognize the term “satanic pregnancy” or much of the other lingo from her preaching. With her high political profile as a member of Trump’s Faith Advisory Council and advisor to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, there’s now a much larger audience for her esoteric pronouncements. In some ways she’s replaced the aging Pat Robertson, another charismatic Christian, as a favorite for oddball Religious Right quotes.
White is an American original, raised in poverty, mother to an illegitimate child, working her way up from church custodian to Florida megachurch pastor, bestselling author, television personality, and presidential advisor. She met Trump years ago as a Trump Tower neighbor. Not many preachers have Manhattan suites. Her prosperity Gospel validates the millions of dollars she earns through her evangelistic empire. Her followers presumably are inspired by her financial success as evidence of God’s blessing, which they understandably hope for themselves.
Most high profile preachers are men. White, as an attractive and stylish woman with flawless delivery, stands out among Religious Right figures. Her political prominence has won her alliances and endorsements from other conservative preachers who otherwise oppose female preachers and charismatic Christianity. Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, with its strong focus on direct interaction with the Holy Spirit, has historically been more embracing of women preachers than much of the rest of evangelicalism.
It’s become popular and easy to mock White for her esoteric spiritual pronouncements, whose theology is not easily comprehensible to Christians outside her charismatic community, much less to secularists. Traditional Christians are certainly right to critique her when she strays from orthodoxy. And her health and wealth focus invites criticism from non-Christians anxious for evidence of religious hypocrisy.
But White should be seen as part of a long tradition of American self-help enthusiasts who find success by extolling happiness and material blessing. She’s not altogether different from Oprah Winfrey, who’s made many more hundreds of millions of dollars with her self-empowering therapeutic spirituality. And then there are successful New Age self-help gurus like Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williams, among countless others.
America’s penchant for sunny self-help gurus dates back at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New England transcendentalist who was endlessly optimistic about each individual’s ability to seize happiness through individual self-realization and initiative. He preached morality and goodness without an orthodox version of God, but many religionists were unconsciously inspired by his promise of empowerment and success. Emerson himself was a post-Protestant who preached personal redemption through introspection and diligent worldly accomplishment.
Some of Emerson’s evangelistic heirs rechristianized his message. Although not charismatic, Norman Vincent Peale was firmly in this tradition, proclaiming the Power of Positive Thinking. The late Robert Schuller of the soaring Crystal Cathedral was also in this tradition. More charismatic versions include Pat Robertson, an enormously successful entrepreneur who stressed the material prosperity gained by unlocking the secret of God’s blessing. Skankier versions of charismatic Prosperity Gospel include Jim Bakker, who’s PTL empire collapsed in the 1980s amid epic financial and sexual scandal. He now unashamedly hawks survivalist tools on tv and even a purported remedy for coronavirus. Perhaps even more outlandish is Ernest Angley, now age 98, the white-suited, black wigged faith healer who knocked supplicants to the stage floor as he administered their healing before jetting off to his next rally on his private plane. He’s now charged with sexually abusing a young male pastor, which should surprise no one.
Multi-million dollar evangelistic empires built on a personality often degenerate into egotism, scandal and heresy. But they raise money from willing supporters who find hope and empowerment in the offered messages of deliverance and prosperity. Some of these empires are evangelical Christian. Some are New Age or simply popular self-help spirituality, but equally evangelistic in their fervor.
Paula White has not fallen into ruinous scandal. She is, I’m told by people who have met her, a nice person. Her style and theology don’t appeal to me nor I suspect to most traditional Christians outside her charismatic subculture. But she’s not an anomaly in American spiritually. She’s part of a long tradition of preachers of hope, Christian or not, who declare a path to individual enlightenment and blessing. They will always have a following.