My latest article discussing the religious background of Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, and the Word of Faith prosperity gospel with which she is associated, has been published by On Religion magazine. The full text is below.
Donald Trump’s inauguration was full of religious trappings: kicking off the day with a service and inviting several religious representatives to pray during the proceedings. One such representative was Paula White, a controversial figure amongst Christians, largely because of her associations with the so-called “prosperity gospel” and the broader “Word of Faith” movement in which it is embedded.
Arguably this movement is rooted in the philosophy of Phineas Quimby, a 19th century spiritual teacher and philosopher who is regarded as the father of the “New Thought” movement. A central aspect of the teaching of this movement is that whatever you think about, you attract to yourself. So, by thinking and speaking positive words we can attract positive things into our lives. Conversely, thinking and speaking negative thoughts and words will bring negative things into our lives. Sickness and disease are considered as the result of negative forms of thought and can be avoided or dealt with by changing how we think and what we confess with our mouths. We see the influences of this teaching in numerous movements: New Age, Christian Science, and the Word of Faith movement with its prosperity gospel. One cancer sufferer I knew refused to accept that she had cancer despite all the physical symptoms and the diagnosis of her doctors. She considered these to be deceptions of Satan to force her into saying “I have cancer,” which would – in her thinking – be a negative confession that would make the cancer real.
This notion of speaking things into existence is central in Word of Faith teaching. In an effort to give the idea biblical justification, Word of Faith teachers point out that according to Genesis God spoke the world into existence, and since we are made in His image, we too have this ability to create with the power of speech. In White’s words: “There is creative power in your mouth right now. God spoke and created the universe; you have creative power to speak life and death! If you believe God, you can create anything in your life.” This theology in turn supports the prosperity gospel: if you need money or healing you can speak it into existence through the power of positive confessions, sometimes with the repetition of (typically out of context) Bible passages. Christians, therefore, need never and indeed should never be sick or poor. Kenneth & Gloria Copeland, other leading lights within the movement, even claim to be able to control the weather by speaking words of rebuke to storms and tornados which, they assert, have disappeared before their eyes after a good telling off! Such teachers don’t primarily think of faith as being something we place in God, but rather as a force that you aim at God and the wider universe to get the things you want – health and wealth, or, in the case of the Copelands, clear skies.
Critics label such theology as “name it, and claim it!” and see in it a blurring of the line between Creator and created. There certainly is a tendency within the movement to deify humankind, a propensity which is expressed in the so-called “little gods” doctrine. One leading figure of the movement, Creflo Dollar (undoubtedly a perfect name for a prosperity teacher) writes: “As spiritual beings who possess the nature of God, we have the ability to speak things into existence, just like God did,” because “the real me is just like God!” (I note in passing the irony that whilst drawing on Genesis to support their theology, Word of Faith preachers ignore its suggestion that the root of the fall of humankind was the desire to be just like God).
This theology stems from a certain understanding of the nature of man and the doctrine of the fall. Although the details differ subtly from teacher to teacher, the basic idea is that Adam was, allegedly, an exact duplicate of God. Unfortunately by sinning (how if he was exactly like God?) his godhood was transferred to Satan, and God lost his legal right to the earth and was banished from it. Satan became the legal God of earth. In time, Satan was defeated by Christ, but whereas orthodox Christians hold that this was achieved through his work on the cross, many Word of Faith teachers claim that it was achieved through his suffering “spiritual death” in Hell. Anyhow, when a person is saved he or she regains their lost godhood, and this further helps us to see why those in the Word of Faith movement hold so tenaciously to the prosperity gospel: little gods cannot be sick or impoverished! In his discussion of prayer, Benny Hinn, a darling of the movement, states his belief that when we pray we are giving God license he wouldn’t otherwise have to interfere in earthly affairs. Whilst God has the power, he needs to have our permission. More conservative Christians see here a rather stunning denial of the sovereignty of God, who is Alpha & Omega, eternal, and Almighty.
The prosperity gospel is therefore really just some rotten fruit hanging on a much bigger tree of heterodoxy. However, whereas much of the aforementioned theology is not quite so popular, the prosperity gospel has proven incredibly alluring. It appeals to two of the most basic human desires: to be well and wealthy. “Come to Jesus and you can have health and wealth” is enormously attractive to two kinds of people: the very poor, and the very rich. For the very poor it holds out the hope of rescue from their plight; for the very rich it assures them that they are greatly blessed by God. It’s a theological version of the American Dream, and certainly much more alluring than the traditional Christian message: we are all sinners faced with the wrath of God, and must repent from our sinful lives and embrace the salvation won for us through the atoning death of Christ.
Sometimes such weird and wonderful teaching comes from obscure renderings of the Bible text, but more often arises due to the penchant of Word of Faith leaders for claiming direct experiences and revelations from God. Kenneth Hagin, the father of the Word of Faith movement, claimed to have met Jesus on 8 occasions, and frequently claimed to receive his teachings directly from heaven, despite their uncanny resemblance to the musings of older writers. Not to be outdone by Hagin, Jesse Duplantis – another popular leader – claims to have been brought up into heaven by an angel – via cable car – and asked by God for his opinion about all sorts of matters.
In addition, many of these teachers engage in giving prophetic words. Sometimes these are little more than vague ramblings, but more specific predictions are also made. Many of these turn out to be flat-out false, like Kenneth Copeland’s prophecy in the early 90s that Islam will fall and become nothing in 1995. Or Benny Hinn’s long list of prophetic failures, such as that the 1990s would see the collapse of the US economy, the death of Fidel Castro, and the homosexuals of the world destroyed by fire.
It isn’t just the heterodox theology of the Word of Faith movement that has caused unease amongst many Christians, it’s also the practices that have caused concern, many of which have infected other parts of Christendom. Amongst the more bizarre claims are: the manifestation of gold dust, the appearance of gems and angel feathers, and the
phenomenon of people rolling around the floor barking like dogs or clucking like chickens. However, it is the healing practices and claims that are most closely associated with prosperity teaching.
Many of the standard healing practices are incredibly manipulative. People are often whipped up into an emotional – even hypnotic – state through the use of lighting and music and the repetition of prayers and religious mantras. The reason why we never find faith-healers going to a hospital is because they need to be able to control the atmosphere for their cures – typically placebos – to work. Moreover, most tend to specialise in ailments that can’t be seen: back pain or tinnitus, not amputees or people with Down’s syndrome. Even worse there is almost always financial pressure put on people. At a Benny Hinn rally in Belfast I witnessed these techniques first hand: the offering was lifted right after a short sermonette about how by giving greatly to God we can expect great things in return. The strong implication is that if you give enough you will get your miracle. Of course, when the miracle doesn’t happen the person is left with the nagging guilt that they didn’t give enough. Preachers don’t let the guilt trip end there, thus Benny Hinn remarks: “You cannot receive healing unless your heart is right with God. . . Healing is easily attained when your walk with God is right.”
The theology of the Word of Faith movement is that God always wants to heal, so if healing does not occur the fault must rest with the sick person. Maybe they didn’t believe enough. Maybe they didn’t give enough money to the already obscenely wealthy travelling evangelist. Maybe there’s too much sin in their life. The Word of Faith movement and its attendant prosperity teaching is emotionally manipulative, psychologically disturbing, and leaves spiritual shipwreck in its wake.
I will always remember one elder in a Word of Faith church – Ian – who was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He believed firmly that Christians should never get sick, but if they do they can easily get their miracle through claiming it in faith. Sadly Ian just got sicker and sicker. Another friend went to see him one day and Ian had given up. He said he had no faith left. Ian died a short time later, not only physically destroyed but also psychologically and spiritually devastated.
The danger of this movement is that it sounds Christian. A lot of Christian words and images are present, but underlying it all is a fundamentally non-Christian view of the nature of God and Humankind. Word of Faith critic Justin Peters calls it “cultic theology wrapped in Christianese.” To what extent this theology will influence Donald Trump through his spiritual adviser, Paula White, remains to be seen. But if it does we can add it to a growing list of concerns we might have about him.
Stephen J. Graham