Two popular religious forces, the prosperity gospel and end times theology, have fueled the rise of countless megachurch pastors and televangelists in the United States. Now those forces have unleashed one of the most controversial presidential candidates in American history. Donald Trump's own religious background and salvation status have been under scrutiny during the primary season. Some conservative evangelical leaders claim he has been born again as a "baby Christian," other pastors have denounced him as a "lost soul," and the pope implied that he's not a Christian at all. But, according to June poll results from Pew, 78% of white evangelicals plan on voting for Donald Trump to be the next president. Frankly, I don't care about the state of Trump's soul. It's not Trump's faith or religious beliefs that matter to me in this election and they don't actually seem to matter to a lot of Americans. I'm much more interested in how our evangelical religious culture has driven Christians to support a candidate who does not reflect the values of their faith (humility and forgiveness, for example). The prosperity gospel and end times rhetoric have certainly contributed and here's how, in a nutshell.
The prosperity gospel is embraced by many of the largest churches across the country and is promoted (in one form or another) by media-savvy megachurch pastors like Paula White and Joel Osteen. Just last year, White and other prosperity preachers prayed over Trump to proclaim his victory in the election and Osteen called him a "friend to [the Lakewood Church] ministry." The prosperity theology of these pastors has its roots in New Thought and the Charismatic movement and the current manifestations emphasize the power of praying for blessings. Some call the prosperity gospel "Name It and Claim It" (or "Blab It and Grab It," to naysayers). Prosperity preachers assure believers that if they ask God for blessings and contribute to church coffers, they will be rewarded with physical heath, financial wealth, and a better life. The message has resounded with millions of followers and is adapted by preachers to their congregants' particular needs and wants. Pastors themselves, with million-dollar mansions and private jets, display the potential for wealth on which their ministries and messages rely.
Trump can be likened to these prosperity preachers and their predecessors (like Norman Vincent Peale, the father of the "power of positive thinking"). With his golden elevators, billion-dollar businesses, and glamorous family, he reflects the American Dream and represents the ideal of success to many of his proponents. "The ethos of the prosperity gospel," according to one scholar, "is the key to Trump's power to persuade people that his victories can be theirs -- that the greatness of Trump is the means of making America great again." Trump promises on the political stage what Peale and prosperity preachers have guaranteed from the pulpit: success and greatness can be yours if you believe and put your faith and trust in them and/or God. Prosperity preaching has primed this group of Americans to desire a president who offers an easy way out. If you pray for it, and trust in the rhetoric, it will come.
But there are two sides to this particular evangelical coin. On one side, there is positive prayer and prosperity. On the other side, anticipation of the end times and anxiety about signs of an impending apocalypse. This coin is just the right fit for the Trump slot machine.
The late Tim LaHaye and coauthor Jerry Jenkins popularized end times theology in their best-selling series, Left Behind. These books are a fictional account of what might happen if biblical prophesies of the Rapture and rise of the Antichrist came to fruition in our lifetime. This series is just part of a larger trend to prepare Christians for the end of this world and the return of Jesus Christ. There is a long-standing American tradition of apocalyptic imagining and several pastors have capitalized on the rising trend. John Hagee, a megachurch pastor in San Antonio, has published several books on the signs of the end times with a focus on conflicts in the Middle East and a Christian Zionist approach to the United States' relationship with Israel. Even in smaller congregations across the United States, children and youth are instructed to be Rapture ready in the event that the Second Coming happens and the saved all disappear as the rest of the world plummets in to chaos.
Trump's rhetoric mirrors white evangelical anxieties about the end times and the need to shape America's future to prepare for the coming crisis. "The apocalyptic rhetoric that regularly escapes the bounds of civil discourse at Trump events," argues a religion researcher, "is fueled by the particular energies that are unleashed when a long-dominant group senses the looming end of its era." Voters who have grown up on LaHaye and Jenkins's novels, who have sat through sermons on the darkness that will soon envelop the earth, and who proudly place "In Case of Rapture: This Car Will Be Unmanned" bumper stickers on their vehicles may be attracted to the forceful and fear-inciting speeches of the political candidate. He shares their unease and speaks their language of foreboding.
Whether it is fear of the apocalypse that is attracting white evangelicals or fantasizing about promises of prosperity, Trump is appealing to this voting bloc in large numbers even as his support in other corners of America is waning. His appeal is based less on his personal beliefs and more on his ability to tap in to these powerful strains of popular belief--strains that have been commodified and commercialized by Christian publishers, pastors, and televangelists for years. They minted the coin, Trump emblazoned his visage on it, and it's up to American evangelicals to determine if they want to gamble with it in November.