The British magazine The Economist published a story purporting to explain Donald Trump’s continued success among evangelicals — 80 percent of white evangelicals who regularly attend church approve of his job performance according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center — by relating it to American adherence to the “prosperity gospel.” Is there any truth to this idea? Let’s take a look.
Now, The Economist is hardly the first publication to make this connection: Paula White, who is associated with the prosperity gospel movement, prayed at inauguration. This sparked stories about how the movement explains Trump’s rise and election. In addition, Forbes, The Washington Post and Time all explored the connection. Now it is the Brits’ turn.
The article makes two main points: the first is that Trump speaks like a prosperity gospel preacher. Essentially, he speaks or “confesses” success.
In an address to graduating students at Liberty University on May 13th, Mr Trump promised his audience a “totally brilliant future”, and said that his presidency is “going along very, very well”. He ascribed both happy observations to “major help from God”. Lots of believers credit God for success, but Mr Trump went further. He described an America in which winners make their own dreams come true. He hailed a 98-year-old in the audience whose death by the age of 40 had been predicted by experts. He praised strivers who speak hopes aloud, ignoring doubters, and growled: “Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic.”
The Economist is hardly the first to draw a line between this and the positive thinking and speaking of not only White, but others, who range from Joel Osteen to Norman Vincent Peale. At a minimum, it is familiar to many white evangelicals; it makes Trump seem like one of them.
But there is another, more specific connection that is often made. In the words of The Economist, the fact of success is often taken as a sign that one is “favored by the Almighty.” Joel Osteen’s followers know his formula for life works because he has a huge house and a beautiful family. Creflo Dollar’s does because he has a private jet. Trump has all these things as well. Is he, too, favored?
Of course, the prosperity gospel takes many forms, from merely a strong focus on biblical promises of provision to literal chants that are supposed to make money show up on your doorstep. Trump doesn’t really fit either of these categories, but there are two interpretations into which he could.
The first is, again, the positive thinking and speaking school. Trump talks positively about the future (“We’re going to make America great again”), he speaks endlessly about his wealth and, lo and behold, he is indeed wealthy and successful. Though most people would interpret the causality as running in the opposite direction — wealth first, then talking about wealth, with a little ego thrown in — not to mention the fact that he inherited a lot of money, Trump certainly isn’t where he is today by being negative and pessimistic.
The second school is actually part of a larger Protestant tradition. It is the idea that success, particularly in regards to wealth, is an indication of personal virtue. While some who adhere to a prosperity gospel adopt an extreme version of this, the more toned-down secular American gospel can be seen in the adage that if you work hard, you’ll be rich.
Even this is a simplified proverb derived from what German sociologist Max Weber termed in 1904 as the “Protestant Ethic.” Weber was attempting to explain the prosperity and stability of capitalist economies in Europe, America and elsewhere, arriving at the still heavily disputed thesis that Protestant (especially Puritan) values of hard work, thrift, even pursuing a “calling”, are most well-suited for capitalist economies.
Though it is a controversial thesis, the virtues associated with the Protestant Ethic were not attempts to get rich, but simply to follow biblical commandments against sloth, waste and the like. The end-result of riches became an object only later. In America, it became particularly pronounced. America became particularly prosperous as well, perhaps lending credence to Weber’s argument.
However, worldviews based on such virtues can have dark counterparts, some of which are the topic for another time. Of relevance here is the logical fallacy that if hard work and thrift are virtues that make one rich, then anyone who is rich must possess these virtues. If these virtues are elevated over all others, then they are seen as the best indicators that someone a good person. Obviously, this is often not the case; people can become wealthy by underhanded means. Sometimes the difference between a middle- and upper-class person might be simple luck. Yet the idea persists.
Though the prosperity gospel is surprisingly mainstream, with some 17 percent of American openly identifying with it, I suggest that this secular gospel edition, complete with its logically fallacious dark side, extends the influence of the idea that rich people must be good people. It is no less absurd than the opposite idea — that rich people must be Scrooges or dishonest — but that is no reason to doubt that it animated a significant number of American voters to vote for Donald Trump, anymore than that the cartoonish “rich are crooks” narrative animated Occupy Wall Street.