Republican Presidential Candidate Courts Televangelists. So What Else Is New? (Updated with video)

Politico reports today that Donald Trump is courting prosperity televangelists in an effort to “keep his momentum from ebbing.” The subtext of the Trump televangelist outreach is that despite the polls, the only kind of evangelicals who really like Trump are those who love mixing not just religion and politics, but religion and money:

Roughly three-dozen leaders attended the two-and-a-half hour meeting at Trump Tower, including televangelists Gloria and Kenneth Copeland and Trinity Broadcasting Network co-founder Jan Crouch, who is also the president of a Christian theme park in Orlando.

As it came to an end, televangelist Paula White said Trump wanted them to pray for him. Trump nodded, and the faith leaders laid hands on him and prayed.

Many evangelical leaders look askance at the crowd the businessman is courting. “The people that Trump has so far identified as his evangelical outreach are mostly prosperity gospel types, which are considered by mainstream evangelicals to be heretics,” said outspoken Trump critic Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination at 16 million members.

Now let’s be honest here. Cast your eyes to the right of this text and you’ll see a link to my 2008 book, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. That book is about how the GOP, despite the fact that many mainstream evangelicals consider the prosperity gospel to be heretical, has long courted televangelists in the quest to consolidate the conservative Christian vote. Although the televangelists are primarily focused on the health-and-wealth gospel (sow your seed into my ministry and God will bless you with a hundred-fold return!) they have long been coveted politically for their influence over their audiences and their history as loyal foot soldiers in the culture wars.

Don’t read too much into Politico’s assertion that the televangelists would be “less turned off by his brash style and history of socially liberal positions,” or by the suggestion that Trump, by this meeting, has somehow stepped outside the typical Republican boundaries for courting the evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christian vote. Trump is following a GOP playbook established in the 1980s, and followed by his current rivals, and in particular, by one current rival’s family. Indeed Trump himself followed the playbook during his unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid when he met with televangelists.

The casino mogul isn’t the first Republican (or probably the last) to get cozy with Copeland in particular. In 2008 Mike Huckabee reached out to Copeland as his campaign floundered. At the time, Copeland boasted of being a “rich Jew backed by a richer Jew” and a “billionaire in the kingdom of God.”

But Copeland’s influence dates back even further than that. As I reported in my book, Copeland has been sought out by Republican candidates, including both George H.W. and George W. Bush, because of his vast wealth and followers. In 1998, Karl Rove was advised by then-Bush family religion advisor Doug Wead that Copeland “is arguably one of the most important religious leaders in the nation.”

Never mind that he’s been the subject of many an investigative report on his appropriation of tax-exempt donations for his own enrichment with luxury homes and private jets. Senate Republicans briefly toyed with the idea of investigating Copeland and that other Trump admirer, Paula White, for their self-enrichment at the expense of their gullible donors, but ultimately punted because hey, it’s more important that the government keep its nose out a church’s balance sheets, even if the church more resembles a closely-held corporation where money is worshipped above everything else.

Televangelism thrives at the precise intersection of religion, money, and keep-the-government-off-our-backs, making its relationship with the GOP a marriage made in heaven (or perhaps somewhere else). Although the Trump phenomenon has laid bare an intra-evangelical rift that has long been obscured in presidential politics, he certainly didn’t invent kissing the ring of televangelism’s rich and famous.

Still, though, the conservative evangelicals dismayed by Trumpism see it as a chance to explore that rift as something bigger than Trump himself. As the evangelical writer Matthew Anderson put it in an unpublished piece he kindly shared with me, “The dalliance between (some!) evangelicals and Trump is simply another move in the shell game of attention-seeking that the info-tainment complex at the heart of political evangelicalism has mastered.” What Anderson calls political evangelicalism, or that unholy alliance between evangelicals and the GOP, is itself more about entertainment than it is about religion, and it’s certainly more about red meat (a form of entertainment) than about policy.

Even if Trump doesn’t end up the nominee—and even if that can be attributed, at least in part, to his waving a Bible around but demonstrating no fluency with it—the Republican Party will remain addicted to the “info-tainment complex at the heart of political evangelicalism.” In other words, Trump’s candidacy may have some unique features. Seeking the blessing of televangelists isn’t one of them.

UPDATE: Via Jacob Lupfer, here is video from the televangelists praying with/for Trump: