In Thursday’s New York Times, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub consider three possible explanations for the President’s obstinate refusal to concede electoral defeat, asking “Is the president of the United States attempting a poorly executed self-coup to stay in power? Offering calculated bluster to save face for the cameras? Or is he genuinely deluded about the fact that he lost the election?” A fourth possibility—the president’s embrace of prosperity theology—should perhaps be added to this list.
With diffuse roots but emerging most forcefully midway through the twentieth century in Pentecostal and charismatic circles, prosperity theology draws selectively on biblical passages (chief among them John 10:10, in which Jesus says, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”) to insist that God desires our physical and financial prosperity. Our task, in a phrase popularized by the movement (and its detractors), is to “name it and claim it.”
The most virtuous and effective act in prosperity theology is positive confession, in which one claims and expresses gratitude to God for the health and wealth one expects to enjoy—even if it seems implausible one’s expectations will be realized. The most sinful act, accordingly, is sometimes called “negative confession”; that is, admitting failure, ill health, poverty, or disappointment. In prosperity theology, words matter; “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Those who lay claim to victory actualize it, while those who admit defeat find themselves hopelessly entrenched in it.
The president’s admiration for prosperity theology is well-documented. He was raised in Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church, which was pastored by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, whose The Power of Positive Thinking, was a key text in the prosperity movement and took the nation by storm. Similarly, the president’s spiritual advisor, Paula White-Cain, is a prominent contemporary figure in the movement, having survived a 2007 investigation opened by Republican Senator Charles Grassley into her finances (and those of several other prosperity preachers).
As election returns showed the president’s early lead evaporating into the ether last Wednesday, White-Cain broadcasted a prayer service in which she spoke in tongues, called on God to discharge angels from Africa to aid the president’s reelection, and rap-prophesied that she could hear “victory, victory, victory, victory in the quarters of heaven.”
What was she doing?
Exercising positive confession on behalf of the president and the large percentage of conservative Christians who support him. (When the addition of a dancing cat propelled an altered version of the video to the heights of viral infamy, many asked, “Why Africa?” to which this Twitter thread provides a disturbingly plausible answer.)
Proponents of the prosperity gospel generally reject explanations for personal failure based in systemic or structural injustice, racism, or sexism. You are the author of your own fate. So in one sense, the president’s rampant and largely delusional disparagement of our election system goes against a basic tenet of the movement. And it must be said, of course, that few proponents of the prosperity gospel would encourage Christians to deliberately spread disinformation. In another sense, however, and linked with Trump’s frequent claims to have won the election, such disparagement makes sense, within a prosperity orientation, as part of an overall strategy to bend the world to his own will.
As RD contributor, Dr. Anthea Butler, recently tweeted, Trump has named the election as his own, and quite possibly believes this naming will allow him to claim it, with God’s help. He’s merely exercising a faith that can move mountains, a faith bolstered by decades of successfully bullying and litigating his way to success. (And buoyed by the insistence of Christian preachers like White-Cain that his election was God’s will.)
These people are trying to "name it and claim it" to a second administration. https://t.co/X42i8V8ZrA
— ProfB (@AntheaButler) November 10, 2020
It is, in this light that (at least in part) we should understand the president’s relentless, narcissistic self-aggrandizing, his perpetually puerile abuse of superlatives, his regular projections about the demise of mainstream media, his ceaselessly optimistic pronouncements about the economy (which of course may work, given the fact that Wall Street follows its own form of prosperity theology, leaving it susceptible to what Alan Greenspan famously called “irrational exuberance”). It is in this light, as well, that we should interpret Trump’s claim, as the election slipped away, that “If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” along with nearly every one of his tweets since.