Donald Trump discovered Paula White the same way legions of fans and followers did: on television.
Fifteen years of prayer, visits, and friendship later, the Florida preacher now serves as the top spiritual adviser for America’s president-elect and, essentially, his guide to the country’s religious conservatives.
Her behind-the-scenes counsel became news as Trump prepared for the presidency. It was White who arranged a meeting at the Trump Tower for fellow televangelists (including Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, David Jeremiah, and Jan Crouch) to anoint him in prayer back in 2015. She defended the sincerity of his faith to fellow Christians, and continues to network Trump with members of his evangelical advisory board to discuss appointments and policy going into office.
“I’m the bridge-builder,” said White, pastor of New Destiny Christian Center near Orlando, in an interview with Christianity Today. “It really, truly is the board and the wisdom of so many great men and women of God.”
But White’s involvement carries major baggage, especially for evangelical leaders who have for years lamented the endlessly positive health and wealth theology associated with her ministry (even doing so in rap). Critical voices within the church worry that White’s political prominence will push the prosperity gospel mainstream—or prove that it’s already there.
“The massive congregations and television and Internet audiences that people like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Paula White, T. D. Jakes, and others enjoy show us that this theology is already mainstream,” said Leah Payne, who directs the Center for Pentecostal-Charismatic Theology Practice at George Fox University. “I don't know that Paula White's position will normalize these teachings any more or less than they already are.”
While such preachers regularly make their way onto Oprah and CNN, they aren’t typical broad-appeal picks for a political event such as the inauguration, Payne said. White, who will pray alongside five other clergy, even told CT there’s “a possibility” of her assuming an official role in his administration.
As Kate Bowler, the Duke University researcher and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, told ThinkProgress: “This is the culmination of several decades of building political capital within the prosperity gospel movement. This is a new political moment for the prosperity gospel .”
White recognizes the significance of her role at Friday’s inauguration: a reading and invocation lasting about two to three minutes.
“I’ve really been seeking God and asking the Lord for wisdom through his Word and to guide me and lead me because this is a huge responsibility,” said White, who has looked to her staff, family, and fellow board members like Southern Baptist pastor Jack Graham for assistance. “As I’m doing this, it’s not just myself. I’ve sought my spiritual covering from those who mentor me.”
A leading critic, Michael Horton, theology professor at Westminster Seminary, warned in The Washington Post that White’s role in Trump’s inauguration and administration should “deeply trouble” American evangelicals.
“You’d be hard-pressed to see someone like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham cozying up to Paula White. The lines are being blurred with their sons,” Horton told CT. Jerry Falwell Jr. was one of Trump’s earliest evangelical endorsements, and Franklin Graham will also be speaking at his inauguration.