“I think that people like White and Osteen are able to tone down the heretical aspects of the Word of Faith teaching,” he said. “But make no mistake: the toxic doctrines are there.”
A movement within Pentecostalism, Word of Faith emphasizes positivity and prosperity; it’s often summarized by outsiders as “name it and claim it.” Horton considers elements of this approach to religion to be “part of the American DNA.”
“We’re all pretty good people who, with the right data, inspiration, and technology, can be and do whatever we want,” he said, describing the modern American worldview. “So when Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, and other Word of Faith teachers created a whole theology for the ‘prosperity gospel,’ there was already a big audience.”
White resists the negative characterizations of the prosperity gospel movement. “There’s a perception … that the prosperity gospel means that you ask for money and promise people they’re going to get something in return, which I absolutely do not do,” she told CT. “Do I believe that God is some sugar daddy or Santa Claus? Absolutely no.”
This month, she invited followers to “sow a month’s pay, a week’s pay … a day’s pay” as an annual first fruits offering to start 2017, saying: “It is a seed for the harvest I am believing for in the coming year. And God always provides!”
White, who leads a majority African American congregation, found herself once again explaining her beliefs following sharply worded concerns during the election cycle from conservative Trump detractors, including Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore and conservative radio host Erick Erickson.
“I know you label me a heretic, a prosperity preacher. Have you ever asked me? Have you listened to 100 sermons? Have you really read?” said White, who came to faith at 18 after years of abuse following her father’s suicide.
“Yes, there are things my 50-year-old self would never do or say that my 20-year-old self did,” she told CT. “That doesn’t mean my 20-year-old self was that doctrinally off, [but] I’ve never denied the Trinity.”
While most inauguration picks elicit some level of controversy, the theological back-and-forth over White reveals a divide even within the tradition she is portrayed to represent.
“White is a lightning rod in Pentecostal and evangelical circles,” said Payne, whose research focuses on women within Pentecostalism. “But that seems in step with many of Trump’s choices for advisers—religious or otherwise.”
Prior to making headlines with Trump, White was associated with mentor Jakes—at one time known for advocating Jesus-only or “Oneness” Pentecostalism—and with a group of flush televangelists investigated for financial mismanagement by a US Senate committee.
In some ways, White has gotten used to the criticism. After spending a majority of her career in high-profile ministry, the 50-year-old has defended her teachings, relationships, finances, and faith for decades.
She and ex-husband Randy White grew Tampa’s Without Walls International Church into a prominent megachurch in the years leading up to their 2007 divorce. Their separation coincided with news reports alleging they took advantage of congregants’ generosity to pad their lush lifestyle, including a $2.1 million waterfront mansion and a $3.5 million Trump Tower condo in New York. The church halved in attendance and faced foreclosure, though White returned to leadership.