There has been concern in evangelical circles recently over how some of President Trump’s key evangelical allies—including Robert Jeffress, Jack Graham, and Franklin Graham—promoted Paula White-Cain’s new book Something Greater: Finding Triumph over Trials, which released this month. (Graham deleted his tweet, though not before the incident drew the ire of various commentators and inspired a Babylon Bee parody.)
On the surface, White-Cain’s support among these conservative white Protestants is surprising. For one thing, she is a prominent prosperity preacher associated with the New Apostolic Reformation, a loosely connected group of Pentecostals and Charismatics. For decades, tongues-speaking, vision-reporting prosperity preachers like White-Cain have been a theological anathema to more traditional white evangelicals.
Some, like Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, have classified White-Cain as a “charlatan” and “heretic.” One might think Jeffress and Jack Graham, who pastor prominent Southern Baptist churches, and Franklin Graham, the leader of Samaritan’s Purse, a popular evangelical humanitarian organization (and son of Billy), would follow suit.
Paula White-Cain is also a female pastor, and by promoting her book, Jeffress and Jack Graham (two-term president of the SBC) are backing a woman who, according to their denomination, is not submitting to “those roles assigned to her by God” (at a time when others in their tradition are prominently clashing over this very issue). In addition, White-Cain is divorced, and in SBC circles, “divorce culture” represents one of the most significant threats facing American society.
Though these endorsements for White-Cain have aggravated many, modern evangelicals actually have a long tradition of transgressive partnerships, in part because of several shared cultural values that run alongside, or at times, transcend, many of their dearly held doctrines.
These values help make sense not only of the brouhaha over White’s promotion, but also a shifting evangelical cultural and political landscape.
Partners for Pragmatism
Evangelicals are often embroiled in controversies related to their leaders’ alliances with other Christians who do not share their beliefs, or their willingness to bracket or relax stringent theological beliefs or doctrinal requirements in the interest of extending influence. For some in the SBC, this has meant allying with conservatives who might agree with them on matters of gender, sexuality, or biblical inerrancy, but disagree on other theological matters, such as infant baptism or church polity.
For example, in 2013, the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Roman Catholics, and many others were willing to set aside deep theological and practical differences to work together in support of California’s controversial Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In 2005 the SBC controversially closed its missionary ranks to candidates who had spoken in tongues, but a decade later declared that the practice no longer would be automatically disqualifying, likely because of the prominence of the Pentecostal practice in the Global South.
Deciding how to craft alliances with those outside the fold (or to reach those on the fence) is complicated work, but also evidence of a longer tradition of evangelical pragmatism.
Before fundamentalist-modernist battle lines hardened in the 1920s, it was common to see theological liberals and conservatives sharing stages with one another at tent revivals. Conservative revivalists were willing to work with liberal Protestants if it meant that they could achieve their broader aim of preaching to more potential converts with the support of the local Christian community.
To be sure, the revival tent was big, but it still could be contested. For Billy Graham, his continuation of the evangelical pragmatist tradition in inviting Christians of all stripes—from Johnny Cash to the president of Union Theological Seminary—to support his crusades or sit on his revival platforms drew the ire of fundamentalists like Bob Jones, who saw this impulse as misguided theological capitulation. But Graham helped set the stage for later evangelicals to think creatively about how partnerships could widen their appeal.
Alongside their pragmatism, modern evangelicals have been invested in the therapeutic dimensions of their faith, always looking for ways to strengthen marriages, sharpen minds, defeat depression, and develop leadership potential.
Evangelical self-help spells out how Jesus’ victory over sin can also be a victory for one’s personal and psychological well-being. Though her style differs from that of James Dobson or Gary Chapman, Paula White-Cain excels at this mode of engagement. As her book title Something Greater: Finding Triumph Over Trials suggests, one of her signature topics is how, through Jesus, she overcame numerous obstacles to become a “one-woman dynamo who is taking the Christan world by storm.”
White-Cain frames her self-help efforts in the contractual language of the “hard” prosperity gospel, a term coined by historian Kate Bowler to denote certain ministers’ emphasis on the direct and specific returns that result from faith. In the words of an offer on White-Cain’s website, sow a $130 “Favor Seed” and reap a “Triple Favor” as money flows back to you. But it is not that different from the “soft” prosperity exhortations of other evangelicals, including many in the SBC, who claim that following biblical principles improves marriages, lowers anxiety, and creates extraordinary lives of success and significance.
Though there are innumerable evangelicals who would eschew prosperity language of any sort, a focus on the personal benefits of the faith is everywhere. Focus on the Family’s aesthetic is certainly different than White-Cain’s, but the organization clearly states that familial and marital thriving is available through adherence to biblical teaching. Likewise, Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University claims that “biblically based, common-sense education and empowerment” will “give HOPE to everyone in every walk of life.” Less overly contractual language perhaps, but health and wealth all the same.
The Pull of Celebrity
Evangelicals also are avid participants in celebrity-driven media culture. Like other Americans, evangelicals buy books, check Instagram, and attend conferences. And the drivers of all these media tend to be big names, authority figures who know how to communicate their signature messages effectively.
Evangelicals have adopted celebrity as a medium wholeheartedly, not unlike their embrace of print, radio, and television in past generations. The result is that most famous figure with the biggest audience is by default the most powerful voice. The American evangelical appreciation for celebrity culture is longstanding. From eighteenth century British revivalist George Whitefield, whose canny combination of spirituality and self-promotion influenced generations, to current evangelical stars like Steven Furtick of Elevation Church, which reports 25,000 attendees per week in 19 locations, evangelicals are highly skilled at harnessing the power of celebrity, far outshining mainline Protestants in their media reach.
As a form of American stardom, evangelical celebrity culture is ruthlessly capitalist. One’s star rises and falls based on how many books are sold or where they are slotted in a conference lineup. Part of building a celebrity brand means creating cross promotions on media platforms and exploring unexpected partnerships to open up new markets. Each can open doors for the other. As writer Katelyn Beaty noted, “so much of the endorsement machine is about maintaining relationships, not giving an honest assessment of a written work.”
There are many risks associated with embracing celebrity as a source of power (public downfalls to name only one), but one of the rewards is that when you have it, celebrity is a powerful social and economic tool that can even build institutions.
And Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and another of White-Cain’s promoters, describes himself in precisely these market-driven terms, as a businessman who is to be evaluated by the financial health, growth, and notoriety his educational empire, not his theology. His promotion of White-Cain’s book can be interpreted as a logical follow-up to White-Cain’s presence (in support of her husband, Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain) at Liberty’s convocation in 2017. With her massive media presence (nearly 700,000 Twitter followers and counting), it is understandable that other evangelicals like Falwell (with around 75,500 Twitter followers) would see promotion of White-Cain’s work as a way to link their name with hers, benefitting both in the long run.
The Political Landscape
The endorsements of White’s book also are intelligible through the lens of national politics. In short, though Donald Trump has divided the country in innumerable ways, he has managed to bring together many white evangelicals from seemingly disparate theological worlds in a common cause as his allies.
As her prominent role at Trump’s inauguration indicates, Paula White is a major advisor and booster for the president. She is described as Trump’s “personal pastor” and regularly appears on Christian broadcasting wherein she vouches for the president’s faith and frames Trump’s conservative political accomplishments as a part of a divine plan. In an Instagram video promoting the release of Something Greater, she promised readers that they will be treated to stories about her close relationship with Trump. This is the same kind of behavior that Jeffress, Graham, and Falwell have embarked upon, sometimes to the chagrin of other evangelicals.
The American political landscape is changing, and evangelical alliances are shifting along with it. Paula White-Cain, whose audience once included many African American fans and even a 2001 television deal with Black Entertainment Television, now has a reportedly “frayed” relationship with the African American Christian community because of her embrace of Trump. But on the other hand, as her book promotion demonstrates, she has gained political capital with her connections to new opportunities in the form of Republican partisanship. None other than religious right veteran Ralph Reed, leader of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, has praised White-Cain’s book.
In a way, White-Cain’s loss in African American support and gains of religious right allies illustrates Anthea Butler’s argument that it is impossible to separate white evangelicals’ persistent support of Trump from race. White evangelicals have mostly been willing to overlook Trump’s moral failings for political ends, and similar social forces have brought together doctrinally disparate evangelicals in cross-promotion of a book by a theologically controversial author.
In the end, what is significant about Paula White-Cain’s endorsement is not the fact that conservative white evangelicals are crossing theological lines to extend friendship to her. Similar lines have been crossed many times in the past and will be crossed again in the future. What is new in this scenario is White-Cain’s proximity to the president.
Unlike Franklin Graham, Jack Graham, and Jeffress, she is not from the “respectable” institutions or networks that have birthed powerful evangelical political operatives in previous generations. She does not present herself to the president as a symbol of American conservatism. Like the president under her pastoral care, White-Cain is a flamboyant, controversial celebrity who operates outside the traditional halls of power.
White-Cain’s public friendship with prominent conservative white evangelical leaders also puts the questions of who counts as an evangelical in high relief. Who are the real evangelicals and what is real evangelicalism? Is evangelicalism a spiritual category, a voting bloc, or something else altogether? Does White-Cain get her “evangelical card” for belonging to Trump’s evangelical advisory board? Does Franklin Graham lose his for promoting her work?
The fact that a good number of evangelicals are fretting about White-Cain’s doctrinal stances and her endorsers’ apparent disregard for them is surely proof that theology does matter in how we think about evangelicalism. And yet, American evangelicals’ theology is also embedded in culture. This cultural blend of pragmatism, self-help, celebrity, and conservative politics, intertwined with doctrinal hallmarks, offers a more comprehensive description of how modern evangelicalism actually works.
For those who do not share her theological disposition, it is wishful thinking to pretend that she is not a major force within American evangelicalism. It is now Paula White-Cain’s world. The question is how we should live in it.
Leah Payne is assistant professor of Theological Studies at Portland Seminary of George Fox University and author of the award-winning book, Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Twentieth Century. In her spare time, she co-hosts a pop culture and religion podcast called Weird Religion at weirdreligion.com.
Aaron Griffith is assistant professor of history at Sattler College. He has written for Religions, Fides et Historia, and is at work on a book on the history of evangelicalism and mass incarceration.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.