The One Voice Prayer Movement launched out of the White House a year ago by Pastor Paula White is a case study in how to leverage religious connections for political gain. Appointed special adviser to the Office of Faith and Opportunity initiative by President Trump, White is mobilizing religious-right leaders to promote Trump’s Reopen America message and defend his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
She sends out regular “prayer alerts” that read like press releases, touting the president’s leadership with a line tacked on urging people to keep praying for Trump. With polls showing support for Trump slipping among evangelicals, the 54-year-old televangelist has become a key player in quelling skepticism about his leadership, acting as a bridge between him and the Christian right community.
White’s supporters see her as an agent sent by God to ensure Trump’s re-election, and she claims to have had a “divine encounter” at the White House that gave her “every authority to declare the White House as holy ground because I was standing there and where I stand is holy.”
White, a Florida-based televangelist, is everywhere once you know to look for her. She delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration, the first woman accorded that honor. She appeared at Trump rallies when he was still having them to demonize his political opponents and warn Christians that they will “stand accountable before God” if they vote against Trump.
She was front and center on the National Day of Prayer on May 7 in the Rose Garden, delivering what her critics call a Christian nationalist message. In a two-hour webcast before the White House event, she thanked God for Trump and asked that “wicked” leaders be removed from government positions. She commanded the coronavirus “to be done, to be gone... We say it is enough! Die now, coronavirus 19! We command right now that this virus stop. There will be no more spread, in the name of Jesus.”
Cynthia Burack, a political scientist at Ohio State University who writes about the role of the Christian right, told the Daily Beast, “Paula White has a niche that she has cultivated as a Christian prophetic voice: teaching her followers to sow a seed for God and financializing Christianity. She is someone who is recognizable to a particular segment of the Christian right voting bloc, Protestant Pentecostals.”
Over Memorial Day Weekend, White was part of a panel of pastors on Fox News discussing Trump’s order to open churches even if it meant overriding state stay-at-home orders. Calling churches “essential,” she said, “We don’t want to be discriminated against.”
Presidents of all political stripes stand with religious figures to gain moral authority. What’s different about White’s current role is the blurring of public and private events and how they intermingle with her White House special staff position.
“She’s still out there raising money for her spiritual ministry and telling people they will get spiritual blessings if they send her money,” says Peter Montgomery, who tracks the religious right at People for the American Way.
White’s prosperity gospel theology (a label she rejects, and that many mainstream theologians regard as a form of charlatanism ) makes her a good fit for Trump. She says that God “gives you the power to acquire wealth to establish His covenant,” but that first you need to give wealth to God, though her organization: “Give your very best as a first fruits offering and watch God's unlimited blessings pour into your life and your family. WATCH IT! WATCH WHAT GOD WILL DO! I BELIEVE…”
When she announced the One Vote Prayer Movement, using the White House as her bully pulpit, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) described it as an initiative “launched to fight against spells, sorcery and those who would employ witchcraft against the President”—meaning the Women’s March—“and as an effort to address the current prayer needs for the White House.”
The first half of the CBN description is taken directly from White, who has suggested that political opponents of Donald Trump "operate in sorcery and witchcraft" and that "Any persons [or] entities that are aligned against the president will be exposed and dealt with and overturned by the superior blood of Jesus.” She has suggested that criticism of such beliefs is "a political ploy just to hurt our president.”
Bringing her ministry into the White House and aligning with the president has boosted White’s stature. “She gets a lot of visibility and clout and power within the religious right she didn’t have before,” Peter Montgomery told the Daily Beast. “She decides which pastors get to come into the Oval Office. And at the same time, she’s got her official job in the White House, their logo (for One Voice) has the White House as part of the logo.”
Until last year, White was the associate pastor at a mega-church in Opaka, Florida. Before that, she and her former husband, televangelist Randy White, operated the “Without Walls” mega-church that a U.S. Senate report made public in 2011 found had spent tax-exempt ministry funds to pay personal expenses, including a private jet and a housing allowance to cover White’s residence in a Trump building in New York.
White first met Trump 14 years before he won the presidency, when he called wanting to meet her after watching her television show. In her book, Something Greater: Finding Triumph over Trials, published last year, she writes, “I feel God saying that Trump is ‘a spiritual assignment for me,’ that I am to pray over him daily and show him God.”
“I won’t want your money; I have enough of my own,” she says she told him in one of their first meetings. “And I don’t want your fame, because I have more than enough of that, too. Mr. Trump: I want your soul.”
When Trump told her in 2014 that he was running for president and wanted her to be his “bridge” to the Christian right, she introduced him to 30 or 40 pastors at a time, and they would form the most unlikeliest of bases for the thrice-divorced, non-churchgoer. Like Trump, White can’t easily be pigeonholed. She provided spiritual counsel to Michael Jackson, got her broadcasting start on BET, received an award from the Rainbow Coalition and spoke at Maya Angelou’s 80th birthday.
Her book, she says, “is about how a young Mississippi girl became a wounded woman,” and “how those wounds helped her become a warrior.” She recounts her father’s suicide, her mother becoming an alcoholic, a young adult daughter dying of cancer — a life of hardship transformed by religious fervor. She, too, is on her third marriage, to keyboardist Jonathan Cain of the rock band Journey.
White radiates the kind of success that Trump admires, and that she is working to turn into electoral success for him. It’s a giant leap from President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, launched in 2001 amidst much controversy to give religious organizations access to federal grants.
“She has really elevated the platform of Christian nationalist rhetoric,” says Montgomery, by implying in her outreach to Pentecostal churches and the evangelical community that “real Americans are Christians.” And real Americans, says White, are for Trump.