Donald Trump’s Spiritual Problem

Donald Trump in prayer with his Christian advisors

The press is struggling with covering the split among white evangelical Christians over the editorial in Christianity Today (and a similar commentary in The Christian Post) calling for the removal from office of President Donald Trump. The struggle is not new, and those without knowledge can’t possibly understand what’s really going on here.

Disclaimer: This is not an Academic theological paper. Many books have been written about the subject, none from my pen. The views expressed here come entirely from my own research and experiences primarily as former Executive Producer of The 700 Club, Author of “The Gospel of Self: How Pat Robertson Stole the Soul of the GOP”, author of the 1988 television news series on religion in the Tennessee Valley (“I Believe”). and subsequent studies and writings on the subject.

In response to these messages from evangelicalism’s main editorial voices, Trump has scheduled a January 3rd rally (of course) called “Evangelicals for Trump” at a venue that’s a giveaway for anybody with an understanding of the split. The rally will be in Miami at the West Kendall Church, an “Apostolic” megachurch run by Pastor Guillermo Maldonado, a man calling himself an apostle. This church practices “the gifts of the Spirit” which includes speaking in tongues, interpretation of those tongues, dancing in the Spirit, prophecies, laying on of hands for healing, and words of knowledge and wisdom straight from the Holy Ghost. This is from Paul’s writings to the Church at Corinth during the First Century:

“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” 1 Corinthians 12:4–10.

These practices were limited primarily to primitive, smaller rural Pentecostal churches until the Charismatic Movement of the 60s counterculture spread “the gifts” to more mainline churches. Pentecost, the event found in the second chapter of Acts, is cited as the first example and forms the basis for such beliefs. Early Charismatic prayer meetings in the 60s and 70s would find folks from Catholic and mainline protestant denominations gathering together to worship God in such a manner, and the foundation created through these meetings led ultimately to the televangelists who practiced these “gifts” during times of prayer on television. Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and many others bound themselves to this burgeoning growth. It seemed so new and fresh that people were drawn to the practice and demonstration of faith they viewed on television. The scandals that hit in the mid-80s were tied to these ministers. At the time, the most prominent, non-tongue-talking televangelists were Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham.

When Pat Robertson decided to run for President, I had to make choices for who would play Pat’s role of news commentator on the show while he was off on his campaign, and I chose Chuck Colson, a brilliant and wonderful man who didn’t practice the gifts of the spirit. I loved Chuck Colson and felt a kinship with him that was rare. I was at core still a journalist with a modicum of skepticism about generally everything, including all that we practiced theologically via The 700 Club. In discussing this with Chuck one day, he told me a story from his experience with Robert Tilton, an extreme practitioner of speaking in tongues and words of knowledge while praying on his program. Tilton was later found by the press in Dallas to have questionable practices and financial dealings. Chuck Colson told me that Tilton had told him that Chuck needed to get into the same sorts of things, “because that’s where the money is.” Colson knew then and there that he wanted nothing to do with what Tilton was practicing. This observation explains much in today’s contemporary arguments about what does or doesn’t represent the faith. When all else is stripped away, the bottom line is often cash in the form of contributions to continue such ministering.

At The 700 Club, we practiced these gifts during prayer time, which was often at or near the end of the program’s first hour. I recall one focus group discussion about the program in which one man described it as “progressively subjective”. He didn’t care for the prayer segment. The program was shown to people with like/dislike hand-held meters that they could turn in one direction or the other, depending on what was being shown. By the time we got to the prayer segment, these meters registered at polar opposites, suggesting that the viewers either really liked or really disliked the segment with nothing in-between.

Here’s more from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” 1 Corinthians 12:28–30.

When Christians unfamiliar with these writings were first exposed to them, there was a boom in the growth and development of these practices, which is where we find ourselves today. This is how the pastor in Miami can identify himself as an apostle, while others just look the other way.

These “gifts” are offered to the public via the euphemism “full gospel”, and followers are drawn to the expression of emotions, including those which “prove” to practitioners a level of internal reality that is passionate and highly addictive. They feel special in the eyes of God and cling to what they view as Biblical validation via Paul’s and Mark’s canonized offerings. Here’s Mark testifying to what Jesus told the apostles after His resurrection, that they should make disciples of the whole world:

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Mark 16:17–18

Of course, most Christians don’t handle snakes to demonstrate signs and wonders, but some do. In the series “I Believe,” we attended services of a snake-handling church in North Georgia, and one statement by the pastor was most memorable: ““If you reach your hand into that box (of rattlesnakes), you’d better have faith.” In other words, these Christians practice an extreme — perhaps the most extreme — version of Christianity in the world today. And they are completely supported by scripture in so doing. Most people, however, feel that this is “testing God” and reject it as dangerous and unhealthy.

The point is where do you draw the line? Moreover, those already predisposed to “the full gospel” are more willing and capable of believing the more extreme examples of faith spoken of in the New Testament, and this is where Donald Trump finds his most ardent support. Hence, the meeting in Miami.

To be sure, not all of Trump’s support comes from full gospel practitioners, and many of his advisors are more conservative, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Junior, whose support is more political than spiritual, but these differences in theology still are significant. Pastor Maldonado’s church is Hispanic, which also played a role in its selection by Trump, but the message of this church is no where near embraced by Christianity as a whole. That’s important.

In another place in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes “We are fools for Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10). These same ministers use this as a hammer to tap the minds of followers who would find discomfort with emotional displays of worship. If you’re not willing to be a fool for Christ, the thinking goes, then you lack the wisdom needed to be a “real” follower, and this is a divisive preaching that they believe separates them from others who proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

In my view, the discussion about this in public is long overdue. History will record this time as one in which we dealt with expressions of faith as a people. It will be one significant aspect of Trump’s legacy, because he uses his affiliation with such to separate himself from others who occupied the White House.

There is, of course, much more to this story. The press, however, doesn’t have a clue, so for now, it’s a subject discussed mostly in secret.

That needs to change.