Last Tuesday, we posted what we thought was a funny story from the weird fringes of the far-right media: An Indiana pastor named Paul Begley, appearing on a podcast hosted by bizarre conspiracy theorist Sheila Zilinksy, had claimed that First Lady Melania Trump refused to move into the White House until it had been “completely exorcised.”
There was no reason to believe that Begley’s story was true or that he was in any position to know about the first lady’s spiritual housecleaning practices. But then the far-right took the story at face value, and things got really weird.
Begley’s story was picked up by CNS News and quickly made its way to the likes of American Family Radio and Infowars, who took it as yet another reason to celebrate the Trumps. Infowars presenter Owen Shroyer suggested that Begley’s story somehow discredits the “pee tape” rumor and added that the whole thing symbolizes “that Donald Trump and Melania Trump understand that this is more than a political battle, more than an earthly battle, but a spiritual battle.” AFR’s Bryan Fischer declared that the first lady was very right to remove from the White House the “demons” left by Barack and Michelle Obama.
In a statement to CNS News, Begley said that the supposed exorcism was revealed to him by “a close source to those working in the White House.”
Eventually the story became so widespread in far-right media that the Associated Press actually asked the first lady’s office about it and were told that the story was “not true in any way.” The AP ran an article with the absurdly improbable headline “First Lady Did Not Hire Exorcist for White House.”
We originally posted the story about Begley’s claim because it was a particularly colorful example of a genre we’ve been seeing over the last few years: Trump-finds-God fan fiction.
Some Religious Right leaders, like the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, have been very upfront about the “transactional” nature of the movement’s relationship with President Trump. Some have looked to the Bible for stories of ungodly leaders raised up by God as a way to justify a supposedly pious movement’s embrace of a morally flawed candidate.
But some on the Religious Right have gone to great lengths to portray the president as one of their own. During the presidential campaign, rumors circulated among Trump’s “spiritual advisors” and those close to them that Trump was forming a personal relationship with Christ. Evangelist Franklin Graham even said that Trump may have given his heart to Christ at his father Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party.
The stories of Trump’s piety continued through his first year in office. Paula White, who is one of Trump’s closest spiritual advisers, told televangelist Jim Bakker in August that Trump’s judicial nominations were facing resistance from demons but they weren’t succeeding because “principalities cannot control this man because he surrounds himself with Christians, he is a Christian, he loves prayer.” Frank Amedia, who had served as a volunteer faith liaison on Trump’s campaign, said in July that Trump “receives downloads that now he’s beginning to understand come from God.” Earlier this month, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann said of Trump, “He’s lived a wild life, but this is a guy who has respect for God. First and foremost, he has respect for God. I have been in the Oval Office, I put my hands on him, I’ve prayed over this man. He asks for prayer, his whole family asks for prayer, that’s because they understand the importance of God and they respect God.”
And then there are those who allege that whatever the president’s personal spiritual beliefs, the first lady is already a fellow traveler. Right-wing preacher Lance Wallnau has claimed that Trump decided to run for office after God spoke to Melania. Bill Hamon, part of the New Apostolic Reformation movement of modern-day prophets and apostles, has said that the first lady “is a spiritual woman and she felt God told her that [Trump] would win if he’d run.”
Throughout Obama’s presidency, the far-right justified their animosity toward him by, in part, claiming that he was secretly Muslim or just not a real Christian. Now, the Religious Right fringes are performing the reverse trick with Trump, justifying their support for a man who allegedly paid tens of thousands of dollars in hush money to cover up an affair with a porn actress by claiming that he has found, or is in the process of personally finding God.
Paul Begley’s insistance that Melania had rid the White House of demons showed how these Trump-finds-God stories have spread through the pro-Trump media and the fringes of the Religious Right. The fact that the far-right media took the story at face value—to the point that the first lady’s office had to rebut it—shows just how much power that narrative has.