President Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White turned control of her megachurch over to her son and his wife this week, saying she is adopting an “apostolic overseer” role of the church—renamed City of Destiny—and following her call to “govern” the pastors of the 3,000 new churches she intends to plant, and the university she says she’ll be launching.
According to the Christian Post, White announced on Sunday—after it was a legal fait accompli—that her son and daughter-in-law were being installed as senior pastors over the church, which she said she had done in response to God’s command and in fulfillment of a prophesy from the church’s founding pastor, Zachery Tims. (The Christian Post noted that Tims “died accidentally on Aug. 14, 2011, in the W. Hotel in Times Square, New York, from “acute intoxication by the combined effects of cocaine and heroin.”)
In their book “The Rise of Network Christianity,” religion scholars Brad Christerson and Richard Flory explored the growth of “Independent Network Christianity” and the phenomenon of religious leaders like White who operate outside the constraints and accountability structures of traditional denominations. It allows charismatic individuals broad leeway to expand their influence by building networks of followers—including other pastors and evangelists to whom they offer spiritual “covering”—who attend their conferences, buy their books, and send them money.
The “product” that INC Christianity is promoting, they write, is the ability “to participate in the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth in the here and now.” As the key, if unofficial, liaison to evangelical leaders for the Trump administration, White has a pretty good perch at the White House to work on that part of her mission. She has called her relationship with Trump an “assignment” from God.
As noted in a Right Wing Watch report on the Trump-supporting POTUS Shield network, “Trump’s relationship to traditional political structures mimics these network leaders’ relationship to traditional church and Religious Right institutions: He relies on his charismatic personality; operates his own media; and believes old structures need to be swept away.”
White is known as a “prosperity gospel” preacher; she recently told supporters that they would receive special financial and other blessings from God in return for sending her money during Passover. Her new move—she’ll continue to operate Paula White Ministries—also suggests something else Trump’s Religious Right backers have in common with the president. Many of them treat their multi-million-dollar ministries as family businesses, employing multiple generations of family members. Consider a few examples:
- The American Family Association is into the third generation of Wildmons as leaders and spokespeople. AFA President Tim Wildmon is the son of founder Don; Tim’s son Walker is vice president of operations and Wesley is vice president of outreach. A 2017 article reported that daughter Wriley also worked at AFA.
- The American Center for Law and Justice and its affiliated organizations have employed and enriched family members beyond their most visible leaders, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow and his son Jordan.
- Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson’s son Gordon is now CEO of CBN and president of its charitable arm.
- Trump cheerleader Jerry Falwell Jr. heads Liberty University, which his father founded, while his brother Jonathan took over Falwell Sr.’s Thomas Road Baptist Church.
- At Wallbuilders, Tim Barton holds the title of president and COO, following in his father’s footsteps as a fast-talking promoter of Christian-nation history; the group’s site says that founder David Barton “heads” WallBuilders.
- As the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association notes, Billy’s grandson Will, son of Franklin, is “the third generation of Grahams to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ under the banner of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.”