Vail Daily column: Does God pad our pocketbooks?
Donald Trump rested his hand on the Lincoln Bible during inaugural ceremonies. Our president also placed this hand on the Bible he received in 1955, graduating from the First Presbyterian Church’s Sunday School in Jamaica, Queens, where he grew up. His mother Mary, an immigrant from Scotland, was a church member.
President Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian Christian because of family history. His basic Christian beliefs, however, have drifted far from Presbyterian core convictions. Trump puts faith in non-Presbyterian TV preachers. They promise that God prospers believers with fatter paychecks.
How do Presbyterian convictions differ from Trump’s beliefs? Reverend John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, was the only clergy to sign The Declaration of Independence. Princeton University started as a training ground for Presbyterian clergy whose prophetic ministries didn’t turn a profit.
Presbyterians believe one of God’s favorite ways into the human heart is through a curious, educated faith. They trust the Bible as the unique and authoritative witness of God’s dealing with people He mercifully rescues from their defects. Presbyterians regard the Bible as more than a venerable religious document or cherished classic literature. Scripture functions as a lens by which we see God’s forgiveness worked out though the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus.
Rescued from their worst selves, grateful Presbyterians reach towards higher virtues by helping others and reforming sinful society of defects. They don’t pick on the most vulnerable but instead help them because the Bible repeatedly instructs, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute” (Psalm 82:3).
President Trump denies these essential Christian beliefs that Presbyterians practice. Last year, he confessed to never having asked God for forgiveness because his personal charm substitutes for divine mercy. His politics favor wealthy friends and make non-white people fear persecution as they are pushed to society’s edges.
Trump’s phony gospel leaves little room for a forgiving God. He worships self-reliance in a faith that provides material dividends.
The president invited prosperity gospel preacher Paula White to pray at his inauguration. She heads the 10,000-member New Destiny Church in Orlando, Florida, a hot-bed for Trump’s Christian supporters. The president attributes his new-found faith to White. She arrived at The Apprentice reality show set during its first season finale. Prior to the live taping, she led the cast and crew in prayer, asking God to shower blessings of success on their endeavors.
Such as Trump, White is working on her third marriage. She survived the collapse of a prior ministry with her second preacher husband, similar to Trump’s financial fiascos connected with Atlantic City gambling. The IRS has investigated her ministry’s tax-exempt status for erratic reporting of contributions, not-unlike what’s alleged to be hidden in Trump’s tax statements.
White often tells listeners to plant “seed faith.” If you believe enough, work enough and rely on her insights enough, God usually prospers those who help themselves. She tells viewers they are miracles ready to be discovered by God’s golden hand. “So I’m going to activate my miracle by my obedience right now. I’m going to get up and go to the phone,” she instructs believers to tell themselves. Once miracle seeds are fertilized with this positive mentality, they grow. “Put a demand on the anointing” of these potent miracles, she promises and “you’re going to make God get off His ivory throne.”
“Don’t miss this moment!” she exclaims. “If you miss your moment, you miss your miracle!”
Unpack this wayward “gospel.” Do we really possess mental ability to get God off His duff and bless us? Is His miraculous touch our treasure? Tap it and capitalistic dynamics kick in so you get ahead? Do moneyed treasures from heaven fill thicker wallets?
Such a prosperity gospel appeals to people who don’t rely on God’s forgiveness because they say it’s for weaklings. Supposedly self-made people such as Trump accomplish greatness on their own.
Nineteenth century Presbyterian Mark Twain spun a parody of this rags to riches gospel. In 1871 he poked fun of this heresy by revising Question No. 1 in the Presbyterians’ Westminster Shorter Catechism, which teaches classic Christianity using a question/answer format. Twain wrote a parody of the first Q-and-A: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
In late 19th century Gilded Age, Twain revised this basic gospel message so that it met capitalists’ expectations.
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: To get rich.
Q: In what way?
A: Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.
Q: Who is God, the one only and true?
A: Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stocks.
What the Prosperity Gospel fails to understand is that Jesus died a poor, itinerant Jewish preacher who taught an ethic of compassion for vulnerable people who need mercy. Jesus doesn’t lead us on a yellow brick road to a pot of gold. He hung on a cross with a crown of thorns stuck into his skull, not to be confused with a golden crown.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.