High Holiday appeals for money are nothing new to North American synagogue-goers.
But for sheer chutzpah, few could compare with the Yom Kippur video appeal from Paula White, Donald Trump’s most visible evangelical supporter.
White stares into the camera, with cascading blond hair and Botox-swollen lips. She tells those on her ministry email list that this is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, “God’s most holy day of the year [in a] supernatural miracle – working season.”
For the next three-and-a-half minutes, White, 50, explains why viewers need to contribute “sacrificially” to her Orlando-based organization – $10,000, or just a thousand – on this special day.
She quotes verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and notes that she, too, is fasting on this day. However, the times of the Temple, when animals were sacrificed and the high priest emerged from the tabernacle’s holy of holies, are long gone.
“We are released from the old rituals of the Old Testament – but not the principles,” she says. “We know that Jesus Christ became our atonement.”
Then comes White’s trademark prosperity gospel pitch.
“We are not to stand before God empty-handed. We are to honor God with a sacrificial offering…On this day we are mandated not to miss the opportunities, not to miss the blessing, not to miss the harvest … If you don’t want to miss your harvest then what is it you will offer God, what sacrifice? What is it that I should render to you, God? The Holy Spirit will speak to you.”
And when the Holy Spirit does let them know how much to give, she tells them, they are instructed to “Click on that donation button, and minimize your screen.”
When not hustling her audience for donations, White has been rallying fellow evangelicals to support Donald Trump. In the process, she is taking a strong run at becoming the next Billy Graham in the (increasingly unlikely) event that the Republican nominee makes it to the White House. In recent months, she’s been the subject of pieces by Time, The New Republic and Politico magazine, the last of which dubbed her Trump’s “God-whisperer.”
In September, 2015, White began mobilizing conservative evangelicals for Trump, competing with those backing Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a lifelong evangelical and the son of a preacher. Twice White met with other evangelical leaders in a “holy huddle” with Trump, once in Trump Tower, where White has owned a $3.5 million condo for more than a decade. In March she spoke at Trump rally on the Orlando campus of the University of Central Florida. On the first night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland she delivered a “nonpolitical” benediction in which she asked divine support to “make America safe again.” Donald Trump, Jr. credited her with “healing” his malfunctioning teleprompter at the convention.
White was one of the first calls Donald Trump, Sr. made in the hours after the damning “Access Hollywood” tape was released. Trump was embarrassed and contrite, White told cnn.com, and voiced gratitude to her and evangelicals who continue to stand by their man.
The Yom Kippur appeal was not White’s first foray into mixing Jewish symbols with evangelical Christianity. In a 2012 episode of her nationally syndicated TV talk show, “Paula White Today,” preserved on YouTube, White allowed herself to be wrapped in a Torah scroll by a Messianic “rabbi” named Ralph Messer, a “coronation” ceremony that she explained embodied being “wrapped in the Word of God.”
Years earlier, Donald Trump became a fan of White’s show, and made a guest appearance on another episode entitled “Millionaire God’s Way.” About that time, Trump and White began a lengthy personal and professional relationship, praying together and promoting each other’s books.
You could say Trump and White have a (political) marriage made in Heaven, that they are bashert – soul mates.
White has a past almost as colorful of Trump’s, including three marriages and at least one spectacular bankruptcy in 2014, the latter a fall that attracted the scrutiny of her Tampa ministry by the IRS, a U.S. Senate committee, CNN and NBC Nightly News. Millions in tax-exempt donations fueled a high-living lifestyle, including a multi-million dollar waterfront home and a Gulfstream jet. A sex scandal linking White to fellow prosperity gospel advocate (and then married) Benny Hinn landed her on the front page of the National Inquirer. Still, White was able to make a comeback, thanks in large part to her charisma and her TV show, which often features its host showing off her buff figure in exercise segments.
At least one theologian has compared White to two equally flamboyant Pentecostal icons, Kathryn Kuhlman and Aimee Semple McPherson, both of whom built followings through broadcast ministries and arena revivals. White often uses her life – raised in a trailer, childhood sex physical abuse, teenage promiscuity, unwed motherhood, drug abuse and eating disorders – as an example of the power of Christian redemption, enabling her to go “from a pit to a palace.”
“There is a special place in our competitive religious marketplace for a svelte, fiery blonde preacher who can identify with pain and struggle by presenting her life as an open book,” write Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, authors of Holy Mavericks, Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (New York University Press. 2009). “In this way, White, like other holy mavericks, taps into that ever-present possibility that is part of American culture: redemption and second chances.”
When not attending Manhattan CD release parties, the authors reported that White has prayed with prisoners on New York’s Riker’s Island and that Trump “brings her to Atlantic City for private Bible studies with athletes and celebrities.”
Today, White pastors a largely African American megachurch in Apopka, Florida, just outside Orlando, assuming the pulpit in 2012 after the congregation’s founding pastor was found dead of a drug overdose in a Times Square hotel. Her preaching, usually in four-inch stilettos, walks a fine line between classic, stem-winding Pentecostalism and creepy minstrelsy.
Like Trump, White claims to have been a lifelong Republican, contributing to recent Republican presidential campaigns. She did make an exception in 2007, making a $2,700 to then Senator Barack Obama, who she met at a reception hosted by Oprah Winfrey.
Indeed, White “shares her greatest resemblance with secular talk show host Oprah Winfrey…Through her talk show White became the ‘Oprah’ of the evangelical world,” according to the authors of Holy Mavericks. “Both Oprah and Paula are hip, trendy, post-feminist women with immeasurable influence and symbolic power.”
But some believe there is an element of opportunism in White’s support for Trump this year.
“Paula White is a marginal figure in American Christianity but appears to be on the rise,” says David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics & Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, at Mercer University. “She is a good example of how many of the ‘prominent evangelical’ leaders who have endorsed Mr. Trump were not recognized as evangelical leaders before this campaign.”
Orlando-based religion writer Mark I. Pinsky, author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed,_ has covered Paula White since 2012._