- photo illustration by Chris Tobar Rodrguez
The Pentecostal preacher is on fire: A diminutive blonde in thigh-high boots with 4-inch stiletto heels, she transfixes her suburban Apopka congregation. Stalking the stage, she conveys mastery and authority one moment, vulnerability the next. She galvanizes the predominantly African-American worshipers at her megachurch, New Destiny Christian Center. And she isn't shy about breaking down her version of the here-and-now Prosperity Gospel.
"I don't want pie in the sky by and by," she says. "I want some ham where I am."
On a typical Sunday morning service at New Destiny – the first of two – worship has begun as it always does, with colored lights flashing against the walls and the cavernous ceiling, to the pounding beat of Christian rock. Worshippers are soon on their feet, arms in the air. A boom-mounted TV camera swoops down across the pews, as Paula White keeps time to the music, clapping with the heels of her hands.
"Pastor Paula," as she often refers to herself, is wearing a black dress, and she is cooking. "This is a season of overflow," she says, "a season of increase." What she expects of the worshipers in the pews is "the first tenth of your gross income," because "every time we give, something supernatural happens."
With her hand-held mic, she strides back and forth on the stage, seeming to feed off the growing fervor her preaching generates. She refers to her personal life as an example of what Jesus can do. With the Lord's help, she went "from a pit to a palace" – and she says those in the congregation can do so too.
White was born to middle-class parents in Tupelo, Mississippi, and raised by a two-star Navy admiral stepfather – partly in Orlando, where she attended Liberty Middle School on Chickasaw Trail and Oak Ridge High, and partly in suburban Maryland. While she has no college or seminary degrees, what she does have is a natural gift for energetic Pentecostal preaching and a convincing mastery of African-American idioms. "Slap somebody upside their weave," she says. Or: "Can you help a sister out?" White can preach with a tough-talking, wise-cracking Joan Rivers sensibility, but she's not averse to employing Greek theological terms. Her preaching can shift from the rational to the supernatural in a nanosecond; she uses "caint" and "cannot," "yo" and "you," and "git" and "get" interchangeably.
The wealthy white televangelist is one of the most unlikely stars in the modern evangelical firmament. What could she possibly have in common with the working- and middle-class African-Americans who have made her opulent lifestyle possible? White declined several interview requests for this article. But she tells her story in her sermons and her books.
Her mother was an alcoholic and her father committed suicide. Living for a time in a trailer, she was the victim of childhood physical and sexual abuse. As a teen, she says, she was promiscuous, became a single mother and, as a young adult, was bulimic. Years later, she was addicted to prescription medication; her teenage son was addicted to crack, and an adult stepdaughter died of brain cancer. If, through the love and power of Christ, White tells her followers, she has been able to break through these "generational curses," so can they.
Now, after years of scandal surrounding her and her ministry, White has placed herself in Donald Trump's constellation, acting as the nominee's "spiritual counselor" – in the words of Politico magazine, his "God whisperer." Trump told Time magazine that "Paula is a person of great faith and accomplishment. ... She has been a tremendous friend and I am grateful for her guidance and support."
In many ways, White is also Trump's religious doppelganger; the relationship is an obvious fit, given Trump's own gravitation to the outward appearance of success and optimism. Thrice married – most recently to the geezer rock group Journey's Jonathan Cain – White's fame is fueled by regular appearances on religious television and best-selling inspirational books. She's rich, but also dogged by financial controversies, accumulating a small fortune in cash and properties through various now-bankrupt ministries. Her Apopka congregation now numbers about 10,000, down from her erstwhile multi-site megachurch of 28,000 in Tampa.
At the end of a second summer Sunday service, this one on the eve of the Republican National Convention, White apologizes for not being able to greet her flock. Cryptically, she tells them she has a plane to catch, without giving a destination. The flight is to Cleveland for the RNC. On Monday, convention officials announce that White will offer that evening's closing prayer, making her only the second woman in the GOP's history to have that honor. White's prayer was not explicitly political or ideological, apart from calling on God to "make America safe again," echoing one of Trump's themes.
Despite the increasingly long odds against Donald Trump becoming the next President, if he does, Paula White, a Pentecostal preacher with an insanely checkered history, who speaks in tongues and believes in faith healing, stands to become Trump's Billy Graham, a person murmuring God's will into his ear. So who is she today, and how did she get so close to the nation's highest circle of power?
- image via Paula White-Cain on Facebook
Or maybe there's something else, perhaps something more worldly, at play: "I continue to be disappointed that evangelicals hitch themselves to Trump's wagon," says evangelical author and motivational speaker Rusty Wright. "I wonder if it's power they are after."
Richard Cizik, former executive vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, agrees. "Evangelicals who for 50 years have said 'character matters,' now are saying by their endorsement of Trump, 'never mind.'"
Indeed, a number of younger, more centrist evangelical leaders are not supporting the Republican nominee, in part because of his truculent statements on immigrants and immigration policy, which have offended Hispanic and African-American evangelicals. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll found that Latino voters back Clinton over Trump by a 76-14 margin, and the same poll found that 82 percent of Latino voters have a negative view of Trump. A survey released Oct. 14 by LifeWay Resources, a respected Christian polling group, reported that "African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian-Americans with evangelical beliefs support Clinton (62 percent) over Trump (15 percent)."
Well before the release of the infamous Access Hollywood recording, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, a pastor at Orlando's Iglesia El Calvario and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, joined 74 of the organization's leaders in denouncing Trump's "xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric." In particular, Trump's disparaging comments about immigrants and Hispanics generally were doubly offensive to Salguero.
While Salguero, like other Hispanic evangelicals, disagrees with some of Clinton's views on social issues like abortion and has not endorsed her or any candidates, he says, "I cannot in good conscience endorse Trump."
Last Sunday, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine spoke in Spanish to the Pneuma Church in West Kendall in South Florida, urging Hispanic evangelicals to vote.
National polls also indicate that Trump has the support of less than 1 percent of African-American voters. So the paradox is that, however much White may be able to influence white evangelicals across the country to back Trump, it is highly unlikely that many of her African-American and Hispanic parishioners at New Destiny will follow her.
Although many evangelical pastors and leaders have lined up on one side or another, some see Trump as the third rail of Christian politics, with no upside in taking a position.
"Years ago, in my doctoral work, I spent a year working in an 'insane asylum,' as we called them back then," says the Rev. Joel Hunter, of Northland, a Church Distributed, in Longwood. "I learned then not to try to make sense of completely crazy. Never has that lesson been as valuable as in this year's election."
According to the same PRRI study, white mainline Christians are split 42-42 between Trump and Clinton. There is some irony to this divide, given that Trump was raised as a Presbyterian, a mainline denomination, and attended Marble Collegiate Church, a traditional Manhattan congregation, where at least one of his weddings took place.
Various church leaders, from Trump's denomination and others, have criticized him. An April letter from a group of high-profile North American Christian leaders declared that Trump's campaign statements were "contrary to our Christian values" and "racist, bigoted and hateful." Clergy of color, most recently an African-American pastor in Flint, Michigan, have also spoken out against him.
After the Access Hollywood tapes came out, Ralph Reed, head of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said that for "people of faith," the recording "ranks low on their hierarchy of concerns," to which popular evangelical leader Beth Moore responded via Twitter, "Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don't think it's that big a deal." Speaking for many female evangelicals, she continued: "I'm one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn't. We're tired of it."
On a plane flight last February, Pope Francis, referring to Trump's plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and to build a wall on the Mexican border, said, "A person who thinks only about building walls – wherever they may be – and not building bridges, is not Christian."
In most of these cases, Trump has not hesitated to fire back.
"For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful," Trump replied. "I am proud to be a Christian. ... No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith."
Shortly after being saved at the age of 18, Paula Furr left her first husband and ran off with Randy White, her Maryland church's pastor, who was at the time married with three young children – a fact she does not include in her redemption testimony. The couple moved to Tampa and, after doing some youth work with a local church, set out to establish their own congregation from scratch, which succeeded spectacularly.
At the height of their popularity, Paula and Randy White reported generating $40 million a year from her broadcast ministry and their Without Walls International Church in Tampa. The racially diverse congregation, in two locations, claimed a membership of 28,000, with the co-pastors taking together between $600,000 and $1.5 million a year in compensation.
White says she owes her national speaking career to T.D. Jakes, the influential African-American pastor of the 30,000-member Potter's House Church in Dallas, who plucked her out of a post-revival receiving line. Jakes, who White refers to as her "spiritual daddy," has for years featured her at his national arena women's conferences, which draw predominantly African-American audiences.
"There's no question he made her," says a longtime observer of Jakes. White returned the favor, in part, with the gift of a $200,000 Bentley convertible on Jakes' 50th birthday.
White has lived exceedingly well, thanks in large part to donations from her TV viewers. For a time, she lived in a $2.2 million waterfront Tampa Bay home, driving one of her several Mercedes and, when in New York, staying either at her Trump Park Avenue condo or her Trump Tower digs.
But the Whites' ministry hit tough times in the mid-2000s, a direct result of a series of hard-hitting investigative stories by the Tampa Tribune.
Soon, the Whites and their ministries were the subjects of an IRS investigation in 2004 and a U.S. Senate probe in 2007, led by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. NBC Nightly News and CNN devoted segments to the ministry's woes. The church's Gulfstream jet had to be sold. In 2009, Paula and Randy divorced, and Paula left the Tampa pulpit, devoting all of her time to broadcasting, although her ratings and outlets declined sharply.
Things got even worse for Paula. A sensational tabloid exposé on the cover of the National Enquirer linked Paula White with fellow (and separated but still married) televangelist Benny Hinn in a romantic tryst in a five-star Rome hotel. Hinn, another prosperity gospel proponent, was registered in the presidential suite under the biblically suggestive name "David Solomon." White denied the affair, but Hinn later acknowledged an "inappropriate relationship."
In the wake of the accumulated notoriety, attendance at Without Walls in Tampa also plummeted. A satellite church in Lakeland, Florida, with a 10,000-seat sanctuary, was shuttered and abandoned in 2012. The Tampa church filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Around this time, White has told audiences, she suffered a stroke, which led to a renewed addiction to prescription drugs.
"Paula represents everything that is wrong with American religion," says Ole Anthony, founder of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a religious watchdog organization. "No accountability, the jet-set lifestyle, divorces and affairs that seem to never end. She's left a trail of destroyed churches behind her."
F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, there do appear to be second acts in American religion. Despite White's checkered career, in early 2012 her appeal was enough for New Destiny Christian Center, outside Orlando, to pass over five African-American preachers to call her to their pulpit. New Destiny is no stranger to scandal. Before he was saved and reformed, founding pastor Zachery Tims, by his own account, was a drug dealer and gang member from Baltimore who was once charged with attempted murder. Tims became a rising star in the Pentecostal world by building New Destiny into a 9,000-member megachurch in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.
But in 2010, Tims began a downward spiral. He confessed to an affair with a Vietnamese woman he met in a Paris strip club and was later accused of other infidelities closer to home. Down came the idyllic billboards of Tims and his co-pastor wife, Riva, along I-4, inviting drivers to join the growing congregation. Zachery divorced Riva and forced her out of the church, which began a precipitous decline in membership and support. Then, in August 2011, the minister was discovered dead in the tony W Hotel in Times Square, a glassine envelope of white powder in his undershorts pocket.
Since 2012, White has made New Destiny her "comeback pulpit," gradually repairing and growing the dispirited congregation back to the 10,000 members it boasted during the Tims' heyday, a claim that cannot be verified.
White has said she's a lifelong Republican, but – like Trump – she's hedged her bets over the years. In addition to contributions to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, in 2007 she donated $2,300 to Barack Obama, which, she told Politico, was the cost of meeting the candidate at a gathering hosted by Oprah Winfrey. A decade before the Trump campaign, White was hosting a highly rated show on nine Christian television networks and satellite systems, as well as BET. She has also appeared as a guest life coach on The Tyra Banks Show.
"You know you're on to something new and significant when the most popular woman preacher on the Black Entertainment Network is a white woman," Ebony magazine wrote when White first burst onto the scene in the early 2000s. Her show, Paula White Today, was eclectic – sometimes religious, sometimes not. One episode was titled "Millionaire God's Way."
This was the television show that first brought White to Trump's attention. White told the Christian Post on July 8, 2016, that Trump called her and said she was "fantastic ... After watching my television show," she said, "he tracked me down. He literally called me out of the blue, and I was amazed by how he remembered my sermon, almost word for word."
There is little mystery as to what first attracted Donald Trump to Paula White in 2002. While possibly not "a 10" by Trump's beauty pageant and supermodel standards, White's physical appearance is still central to her appeal – even at 50 – so she works hard to maintain it. Over the years the televangelist has not been shy about displaying her toned, fit body on exercise segments on her various TV programs, or in increasingly form-fitting outfits. She likes to tell revivals, "I work my hips and lips." One follower on her Facebook page referred to her as a "smokin' Barbie." The hundreds of personal profile photos she has posted of herself resemble glamour headshots, giving the page a vaguely creepy, narcissistic vibe.
The meeting between Trump and White was the beginning of a beautiful – and mutually beneficial – friendship. In 2008, Trump was a guest on her show, promoting his latest book and sharing his insights on how to get rich. White's website features this Trump encomium: "Paula White is not only a beautiful person both inside and out, she has a significant message to offer anyone who will tune in and pay attention. She has amazing insight and the ability to deliver that message clearly as well as powerfully." Trump thought so highly of White that in 2015 he invited her to attend the finale of The Apprentice and pray with the cast and crew.
So after Trump announced his run for president, White sprang into action.
In September 2015, Trump invited White and about 20 other evangelical leaders to meet privately with the candidate at Trump Tower, where she has owned a $3.5 million apartment for the past decade. It was White's first active foray into politics, and a critical move, since other evangelical leaders were already lining up behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a lifelong evangelical and the son of a preacher. The Trump Tower group huddled around the candidate and laid hands on him, a moment captured on YouTube. White, the only woman in the group, had pride of place next to the candidate, with one hand on his stomach and the other on his arm. Trump, eyes closed, lower lip extended, patted White's hand. Before the group could break up, she seized the Pentecostal headliner slot of closer.
"Father, we just secure him right now by the blood of Jesus," she prayed. "We thank you that no weapon formed against him would prosper, and any tongue that rises against him would be condemned, according to the word of God. ... Even as we lay hands on him right now, let your hand be laid upon him. Let him have a greater encounter with you, a greater encounter with the spirit of God. I secure him, I secure his children, I secure his calling and his mantle, in Jesus' name." When she finished, Trump embraced her and kissed her on the cheek.
White's efforts on Trump's behalf have not been confined to the religious world. In March, she spoke to an overflow crowd at a Trump rally at the University of Central Florida arena. "I believe that God will raise up a man for such a time as this," she said. The attacks made on him notwithstanding, she said that Trump was "a man who had more integrity than most people that I have encountered." She added that he had contributed to various ministries, that he is "a compassionate man, a man who is very strong to his core."
Since then, White helped put together Trump's evangelical advisory board, a group of 26 conservative leaders, and, in June, she was instrumental in organizing another Trump Tower gathering, this one of a thousand conservative evangelical figures. At the session, White was one of the few leaders Trump acknowledged from the podium. After the meeting, Trump called White, and asked, "Paula, they know I will fight for them, right?" She assured him that they did. "They all left saying they trust him, and these are all leaders in the Evangelical community who are admired and trusted themselves," she said later. In a rare interview with Politico, White said, "I can absolutely tell you that Mr. Trump has a relationship with God. He is a Christian, he accepts Jesus as his Lord and savior."
But not everyone in the evangelical world welcomes Trump's embrace of Paula White.
"Paula White is a charlatan and recognized as a heretic by every orthodox Christian, of whatever tribe," wrote Russell Moore, chairman of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm, in a widely quoted tweet. Nationally syndicated Christian radio host Steve Deace joined others in declaring White a heretic, primarily for her embrace of the prosperity gospel. In late June, Deace addressed the rumor that White had led Trump to Christ. If true, Deace said, "someone needs to lead her to Christ first," an attack he renewed on an Oct. 7 broadcast.
Trump family members were extremely pleased with White's appearance at the Republican Convention, they told Time magazine. Eric Trump even credited her with "healing" his teleprompter, which malfunctioned as he was speaking to the convention. White was invited to Donald's hotel room to pray with him for four hours, and then to lead a prayer circle with his wife, Melania, and his younger son, Barron. On the night Trump gave his primetime address, White rode in the car with him to the arena.
"I do remember asking God to give him his words and his mind, and to use him – that it would not be his words but God's words, that he would just really be sensitive to the Holy Spirit," White told Time several weeks later. Never one to underplay her role, White added, "I probably [interceded] against any plot or plan or weapon of the enemy to interfere with the plan or the will of God."
Paula White's one disappointment at the convention was that the moment of national media exposure that the televangelist might have hoped for went flat. Monday night's speeches ran so long that by the time White took the podium, the hall was largely empty and most television cameras were turned off.
Well, sic transit gloria – at least until President Trump's inauguration.
Longtime Orlando religion writer Mark I. Pinsky is author of "A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." He has covered Paula White since 2012.