Culture At Large

Parsing the Prayers at the Trump Inauguration

Erica Schemper

With the inauguration of the United States’ first business president—Donald Trump, who has no experience in politics or the military—it’s time to be honest about the degree to which 21st-century American culture esteems wealth. Trump’s nomination of a cabinet full of people with experience building or managing fortunes further suggests that he and his supporters see business ability as a missing quality of current political leadership. Further, among the clergypeople chosen to pray at his inauguration, two of them—Paula White and Bishop Wayne Jackson—are noted teachers of the business-friendly "prosperity gospel."

Proponents of the prosperity gospel believe that those most favored by God are blessed with riches. (In White’s case, she might nuance that to say that the riches may not be material.) But if this is correct, it suggests that those who aren’t blessed are less faithful followers. And anyone who has spent any time around a community of believers knows this simply isn’t true. There are faithful Christians whose lives have seen misery piled on misery (and who know little of money).

The prosperity gospel is rooted in other suspect North American Christian movements, one of those being that of Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale is the preacher Trump heard on Sundays growing up, so it’s no surprise that he’s open to the prosperity gospel.

God’s blessing is not about having the most. It’s for those who are meek, humble, and hungry for justice.

During the inauguration, White’s prayer of invocation only hinted at the prosperity gospel, saying “We acknowledge we are a blessed nation.” Jackson’s benediction, meanwhile, avoided it. But Trump’s own speech had ample evidence that he favors an American civil religion steeped in a gospel of prosperity. He connected success for America directly to wealth and painted a bleak picture of a world that is taking away the country’s riches. “From this day forward, it’s only going to be America first!” he promised. That’s a popular message, especially heard from the mouth of a man who, in many people’s minds, is a symbol of great financial success.

We need to be cautious, however, about worshipping a narrative that conflicts with the true Gospel. The part of the inauguration ceremony that was most jarring to me came near the beginning, when Rev. Samuel Rodriguez took the podium and simply read Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. Matthew’s telling is a bit more spiritualized than the politically convicting version in Luke (which includes the phrase, “woe to you who are rich”), yet hearing these words as the wealthiest nation on earth inaugurated a wealth-obsessed president reminded me of the true Good News. God’s blessing is not about having the most. It’s for those who are meek, humble, and hungry for justice. Rodriguez's reading was the point in the ceremony where I prayed that we might all have ears to hear the truth when it is spoken, and to ask for God’s blessing not just on ourselves, but on all of his world.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, Prayer, News & Politics, Politics