Late last month, Paula White, televangelist and personal pastor to President Trump, was picked to head the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, a unit in the Office of Public Liaison tasked with outreach to religious groups.
For close observers of the Trump administration, this move was hardly a surprise. Paula White is not only a frequent visitor to the White House but a confidant of the president. She was in attendance — and mentioned by name — when President Trump announced the creation of the Faith and Opportunity Initiative more than a year ago. White’s long relationship with Trump, which began in 2003, and her central role in his 2016 campaign as chairman of his Faith Advisory Board, were enough to overcome her lack of previous government service and her polarizing reputation in religious circles …
And her Pentecostalism.
Seeing Trump’s support of White solely as a new high watermark in their 15-year relationship ignores what White’s ascension in American public life teaches us about American religion, namely the mainstreaming of Pentecostal Christians among the Christian right.
Rewind time a few decades — back to the 1970s should be far enough — and we see that the theological and historical lines dividing various subcultures in conservative Protestantism (including charismatics, Pentecostals, evangelicals and fundamentalists) had real political consequences.
As historian Neil J. Young recounts in his history of the religious right and interfaith politics, as late as 1982 a meeting of evangelical and fundamentalist political leaders contemplated if including Pentecostals into their upper ranks was “too much to expect.” Of course, there were already Pentecostal or charismatic leaders in the Christian right, but the evangelical-fundamentalist “truce,” in Young’s words, that helped create the Christian right made these two communities the movement’s gatekeepers.