One of the mysteries surrounding the upcoming presidential inauguration is that of why the various celebrities who have refused to perform for the Commander in Chief have not been subject to the same brutal legal and financial penalties as those humble small business owners who have declined to bake cakes for gay weddings. All conscientious objectors are equal, it seems, but non-celebrity conscientious objectors with traditional Christian convictions are clearly a whole lot more equal than others.
There is, however, no mystery about the president elect’s selection of Paula White to pray at his inauguration. White is a televangelist, a prosperity gospeler, and the wife of Jonathan Cain, former member of the rock band Journey. For both White and Cain it is third time lucky in the marriage stakes. Trump’s chosen intercessor is therefore a beautiful microcosm of America, the land where showbiz is more important than real life and where everyone gets a second, third, fourth, etc. chance—as long as they have enough money and the right friends.
Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Horton has offered a concise but compelling historical account and theological critique of the kind of religion White represents. He makes the legitimate point that Evangelicals should worry about having White’s teaching dressed up with the name of the gospel.
I agree with Horton’s analysis but would take the concern a step further. All Americans, not just Evangelicals, should be worried that Paula White is praying at the inauguration, though not for particularly religious reasons. By and large, the rites of American civic religion are harmless enough, bland baptisms of the status quo by the application of a bit of liturgy emptied of any real dogmatic significance or personal demands.
The real reason for concern is the fact that White’s brand of Christianity is a manifestation of the psyche of modern America in a religious idiom, and thoroughly continuous with the last eight years. As Horton points out, White’s Christianity is all about meeting needs, felt needs. It is a form of therapy—and rather materialist therapy—in skimpy religious garb. Where America was once pragmatic—and gloriously so, in that the “can-do” mentality of Americans was part of what made the country great—that pragmatism has become tied to psychological needs. Old-style pragmatism had a social purpose, in that it sought to work towards the common good. Now that the common good has been replaced with the well-being of the psychological self, that which works is that which makes me happy in the here and now.
Much punditry since the election has located the triumph of Trump in a backlash among poor, white voters against liberal urban elites. These were once the natural supporters of the old Left. But the Left has long since abandoned the poor through its transformation of the concept of oppression from an economic category into one of psychology. The Left is now therapeutic to its core. But Psychological Man is not by necessity the client of any particular political ideology, and the fact that, as Horton points out, Trump has surrounded himself with prosperity gospelers—the Christian equivalent of snake oil salesmen—bodes ill for the country. What America needs is not therapy for a poor white version of Psychological Man but a renewed vision of the common good built on a renewed understanding of a common human nature.
Sadly, many, if not all, of the most influential organs of our culture are committed to the cultivation of Psychological Man as the norm and thus the categories of therapy as the answer. The colleges and universities might well be writing the death warrants of their own credibility through the increasingly childish and irrelevant ravings of their most notorious academics and students—but they were never where the real danger lay. From commercials predicated on creating desires rather than on meeting utilitarian needs, to the therapeutic rhetoric of politicians of Left and Right, the gravitational pull toward a psychological understanding of the self is powerful and omnipresent.
There are undoubted positives to Trump, but they are by and large to be cast in negative terms. For example, he is unlikely to appoint extreme liberals to the Supreme Court. His record indicates that he is sufficiently dishonest for us to hope that he will not honor his scariest campaign promises. He is indifferent to religious freedom (as opposed to being actively hostile to it, as was his erstwhile Democratic opponent), and we might therefore see a slowdown or even a halt to the last few years’ trajectory on that issue.
But it is a day of small things indeed when the positives are all negatives. More disturbing, though, is the banal presence of Paula White at the inauguration. It is sad, and not simply for those who dislike such religious displays at civic events. It is sad because, on the big issue of the day—the question of what it means to be human—a Republican president is publicly endorsing the world of Psychological Man. To quote a line from the greatest rock band, The Who: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.