It’s a very strange time.
For the first time in US history, a president has claimed outright that an election has been stolen by massive, coordinated fraud.
Not only was President Trump’s post-election speech dishonest, it has brought further harm to the already weakened safeguards designed to protect our society from ripping itself apart in irreparable ways.
Trump’s allegations were unsubstantiated and have been disproven. However, we have reached a critical point nationally, where our top elected official has so consistently denied and discredited journalists, pollsters, fact-checkers, and media outlets, that any and all sources of information that contradict his alternate reality are rejected by his followers.
The president has continued to incite his followers via tweet, feeding them conspiracy theories to spread. Tech experts have traced the massive online disinformation campaign, “Stop the Steal” to convicted felon Roger Stone, whose sentence Trump commuted, and Steve Bannon, who is already facing federal fraud charges for another matter.
According to a recent poll, 70 percent of Republicans now say they don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair.
In the case of this White House, the man at the center of that power structure displays key characteristics of a narcissist: grandiosity, lack of empathy, and an insatiable hunger for admiration and approval. From the testimony of multiple people who have worked in this administration, and what we have witnessed through his steady stream of tweets and recorded comments, we can see that Trump’s behavior checks all the boxes.
The president’s ardent followers believe him. Those whose vote for him was less support for him and more a strong ideological objection to the Democratic ticket seem to have chosen to change the subject and look away. But what about other elected officials in the GOP? Why don’t they speak up?
In her talk entitled, “Narcissism and the Systems it Breeds,” Christian Counselor Diane Langberg, PhD. offers the following description of narcissistic personality disorder: “Somebody who has this disorder takes their bearings from the externals. Achievements, accomplishments, abilities, success, power, adoration, affirmation, approval– those things are his food and drink. He presents this bigger than life grandiose self (which is not his real self) to others, so as to gain the things that he feeds off of. He believes those things are necessary to his existence, they are owed to him, they are his right, and if you deny him, you will find him full of rage. Narcissism at its core is the preservation of myself as good and great. He will use you. He will exploit anything you have on which to feed or to serve his ends. He will suck you dry, and once he has drained you, he will kick you to the curb.”
Although narcissists have many gifts, they do not have humility. Langberg describes this gift as “humility before God that harnesses every other ability, so that it is governed by the Spirit of God alone.”
“People will bow to the narcissist for a long time before things blow up. When you are in a system like that and decide to confront it, you’re not just threatening the narcissist. You are threatening the entire system, because he’s got the system revolving around him. Take him away, they’ll all be afraid they’ll fall down. It’s a very ominous task. Usually when someone like this is to be confronted, it’s not the whole group that does it. It’s one or a few people, because when you have a leader like that, most of what you have around him are very compliant sheep. They’ve practiced compliance for so long, they don’t really see what’s in front of them, and they certainly wouldn’t know how to confront it. When you do something like this, it’s very possible that system will rise up to protect the leader that’s hurting them, rather than listen to the truth.”1
What we are witnessing is the culmination of four years of abuse of power, and the effort to keep that power through the construction of an alternate reality. As Christian leader Mika Edmondson summarized on Twitter.”The first step in capturing people’s minds is to delegitimize all other sources of information. False teachers, cult leaders, and tyrants specialize in framing themselves as the only legitimate source.”
In his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Czech writer, political dissident, and then future Czech president, Václav Havel, wrote, “In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically.”
Over the years, Fox News, with its panel of extremist pundits, has effectively moved the Overton window farther and farther to the right, making way for more extreme propaganda-based media outlets. First it was Breitbart. Now it is One America News network (OAN), which our president watches and retweets.
Havel argues that without anything to limit “ideologically-driven power” in a society, that society becomes “a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality. This is a strikingly apt description of what we are witnessing in this moment.
This “world of appearances” is the “fundamental pillar” of the system. The person who exposes (the system) as just a game points to the emperor, looks at us, and cries, “He is naked!” “There are no terms whatsoever on which (this system) can co-exist with living within the truth.” 2
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, in Zosima’s speech to Fyodor Pavlovich, we read, “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to the passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.”
While political propagandists push conspiracy theories through their growing platforms, celebrity prosperity preachers have also cranked up the volume on our nation’s flagrant and disturbing partisan spectacle.
The night after the election, televangelist Paula White livestreamed a prayer vigil in which she led prayers “against every demonic confederacy directed at this election, directed specifically at the six states, we come against people who are working at the highest levels of secrecy.” She chanted, “Angelic reinforcements are coming here right now from Africa right now, from South America right now.” She proclaimed, “I hear the sound of victory. I hear the sound of victory. I hear the sound of victory. The Lord says it is done.”
In reaction to the viral video, many people clapped back on social media.
“She’ll be lucky if Stephen Miller doesn’t send those angels to ICE Detention Centers…” –Ana Navaro Cardenas
Christian leader Shane Claiborne once tweeted, “When you cut out the 2000 Bible verses about God’s concern for the poor & all the verses about welcoming foreigners & everything Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount… you end up with @Paula_White’s prosperity gospel.”
The Sunday after the election, longtime prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland told his congregation that laughter is a scientifically proven deterrent to pain. “You might say, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to laugh about.’ Your brain can’t tell the difference between a put-on laugh and a real laugh.” He then began laughing. “The Associated Press said that Joe Biden is president. Hahahaa!”…”Yeah, he is gonna be president and Mickey Mouse is gonna be king. Hahahaha!” Copeland also drew negative attention earlier this fall for dangerous comments he made on his Victory Channel about Covid-19. “I was noticing today – President Trump and his beautiful First Lady – without masks. He walked out immune. Glory to God. Woo! Thank you, Jesus. Come on man, we’re immune. We’re going through this thing with a holy spirit immunity!”
Kenneth Copeland and Paula White are among prosperity preachers who have loudly backed Trump.3 Both media-based ministries were investigated by the Senate Finance Committee under the Obama administration, due to lack of transparency about use of donor funds. See footnote for links to the committee’s reports.4
“A depressed, struggling hungry, system is easy prey for someone who can deliver the moon. He’s a master of words. He’s a pied piper. Unwittingly people follow like sheep without a shepherd, thinking he’s come to feed them, not realizing that they will become his food.” It is notable that people in Christian circles tend to lift up gifts in somebody rather than looking at character. Both as individuals and systems, Christians and churches are vulnerable to narcissists, because we tend to be blinded by the gifts and think they means that the Spirit of God is there. But we fail to look closely at a leader’s character.”We need to understand how easy it is for narcissism to fit into the language of Christianity.”5
What about people who follow these leaders, handing over their money and trust?6
Kate Bowler, author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel7, writes “I spent years talking to televangelists who claimed spiritual guarantees for how to receive divine money. I held hands with people in wheelchairs praying at the altar to be cured. I thought I was trying to understand how millions of North Americans had started asking God for more. How they seemed to want permission to experience the luxuries of life as a reward for good behavior. But I also saw the desire for escape. Believers wanted an escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets. Some people wanted Bentleys but more wanted relief from the wounds of their past and the pain of their present.”8
Dr. Diane Langberg lists three components to the abuse of power: Self-deceit, the deception of others, and coercion. “Self-deception, when it is practiced, eventually becomes one of the primary habits of the mind. It essentially functions as a narcotic, because it protects us from seeing or hearing or feeling things that are painful to us and the way we would prefer to see ourselves. It is about hiding, pretending, ignoring, camouflaging.”9
The prosperity gospel is compatible with American triumphalism. Its harshest critics have called it everything from grift to cult to heresy. Some argue that its toxic positivity and consolidation of power in one celebrity figure is fertile ground for spiritual abuse. The brand of optimism associated with it leaves little room for the vulnerable emotions of doubt, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, or lament. If we force optimism and hide from these painful emotions, there is little space in which to develop integrity, exercise humility, heal from trauma, or empathize with others.
I’ve been thinking about the role of appearances in communicating reality, and the importance of cultivating personal relationships and institutional cultures that encourage integrity between our public and private selves. Dr. Langberg again, “We have an uncanny ability to suppress knowing what we actually know. Self-deception is not necessarily the worst thing we can do as human beings. However, it is the means by which we do the worst things.”10
It is not a stretch to say that while the world is fighting the viral spread of Covid-19, our nation is losing this battle while fighting uphill against the viral spread of an alternate reality.
As someone who claims to want my character to be formed to be more like Christ, and who talks about the importance of spiritual formation and discipleship, there is certainly a lot of daylight between the habits and actions I say are important and the reality of how I live. I am no stranger to pretending.
Self-deceit is a trap set for all of us. We are all capable of abusing our power (position, reputation, wealth) in order to get people to do things that serve our ends. We can work on recognizing this danger in ourselves and be on guard against it in political and spiritual leaders.
We can also work against those things that make people susceptible to abuse. If vulnerability, isolation, neediness, emotional pain and a lack of power make people susceptible to the abuse of others, then let us be about the work of empowering, befriending, giving of ourselves and our resources, and practicing empathy.
*Note: For the purpose of keeping this post from becoming just a long list of case studies, I chose these two ministries as examples because they are rather extreme, and have received additional publicity in connection with their support of Donald Trump. I do not believe this problem is unique to our president and TV preachers, however. The harmful pattern of abuse of power, compounded by narcissistic people, can be found all throughout human society.
1 Langberg, Diane. “Narcissism and the Systems It Breeds.” FOCL Online, uploaded 5 May 2016.
2 Havel, Vaclev, “The Power of the Powerless.” 1978.
3 Although President Johnson’s 1954 amendment forbidding all tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates is still on the books, it has not been enforced under the Trump administration.
4 Note: Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member, Senator Chuck Grassley, wrote to six media-based ministries in November 2007, based on requests for review from members of the public who wrote to him because of his previous tax-exempt oversight work. Two of the six responded fully and were met with this comment from Grassley, “I appreciate these efforts. Self-correction can be more effective than government action. It’s something that’s worked with other entities I’ve looked at, such as the Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institution and some top colleges that were amassing large endowments without increasing student aid.”
However, four ministries either did not provide any information or provided incomplete information on use of ministry funds, generating a more thorough investigation by the committee. Among them were Paula White Ministries and Kenneth Copeland Ministries. Committee Reports on use of ministry funds were compiled based not on information provided directly by the Whites or the Copelands, but rather on interviews conducted with accountants and official records. For both charities, the governing board is mostly family members (a red flag from an accountability perspective) and there is little to no transparency with regard to compensation. Part of this picture is all employees must sign a confidentiality agreement.
According to the January 2011 Senate Finance Committee report on Kenneth Copeland’s Eagle Mountain Independent Church (EMIC)/Kenneth Copeland Ministries, the Copeland “parsonage” enjoys tax-exempt status and is valued at $6.25 Million, includes a fleet of high-end vehicles paid for by agreement with Eagle Mountain International Church “to pay all costs associated with any vehicle selected by Gloria Copeland”.
The Committee’s January 2011 Senate Finance Committee report on Without Walls International Church (WWIC)/Paula White Ministries reported a revenue of $39.96 Million in 2006, and long term debt of $22.5 Million as of 2005. Paula and Randy White owned a Bayshore home valued at $2.6 Million a $3.5 million condo in Trump Tower in New York City. The housing allowances for both residences were paid from ministry funds. After divorcing Paula in 2007, Randy placed his new girlfriend and her parents on the payroll and gave them retroactive pay, and authorized WWIC to pay for plastic surgery for another pastor at WWIC (Without Walls International).
5 Langberg, Diane. “Narcissism and the Systems It Breeds.” FOCL Online, uploaded 5 May 2016.
6 Other prominent leaders in the development of prosperity theology include: E. W. Kenyon, Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, Robert Tilton, T. L. Osborn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Reverend Ike, and Kenneth Hagin.
7 Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Oxford University Press, 2013.
8 Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Random House, 2018.
9 Langberg, Diane. “Use and Misuse of Authority.” FOCL Online, upoloaded 5 May 2016
10 Langberg, Diane. “Use and Misuse of Authority.” FOCL Online, upoloaded 5 May 2016