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Ryan Burge, Eastern Illinois University
Recently, Time Magazine ran a feature story about Donald Trump’s connection to “Prosperity Preachers.” In it the author, Elizabeth Dias argues that the type of pastors that are drawn to Trump’s style of campaigning were “evangelical outsiders,” who believe that Trump’s personal success is evidence that “God wants people to be wealthy and healthy.”
When it came time for Trump to choose religious leaders to pray at his inaugural, he chose two pastors who have been criticized for living excessively lavish lifestyles, Paula White of the New Destiny Christian Center, and Wayne T. Jackson the pastor of Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, Michigan.
While many mainstream evangelical leaders have been critical of these prosperity preachers, some social media data that I have collected points to the fact that these pastors are not really evangelical outsiders, but instead represent the most influential voices in American Christianity.
I used an R package to scrape the Twitter data of a number of prominent prosperity preachers, as well as some of the most popular figures in traditional evangelical Christianity to generate some evidence related to the popularity of these two flavors of evangelicalism.
Twitter followers are a good proxy for influence and in this instance, the data is clear. Prosperity preachers are extremely popular on Twitter. Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas has no equal when it comes to social media presence. Outside observers call him, “The Most Popular Preacher on the Planet,” and “The New Face of Christianity.” While Osteen has rejected the label of prosperity preacher, he has also said that his personal wealth represents, “God’s blessing on my life. And for me to apologize for God’s – how God has blessed you, it’s almost an insult to God.” Osteen’s tweets about God’s desire for his followers to, “Run your race with purpose, focus, and joy,” seem perfectly situated with the medium of Twitter. If one adds the followers of the four most popular traditional evangelicals on Twitter: Rick Warren, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, and Franklin Graham, Osteen’s total are still half a million larger than those four combined. Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes enjoy tremendous followings on Twitter, as well.
While total follower count is one measure of influence, favorites and retweets are another. The more a post is favorited or retweeted by an individual’s followers the more likely it is to be seen by a larger audience. The overwhelming influence of Osteen becomes even clearer in this view. Not only does he have the largest audience, that becomes magnified when one considers that his average tweet is retweeted over two thousand times, no other account is this sample has a tweet average even 600 retweets.
However, if the focus is narrowed to preachers who publicly endorsed Donald Trump, a different image comes into focus. Paula White’s Twitter account has less than 30,000 followers and Wayne Jackson’s has 217 in total. Other Trump allies like Mark Burns are also not widely known either with 46,500 followers. The data here seems to indicate two things.
- The prosperity gospel is very popular on Twitter with accounts like Osteen’s, Meyer’s, and Jakes’ enjoying audiences in the millions and a tremendous secondary reach through favorites and retweets. The overall pervasiveness of this brand of Protestant Christianity could potentially be a threat to the established voices in mainstream evangelicalism.
- Trump’s choice of religious leaders for his inauguration were an odd mix of minor players in the prosperity gospel movement as well as a fairly popular voice in politically conservative evangelicalism in Franklin Graham, who has a large followership on Twitter.
From another perspective, Trump’s evangelical allies look even more interesting when compared to President Obama who chose high profile, mainstream pastors like Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration. It’s hard to tell if Trump is strategically choosing to reward his early supporters, or that he attempted to court more nationally known pastors but was rebuffed. What is clear is that Trump’s awkward relationship with evangelical Christians will continue, at least for now.
Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.
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