In 2008 I had an assignment from The New York Times Magazine to write a profile of the charismatic Christian star and multi-platform prosperity preacher Paula White — at the time she had a national following in the brash, Botoxed world of the Trinity Broadcasting Network and for her popular talk show on BET, but the kind of “breakthrough” (one of her favorite words) that’s lately found her laying hands on POTUS during prayer meetings in the Oval Office and leading the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative would have seemed, well, pretty far-fetched.
Back then, White and her ex-husband Randy were facing an investigation into their ministry’s finances by Chuck Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee after reports of self-dealing and lavish compensation had emerged in Tampa’s local media. The first couple of Without Walls International Church (“The Perfect Church for People Who Aren’t” was its prophetic motto) had also announced their divorce from the pulpit in 2007, setting off a PR crisis without end.
Not to be deterred, Paula White chose that moment to seed a new crossover ministry in New York City, where she had a $3.5 million apartment in Trump Tower, and announce a plan to open a network of church “hubs” in the Sun Belt states called The Epicenter. Her partner in the Epicenter venture was Rick Hawkins, another recently divorced preacher with a sizable congregation of his own in San Antonio, a deep Louisiana-ish drawl, and a bio in his press releases that described him as a “roping enthusiast.”
How did I come to this story? Why did I care about a televangelist who had styled herself as “the Oprah of the Christian Body” — she and her team of handlers never inserted the word “white” before “Oprah” when they repeated that phrase to me, but they didn’t need to — or at least, care enough about Paula White as a figure in American religious life to convince an organ of the The New York Times to pay for me to follow White as she taped episodes of her TV talk show in Tampa, preached at the megachurch in San Antonio that she and Hawkins were using to launch their Epicenter scheme, and to interview her at the $600,000 retreat in the Texas Hill Country where she worked out in Juicy Couture, wrote longhand in her journal, and had the “cave time,” as she told me, to right herself with God and plan the next phase of her brand expansion?
I’m not going to lie: it was probably the best magazine assignment I’ve ever had. The crass displays of wealth, the recklessness that verged on confession — when I interviewed White’s ex-husband Randy over breakfast at a place in Tampa called The Brunchery, he found me at my table and immediately slapped down the ornate key fob to his Mercedes, followed by a baggie filled with what must have been 20 pills: vitamins, supplements, and God knows what else — even the worship services where two or three thousand people all stood and swayed to Christian pop with tears in their eyes, ushers circulating in the aisles with boxes of Scotties, and where I fumbled with my recorder to try and capture the strange and disturbing mawing sound of an entire congregation speaking in tongues at once.
It was not an easy assignment, though. My profile subject had a lot to hide, a media empire to protect from further backlash, and she was potentially creating another PR nightmare for her ministry — there’s that recklessness again — by speaking to a journalist in the first place. But White was expanding her ministry into New York City, the “media capital of the world,” as the old consensus used to be, and by participating in a profile for the New York Times Magazine she could be getting just the kind of free exposure she needed to fill the seats at her services. I had never written about an actual celebrity before, only literary celebrities (Martin Amis, Paul Theroux, etc.). Writers generally had no handlers with magic BlackBerrys or layers of security detail wearing earpieces, and they often seemed as bewildered in the world as I felt when I’d interrupted them to play my part in the ritual of press coverage for new books.
This is what I learned from Paula White: Celebrities, the real ones, turn to lizards when the interview starts. They have an agenda. They already have a script. They usually have a PR enforcer seated quietly in your field of vision with a digital voice recorder running to match your own and to remind you that they can ruin your career if you make a mistake. If they can charm you in the bargain, great. If they don’t charm you, it really doesn’t matter: proximity is usually charm enough to lead a journalist to write the kind of story that the talent and their team can live with.
After weeks and weeks of buildup, I had an hour-long interview with Paula White on the schedule. Thanks to the influence of the media organization I was writing for, I was interviewing White at home; her publicist made sure I knew this meant I’d gained exclusive access to the inner tabernacle of White’s heart, the Holy of Holies. I waited on the edge of a couch that felt as extensive and as hulking as a cruise ship in dry-dock, chatting with Paula White’s PR enforcer, who was bubbly and warm, and kept inviting me to sample the Crudités from an untouched platter on a coffee table. I gazed across the vast sunken living room at the gas fireplace with its blue flame licking the artificial logs inside, and above it, a huge painting of a faux-French serving girl whose uniform had been torn, backed against a dining table in a manor house as if waiting to be ravished. She was like Joan of Arc, I thought, but with breast implants and a day job as some lesser Baron’s serving girl. I wondered how a painting so blatantly soft-core had wound up in the living room of America’s foremost woman preacher; I also wondered how much the picture was worth. (The follow-up questions I submitted later, including one about the painting and where White had found it, were politely ignored.)
Pastor Paula — that’s what everyone inside her orbit called her, so I did, too — finished her workout, one that didn’t involve breaking a sweat of any kind, I should probably add, and she joined us in the living room with a big, wide, welcoming smile. She plopped herself down on another deck of the couch, near but still within respectful bounds, and then she started talking. And talking. Using the language of her ministry (“I had an empty love tank,” “I have a tender heart for God,” etc.) and filling over an hour with the story of her life’s journey that I already recognized from her books and from her preaching. The gas fire in the fireplace, the painting of the serving girl readying herself to submit to her master, the pile of Pastor Paula’s Juicy Couture tracksuit, the language of love and intimacy with a Maker who knows and understands you, who sees you for who you really are … Before I knew it, the hour was up, and I was back in my rental car with my unasked questions and a sinking feeling that I’d just blown my assignment. (And I had: after months of drafts and rewrites and even a wasted residency at the artist’s colony MacDowell trying to salvage what I had written, the piece on Paula White was killed.)
It was a bad feeling to blow an interview that could never be repeated, and I was not proud. But I had to laugh as I drove through unfamiliar country back to the hotel, my hands tight on the steering wheel. All that time, I’d thought the serving girl in the painting over the fireplace was Paula White, plumped up in her ardor for God and ready to be taken. But it was me. I had been the serving girl in the painting over the fireplace. She had always had the upper hand in our transaction, and I was the one who’d been ravaged.
Early on in the reporting process for my piece on Paula White, someone in her circle — probably the PR enforcer who’d sat across from me in White’s living room — suggested that I talk to Donald Trump. I was skeptical about the idea, thinking Trump, at that point in his public trajectory, to be a TV blowhard and a toxic joke, and unlikely to provide me with any insight into the phenomenon of a woman preacher whose alliances with Black religious leaders like T.D. Jakes and popularity with Black worshippers, among other things, seemed pretty anomalous in American religious life.
I talked to my editor about interviewing Trump for the piece, and we both had a chuckle about it. But in the end he basically said: why not? Worst case you’ll get Donald Trump on the phone.
I’ve been thinking about that interview off-and-on for four years now. When Paula White-Cain (she added the “Cain” after marrying the longtime member of Journey, Jonathan Cain, in 2015) led the invocation at President Trump’s inauguration in 2017; when Trump kept his promises to a white evangelical base that turned out so faithfully for him in 2016 by trotting out not one, not two, but three Supreme Court Justice nominees with solid Federalist Society credentials and fealty to the Christian nationalist opioid known as “religious liberty”; when his Attorney General had peaceful protestors in attacked and dispersed from Lafayette Square with smoke and flash grenades so he could stage a photo-op holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church; each time that Trump governed — “ruled” is probably a more accurate word — like a true Christian nationalist and followed the Confederate Bible in letter and in spirit, I would think back to the interview I did with him about Paula White in 2008.
Interviewer: Have you ever prayed with Pastor Paula?
Donald Trump: [long silence].
The interview with Donald Trump was purely transactional. I was looking for a quick and easy quote to insert into the piece that sounded, well, Trump-like: one of the breezy pronouncements he makes when he drops into informercial mode. That’s all I needed. A little verbal color. A touch of New York as it exists in the popular imagination. Everyone involved in setting up the call — and it took some doing — emphasized how busy Mr. Trump was with his businesses and The Apprentice franchise and that he could only spare a few minutes of his time — and even then, he was only doing it because of his deep appreciation for Pastor Paula.
Don’t waste Mr. Trump’s time, they all but said to me. He’s got an empire to run. Although I do wonder, given how much TV Donald Trump is said to watch in the White House, how long it’s been since he’s logged anything like a full day of work in the actual world.
The interview was brief, not even four minutes long. 3:58, to be exact. Donald Trump was friendly like a salesman (“Good to talk to you, Ben,” he said when I got him on the phone, careful to mention my name), but he also sounded off, disjointed and vague. Like the Alexa-version of Donald Trump and not Donald Trump the person. And he did not sound religious, or in any way familiar with the theology that Paula White espoused.
Interviewer: “As the quintessential New Yorker I wonder how you feel her ministry is going to do here. It’s a big jump from Tampa to New York. It’s a much different place — ”
Donald Trump: “I think she’ll do well no matter where she went [sic]. She could go anywhere and she’d do well. You may think it’s a big jump from Tampa but it’s probably not a big jump because — she’s very universal. She’s very universal. She’s got an amazing following and the reason she’s got the following is she gives off — she gives off a message and she’s a tremendously charismatic person.”
Interview: “Mmm hmm.”
The interview went on like that. It was pretty useless.
There’s been a lot of speculation about Donald Trump’s sudden embrace of white Evangelical Christianity when he started running for the Republican nomination in 2015. Long investigative articles in The Washington Post and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin have traced White’s influence on Donald Trump from the first time he is alleged to have called her “out of the blue” because he saw her on TV and liked her preaching— Trump did put a different spin on his first meeting with White when we talked in 2008, telling me that he’d called White when he saw that she’d purchased a condo in his building— and late-night hosts like Seth Myers have had a field day with the transparent bullshit of the story White-Cain and others have been telling about his religious conversion.
I could have solved the whole mystery in 2008 if I’d asked Donald Trump the simple question that’s been gnawing at me pretty steadily for four years now.
Interviewer: Have you ever prayed with Pastor Paula?
The answer now is “yes.” Especially for the cameras. But then?
I’m going to bet it would have been a “no.”