There was a false rumor going around recently that Creflo Dollar had endorsed Donald Trump for president. Dollar is a famous televangelist who teaches the “prosperity gospel,” the kind of holy man who would have you believe that God and Jesus Christ want you to be rich — as long as you invest in the church (and said preacher). It’s a poisonous theology, and not just because it leads guys like Dollar to feel it’s appropriate to ask their flocks for $65 million to buy private jets. It’s that kind of thing that made the rumor about Dollar believable. Both he and Trump are prosperity preachers.
“The ethos of the prosperity gospel is the key to Trump’s power to persuade people that his victories can be theirs — that the greatness of Trump is the means of making America great again,” Jeff Sharlet wrote for the New York Times Magazine in April. To date, Trump has been performing this act almost exclusively in front of white voters, enough of whom fell under his sway to carry him to the Republican nomination. Black folks, as you may have noticed, have been much more resistant — only 2 percent of likely African-American voters support him in a recent poll, whereas in another poll, 44 percent think he's “racist.” That’s understandable, given his bigoted past and present. And it was surely a reason that, prior to this weekend, he’d only been willing to talk about African-American communities, depicting them as demilitarized hellholes of poverty. For a major-party nominee for president, the time to talk directly to us was long overdue.
Trump chose the most old-school location possible to finally address black voters: a church. At a Great Faith Ministries service in Detroit on Saturday, Trump delivered just 12 minutes of prepared remarks, claiming he was “here to listen.” Speaking before the first predominantly black audience of his 15-month presidential campaign, Trump’s pleasantries and platitudes were white noise — no pun intended. His speech was even more bland that what we’re used to hearing from politicians in the church: Beyond praise for Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, the pastor who’d invited him, there were some minor mentions of his business expertise amid a lot of phrases like “We are all brothers and sisters,” as well as a reminder that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican (something we black voters have heard a million times already from the GOP, in hopes that the Great Emancipator’s legacy would be the holy water that washes away their present-day bigotry).
Trump kept up the revisionism when it came to his own history. “Nothing is more sad than when we sideline young black men with unfulfilled potential, tremendous potential,” said the author of an ad condemning the innocent Central Park Five, all black and Latino teens, to death. “I hope my presence here will also help your voice to reach new audiences,” said the candidate whose rhetoric caters to xenophobes and whose campaign is now led by a white-nationalist publisher. Perhaps even he knew this was all chicanery. That’s why his heart wasn’t in it.
This wasn’t the Trump we’re used to seeing in front of a crowd. Where was the man who makes down-on-their-luck folks feel like they, too, can taste some of Trump’s success? Where was the prophet of the forthcoming Great America, where crime stops with a signature and dead industries rise again? And what better place to make that case than a church? If he’d wanted to launch into a sermon, he’d have been given the room.
But Trump’s campaign instead organized the Detroit visit to give him a safe space, protecting him from any substantive interactions with the people he was supposed to be addressing. They pre-scripted his closed-door interview with Bishop Jackson before the service, and had him give one of his shortest speeches of the campaign. That may be enough for a lot of white supporters and media who claim that he at least made the effort, as insane as that may sound to anyone with knowledge of Trump’s history with nonwhite populations.
But while his typical audiences scarf up Trump’s version of the prosperity gospel, voters of color are a harder sell. A wiser Trump would have started with an apology to African-Americans for any number of offenses before and during the campaign, including his birtherism and the housing discrimination perpetrated by his own family — that is, if he were truly after black votes, and not simply less racist white ones.
However, merely showing up in a black church was enough for some people to claim he’s now reaching out to us. In that respect, Trump picked a good week to pull this stunt. His visit with Mexico’s president last Tuesday might have actually had a few people thinking, for a couple hours before his demagogic immigration speech in Arizona, that he had the potential to behave in a “presidential” fashion. But the soft bigotry of low expectations can’t protect Trump in a general election, nor can encouraging him to make lazy gestures toward African-American electorates help him win in November.
Don’t let the applause you heard in that church last weekend fool you. Black church audiences have had many charlatans like Trump come into their sanctuaries seeking votes. “The measure of a politician’s commitment to the black community is not brief remarks on a Saturday or Sunday but what he does with policy, politics, and programming on Monday,” author and columnist Joshua DuBois, the former head of President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told MTV News. He added that if Trump had left the church and, for example, demanded an end to state voter-ID laws or the passage of criminal justice reform in Congress, “then we can talk about credit.”
But in politics, white candidates get a lot of praise for just standing alongside a certain kind of black people — the “good ones.” Those of us who grew up in predominantly African-American churches are too familiar with this routine: The politician searching for votes sits down in one of the front pews, usually off to one side of the sanctuary so they can leave early without much notice. If they’re white, they usually have one of their top black staffers or surrogates with them to lend some degree of authenticity. And they have some short remarks prepared that do little more than pay lip service to said candidate’s own Christianity. You get at least one generic piece of Scripture.
Trump did all that, including the Bible verse: 1 John 4:12. DuBois recommended another. “I would encourage Mr. Trump to meditate on the seventh chapter of Matthew, where Jesus instructs that we will know a tree by the fruit it bears,” he said. “It is hard for a good, compassionate, and just tree to bear racist and xenophobic fruit, the likes of which we are seeing around the country inspired and emboldened by the Trump campaign.”
That fruit is poison, but it still looks pretty to Trump’s voters and anyone else grading him on a curve. Seeing Trump dip his toe into black America should have inspired universal ridicule, but instead, we saw absurd narratives and headlines like “Trump Brings Message of Unity to Black Church in Detroit.” All that’s truly clear from his Detroit visit is that black voters remain pawns in Trump’s effort to expand his white voter base, and he has a hard time talking to an African-American populace that already sees through his sales pitch. He was clearly out of his element in Detroit, and he wasn’t a good enough actor to make us — or God — believe otherwise.