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Did the Prosperity Gospel Help Elect Trump?

New research finds some voters conflate worldly success with morality.
President Donald Trump bows his head during a prayer at a cabinet meeting in the White House in Washington, D.C., on December 20th, 2017.

President Donald Trump bows his head during a prayer at a cabinet meeting in the White House in Washington, D.C., on December 20th, 2017.

The prosperity gospel is a peculiarly American pseudo-theology. By one estimate, 17 percent of Americans believe that wealth and power are gifts from God, bestowed on the worthy. By that logic, worldly success signifies a scarcity of sin.

New research suggests that this equation—which is diametrically opposed to most mainstream Christian teaching—may have helped Donald Trump get elected president. In a series of studies, researchers found that political candidates who were described as having successful lives were judged as more ethical than identical candidates with less-impressive track records.

The findings suggest the Trump campaign's emphasis on the candidate's success in business—which has subsequently been shown to be based largely on smoke and mirrors—increased the perception that he was a highly moral man, which in turn increased their likelihood to vote for him.

In the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Policies, Caroline Drolet and Carolyn Hafer of the Brock University Social Justice Lab describe a series of studies conducted during the 2016 campaign—specifically, between the second and third presidential debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The first featured 303 Americans recruited online, who were randomly assigned to read one of three scenarios about a political candidate. In one scenario, the candidate was portrayed as having enjoyed success in law, business, and entertainment. In another, the candidate had fared poorly in those arenas (such as being involved in business ventures that went bankrupt). The third contained only neutral statements.

After reading the description, participants indicated how likely they were to vote for the candidate. They also rated the candidate's competence and morality on separate seven-point scales.

Predictably, those who read about a candidate's past successes were more likely to support them. They also rated the candidate as more competent than those who had learned from their failures.

But participants also gave the successful candidate higher marks for morality. These striking results were replicated in a second study.

The findings "help explain the effectiveness of Donald Trump's campaign for the 2016 presidential election," Drolet and Hafer write. "Trump's campaign highlighted his previous success in business, media, and so on," and the impression this produced "increased perceptions of Trump's morality."

How did this belief survive incidents such as the leak of the Access Hollywood tape? The researchers note that perceptions of candidates tend to form early in a campaign, and that "people are motivated to maintain" their viewpoints once they have committed to them.

Of course, we're now halfway through Trump's first term, and the president's success-inspired-halo may be dimming as he gets linked to one scandal after another. But either way, his potential challengers for 2020 might want to keep this dynamic in mind, especially if they hope to pick off some of the president's previous supporters.

It seems that, for a significant segment of the electorate, a biography that screams "success" also implies solid ethics—and that combined perception of competence and morality makes a candidate awfully attractive.