The Rise of Spirit Warriors on the Christian Right – The New Republic

America’s God came into being in 1620 somewhere near Plymouth Rock, and He hasn’t changed much since. That’s more or less the story that many Americans have been told. Of course, it isn’t true; American religion has undergone some massive transformations in its long history, from the Great Awakening to the rise of the Social Gospel. Such changes arise in this country episodically. In fact, it is undergoing another such transformation right now—arguably the least well-reported yet most politically problematic one yet.

The change in the religious landscape that generally attracts the most media attention is the rise of the “nones” (individuals who do not identify with any religion). But this apparent move toward secularism has occurred alongside a countervailing trend among those who do identify with religion. A hotter and more reactionary style of religion is surging in America and mainstreaming certain radical frameworks. It cuts across traditional denominational divides. It tracks some global shifts in religion, shifts in which America is a follower as well as a leader. And it represents a significant threat to the future of American democracy.

If you paid attention to last November’s midterm campaigns, you will have noticed that there was a surprising number of “prophets” on the hustings, along with a variety show’s worth of other religious entrepreneurs offering their takes on the apocalyptic stakes in the election. Speaking on behalf of coup-supporter Doug Mastriano’s failed campaign for Pennsylvania governor, for example, Julie Green of Julie Green Ministries, who claims to be in direct communication with God and regularly offers “prophetic word” through her YouTube channel, foresaw the execution of those who denied that the 2020 election was stolen. Over in California, Jim Garlow, a politically connected pastor whose ministry, Well Versed, targets government leaders, cast the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, as “the chief of the baby-killers” and invited “intercession prayer leader” Maryal Boumann to his show, World Prayer Network, which is posted on YouTube, to discuss California’s “diabolical” Proposition 1, which added the right to the use of contraception and abortion to the state’s Constitution. In an Atlanta, Georgia, arena, Lance Wallnau, who is affiliated with the prophets and apostles of the neo-charismatic Reformation Prayer Network, which aims to “reverse the curse over America” by “igniting a holy reformation in every sphere of society,” and who claimed that former President Donald Trump was “anointed” by God to “restore the crumbling walls that separate us from cultural collapse,” prayed over Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene to a cheering crowd.

You might also have noticed the many warnings about demons and spiritual battle on the campaign trail. In the runoff for the Georgia Senate, which he lost by a narrow margin, Herschel Walker—he of the vampires and werewolves—alerted us that the nation is entangled in “spiritual battle” and offered himself as a “warrior for God.” On Eric Metaxas’s radio show, where he interviews conservative politicians and cultural figures, repeat guest Roger Stone told Metaxas that a “demonic portal” had opened above the White House. At an Idaho stop on Mike Flynn’s ReAwaken America tour in September—a traveling road show of conspiracists, candidates for political office, and religious zealots—the Pentecostal pastor Mark Burns called out to the cheering crowd, “I’ve come here to declare war on every demonic, demon-possessed Democrat that comes from the gates of hell.” Sean Feucht, a preacher known for hosting large-scale public evangelism events and a repeat guest on the ReAwaken America tour circuit, cast Democratic initiatives as “schemes of the devil in the political realm.”

This idea that the American political realm is a place of “spiritual warfare”—in a literal, not metaphorical, sense—is one of the defining elements of the new forms of highly politicized religion that are surging across the country. Some—but by no means all—of the figures claiming special vision into the demonic struggles of our times are associated with neo-charismatic movements such as the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR, which grew up around the late C. Peter Wagner, an author and missionary who spent a decade and a half in Bolivia before becoming a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission in Pasadena, California. Wagner is frequently characterized as the NAR’s “intellectual godfather” and played a pivotal role in popularizing its vision of modern-day apostles and prophets, “spiritual warfare” with demons and “territorial spirits,” and the ideology of Seven Mountains Dominionism, which says conservative Christians are to take control of the seven key features, often referred to as “mountains” or “molders,” of culture, including government, business, media, education, entertainment, family, and religion. The NAR is perhaps the most extreme representative of the Pentecostal movement’s offshoots. But some of the same patterns of thought and expression popular among Christian apostolic and prophetic movements are gaining traction among those who identify with other religious movements and denominations.

Broadly speaking, this style of religion is not necessarily about a fixed set of doctrines or denominations. It is more of an attitude, a set of frameworks, and a shared language. By way of slapping a hopelessly simplistic phrase on a complicated reality, I will call it “Spirit Warrior Christianity.” Ron DeSantis knows what I am talking about. In a speech at Hillsdale College, the nondenominational Christian institution that is a major player in the religious right’s war on public education, the Florida GOP governor paraphrased a passage from Ephesians that serves as a guidepost and virtue signal for this new style of religion: “Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” he said, substituting “the left” for the biblical phrasing “the devil.” He repeated the same trope at the 2021 Road to Majority Conference, an influential annual gathering of conservative activists, strategists, and politicians sponsored by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition. Other politicians at the conference drew on the same variety of religious expression. “We are soldiers in God’s army engaged in spiritual warfare for our country,” Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert declared at the most recent Road to Majority conference in Nashville, Tennessee. “We can fight or fail.”

Not everyone caught up in the fervor for this style of religious expression comes down on the same side of the political aisle. Yet it is ripe for political exploitation mainly from the extreme right. If you want to understand the American right’s lurch toward authoritarianism—that is, if you want to understand how Trump, of all people, came to be anointed as “God’s man” and why his would-be successor, DeSantis, ran an ad insinuating he is the recipient of God’s endorsement—you need to know something about this movement and the political aims of those who promote it.

On a warm California night in April 1906, William Seymour, a 35-year-old traveling preacher whose parents were emancipated from slavery, along with seven friends, was waiting to communicate with God when suddenly they all fell to the floor “as though hit by a bolt of lightning” and began speaking in tongues. The Azusa Street Revival, named after the street in Los Angeles where the event took place, was explicitly multiracial and gender-inclusive from the start. Not surprisingly, it was considered wildly unorthodox by many prominent white theologians; an article in the Los Angeles Times condemned the “disgraceful intermingling of the races.” By 1915, the Azusa Street Revival had lost much of its momentum, but it eventually powered the extraordinary rise of a new branch of Christianity called Pentecostalism, which itself contributed to subsequent waves of charismatic and neo-charismatic expression.

Pentecostalism, broadly speaking, now has as many as 600 million adherents worldwide, or more than a quarter of all Christians. It has a huge presence in Brazil, where it played a decisive role in the rise of the populist demagogue Jair Bolsonaro; in Hungary, where it helped elevate the explicitly illiberal Viktor Orbán; and in Guatemala, where Pentecostal evangelicalism was exported from the United States to counter the influence of the Second Vatican Council and the rise of liberation theology. It is surging among migrant workers in Gulf states, where some Pentecostal networks provide key services to the disempowered, and also in Nigeria, where human trafficking organizations have infiltrated certain Pentecostal networks. From the perspective of some global leaders of the movement, the United States looks like an aging and corrupt capital—the kind of place where missionaries must go as much as the place where they come from.

The evidence suggests that their timing is good. “Pentecostalism represents a rare feat in American religion—a tradition that is growing,” according to Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. “The Assemblies of God, which stands as the largest Pentecostal denomination, has seen a 50 percent increase in membership over the last three decades, while every other prominent Protestant denomination has seen their membership decline precipitously.”

Pentecostalism is also an outlier in the American religious landscape when it comes to race. An old saw has it that America is never so divided by race as on Sunday mornings. But, starting with the Azusa Street Revival, that rule has not applied easily to Pentecostals. Some Pentecostal communities remain segregated; others are notable for their racial diversity. According to Burge, 44 percent of Pentecostals in America are Black and Latino.

Pentecostals are also notable for their political diversity. Black Pentecostal traditions in America are strongly associated with the pursuit of racial and economic justice and social ethics. And yet many of the fastest-growing Pentecostal and neo-charismatic communities lean decidedly to the right.

In socioeconomic terms, Pentecostalism in America appears to fare best among lower-income groups and those who have less access to higher education. According to a 2016 survey by Pew, only 9 percent of members of the Church of God in Christ and 10 percent of members of the Assemblies of God, both Pentecostal congregations, had family incomes above $100,000 per year, as opposed to 35 percent of Episcopalians and 19 percent of Catholics.

The safest generalization about the theology of Pentecostalism is that it is “a religion of the here and now,” according to Elle Hardy, author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World, “not of the forever beyond.” The attraction is not some heavenly reward in the next life but greater material blessings in this one. Many varieties of Pentecostalism blend well with America’s Prosperity Gospel.

The other promise that Pentecostalism and its neo-charismatic offshoots make is that its followers will become heroes in an epic struggle between good and evil, to be played out very much in the here and now. Demons are real, “spiritual warfare” is the way to contain them, and adherents are called to serve in the battle.

Among reactionary Pentecostals, the battle, to be clear, is fought not in the individual conscience but on the public stage. The political headlines, according to this way of thinking, are a clue to the desires of God and the plots of His enemies. Paul Doyle, a Pentecostal pastor of the Cornerstone Church in Batavia, New York, which hosted the ReAwaken America tour in April 2022, took aim at “leftist agenda policies,” “woke churches,” and “vaccines and critical race theory” and framed the struggle as “a new battle of good and evil.” “Jesus bloodied himself for me,” he said, “and I am ready to bloody myself for him.”

The demons that merit the emphasis of reactionary Pentecostals and neo-charismatics today often have to do with the belief that the secular liberal world is infested with “the LGBT agenda” and, in particular, “transgender ideology.” Whatever one makes of the policy details, considered abstractly, the relentless focus on this single issue is an expression of hostility toward a perceived liberal establishment. If evil has a face, it is that of the “expert,” the professor, and perhaps above all the liberal nonbeliever who urges everybody to pursue their own ideas of good and base their moral code on the principles of empathy and rationalism, rather than biblical truth.

A sure sign that Pentecostalism and its neo-charismatic offshoots are filling a gap in the religious marketplace is that many of its general features are increasingly shared by other, notionally very different religious denominations and traditions. Leaders like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro identify as Catholic, and yet they outdo many Pentecostals in their commitment to spiritual warfare, their professed belief in the reality of demons, and the way they fuse national identity with a reactionary idea of religious righteousness.

Although Spirit Warrior Christianity can be found at all points on the political spectrum, this style of religion appears to fit most easily with political ideologies centered on religious authoritarianism. In the United States, according to Ryan Burge, conservative Pentecostals have proven to be among the most reliable—and reliably extreme—supporters of Christian nationalism.

In his Survey of Church Going Americans in March 2022, Burge scored individuals according to their response to key questions, such as whether the federal government should declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation and whether the federal government should enforce the separation of church and state. According to his conclusions, Pentecostals score highest on measures of Christian nationalism.

At the 2022 Road to Majority conference in Nashville, Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, who was nominated by members of the House Freedom Caucus as House speaker prior to Kevin McCarthy’s confirmation, was one of four guests on a panel titled “Drawing the Line: The Hijacking of Our Mountains of Societal Influence and How to Reclaim Them.” The panel was emceed by Madgie Nicolas, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s national strategist of African American engagement, who introduced Donalds and the other participants as “four gatekeepers that [have] been helping, enforcing the Seven Mountains of influence.” Nicolas declared, “We need to reclaim our dignity in this country, we need to reclaim our sovereignty, and we need to reclaim our White House.”

Pentecostalism is notably associated with right-leaning constituencies among Latino Americans. Between 2016 and 2020, according to some reports, Trump picked up eight points among Latino voters; in the midterm elections, Republicans cut into the Democratic advantage in 2018 by an estimated 10 points. The survey data on Latino Pentecostals and neo-charismatics specifically is thin, but anecdotal evidence is abundant. In heavily Latino Miami-Dade County—the largest county in what was once considered the biggest “swing state” in the nation—President Joe Biden won only 53 percent of the vote, compared with the 63 percent share won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the 62 percent share won by former President Barack Obama in 2012. Pastor Frank Lopez, who heads the Jesus Worship Center, a Miami-based church with two campuses that is allied with KCIA, “an alliance of apostles and prophets,” has characterized Biden as “an ignorant leader with a destructive agenda” who is “rebelling against God.” Lopez is hardly a voice in the wilderness; he hosts prominent Latin American conservatives on his YouTube show and serves on the board of directors of the Asociación de Ministros Hispanos del Sur de la Florida, a Miami-based association of pastors that has collaborated with Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.

To be clear, the concept of spiritual warfare is gaining in popularity among all ethnic groups, including among white nationalist extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a reactionary group that aims to recruit inside law enforcement agencies, also promotes the idea. At the group’s founding meeting in 2013, a New Apostolic Reformation adherent who went on to become the leader of the Republican caucus in the Washington State House spoke, along with several prominent far-right figures, including Stewart Rhodes, then the leader of the Oath Keepers, who was convicted in November on seditious conspiracy charges relating to the January 6 insurrection.

But the rightward shift among Latino voters and others complicates the analysis of the relationship between Christian nationalism and ethnicity. No doubt, the appeal of the Christian nationalist ideology to much of the base can be understood, in part, as an expression of white grievance. But the appeal of Christian nationalist ideas among Pentecostal and neo-charismatic Latino congregants, along with multiracial neo-charismatic congregations, suggests a more complex picture.

A final point on the politics of Spirit Warrior Christianity: It is an easy fit for those who wish to dismantle democracy and entrench minority rule. Election denialism and other conspiracies find a comfortable home in the paranoid mindset of spiritual warfare in a demon-haunted world. An organizer of the Jericho March that preceded the attack on the Capitol of January 6, Robert Weaver, stated that God wanted Americans to march around “the spiritual walls of this country.” The Reverend Kevin Jessup, who spoke at the event, said, “This battle cry is a Christian call to all Christian men … as we prepare for a strategic gathering of men in this hour to dispel the Kingdom of Darkness.” Father Greg Bramlage, who conducted an exorcism on stage, told the crowd, “We are in a spiritual battle, this cannot be solved by human means” and prayed that “no demonic bondage, door, entity, portal, astral projection, or disembodied spirit may enter this space.” Bishop Leon Benjamin, senior pastor of Richmond, Virginia’s New Life Harvest Church, said, “The demons we kill now, our children will not have to fight these devils. These are our devils, and we will kill them now.” NAR leadership networks served as key mobilizers.

Religious transformations run deep. They don’t happen for shallow reasons. This is important to bear in mind as we attempt to understand the sources of the current transformation and look for ways to counter its potentially devastating effect on American democracy.

There is a tendency today to reduce social and political analysis to studying the antics of a handful of personalities. Many people blame America’s current political dysfunction on former President Donald Trump, and they take for granted that the problem will go away when he, at long last, departs for wherever he is going. It is true that Trump has been exceptionally successful in weaponizing Spirit Warrior Christianity and has pushed it further along. But the truth is that he was more of a creation of it than the other way around; it preceded him and will long outlast him. Ron DeSantis understands this well, which is why he is working overtime to make himself into, in Trump’s words, Ron DeSanctimonious.

There is also a tendency to reduce the rise of the religious right as a political force to an ongoing, perfectly static culture war that takes place across policy positions on specific issues within the natural give and take of a democracy. But this is a mistake. The psychological needs of spiritual warriors are not going to be satisfied with a few concessions on abortion policy or same-sex marriage. Those issues are mostly pretexts for a need to settle grievances and claim dominance.

The most fruitful line of investigation and response has to focus on the root causes of the religious transformation. Religion in America is starting to look more like religion in Brazil and Guatemala because America, in some aspects, is starting to resemble Brazil and Guatemala: increasingly unequal, bitterly divided, corrupt, rife with disinformation, and unstable. If we want people to choose different gods, we might think about tackling the conditions that lead them to prefer one kind over another.