The Biggest Religious Movement You Never Heard of: Nine Things You Need to Know About Rick Perry's Prayer Event
When Texas Gov. Rick Perry decided to stage a Texas-size prayer event — dubbed “The Response” — on Aug. 6, it no doubt seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It received little critical scrutiny when he announced it back in early June, except on websites that track these sorts of things. But after Rachel Maddow, drawing on these sites, did a segment highlighting some of the more bizarre statements made by Perry's high-profile religious endorsers, things cooled considerably — even though the real story is still not remotely well-understood.
“Perry’s endorsers are not just a random group of radical evangelists making outrageous statements,” researcher Rachel Tabachnick subsequently wrote at Alternet.org. “These are the apostles and prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), the biggest international religious movement you never heard of.” Almost simultaneously, investigative reporter Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer published an extensive article on Perry's prayer event and his endorsers, “Rick Perry's Army of God.”
The NAR's intellectual godfather, C. Peter Wagner, one of Perry's early endorsers, brags that it's the most significant change in how Christianity is practiced since the Protestant Reformation. Like him or not, in a sense he's right: With tens, even hundreds of millions of followers worldwide, the NAR's stress on Godlike prophetic and apostolic powers, its revisions of end-time prophecies, its methodology of “spiritual warfare,” and its agenda of theocratic dominion over all aspects of society are not just threatening to modern secular democracy and the religious pluralism it protects, they have been sharply criticized by other conservative Christians as unbiblical, deviant teachings, even a form of the very demonic practices they obsessively declare war against. Indeed, the Assemblies of God — the largest Pentecostal denomination in America — condemned some of the NAR's teachings and practices as “deviant” in 2000, though Tabachnick told me that many within the denomination have since embraced the movement.
Wilder told me they were going to “tone it down a little bit to make it less overt in terms of the particular set of beliefs and practices that most of the people behind the event hold.” So, probably no talk about taking over government, sex with demons or Oprah Winfrey as a harbinger of the Antichrist — the sort of more alarming tidbits Maddow highlighted.
But if America's mainstream media reporters think this turns Perry's prayer meeting into a nonevent, they couldn't be more mistaken. There might not be any “gotcha!” moments to be had — although anything is possible — but with 15 long months of campaigning ahead and multiple other candidates courting the same, poorly understood religious constituency, there is a wealth of potential insights to be gathered that could prove invaluable down the road. What's more, the failure to explore and understand the multiple intersections of religion and politics has repeatedly exacted a terrible toll over the past 30 years of media consolidation, which has seen more and more talking heads, as frontline reporting has withered on the vine. Failure to understand the politico-religious dynamics of far-off Afghanistan in the 1980s resulted in all sorts of mayhem there — and eventually in the 9/11 attacks.
So what are some of the stories the media ought to be looking at, coming out of The Response, regardless of whether there are any instant YouTube classics or not? Without trying to dictate what others should write, one can glean some helpful tips from those who've ventured in early. Here are nine underreported stories worth considering:
1.“The Response” Is Not a Broadly Representative Christian Event.
There's a heavy concentration of NAR figures among the endorsers, with several other of the most prominent figures joining Wagner, including Mike Bickle, founder of the Kansas City–based International House of Prayer (IHOP), Dr. John Benefiel, head of the Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network of Oklahoma City, and Cindy Jacobs of Generals International. Tabachnick ticked off a list of NAR endorsers, starting with five from IHOP: Luis and Jill Cataldo, IHOP staff members in Kansas City; Randy and Kelsey Bohlender of IHOP and The Call; Apostle Doug Stringer; and Dave Silker of IHOP.
“This is not a random cross-section of conservative Christians,” Wilder told me. “There is such an emphasis and disproportionate number of people that are very closely tied together, affiliated with this strain of neo-pentecostalism or charismatic movement, that it cannot be an accident.”
They aren't the only ones involved, of course. The Texas GOP has been avidly recruiting conservative Christians of all stripes for deep political involvement since the mid-1990s. Former state party vice-chair David Barton, a self-taught revisionist historian, has played a key role in this process. (He, too, is an endorser.) However, with the NAR's keen interest in establishing Christian dominion over politics as part of their “Seven Mountains” strategy (more on this below), it's no coincidence that they are significantly overrepresented.
2. Perry Is Not the Only Potential GOP Nominee Specifically Courting the NAR.
According to Tabachnick, writing about Perry's announcement in June, GOP candidates competing for NAR support “include Sarah Palin, who has an over 20-year relationship with Alaskan Apostle Mary Glazier; Newt Gingrich, who was anointed by Lou Engle on an internationally televised broadcast in 2009; Michelle Bachman; Rick Santorum; and now, apparently, Rick Perry.”
“It's not just the NAR infiltrating government,” Wilder told me. “I think — my observation — they are sought out, often by the politicians themselves.”
“Politicians of any type, want to go where the energy is, they want to go where the votes are.” Wilder continued. “They want to go where there are people who put together a network. These folks put together a tremendous network. For example, you look at the Heartland Apostolic Network — they have a presence in 50 states.”
In addition to cultivating NAR leadership, candidates can publicly identify themselves with the NAR without anyone else being the wiser. Like many other movements, the NAR has its own lingo, which allows politicians to speak directly to NAR members in coded language, directly soliciting their support, telling them "I'm one of you" without anyone else realizing what's being said. This happened repeatedly in 2008, when Palin openly talked about “prayer warriors.”
Another NAR phrase Tabachnick wrote about in September 2010 is “the head and not the tail,” although she points out that others use the phrase quite differently. For the NAR, however, Tabachnick identified the phrase as the “battle cry for the Seven Mountains Campaign.” That's how the NAR conceives of its dominionist agenda: taking control of the “Seven Mountains,” or culture-shaping spheres that dominate human society: business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family, and religion.
By becoming “the head and not the tail” of these seven spheres, the NAR aims to establish complete dominance of human society around the world. Speaking like this sends a powerful message about much more than just opposing abortion or gay marriage, yet the words can pass by unnoticed by reporters unfamiliar with the NAR.
3. Perry Is Not the Only State-Level Figure Connected to the NAR.
A key aspect of the NAR is its emphasis on “spiritual warfare,” which grew out of Wagner's decades of earlier work on church growth. Over time, Wagner came to believe that church growth was limited in some places because of demonic power. At first, attention was focused on the process of “spiritual mapping,” a geographical approach to demon-fighting. More recently, this has been presented in terms of “Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare,” described as part of a three-tiered approach, as Talk2action.org explains in its glossary of NAR terms:
- Ground-level spiritual warfare is casting out demons from individuals. Occult-level spiritual warfare is confrontations with demons operating through witchcraft and esoteric philosophies (examples are Freemasonry and Tibetan Buddhism). Strategic-level spiritual warfare is the highest level, dealing with confrontation of territorial principalities that control entire communities, ethnic groups, religions and nations.
Given this deep-seated orientation, it's not surprising that geographical organization has been key to the NAR. Establishing geographic dominion over cities and states makes perfect sense on the way to controlling whole nations and eventually the world. And so it's not surprising to note several examples where NAR-related individuals have gained state-level power.
Most famously, of course, Sarah Palin, was governor of Alaska. While her deep involvement with the NAR was glossed over at the time, it's now clear that she first joined a statewide “prayer warrior” network under Apostle Mary Glazier when she was 24 years old. When she first ran for Wasilla City Council in the 1990s on an explicitly religious platform, it was unprecedented for the town but perfectly normal by NAR standards. Banning books from the public library when she became mayor was similarly unsurprising once you understand the dominionist ideology she embraced.
Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas doesn't have anything close to Palin's longtime involvement as a prayer-warrior footsoldier, but he has played a highly visible role as a general while serving in the Senate before becoming governor. While in the Senate, Brownback spent years supporting the NAR's “reconciliation” strategy with Native Americans, both sponsoring legislation and appearing at NAR events. Brownback is the only sitting governor to accept Perry's invitation to attend The Response.
In Hawaii in 2010, before now-governor Ambecrombie joined the race, both the leading Republican and Democratic candidates for governor were deeply involved with NAR. They had almost achieved their goal of making the election irrelevant for their purposes. In April 2010, Tabachnick's colleague at Talk2action, Bruce Wilson, wrote a blog post, Christian Right Claims Both 2010 Hawaii Gubernatorial Candidates. It began with a quote from Ed Silvoso, a global NAR leader who is intimately involved with promoting the Ugandan "Kill the gays" law. The quote reads, "It doesn't matter if the Republican or the Democratic candidate wins the governorship [of Hawaii]. Either one is already in the kingdom".
The Democrat, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, is a Mormon, despite the fact that the NAR regards the Mormon church as being under demonic control — the same as the Catholic Church. NAR groups even go so far as to burn the Book of Mormon. They're a pretty tolerant lot — at least the Mormons among them like Hannemann are. The Republican. Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, is positively Palin-like in his NAR enthusiasms. Fortunately, longtime Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie entered the race and won. But there's no doubt the NAR will try again in Hawaii.
4. State-Level Prayer Warrior Networks Are Important.
As Wilder pointed out above, John Benefiel's Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network has a presence in all 50 states. Some states have other organizations as well. Collectively, these organizations, based on “spiritual mapping,” create a strong foundation for campaign organizing. “Prayer warriors” have already been mobilized in significant elections, such as the 2008 initiative banning gay marriage in California, and given their geographic foundations, their potential is considerable.
Wilder went on to say, “In Texas, for example, they've got one guy who's in charge of the whole state. He oversees 15 regions. Each has its own director. Below that, there's counties and even churches and precincts. So it's this beautifully put-together network that's both broad and deep, and these are committed, disciplined people.”
“These are not people living in caves,” Wilder added. “They function just fine in the secular world.”
Needless to say, their ideology of taking dominion over the government provides a strong motivational framework for keeping them dedicated, whereas most of the population's political interest fluctuates considerably over time. Particularly in light of widespread state-level GOP attacks on public worker unions, which normally provide a great deal of grass-roots organizational support for Democrats, these GOP-supporting networks could provide a crucial boost for GOP candidates, as well as helping to select who those general election candidates might be.
5. A “Rainbow Right” Could Play a Decisive Role in 2012.
Running against America's first black president, the GOP is going to need any edge it can find to gain minority inroads. The NAR is especially aggressive in recruiting minority leaders, and this could be disproportionately important in 2012.
“If Perry runs for president, success may depend on minority voters. The inclusion of minorities is an area where the NAR is strikingly different from old-school fundamentalists and Jerry Falwell's Religious Right,” Tabachnick said. “The NAR is trying to form what Bruce Wilson refers to as a 'Rainbow Coalition' in the Religious Right. Success could dramatically change voter patterns in this country.”
“It's surprisingly multiracial, that is, surprising if you you don't understand why,” Wilder said. Consequently, people should not expect The Response to be "this white bread crowd that people would expect Rick Perry, this white conservative male would be putting on. In fact, it's a pretty racially diverse movement of people, in part reflecting its deep involvement in overseas evangelizing."
“There's this interesting kind of veneer of racial reconciliation,” Wilder continued. “I wrote about in the article. There's this kind of instrumentality to it, not that it's not sincere, but there's a goal that's attached, trying to overcome racial problems within this community or Christianity or even conservatism, if you want to keep going with it. And that's that, at a base level, you look at what Lou Engel said. He wants a new breed of black prophets to rise up and use their social justice civil rights kind of bona fides to lend authenticity and credibility to the anti-abortion movement.”
“Thus far, they've had trouble getting everybody on the same page and the right wing continues to shoot itself in the foot with racism and radical immigration policies,” Tabachnick added. “But if you look at David Barton and many of the apostles, they are doing everything possible to rewrite history in a way that rebrands conservatives as the champions of Blacks, Latinos, Jews, etc., and liberals as the enemy.”
6. But Don't Take Talk of “Reconciliation” at Face Value.
As both Wilder and Tabachnick indicate, many of those drawn in by the NAR's talk of reconciliation are quite sincere. But what this actually means in practice is another matter altogether. It's not actually about hearing out real past grievances — particularly since Christianity itself often had a major role in legitimizing, even perpetrating those grievances in the first place, such as justifying Southern slavery with biblical arguments, as described by Larry E. Tise in his 1987 book, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. Christianity played an equally important role in justifying the genocide of Native American peoples from the early colonial period onward, with Native Americans themselves often portrayed as demons.
Setting aside their revisionist history for the moment, there's the more immediate question of how to square the rhetoric of reconciliation with the reality of a de facto culture war. In a guide to Talk2Action's articles on the NAR, put together last October, Tabachnick wrote that "they literally demonize religions outside of evangelicalism, including burning of Mormon, Catholic and Native American artifacts, and excursions in which they claim their 'spiritual warfare' supernaturally damages icons and infrastructure of other faiths."
A report from the Trinity Apostolic Prayer Network website describes one such ceremony — held in Olney, Texas, on April 21, 2007 — in which Native American artifacts were destroyed. The report has since been scrubbed but was saved by Talk2Action researchers. Central to this reconciliation ritual was the destruction of Native American artifacts, which had to be carried out by NAR-designated “representatives” of the Native American people. These were Jay Swallow, a prominent Native American “apostle” and Mark Wauahdooah, an NAR-affiliated Comanche. Picking up in the midst of a detailed description, we are told, “Jay then proceeded to lead Mark in the smashing of vessels. One vessel depicted the snakelike features of Leviathan, and the other depicted the Sun god, Baal. They were placed in trash bags, and Mark used a dogwood rod presented to Jay by Chuck Pierce to destroy the pottery. It shattered into many pieces at the joyous shouts of the body of Christ. Tom Schlueter, as an apostolic leader of the region, was invited by Jay and John to lead the group through the Divorce Decree. Then judgment was declared. The divorce was finalized. A crystal gavel (presented to Tom by Chuck Pierce) was used to declare the judgment...”
Finally, to round things off, the report noted, “A spirit of reconciliation was released as we embraced each other. There was a representation of Native American, Hispanic, Asian, African American and Anglo. What an awesome day!”
Not one Anglo-American artifact was destroyed, of course. What would the NAR leaders endorsing Perry's prayer event say to Native Americans who see such acts of cultural destruction as a continuation of past hostility, even genocide, rather than of reconciliation? Would they say that such Native Americans were possessed by demons? Would their answer be to smash still more artifacts? “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” Is that the logic?
Surely, there are important questions here for intelligent reporters to ask.
7. The NAR's “Factual” Claims Don't Always Stand Up.
It's often said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. NAR propaganda has plenty of extraordinary claims. But proof? Not so much. For example, consider the case of Kenyan witch-hunter Thomas Muthee. A video of Muthee anointing Sarah Palin came to light during the 2008 campaign, but little of the background involved made it into the corporate media. Far from being an obscure backwoods figure, Muthee was one of the stars of a 1999 video, the first in the Transformations series, a pseudo-documentary series advancing strategic-level spiritual warfare that is advertised as having been seen by 200 million people in 70 languages. Muthee's reputation was reputedly established by vanquishing a Kenyan “witch” around 1990, as recounted in that video. This then lead to a spiritual, moral and cultural revival, with plummeting crime rates and joy for all. There's just one problem: It's not true.
First off, the vanquished “witch” is actually a rival preacher, and she never went anywhere. On Oct. 15, 2008, a leading British newpaper, The Telegraph, ran a story datelined Nairobi by Nick Wadhams, "False claims exposed of Kenyan pastor who protected Sarah Palin from witches".
“In fact, Mama Jane never left. She is a pastor just down the road from Muthee's Word of Faith Church,” Wadhams reported. “'Muthee was saying that this was a place of witch doctors. Where do you see the witch?' said Mama Jane, whose real name is Jane Njenga.”
Further down, Wadham wrote, “Rival pastors in Kiambu now denounce Muthee for his treatment of Mama Jane. 'You cannot make personal gain on crucifying a woman,' said an ally of Mama Jane, Pastor Gideon Maina. 'As a man of God, you don't make your name by stepping on other people's names.'”
Nor were Muthee's claims of dramatic quality-of-life improvements backed up by facts, either. Indeed, a nine-page 2002 letter from Dutch Christian work group "Back to the Bible" found numerous factual problems in the various segments of the first two “Transformations” videos that had been released at the time. Regarding Muthee's claims, they wrote, “We are told in the video that this area had the worst reputation in the land and was full of violence and rape. But this is not backed up by police reports, authorities of justice or any other official source. There are also no official reports of reform because of the “revival.” We do realize that often things work differently in an African land, so we consulted the magazine “Internationale Samenwerking” (International Co-operation) of the Dutch Ministry of development aid. In this paper, there is no report of a decline in crime during the last years in Kenya.”
Not everything in the videos is false, of course. But when it comes to matters that routinely are documented by authorities, the NAR's record for truthfulness does not warrant any reporter treating them as a reliable source.
8. NAR-Related “History” Often Stands Real History on Its Head.
Blaming liberals and Democrats for America's racist past is par for the course in NAR circles. They are hardly alone in this, however. They heavily rely on self-trained “historian” David Barton, along with many others, not just on the religious right, but among conservatives and Republicans more generally. Barton is also quite popular for his “historical” arguments that America was established as a Christian nation — a claim that professional historians reject with mountains of evidence to the contrary, not least the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which explicitly states, "The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
Barton's argument blaming liberals and Democrats for America's racism depends on a double deception: First, Barton focuses on pre-1960s history, the time period when the national Democratic Party decisively broke with its racist past — and set in motion the long-term decline of its support among Southern whites, which Republicans immediately took advantage of with Barry Goldwater's candidacy in 1964, when his home state of Arizona was the only non-Southern state the GOP carried — a complete reversal of the 1956 election.
This minor detail — later cemented into the long-term electoral “Southern Strategy” under Richard Nixon — is completely missing from Barton's account. A second deception is that Barton presents the impression that racist Democrats — who predominated most heavily in the South — were synonymous with liberals, while anti-racist Republicans were conservatives. Both impressions are historically false. Indeed, anti-racist Republicans in the 1960s were the much-maligned “Rockefeller Republicans,” who movement conservatives worked very hard to drive out of the party.
Yet, the NAR goes much further than Barton in creating its own alternative history. In her book Bridging the Racial and Political Divide: How Godly Politics Can Transform A Nation, Texas apostle Alice Peterson not only ignores the mass exodus of racist whites from the Democratic Party, she asserts a continuity over time based on an “invisible network of evil comprising an unholy structure,” which she then identifies with the biblical figure Jezebel, interpreted not as the human figure she actually is in the Bible, but instead as a demon, a typical example of how the NAR reinvents the Bible for their own political purposes. Since the same demon has been associated with the Democrats at least since the 1860s, mere matters like LBJ's heroic arm-twisting passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — and Nixon's race-based “Southern Strategy” to lock up Southern whites for the GOP — are without any historical significance so far as Peterson is concerned. Lest anyone question her too closely, Peterson assures us that she has actually seen the demon Jezebel with her own two eyes — and not only Jezebel, but a few smaller demons underneath her skirt.
9. Be Skeptical About NAR's Self-Proclaimed “Christianity.”
Like many conservative Christians, members of the NAR are often quick to dismiss other Christians they don't agree with, so it's probably not a good idea to do the same with them.
Yet, it would not be good, thorough reporting to ignore the fact that, mentioned above, other conservative Christians have been highly critical of NAR doctrines and practices, often labeling them “unbiblical.” I've already cited the Assembly of God's warnings from 2000. Additionally, the letter from the Dutch Christian work group "Back to the Bible" mentioned above, criticized NAR's unbiblical teachings as well at the factual errors in the Transformations videos. Another extensive critique can be found in the 2002 book Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare: A Modern Mythology? by Bishop Michael Reid, who has three degrees from Oral Roberts University, including an honorary Doctorate of Divinity, and a gay sex scandal just licked Wagner's long-time close associate, Ted Haggard. Other critical voices from conservative Christians can be easily found online, repeating many of the same criticisms.
As stated earlier, Wagner brags that the NAR is the most significant change in how Christianity is practiced since the Protestant Reformation, and all these critics agree — except, they say, it's changed so much that it's no longer consistent with the Bible.
A Call to Question
This is hardly an exhaustive list of potential stories that in no way depend on fireworks at The Response this coming Saturday. But they are certainly enough to show that there's no shortage of explosive material lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to be more fully explored.