In the early ‘70s I spent a few years in Pentecostal circles, using their language of spiritual warfare, of demons and the devil. We experienced it as spiritual, believing that the battles we fought were between the divine and demonic, light and darkness, righteousness and sin. That was our language and our understanding of it all. Many Pentecostal Christians still experience it that way, but a newer, darker version is taking over.
Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshipers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, published a recent article in The New Republic called The Rise of Spirit Warriors on the Christian Right. She describes a powerful religious and political movement with Pentecostal roots, using that earlier language of spiritual warfare and the demonic, a battle between good and evil, but what she describes no longer fights just in “spiritual realms.” They have merged political power with their specific religious faith and seek what they call “dominion” over all areas of our lives.
In the article, Ms. Stewart writes about the Reawaken America Tour and how this new political/religious/cultural movement is on full display at their events. I attended their event in Batavia, NY in August of last year and wrote about my experience of it. (You can read what I wrote here.) I agree with her assessment of the movement’s dangers. She says that it is a “reactionary style of religion surging in America…[that] represents a significant threat to American democracy.”
The article’s ending statement seems shocking to people who do not yet know about the power of this movement:
“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.”
Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The group does not have to be “thoughtful,” as I understand that word, just “committed.” One current theory says that social movements with only 3.5% of the population can change the world, whether for better or worse. Pentecostal Christians make up about 3.5% of the U.S. population, especially if we include people who have adopted the ideas, goals, and language of this new movement.
Katherine Stewart does not suggest that every Christian in the Pentecostal tradition claims to be part of this new movement, nor even approve of it. Her article and this post are not anti-Pentecostal. She clearly describes the diversity of race, education, and cultural backgrounds within Pentecostal denominations. People of Latino origin, for instance, form a large and growing group within Pentecostal churches. They are also a growing part of this movement gaining political power in the United States – as well as Brazil and Guatemala, as she documents. Here’s how she describes the movement that poses a danger to democracy:
“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…. [And] 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. … [And] 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.”
Please read the full article because she details important history, leaders, and recent developments of this movement which may look like Pentecostal Christianity but has become a reactionary political-religious-cultural force seeking power over the nation.
“It promises 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 …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.”
“The demons that merit the emphasis of [this movement] 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.”
This article documents public statements of people seeking election to state and national office that come directly from the language and ideas of the movement. Each one openly campaigned – and some, like Florida Ron DeSantis, still govern – from its authoritarian goals. Not limited to U.S. politicians, the leaders include people like “Michael Flynn and former president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro [who] identify as Catholic, and yet 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” she says, “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.” And that’s the fundamental danger to democracy.
You can watch my recent 20-minute interview with Katherine Stewart here.