BY WILD, I DON’T MEAN, say, believing in an afterlife. Nearly all American Christians believe that Heaven (85 percent) and Hell (70 percent) are actual places. Rather, I’m focused more on the solid majority of Protestants, at least a quarter of Americans, who are sure “the Bible is the actual word of God…to be taken literally, word for word.” As well as the larger number of Christians, more than a third of all Americans, who believe that God regularly grants them and their fellow charismatics magical powers—to speak in tongues, heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on.*1 I think it’s important to understand the particulars of these extraordinary beliefs and practices and to realize just how widely and deeply they’ve now become embedded in American culture. I also find them fascinating.
IT WAS NEWSWORTHY in the 1960s when Billy Graham came out with a millennial prophecy, announcing like a Magic 8 Ball that “the signs indicate” “that these are the last days spoken of in the Scriptures,” that Armageddon and Jesus’s return were “at hand.” By the 1980s, however, when President Reagan and members of his administration repeatedly promoted biblical predictions of Armageddon, it really didn’t cause a big ruckus. So suddenly the evangelical and fundamentalist clergy who’d been pushing that line no longer seemed so wingnutty. Graham was free at last to put end-time beliefs front and center: his 1984 bestseller was called Approaching Hoofbeats: Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
This was a historic shift in American culture. After declining and plateauing since the early 1800s, references in books to apocalypse and tribulation and Second Coming rose significantly. In one generation, belief in an imminent apocalypse and the near-term return of Jesus became unembarrassed articles of faith for a large fraction of Americans. Every new war and rumor of war in Israel and the Middle East excited Christian zealots. They avidly consumed news reports about the places Jesus had lived and performed miracles and died, from which the Jews had been exiled and now returned, where all three of the big religions had armies arrayed. The prophecies were being fulfilled! Each outbreak of combat looked to a lot of American Christians like a foreshock or temblor leading up to the big one, the final showdown, Armageddon—an actual place, by the way, an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.
By 1990, there was a whole literature to explain and reinforce this current-events alternate reality, books like The Last Days Handbook and The Coming Antichrist. In 1990 and 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the evangelical theologian who’d run the Dallas Theological Seminary, considered a leading expert on the end-time and the rapture, was beside himself. The (Christian) United States was prepared to drive Iraq out! The (Muslim) Iraqis fired missiles on the Jews in Israel! He rushed out a new edition of his book Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis. “I have never seen this kind of interest in prophecy before,” he said, “and I’ve been at it a long time.”
At the turn of the millennium, the great vehicles for popularizing Christian end-time prophecies, however, were works of fiction depicting characters in the near future—a future based on biblical fictions that a large fraction of Americans believed to be nonfiction. After the Gulf War, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days came out, about American Christians being raptured off the planet before the worst tribulations, leaving behind Christ deniers (and some Christians) to experience Hell on Earth and then Hell itself. Its coauthor and front man was Tim LaHaye, a Bob Jones University graduate, Southern Baptist minister, cofounder of the Institute for Creation Research, and adviser to Jerry Falwell. A dozen sequels and prequels followed over the next twelve years, together with a YA series called Left Behind: The Kids. They sold seventy-five million copies.*2
Protestants’ millennial beliefs come in a variety of slightly different versions. They disagree about timing and other details, but they all agree on the basic plot and characters. It’s a drama that adheres to Hollywood’s three-act formula: heroes’ setup (the past), horrific villainy and setbacks (the present), special-effects-heavy battle and final heroic triumph (the near future). That script is now central to the faith of a majority of American Protestants, whether or not their churches officially agree. For instance, Southern Baptist doctrine avoids describing the Last Things in too much detail, but most Southern Baptists, like evangelicals and fundamentalists in general, believe that the end-time has already started or shortly will, that the Antichrist will be an actual person uniting the rest of the world under some satanic religion, and that around the time of the final seven-year period of tribulation, lucky Christians will be raptured away before the Messiah returns for the win. And most are also certain that the millennium that follows will be a thousand years of magical perfection here on the actual Earth, with Jesus literally presiding as king.
Minorities among Southern Baptists and other evangelical denominations believe that the Antichrist and the millennium are metaphors, that the rapture is a made-up add-on, and that the state of Israel is not biblical Israel reborn. Differences are split: the largest American Lutheran church, for instance, warns its people against “succumbing to…feverish preoccupation with the ‘signs of the times’ ” but also against “spiritual laxity based on the mistaken notion that Christ’s coming is no longer imminent.”
From the outside looking in, however, the disagreements amount to the narcissism of small differences. According to Pew, 58 percent of evangelicals believe that Jesus will return no later than the year 2050. (And only 17 percent of all Americans said they thought He definitely wasn’t coming back during the next thirty-three years.) That expectation of an imminent Second Coming is surely more widespread and respectable today in America than at any time in three hundred years and vastly more than anywhere else outside the Third World.
JUST AS AMERICAN Christians’ beliefs about the near future have dramatically shifted since I was a child, so too have their beliefs about the distant past. A New York Times reporter in 1972 noted hopefully that the “vast majority of fundamentalists have adopted somewhat more liberal positions” concerning evolution, and “even the most avid Biblical literalists…seem to be reluctant to have their own view taught in the schools.” That liberalism and reluctance wouldn’t last long. In the early 1980s, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas all passed “balanced treatment” laws that required teachers to give creationism equal time with evolutionary biology in public school classrooms. After the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in 1987, clever creationists revived a phrase from the 1800s, intelligent design, and rebranded their beliefs accordingly. We’re not saying the designer of Earth and all living creatures was God—just an unnamed all-powerful supernatural being.
By the 1990s, creationism was downright respectable. Republican state party platforms started calling for “creation science” to be taught in public schools. Formerly it had been hard or impossible for Christian colleges that rejected evolutionary biology to be accredited, but in the 1980s they had their own new accrediting agency that required teaching “the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible” and “the divine work of non-evolutionary creation” as factually true. In 1991 the first Bush administration granted those creationist accreditors full U.S. government recognition. Intelligent design had a new blue-chip headquarters in Seattle called the Discovery Institute, a think tank and advocacy group dedicated to “revers[ing] the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview”—that is, science—and “replac[ing] it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The founder recruited a former U.S. senator and Microsoft’s former chief operating officer to join his board, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Discovery multimillion-dollar grants.
Nobody can disprove that certain miracles happened thousands or billions of years ago. Human souls distinct from human brains? Who can say for sure? And about supernatural events that might occur in the future, we’ll have to wait and see. But concerning observable, testable matters where plenty of evidence exists—the creation of the Earth, the emergence of life, evolution—science has those covered to a fair certainty.
AND YET MOST Americans disagree. We’re split into rough thirds: maybe a third who believe in God-free biology, not quite a third who think God took his time and possibly used evolution to create living things, and at least a third certain that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Overall, we’re becoming more dubious about the science. A Michigan State University metastudy of survey research found that since the 1990s, the super-open-minded in-between fraction of Americans “not sure about evolution” has tripled. Less than a quarter of evangelicals (and Mormons) believe in evolution.*3
A large majority of evangelicals believe that humans and all other creatures have always existed in their present form.*4 But among Protestants there are degrees of misguidedness that cluster into two basic camps. So-called old-Earth creationism attempts to reconcile Genesis with the scientific facts that Earth was created 4.6 billion years ago and that it took another 4.599 billion years for humans to appear. Young-Earth creationists simply deny the science—earth and humans and all the rest appeared a few thousand years ago. More than two-thirds of pastors in nonmainline Protestant churches are young-Earth creationists.*5
In any case, creationism, in flavors and consistencies from nutty to extra-nutty, has been completely normalized and institutionalized in America. The nuttiest have invented an elaborate new pseudoscience. There are creationist research papers that look and read like real academic papers, written by scientists with advanced degrees, such as “Radioisotope Dating of Meteorites,” which purports to explain why 4.5-billion-year-old rocks aren’t actually old—“their 4.55–4.57 Ga ‘ages’ obtained by Pb-Pb, U-Pb, and Pb-Pb–calibrated isochron age dating are likely not their true real-time ages, which according to the biblical paradigm is only about 6000 real-time years.” Their institutions grant master’s degrees and doctorates in biology, geology, and geophysics. There are several dozen colleges and universities that feature strictly creationist curricula.
The Discovery Institute isn’t committed to the six-thousand-year-old-Earth idea, but it’s careful not to reject it, either. On its well-produced site Evolution News and Views, it regularly disparages astrobiology, the search for Earth-like planets and molecules elsewhere in the galaxy. “Organized Science longs to find extraterrestrial life” because it “has long banked on the faith that life started by accident,” and “the thought that life on Earth might in fact be unique is unpopular, because that could mean that some source of intelligent design played a role.” The institute’s Harvard-educated founder and director has explained why so many Americans, unlike people in the rest of the developed world, deny biology. Our “high percentage of doubters of Darwinism” is because “this country’s citizens are famously independent and are not given to being rolled by an ideological elite in any field.”
OTHER SORTS OF extreme beliefs are less scriptural and more free-styling—how God and Jesus and Satan are tinkering with the world and people’s lives tonight or next month. These come, as usual, in two versions, the scary horror story and the wonderful fairy tale.
Horror-story Christians insist that particular disasters and accidents are God’s collective punishments for particular sins—the way Puritans sometimes explained attacks by Indians and smallpox in the 1600s. In the late twentieth century, the seventeenth-century vengeful-God idea became standard again. Pat Robertson, now eighty-seven, remains the most prominent blame-the-victims horror-storyteller.*6 In 2015 God made stock prices drop 3 percent because the government funded Planned Parenthood, the way he sent Hurricane Katrina as punishment for laws permitting abortion, sent tornadoes to the Midwest in 2012 because He wasn’t hearing enough prayer, and killed a hundred thousand Haitians with an earthquake in 2010 because of their ancestors’ “pact with the devil.” September 11 was God’s punishment of the United States for feminism, homosexuality, free speech, and paganism—ironic, given that the Muslim fantasists who hijacked the planes on 9/11 would’ve agreed totally.
Then there are the happy fairy-tale pastors, most prominently the charismatics who tell believers that prayer will bring them wealth now, in life, on Earth. This has never been as explicit, widespread, or respectable as it has become since the 1980s, the decade in which America renewed its commitment to manic materialism.
The Puritans regarded financial success as a possible signal from God—if He had made you wealthy, maybe you were a “visible saint,” already elected to everlasting life. But in contemporary America, cause and effect have been switched. It is no longer just some dull Protestant work ethic that leads to success. As America’s I’m-a-winner individualism extinguished belief in predestination, hopeful Christians decided that prayer could directly result in a high net worth. It was a way of reconciling two irreconcilable pieces of the American character—the extreme religiosity and the refusal to believe that success isn’t up to each person individually. The solution: you can persuade God to make you rich.
In the 1920s and ’30s the African-American ministers Father Divine and Sweet Daddy Grace got rich by preaching pray-for-prosperity, and their swanky lifestyles seemed like proof that it worked. In the 1950s and ’60s, just as Southern white musicians and producers were turning black music into rock ’n’ roll, Southern white Pentecostal preachers turned get-rich supernaturalism into a crossover phenomenon. Pentecostalism was invented as a black and white working-class religion devoted to wizardry, such as miraculous cures for illness. Getting rich by praying was just a miraculous cure for poorness. The Baylor University theologian Roger Olson, who grew up Pentecostal in the 1950s and ’60s, says that for decades Pentecostalism’s “ ‘lunatic fringe’…promised physical and financial blessings in response to prayers of faith….Almost to a person they prayed for people’s teeth to be filled with gold.” The TV Pentecostal Oral Roberts published God’s Formula for Success and Prosperity in the 1950s, right around the time a young singer named Kenneth Copeland had one Elvis-y hit. Copeland found God, enrolled at the new Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, became Oral’s chauffeur and pilot, and finally emerged as a godfather of what became known in the 1980s as the prosperity gospel.
A key passage for prosperity gospel preachers is the line by Jesus in Mark 11:24—“What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” Of course, ironically, absurdly, it goes unmentioned that this comes just a few lines after the scene where Jesus performs his great act of militant anticommercialism, condemning and ransacking the tables of the moneychangers and salesmen in the Temple. Prosperity gospel ministers, Olson says, are promoting an idea of prayer that “makes God into a cosmic slot machine and turns salvation into a self-centered acquisition of physical blessings.” America spent a century making Santa Claus its central Christmas character because he wasn’t a religious figure and adults could wink-wink pretend he was real; the new prosperity gospel makes God a real Santa in whom Christian adults actually believe.
At eighty, Ken Copeland still operates his nondenominational Christian multimedia empire, with hundreds of affiliated churches, out of Fort Worth, near the Kenneth Copeland Airport. The prosperity gospel megastar, Joel Osteen, also attended Oral Roberts University, but he’s the very model of a modern major fantasy-monger—a young fifty-four, extremely fit, great-looking, stylishly dressed, always smiling, apparently sweet-tempered, well-spoken, a charismatic Christian who’s also charismatic in the ordinary sense, totally ready for prime time. I find him mesmerizing. He runs America’s biggest church, attended by forty thousand people every week, out of the Houston Rockets’ former arena, which he fills with theatrical fog—every service is meant to look, as his former lighting director says, “like an awards show.” Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now (2004), stayed on the Times bestseller list for four years. Since then he has published dozens more, including the recent You Can, You Will: 8 Undeniable Qualities of a Winner.
He’s as close as we have to a new Billy Graham. Graham mainstreamed evangelical Christianity by going lite, ratcheting back the anger, and Osteen goes further. He avoids involvement in political issues, but he’s delivered the prayers in the U.S. Senate and House chambers and at the Texas inaugurations of a (lesbian) Democratic mayor and a (right-wing) Republican governor. He seldom talks about Hell.
“I get grouped into the prosperity gospel and I never think it’s fair,” Osteen says. “What it connotates [sic] is that you just talk about money….I never preach that whatever you say, you can get—‘I want five Cadillacs.’ ” No, but: “I do believe…that God wants us to prosper.” So “when you pray big it shows God that, ‘God I trust you,’ ” and conversely “if you pray small, ordinary prayers, then you’ll live a small, ordinary life,” because God will figure you’re a loser. “I think God blessed me by writing this book and giving me a lot of money.”
“Positive confessions” is the charismatic jargon for saying the specific things one wants—the better job, the business deal, the vacation, the five Cadillacs—in order to acquire them through God’s intercession. So from Osteen’s church you can get “Scripture-based positive confessions that we encourage you to speak over your life every day” in order to “build wealth…while you follow biblical financial principles.” The verses are often paraphrased in fake-biblical language or are taken out of context in ways that change their meanings entirely. Several of the positive-confession mantras are from Proverbs—“The blessing of God makes me rich,” “God traverses my way that He may cause me to inherit wealth and fill my treasury”—but ignore the preceding verses that make clear the riches in question are precisely not monetary. Osteen’s older sister, who helps run the church, has said that “if you look through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation,…every person who served Him faithfully, God blessed financially.”
What about Jesus, who wasn’t really “blessed financially” and regularly hated on the rich in favor of the poor? When I searched Osteen’s site for references to Mark 10:21 (“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”) or Matthew 6:24 (“No man can serve two masters….Ye cannot serve God and mammon”) and 19:24 (“easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”) or any of the brutal first verses of James 5 (“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you”), the result was No Results.
“God puts desires in your heart,” Osteen says, and “there’s nothing wrong with having a nice home.” Each time an interviewer asks him how a focus on wealth and success and winning squares with Jesus’s teachings, he delivers the same straw-man response with extraordinary message discipline. “There’s a tradition that says you’re supposed to take a vow of poverty if you’re going to be a Christian,” he told Katie Couric in 2013, “but I don’t believe that.” “There’s a tradition that says you’re supposed to take a vow of poverty if you’re going to be a Christian,” he told a Boston public radio interviewer in 2015, “but I don’t believe that.” His net worth is said to be $50 million.
IT USUALLY TAKES time to become rich, even with God’s help. But charismatics believe in and practice instant magic, in astonishing supernatural events happening right now, both fabulous and horrible.
Osteen’s church services are euphoric and ecstatic for the ten or fifteen thousand people who attend each one, but he understands that the full-on public glossolalia of his Pentecostal youth might alarm charismatic-curious prospects. He and his believers do indeed speak in tongues; they’re just discreet about it and don’t do it on TV. Describing an introductory how-to session, the church explains that “you receive a supernatural language and a supernatural power. Come and join us and learn the five steps to…speaking in tongues.” Osteen wants people to speak in tongues every day—by themselves. “It may sound strange to you,” explains the guide, written by his sister, “but allow that supernatural language to flow out of you.” It’s a secret code that only God can decipher. More rarely, the primer explains, “the Holy Spirit gives a believer a message in tongues to a congregation.” This requires human de-encryption—and according to Osteenian teaching, public tongues are “always accompanied by the Gift of Interpretation of Tongues,” which somebody present will miraculously and conveniently possess. “It is not a direct translation, but an interpretation.”
When Osteen discusses Satan, the Prince of Darkness seems not so ghastly, more like a bothersome Debbie Downer. It’s Satan who “brings you thoughts of worry, anxiety and fear,” who “wants you to give up and quit so he can have the victory in your life.” So if “we kick Satan out of our minds, everything clears up.”
Osteen’s father was a celebrity Pentecostal preacher who pioneered the idea of praying for money, but he also focused on battling Satan as if Armageddon were under way—“casting out devils” and exhorting believers to wage “spiritual warfare” against the “wicked spirits in high places.” This old-school approach is thriving too, and it isn’t only charismatics and Pentecostals who think Satan and demons are real. In surveys since the 1990s, between half and three-quarters of all Americans say they believe in the devil or that “it’s possible for people to become possessed by demons.” In one rigorous 2009 survey of Christians, more than a third agreed that Satan is “a living being.”*7
“Spiritual warfare,” systematic demon-fighting, is another old Christian concept that had mostly faded away in America—until it revived in the 1960s and took off during the 1980s and ’90s. It is now the animating notion across a broad swath on the darker side of American Christianity. A spiritual warfare Protestant is an evangelical or charismatic who’s angry about something. They call their loud, belligerent prayers against Satan “violent intercession.”
They focus on references in the four Gospels to “demon-possessed” people Jesus cured—individuals who happened to be blind, mute, or insane and thus were regarded as cursed. (According to John, of course, crazy Jesus himself seemed demon-possessed to much of the general populace.) Microlevel spiritual warriors try to root out the demons incarnated among their family, friends, and acquaintances. This is the Christianity of many thousands of American pastors and their many millions of believers, praying and grabbing and shouting and chanting to drive demons out of afflicted individuals. According to Pew, one in nine adults, 25 or 30 million Americans, are sure they’ve “experienced/witnessed the devil/evil spirits being driven out of a person.”
So how do Christians know if they’ve got the sixth sense and magic touch to do this work? They take a quiz! That is, they complete a spiritual gifts inventory. There are many versions, but the original from which they derive is the Wagner-Modified Houts Questionnaire. It consists of a hundred-odd statements about one’s ministerial aptitude and skills. People rate themselves from zero to three on each item.*8 For instance:
“Through God I have revealed specific things that will happen in the future.”
“In the name of the Lord, I have been able to recover sight to the blind.”
“I have spoken an immediate message of God to His people in a language that I have never learned.”
“I can tell whether a person speaking in tongues is genuine.”
“I have actually heard a demon speak in a loud voice.”
“I have spoken to evil spirits and they have obeyed me.”
As it happens, some of these unusual powers also appear on a checklist from a separate region of religious Fantasyland: according to the Vatican’s official demon-hunting manual, “speaking in unknown languages” and predicting the future are—yes—signs of satanic possession.*9
The Wagner of the Wagner-Modified Houts Questionnaire is C. Peter Wagner, now eighty-six, a major figure in the charismatic pantheon and a proud general in the wars against Satan. Wagner was a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, a major U.S. evangelical institution where he met John Wimber, the bearded preacher-to-hippies who was inventing the Vineyard movement at the time (see Chapter 24).*10 There are now around six hundred Vineyard churches in the United States. Three-quarters of their members have spoken in tongues, and a majority say they’ve experienced miraculous healings.*11 They also believe that devils are among us.
Yet the Vineyarders come across as chill mainline Protestants: very white, lots of beards, many Democrats, European cars in the parking lots. They’re clustered more in the North and the West than in the Old South. The clergy wear normal clothes. A decade ago Vineyard broke with the evangelical norm and started allowing women to be pastors, several of whom have risen in the clerical hierarchy. They seem nice and, to seculars, relatable.
Which is why the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, a nice baby boomer raised Unitarian, made them the stars of her highly sympathetic 2012 book about evangelicals, When God Talks Back. She spent several years among two Vineyard congregations and nailed the sort of magical thinking that makes the imaginary seem real, so that people think they’ve moved beyond wishful belief to another level, to feeling enchanted, to knowing the irrefutable truth. It’s “more like learning to do something than to thinksomething….People train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God….God wants to be your friend,” and then “God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images he places in your mind, and through sensations he causes in your body.” She encountered some who scheduled “date nights” with Jesus, setting an extra place at dinner and chatting with Him. They’d ask Jesus where to get a haircut or to arrange “admission to specific colleges, for the healing of specific illness—even, it is true, for specific red convertible cars.”
Just because some other Christian demonologists are “odd ducks,” I heard one Vineyard pastor say in a sermon on spiritual warfare, that doesn’t mean demons aren’t real. “We don’t believe you have to be an expert on Satan,” the Vineyard Church of Duluth explains in a guide called Dealing with the Demonic, “studying his ways obsessively, or looking for a demon behind every bush.” Right. Cool. However, “once you know that, in fact, this probably is demonic activity,” you proceed with the deliverance mission—“Pray in Jesus’s name because the demons hate it….If they do their part, demons will leave quietly and quickly in ten minutes, and that is how most deliverances that we do actually happen.” If the de-demonization isn’t quite so easy, there’s a Troubleshooting section. The problem may be that your demon-possessed friends are hearing a satanic voice in their heads saying, “ ‘This is a hoax, this is ridiculous, this stuff isn’t even real.’ ” According to Luhrmann, her Vineyarders in Chicago and Palo Alto “would find themselves kind of going into restaurants and smelling for the demons and then having to pray to expel them.” These, remember, are moderate, mainstream charismatics.
What’s now called Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare, praying and channeling God’s power to defeat satanic strangers and institutions, disappeared from America for centuries. The bit of the Bible that preoccupies these spiritual warriors, Ephesians 6:12, was obscure until recently: “Put on the whole armor of God….For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” To believers, the exhortation to wage war on the devil is not metaphorical. They ignore the “not against flesh and blood” passage and focus on the “wickedness in high places”—which to them means that particular VIPs (popes, presidents, supporters of marriage equality) are Satan’s agents on Earth.*12 Which grants their political opinions and cultural tastes God’s own antisatanic imprimatur.
Such warfare can be conducted after “spiritually mapping” one’s region, so “intercessors” know exactly where to focus prayers on Satan’s local “strongmen” and “territorial spirits” to “bind” them. These “demonic hotspots” are pretty obvious—Planned Parenthood clinics, Mormon temples, Catholic churches, Masonic lodges, meditation centers, LGBTQ gathering spots, strip clubs, and shops selling tarot cards or dreamcatchers.
Spiritual warfare can also take place on extremely strategic levels—Wagner, for instance, focuses on the entire nation of Japan. Satan personally enlisted Emperor Akihito on behalf of “the powers of darkness,” Wagner explained on NPR’s Fresh Air—“the sun goddess visits him in person and has sexual intercourse with the emperor….I don’t know how that works between a spirit and a human, but I know that’s the case.” Are Satan’s representatives “alive and functioning in America,” Terry Gross asked—are U.S. politicians possessed? “Absolutely,” he replied. “We like to use the word ‘afflicted’ or the technical term ‘demonized.’ ”
As charismatic practices become more popular and accepted, the evangelicals who subscribe only to unbelievable theology are on the defensive. Charismatics are the madcap descendants of Anne Hutchinson, and their remaining Christian opponents are like latter-day Puritans. The fundamentalist John MacArthur runs a megachurch in the San Fernando Valley and hosts a daily national radio show. Charismatics, he has declared, aren’t channeling the Holy Spirit when they “look drunk…fall or flop, or roll, or laugh hysterically, or bark, or babble, or talk gibberish.” These “emotional experiences, bizarre experiences and demonic experiences…visions, revelations, voices from heaven, messages from the Spirit through transcendental means, dreams, speaking in tongues, prophecies, out of body experiences, trips to heaven, anointings, miracles: all false, all lies.” Not only that, but all the charismatic shenanigans are the work of Satan, whose “troops have taken over” evangelicalism.
That seems like a desperate last gasp by the old school. “The Charismatics and Pentecostals have already won the worship war,” Christianity Today, the leading evangelical publication, declared in 2015. The Southern Baptists were the most important resisters, but even they are surrendering. Mike Huckabee, a pastor who was president of Arkansas’s Baptists before he ran for president of the United States, says that “we tend to be a little Bapticostal where I go”—the new mix of Baptist and Pentecostal. “If you polled SBC churches across the nation,” the Southern Baptists note officially, only a “very small minority might accept what is commonly practiced today in charismatic churches as valid.” But in fact, their media division did poll their own clergy less than a decade ago, and fully half of them said they believe that speaking in tongues is real and okay if done in private. In 2015 the church gave way some more, deciding to let its missionaries speak in fictitious foreign languages when they were overseas—in order “to communicate the Gospel to foreign cultures.”
*1 2014 Pew survey and NORC General Social Survey.
*2 LaHaye—a prince of Fantasyland retired in a place called Rancho Mirage, his hair preternaturally dark brown at age ninety, his face plainly refashioned by cosmetic surgery—was “graduated to Heaven,” as they say, in 2016.
*3 2014 Pew survey.
*4 2014 Pew survey.
*5 2012 Barna Group survey.
*6 Robertson is not all doom and gloom. “Where does Pat find the time and energy to host a daily, national TV show, head a world-wide ministry…while traveling the globe as a statesman?” His CBN site explains: an “age-defying protein shake…Pat developed.” Also contributing are Pat’s Age-Defying Protein Pancakes, miraculous pancakes that according to CBN provide protection against arterial plaque as well as breast, uterine, and prostate cancer.
*7 1998 Harris, 2000 Newsweek, 2003 Fox News, 2007 Gallup, 2009 Barna Group, and 2012 Public Policy Polling surveys. “I…believe in the Devil,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic, told Jennifer Senior of New York magazine in 2013. “You’re looking at me as though I’m weird….My God!…It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil!”
*8 There are many different kinds of “spiritual gifts.” In one of his books, the co-creator of the test apologizes that he can’t reliably determine which individuals will make good Christian martyrs: “I have not as yet come upon what I consider a decent way of testing for the gift of martyrdom, despite numerous attempts.”
*9 Pope Francis is big on Satan, which is fine both with his growing charismatic wing and with his ultra-orthodox Latin Mass wing. “The Devil is present,” Francis has said, even though people “have been led to believe that the devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil.” According to The Washington Post, “a senior bishop in Vatican City” says “Pope Francis never stops talking about the Devil; it’s constant.”
*10 What is one to make of a miraculous healer who gets cancer and acute heart disease in his late fifties, then has a stroke, then falls and dies from a brain hemorrhage at sixty-three?
*11 Donald Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (1999).
*12 Most translations of Ephesians make it even clearer that the supernatural evil is not on Earth at all—not in “high places” like the White House or the Vatican but “in the heavens” or “heavenly realms.” Thus the further folly of biblical literalism: what some see as the obvious meaning—in a passage translated from ancient Hebrew to ancient Greek to Old Latin to New Latin to Middle English to Modern English—others will not.