People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch this month published an important report by RD contributor (and PFAW senior fellow) Peter Montgomery, offering a compelling portrait of a group that calls itself POTUS Shield (which also stands for “Prophetic Order of the United States”).
The report itself is required reading for anyone interested in better understanding the contours of the unflinching support President Trump continues to enjoy from right-wing conservative Christians, especially white evangelicals.
I called Peter for some background. What follows is our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, about POTUS Shield’s roots in the New Apostolic Reformation, the “unholy alliance” between more traditional religious right groups and the Pentecostal leaders of POTUS Shield, and why, despite Trump’s dedication to demonstrating his moral depravity, these “prayer warriors” still stand shoulder to shoulder with this president.
Sunnivie Brydum: My first question after reading your report is relatively simple: Is POTUS Shield unique? Have we seen anything similar, in terms of an organized Pentecostal prayer shield for a sitting president before?
Peter Montgomery: I don’t think we’ve seen this before. Certainly, a lot of Christians of all stripes feel obligated to pray for national leaders, and that’s kind of a routine thing. But this kind of organized gathering is not something I’m aware of happening before.
Have there been other times where particular faith groups determined that a certain president was anointed?
I certainly think that the religious right has made it very clear, a number of times, whom they think God would like to be president. That’s not new. It’s possible that I was not following the Pentecostal world as closely previously, but I don’t know of this concerted effort to use media, like [Christian multimedia company] Charisma and these online networks, to really aggressively promote the idea that Donald Trump had been anointed by God before the beginning of time.
As Lance Wallnau says, [Trump functions as] this breaker anointing: To basically come in and bust up stuff so that America can return to its Christian-nation status, and the president and his Pentecostal friends can help bring about the reign of God in the U.S. and help Jesus Christ make his return to the earth. I don’t think I’ve seen that before.
Is it fair to say, given POTUS Shield’s embrace of social media, and the fact that Donald Trump is the president, that maybe this couldn’t have happened at another time in history? Because this group can reach millions of people with a tweet.
Yeah, I think that makes sense. The new book by Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape, was interesting to me, because that really looked a lot at the structure of a lot of these Pentecostal networks.
These leaders aren’t out there trying to create a large organization. They’re not trying to create a Pentecostal Family Research Council [FRC]. They’re just trying to build up their own networks of followers. And so you have all these different network leaders who go to each others’ conventions, who give each other apostolic covering. It’s a way that they can spread their ideas without having any real accountability from an organization. [Christerson and Flory] argue in their book that that helps [these leaders] gain market share, because they’re really free and flexible. They give people this sense of having a supernatural experience and a sense of doing something really important—which is to bring not just your neighbors, but your whole nation to God, and really help create something like the conditions for Christ to return. That’s pretty heady stuff.
Does the Pentecostal bent of POTUS Shield signal a new direction, or a new kind of focus, for this organized Pentecostal community or networks? Is the partnership with more “traditional” fixtures of the religious right a departure for Pentecostal traditions in general?
The first time that I noticed traditional religious right organizations pairing up with the New Apostolic Reformation types, [was] in the lead-up to Obama’s election and during the Obama administration. They really united in their opposition to Obama. There was a God TV special before the election that had both traditionally religious right people and people like Cindy Jacobs, on it that was reaching across the evangelical, Pentecostal world. Then once [Obama] got elected, there was a new coalition formed called the Freedom Federation that also bridged the traditional religious right with groups led by Cindy Jacobs and Rick Joyner, who were part of this prophetic scene. They joined together against a common enemy: Barack Obama.
It’s worth remembering that this New Apostolic movement isn’t that old. Pentecostal Christianity has been around for a long time, but the Apostolic Reformation—as a movement with some structure, like the Council of Apostolic Elders—that’s all from around 1999-2000. They weren’t around that long before Obama came onto the scene.
So uniting against the common enemy seems to have smoothed over some of the theological distinctions that might normally prevent these groups from collaborating, even though they mostly exist on the same side of the partisan divide?
It’s kind of interesting. There are evangelical apologists out there who have websites devoted to attacking the theology of the New Apostolic Reformation, but the religious right effectively employed this model of working with conservative Catholics on abortion and gay rights and religious liberty—setting aside the theological differences in order to work for a common goal.
I do think it made it easier for evangelicals to set aside the fact that they have a different eschatological theology than Pentecostals. The Apostolic Reformation folks are not waiting for a rapture. They think that rapture theology encourages Christians to be passive and wait for God to fix things. Their theology is: Christ will only come back for a triumphant, dominion-taking church. They see their political activism as necessary to bring about Christ’s return.
Now, I think most of the Baptists and the other evangelicals who are part of Christian religious-right groups mostly likely don’t share that theology. They don’t really care about that, though, if their shared goal is getting the right kind of judges on the Supreme Court and other policy goals.
How much access and influence do the leaders in this movement really have to the White House?
I think that the religious right generally is almost disbelieving in their good fortune at how open this White House is to them. Some of them talk about how they get invited to come to the White House. Cindy Jacobs, who’s one of the elders that we study in the report, was on the White House lawn when Trump announced his executive order on religious liberty. They’re certainly in the circles of the religious-right leaders that are infusing the White House.
In the Christerson and Flory book, the authors suggest that the loose network approach to operating used by a lot of these leaders could, in the end, make them have less of a political impact. That’s because they’re not doing the nitty gritty work of organizing precinct captains and voting turnout lists—the kind of stuff that Ralph Reed or the Family Research Council (FRC) does.
But because they all work together now, and because a lot of their networks are overlapping, [those combined efforts] certainly help feed people into the kind of political organizing that other religious right groups are doing. I think about all the work, all the preaching, that the POTUS Shield folks are doing on their television programs and their networks, saying, “This is God’s will to be engaged in politics. Donald Trump has been anointed by God. We need to protect him. We need to support him.”
I think the influence that the POTUS Shield folks have is not only via their own direct contacts with the White House, which they didn’t have in other administrations, but also that they’re part of this larger religious right infrastructure.
Even if they don’t have the formal structures that you’re talking about, they are partnered with Family Research Council and other groups that have been doing that kind of direct political organizing for a long time, right?
Yes, and they’re telling their supporters that it’s important to get involved; they’re telling their own followers and supporters that being engaged in politics is a political duty and they send them to groups like FRC. Again, there’s overlap: one of the people on the POTUS Shield council is Jerry Boykin, who’s the vice president of the Family Research Council. It’s not as if these are two entirely distinct groups of people.
That makes sense. So what’s the takeaway here, for journalists in particular?
First, I hope that this election and its aftermath put an end to the habit of reporters writing about the “end of the religious right” as a political force. That is a perennial bad narrative. It used to get written every time a Republican lost an election, and I tell you, if Hilary Clinton had won the 2016 election, we would be seeing those stories now. Part of it is just realizing just how big the infrastructure is, and how wide these networks are. We can’t ignore that.
The other thing is to look at the access that they’re being given by the Trump-Pence White House, and how that’s playing out in policy. Trump really offered the religious right—and this goes for evangelicals and the apostolic folks—he made them a deal. It was very straightforward.
It was like, he knew they knew that he was not the kind of Christian they have always said America needed. He said, “I’ll give you what you want. I’ll give you the Supreme Court you want, I’ll do away with the Johnson amendment to make you more politically powerful. I’ll give you Mike Pence as a vice president. I’ll make abortion illegal. I’ll do all that for you.” And they took the deal.
They turned out a huge majority of their voters, of their people for him, and now he’s paying them back. They’re deliriously happy with him.
They don’t care that he lies every time he opens his mouth. They’ve already convinced themselves that God uses imperfect people. God used King David, God used all these other people who were flawed. That was a part of their whole pre-election thing. I did a blog post that was “25 Religious Justifications for Supporting Donald Trump.” But there’s even more than that: they believe Trump is Elijah, he’s King David, he’s Cyrus.
Finally, I think we need to keep our eyes open. I think smart people should start thinking about what it means to someone like Donald Trump, who clearly has a huge ego and is narcissistic. Does it make him more dangerous that he has people telling him all the time, “You are anointed by God, God put you in this position, you have a divine mission?”
Those are things that are not likely to increase anyone’s willingness to doubt themselves. I think Trump is the last person on the planet who needs that kind of encouragement, that whatever he’s doing has divine sanction.
That’s a really good point. He’s made so clear that he doesn’t like giving addresses to crowds that won’t fawn over him. He doesn’t want to sit through meetings unless people are going to tell him how wonderful he is. For all that I don’t think he has any real religious doctrine, or personal faith to speak of, being told “You are anointed by God” is the ultimate ego-stroking.
Right. It also tells him, cynically, that the religious right are the people he’s got to stick with, because they are going to stick with him through and through. I think that’s part of why he’s given them the keys to the kingdom: because he knows that they’re his diehards. They think God put him there. They’re not going to go along with Republicans trying to undermine him or challenge him.
It does feel kind of like an unholy alliance from where I sit.
It does. I don’t know who’s being more cynical in their use of religion: Trump or the religious leaders who are rallying around him.
When Trump was campaigning, and he stood up there and waved his Bible, everyone knew that was bullshit. Everyone. The Christian leaders who were on-stage with him, the people in the audience, and yet, they went along with it. They tolerated the cynical use of religion for their political goals.
I’m not saying that Lance Wallnau and Charisma media don’t really believe that Trump was anointed by God. I think they do believe that. But I do think it’s telling that they have hitched themselves to someone whose dishonesty is so consistently on display, and whose policies are just getting worse by the day.
Part of what we other Americans can do is to hold them accountable for the stuff that they are enabling and supporting, and to call them out in public for being Trump’s “Amen corner” as he routinely flouts democratic values and undermines American ideals.
That question about cynicism is important, I think. Sometimes I wonder if Trump’s campaign statement, about how he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters, was more prophetic than we realized. Is there’s anything you think that Trump could do that would cause these groups to revoke their support?
I think it’s hard to know what it would take, really, at this moment, because on the things that they thought were most important, he’s given them everything they wanted.
He gave them Gorsuch, who is now the far right of the Supreme Court. He gave them a widely expanded global gag rule, which is going to hurt women all around the world, but lets them wave the pro-life banner. One after the other. Some of them were disappointed he hasn’t moved the embassy to Jerusalem yet, but he’s promised them that it’s just a question of when, and not if. They’re holding their fire.
Some of them are slightly disappointed that his executive order on religious liberty didn’t give them the whole exemption from LGBT non-discrimination laws that they wanted, but again, he’s promised them there’s more to come.
So far, he hasn’t given them a lot of reasons to be disappointed. I think they’re willing to give him cover. They’re willing to give him cover for, again, just the constant dishonesty of the White House, and the corruption and whatever is going to come out on Russia, I just think they’re willing to set that aside. Part of it is, they’re just chalking it up to the belief that “God is using this flawed person the way that he used Cyrus.”
One of the things that’s interesting to me is that when Trump is on TV, he talks to them like the evangelists they’re used to listening to. These Pentecostal network guys have their own ministries in their own names, and they’re accountable to nobody except themselves—and that’s what Trump does. Trump has no real accountability to the Republican party. He has his own media, he creates his own media. He relies on his own charismatic personality and the devotion of his followers. He’s functioning like one of these apostolic guys, but in his own realm.
The justification and apologetics for a “flawed” white nationalist leader is astounding to me in the face of how little grace flawed everyday people are granted from these same pulpits. There is no grace for the “flawed” LGBT person, who nevertheless manages not to undermine centuries of American democratic norms and traditions. It seems as though this movement is happy to give endless grace to anyone—as long as they’re straight, rich, white, cisgender men.
Well, as long as they have the anointing.
Right, of course.