Beyond Alarmism and Denial in the Dominionism Debate

Sarah Posner: The New Apostolic Reformation has been in the news a great deal since Rick Perry first announced his prayer rally, The Response. I have an investigative journalist’s view of this movement, its place in religious movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, and in politics.

You have a unique view, though, not only as a scholar of American religious history, but as a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, where the NAR’s founder, C. Peter Wagner, taught in the 1990s. We’ll probably come back to Wagner several times during this conversation, but to get us going, what is the NAR, and how did Wagner come to found this movement? What is Wagner’s background? Is he a theologian? A missionary? An entrepreneur? 

 

Anthea Butler: Yes, I was a Master’s student at Fuller working the switchboard part-time, and the number one phone call that came through went something like this: “Can you connect me to C. Peter Wagner’s Church Growth Institute? I’d like to buy some materials.”

No one was happier than I was when he retired from Fuller and moved to Colorado Springs! I felt like I worked at a catalog call-in center. 

Seriously. I would never have expected to be talking about Wagner in conjunction with the 2012 election cycle, but here goes:

C. Peter Wagner was the Donald McGavran Professor of Church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was there as a student in the early 1990s. He had had a career on the mission field in South America before coming to Fuller, and what brought him there was a book he had written about his time as a missionary called Look out! The Pentecostals are coming.

That book chronicled what he termed the “move of the Holy Spirit” in the world today, and that the healing and deliverance ministries of Pentecostalism would reform the church. Wagner is not a theologian—and this is an important point—because much of what he is teaching is not filtered through systematic theology, or any other creed or doctrine. Rather, it is from the realm of the “Holy Spirit” and is “spirit-led” or derives from “divine revelation.” That makes it difficult to characterize, since he is mixing a lot of old doctrines and “heresy” together to make his NAR movement. 

Wagner’s founding of the NAR comes out of two streams: one, his time at Fuller seminary from the 1970s on, working with John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard church movement, and second, from his work in the church growth movement. He was considered to be the heir of Donald McGavran, founder of the church growth movement. That movement essentially said “whatever grows a church is good” and needs to be nurtured. When McGavran retired in the early 1980s, Wagner was his heir apparent.

What Wagner added to McGavran’s teachings was John Wimber’s teaching on “power evangelism,” which supported signs and wonders in the ministry and church service, and encouraged people to find their spiritual gifts.

Wimber’s Vineyard Fellowship had experienced tremendous growth in the late 1970s because of his emphasis on spiritual gifts of healing and prophecy. Wimber and Wagner’s partnership was dynamic, and they even taught a controversial class together at Fuller where students “exercised” their spiritual gifts on each other. It was a cause of great consternation for Fuller’s administration, and, because of problems in the course, they asked Wimber to leave. Wagner, as a tenured professor, continued to teach the class with lay persons, which also became problematic.

It was in the late 1980s, however, when Wagner turned to “spiritual mapping.” One of the first books that outlined spiritual mapping was Breaking Strongholds in Your City:
How to Use Spiritual Mapping to Make your Prayers More Strategic, Effective and Targeted,
 published in 1993. Wagner’s spiritual mapping started in Pasadena, where, in a workbook sold in Fuller’s bookstore, he identified various demonic spirits over Pasadena—including the Masonic lodge bordering Fuller’s campus, and the former Worldwide Church of God campus in South Pasadena.

Wagner’s career has been demarcated by how all of these teachings have translated into a cash bonanza. The sales of his church growth materials and workshops were very strong, and the coupling of these with the spiritual warfare component enabled him to retire and build an empire in Colorado Springs to train those involved in the New Apostolic Reformation movement. It also bears saying that none of what Wagner has touted as new, is new; rather, it is the recapitulation of old Pentecostal teachings—and actually heresy to some Pentecostals (like the Latter Rain and Shepherding movements).

The NAR was “created” by Wagner after leaving Fuller. Wagner believes that the offices of apostles and prophets are still given by God for today, and they are not just for the church, but for the world. Some apostles are to lead the church, and others are to lead in the world, in order to bring the world under the rule of Jesus or the “Kingdom of God.” This “reformation” operates a lot like a Amway organization, with certain apostles, who are connected to churches having an area that they preside over; others are “apostles” because they have achieved success in the “world.” 

 

Sarah: I’m really glad you brought up the entrepreneurial/multilevel marketing aspect of this. There’s big money in all the conferences, books, DVDs, speaking honoraria, and so forth. His “apostles” have a pecuniary interest in bringing in more followers and rising higher in the hierarchy.

As you noted, Wagner continues to be controversial among conservative Christians. Like many of his predecessors in various neo-Pentecostal movements, his views are considered heretical by many apologetics and discernment ministries—Christians who believe they are defending what they insist is the only true, orthodox faith against heresies that also include Mormonism, the emergent church, paganism, and more.

In my coverage of The Response, I talked to a woman whose blog post critical of the NAR from this perspective was taken off the American Family Association website. The AFA and other big religious right political operatives are not interested in the heresy hunters, though; they’re interested in the bodies that NAR types bring to events like Perry’s and ultimately to the voting booth. That’s been a longstanding strategy of GOP candidates, as I reported in my book. There, even though Word of Faith (also known as the prosperity gospel) is, like the NAR and other neo-Pentecostal movements, considered problematic and even heretical by many conservative Christians, what the candidates look at is not intra-conservative theological disputes, or even the questionable ethics of some of the leading preachers, but at how many followers they have.

No doubt both the AFA and Perry’s political team, as well as the group assembled by televangelist James Robison last September and more recently in June, were making those sorts of calculations.

Aside from the political context, which is important for understanding that Perry was not solely taking marching orders from the NAR, I also think it’s crucial to grasp the scope of how these various neo-Pentecostal movements interact with each other, both theologically and politically. When I cover a conference or other event, I’ve found speakers affiliated with the NAR (take, for example, IHOP’s Mike Bickle, or The Call’s Lou Engle, or the prophesiers Dutch Sheets and Chuck Pierce) alongside people more strongly affiliated with other movements, like Word of Faith or other strands of neo-Pentecostalism that don’t really have a label. These various neo-Pentecostal movements don’t exist in a vacuum.

As you point out, Wagner didn’t invent the idea of modern-day prophets and apostles or spiritual warfare or any of the gifts of the holy spirit that he drew on. There are a lot of ideas, strategies, and so forth that are shared and cross-pollinated, and are in the ether, so to speak, at conferences and gatherings. 

And, as I’ve reported before, the alliance between non-charismatic evangelicals and the neo-Pentecostals dates back to the late 1970s. Bill Bright was one of the pioneers of bringing Pentecostals into the political fold with John Gimenez and the America for Jesus movement. Perry did not invent this. The AFA’s Don Wildmon, who played a big role in The Response, had carried on this tradition through the Arlington Group, through which he sought to widen the field of religious right leadership. For anyone who thinks that the NAR brought an army to Houston on August 6, I met plenty of people there who had no idea who some of the prayer leaders were, and just came because Perry had issued the call. 

There’s another crucial point here that I think is frequently overlooked by some people who focus too hard on the NAR rhetoric without contextualizing it: how people actually live and experience these movements. 

 

Anthea: That actually reminds me of our very first conversation about Sarah Palin, and the subsequent interviews I did about her during the 2008 election. Remember the video of Bishop Muthee laying hands on her? I said back then: this isn’t different than what goes on in any Pentecostal church in America or around the world. 

However, looking back, what I should have said was that there are streams of people crossing each other, and what is happening can have a multiplicity of meanings. That is how to think about the NAR, dominionism, all of these movements that people are involved in. In evangelical and Pentecostal churches,  most people have a home church they identify with, but you have a favorite pastor or evangelist that you listen to occasionally. Studying scripture means you don’t just read the Bible, you read devotional books, and books designed to help your spiritual walk or the church broadly construed. That is the problem with focusing in only on NAR and dominionism. If you don’t know the everyday context of how people, churches, and organizations deal with these broad-based movements, it can sound like a vast conspiracy theory. 

People who are in that web don’t often recognize differences, or they don’t care about them. They care about their spiritual lives, and that’s what keeps these movements going. They can go from one meeting to the next if they have the funds to do so, and the highs are good. Who doesn’t want to go to a meeting that feeds your soul where you meet like-minded people? 

All of the groups are enmeshed in a symbiotic web. These evangelists’, apostles’, and leaders’ messages are the commodity, and you have to buy the books, conferences, and other materials in order to get the blessings. I know that will seem distasteful and a caricature to some, but these events are well-attended, and at a hundred bucks a person, revenues from book and DVD sales. Conferences and meetings like Lou Engles’ The Call are not just prayer meetings, they are Christian marketplaces, with all sorts of spiritual wares being sold. 

As to the political interaction, all of these groups know they don’t have the numbers alone to bring folks in, they need to interact for like-minded causes. Electing a “Christian” is a like-minded cause, whether you believe in dominionism or not. A politician like Perry knows that he has to get these groups to coalesce together on his side in order to get votes and support. Whether Perry believes what they preach is up for debate, but it is clear that he is willing to use them to the fullest extent to gain the support he needs for a presidential run. 

As you say, not everyone who went to Perry’s The Response is a dominionist. 

 

Sarah: Yes, I agree, and I do remember that conversation we had in 2008 about Muthee laying hands on Palin. Muthee is a demon-chaser, someone who casts out demons and hunts witches and so forth. I think in other countries, such as in Nigeria, that is particularly true, where witch hunting, particularly of children, is really scary, and in Uganda, where the hunting and persecution of sexual minorities is driven at least in part by the view that homosexuality is caused by satanic spirits. And even here in the states, casting out of demons can be a scary business. (I remember a story Carlton Pearson, who knows this world well, told me about Ted Haggard, with whom he attended Oral Roberts University: that Haggard’s father was a demon exorciser, which has always sort of haunted me, given Haggard’s obviously repressed sexuality.)

All that said, if you’ve ever been to a neo-Pentecostal conference or revival you’ve seen this sort of thing. And as Pearson’s biography clearly demonstrates, if you give up that central idea that there is a hell (and hence a Satan), you’ll be banished from not only friendships, but the lucrative ministries that Pearson himself helped to create.

All that said, there are different ways that people experience this, or faith healings, or other performances you find in these environments. Not everyone is in lockstep, when you sit down and talk with them. I remember vividly the 2007 event at Gimenez’s church in Virginia Beach—this was before John Gimenez passed away—and there was quite a lineup of different preachers (I mean entrepreneurs)! I remember Lou Engle was on what I might, looking back, call a prophecy bender: rocking, as he does, and really doing an extended sequence on some dream he had about Jerusalem. People were wandering out of the sanctuary, as I did, and I was chatting with a woman in the hall. She commented about she hadn’t seen him preach in a while. And she seemed pretty unimpressed with this one.

I point this out only to emphasize how these individual players do not necessarily always enrapture the audience; I’ve seen this at various events. On the other hand, I’ve seen others, like Rod Parsley and Kenneth Copeland, have the audience eating out of their hands (and also putting money in their hands). 

These events are, like I said, performances that are carefully staged and mapped out; there may be a series of speakers who seem like they are reacting spontaneously to what’s happening, moved by the holy spirit. But it’s carefully orchestrated, along with mesmerizing music, for maximum impact. It’s big business.

You point out something important. While people have their home church, they’re marinating, so to speak, in the the various teachings of a number of people. I’ve covered many an event where I’ve been waiting in line to get in, and the inevitable conversation with the people around you goes something like this: they ask first where you go to church, and second which teachers you admire, and then you get into a long conversation about the relative virtues of all of them. A really good example of how all these teachings blend together in small prayer groups and conferences (and how the big name religious right political organizations see them as valuable foot soldiers) is in the “Women: Weapons of Warfare” conference I covered last year.

I think people outside this world really underestimate how many different personalities there are in this world, and how their audiences access them through numerous venues: television networks like the Trinity Broadcasting Network, GOD TV, and DayStar; numerous conferences across the country, and other multimedia sources. Just as people discover someone new through these sources, they frequently reject certain personalities for a number of reasons: their profit motive, their authoritarianism, unattainable demands to “get closer to God” through “radical prayer,” or what the consumer comes to see as false teaching. 

Like you said, theological disagreements among these folks are largely inconsequential from a broad political perspective; the overarching Christian nation ideology, along with opposition to secularism, LGBT rights and abortion rights, and favoring public prayer and Ten Commandments and so forth are unifying.

But the idea that the NAR in particular—as opposed to the broader apparatus and movement the religious right has built over four decades—is somehow, in a vacuum, more powerful, or more authoritarian, or more threatening to democracy is a view that is far too narrow, ahistorical, and uninformed. 

 

Anthea: Yes, the NAR isn’t in a vacuum and more powerful than other movements, but it should not be dismissed either. I am more than annoyed with articles by Lisa Miller, Ralph Reed, Charlotte Adams, and others attempting to blow off Dominionists or NAR just because they don’t think it exists. Ralph Reed’s comment is especially egregious: “The notion that Bachmann, Perry or other candidates secretly harbor ‘dominionist’ theology is a conspiracy theory largely confined to university faculty lounges and MSNBC studios.” Sorry Ralph. Most Universities have faculty clubs, not lounges, and believe me, no one is talking about Dominionist Theology there! The Rachel Maddow show is also the only MSNBC show so far to even bring up the word “Dominionist.”

I view with a jaundiced eye these journalists who think that by the mere act of writing an 800 word op-ed they’re going to wave a wand over people of faith and make their beliefs go away. Not Happening. Yes, not every conservative Christian is a Dominionist, but to say a movement doesn’t exist, without even being able to say what it is in an op-ed is just irresponsible. It also shows what the real issue is.

For the last 30 years, journalists have had an easy time reporting on the religious right, because all they did was pay attention to to white male leaders of big organizations like Focus on the Family, National Association of Evangelicals, or Family Research Council. The days when a nice soundbite from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Ted Haggard would suffice are over. If journalists and others want to understand the last 10 years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words. As someone who has studied and written about Pentecostalism for over 15 years, their lack of basic knowledge is staggering, and although I don’t expect people to get it like I do, I do expect reporters and journalists to do their homework—like you do, Sarah!

This lack of “homework” has also led to a whole cottage industry of those who write about dominionism, the NAR, and other theocratic movements from the opposite perspective: It’s taking over everything! I have my problems with this approach, of course, but quite frankly, these researchers are so busy because mainstream journalists aren’t doing their job.

What I do wish, however, is that these researchers would do the work to establish the long historical trajectory of movements like dominionism and NAR in relation to the longer history of Pentecostal and charismatic movments. None of what is happening now is new, it’s merely recycled teachings from the Latter Rain movement and “Holy Spirit”-led teachings. C. Peter Wagner is brilliant at it, and he has built on an old foundation with hundreds of books saying the same thing over and over again, and getting paid bank for it. 

When journalists discount the religious right it just tells me that they are still uncomfortable writing about religion; it takes work to understand the nuances of belief. What this brouhaha about dominionism and NAR shows is that there is a place for the naysayers and the dominionist researchers alike. What Rick Perry’s prayer rally did was to give all of this a big enough footprint in the media so that everyone felt comfortable pontificating about what they thought was going on, even if some journalists didn’t get it. Not everyone there, as you say Sarah, was a dominionist. Everyone who participated in the fasting and prayer, however, did think it was important to pray for America and the particular moral issues they felt were relevant to their beliefs. 

The big story is that the religious right isn’t dead. Its alive and kicking. Ralph Reed got that right in his article:

The media, which has been publishing the obituary of religious conservatives prematurely for a quarter century, will discover once again that social conservatives are here to stay. Moreover, it was a more nuanced, multifaceted movement than many gave it credit to be.

Reed is right on that score. I’ll add to Reed, however, and push the point by arguing that social conservatives have been undergoing a shift that has been about ten years in the making; from the mainline evangelical figures’ control of the movement through James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and other larger-than-life figures to many neo-Pentecostals, charismatic, and non-denominational figures. It’s the reason why John McCain didn’t go to the usual suspects in 2008, but went to John Hagee, to Rod Parsley, to Sarah Palin. 

It’s not all “white” either. Most associate Eddie Long, for instance, with his recent sex scandal, but Long was big in anti-gay marriage battles and his prosperity gospel messages were laced with a bit of dominion-style messages. Still, New Birth also hosted Coretta Scott King’s funeral, and Bernice King was an associate pastor there until stepping down this year. Long’s stature is diminished now that New Birth has paid out five accusers. 

The fact of the matter is, the players have shifted, the playing field is broad, complex and worldwide, and religious conservatives’ role in American electoral politics is still strong. To cite Led Zeppelin, the song remains the same. Only the players of the song have changed, and they’ve added some old and new instruments to make their performances of religiosity and political action remain the same moral tune. 

 

Sarah: Yes. I totally agree about these blithe dismissals of dominionism. As Julie Ingersoll argued last week, it’s irresponsible to dismiss it.

But I do think that people have been distracted by focusing too much on bizarre statements Perry’s prayer friends made (the Statue of Liberty is a demonic idol, Oprah is the harlot of Babylon, and so forth)—and that has made some people think that dominionism is just a bunch of demon chasers with a militant-sounding theology who want to take over the world.

That’s too narrow, and I think has (1) opened a door for the dominionism deniers, and (2) caused people to overlook some of the real-world creations of dominionism. The religious right has, in so many ways, succeeded in creating institutions meant to supplant “secular” ones. One of the founders of Oral Roberts University law school (where Michele Bachmann earned her law degree) called this his “dominion mandate.” Look at Regent University, where Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell earned his graduate degrees, or Liberty University Law School, where students are taught to engage in “civil disobedience” when a court order conflicts, in their view, with “biblical law,” or the Alliance Defense Fund, a law firm created to take on cases that would result in overturning of Supreme Court jurisprudence on separation of church and state. That’s the sort of thing dominionism has actually accomplished, in the legal field alone.

I’m glad you brought up Long, for two reasons. One is that he (and countless others) represent how televangelism has evolved since the founding of the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the early 1970s. It’s the only nonprofit enterprise I can think of in which taxpayers essentially subsidize exploiting religion for profit. (Remember that media is one of the spheres of influence in which the religious right has sought to create a Christian challenge to secular institutions.) Long was one of the Grassley Six—the half-dozen televangelists probed by Sen. Charles Grassley for using donor funds for personal enrichment. Pressure from the religious right forced Grassley to essentially punt on the investigation, and conclude that such ministries can govern themselves. (Grassley’s staff also recommended that the Internal Revenue Service repeal its rule prohibiting electioneering by churches.) The Christian Nation at work.

The second reason is Long managed to earn a lot of cash and cow his parishioners into submission. He accomplished this by combining dominionism, “spiritual authority,” and the God-blesses-those-who-enrich-me theology of the prosperity gospel. When I was reporting my book, I saw Long give a heavy-handed appeal for money during one of TBN’s “Praise-A-Thons” to an audience that clearly didn’t have the money to spare for lining the pockets of Christian television titans. Long was presented as a prophet; he learned the “spiritual authority” and “kingdom order” from the same teacher as Earl Paulk, and earlier in his career, T.D. Jakes. Here’s how Long applied the pressure:

For Long, the telethon presents just another opportunity to preach on his kingdom theology, in which he merges old-fashioned dominionism—the right of Christians to take control over the earth—with a very contemporary form of individualistic, self-centered ambition achieved through righteous militarism. Long has moved beyond name and and claimed it. Long is into possessing it—it being not just the earth but the early things on it, the airwaves, the realm of political discourse. “We are not just raising money for now, we are raising the Holy Ghost to rule and reign on Earth now!”

Long’s career was felled not by a Senate investigation, but by a sex scandal (his accusers, young male parishioners at his church, charged that he used his spiritual authority to coerce them into sex). In investigating televangelism scandals, I found one verse from Scripture quoted repeatedly, in reference to attempts to question leaders: “Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.” (Psalm 105:15). I’ve interviewed people who truly believed that if they questioned even some minor point made by their pastor, that God would curse them.

But for every Long there are countless “prophets” and “apostles” influenced possibly by Wagner but also by other profiteering “teachers” who guide them on how to plant and grow a church, turn it into a profit-making enterprise, and keep the faithful giving and obeying. When a powerful political institution—say, the Family Research Council—partners with one of these lesser-known players, it doesn’t show that the religious right is dead because it has lost a number of figureheads from the 1970s; it shows just how successful it has been in creating a diverse bench of “anointed” leaders. When a presidential candidate reaches out to them, it shows how Doug Wead’s 1985 advice to George H.W. Bush has become a standard blueprint for winning the GOP nomination and even the presidency. His one thousand targets, though, have multiplied.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.