Reza Aslan is the host of the new spiritual adventure series Believer, which tackles the battle between evangelical Christianity and Vodou in Haiti in this Sunday’s episode on CNN 7PT/10ET.
After the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, the popular televangelist Pat Robertson went on his flagship TV program, the 700 Club, and made an extraordinary claim. The earthquake, he said, was just one consequence of a pact with the devil made by Haiti’s revolutionary founders.
“[The Haitians] were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”
Most people – including most Christians – who heard Robertson’s statement were aghast. But for a small group of evangelicals who adhere to a fairly new Christian movement called Spiritual Mapping, Robertson was preaching the gospel truth.
Not long ago I spent some time with Spiritual Mappers in Haiti for my new spiritual adventure series Believer following the research trail of religion scholar Elizabeth McAlister. What I found was a group of devout missionaries who view themselves as warriors fighting a spiritual battle against Haiti’s ancestral religion, Vodou, for the very soul of the nation.
The concept of Spiritual Mapping originated among a right-wing Christian movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Think Pentecostalism, but with an adrenaline shot. These mostly white, mostly American evangelicals believe that the world is in the grip of a cosmic conflict between God and Satan. That means that every earthly problem or concern – whether political, economic, or military – is merely the result of a spiritual battle taking place in the heavens between the forces of good and evil for control over humanity.
Imagine laying out a map of the world and covering all of the nations and states with little figurines of angels and demons representing “Christian” and “demonic” territories. That’s how Spiritual Mappers view the world. Their goal is to go into the “enemy strongholds” and counter the demonic forces gathered there through prayer and conversion to Christianity.
All of which brings us back to Haiti. For this tiny island nation has somehow become Ground Zero for the Spiritual Mapping movement.
Pat Robertson’s comment about Haitians swearing a pact with the devil in exchange for freedom from the French is an allusion to an event that took place in Haiti on August 14, 1791. On that date, several hundred slaves from different ethnic groups came together in a place called Bois Caiman to conduct a Vodou ceremony. They sacrificed a pig to the lwa (the spirits of Vodou), and vowed that they would do whatever it took to break free from their bonds.
What followed was the only successful slave revolution in the history of the world. Somehow, the Haitian slaves – armed with little more than farm tools – miraculously defeated the mighty French army. They threw off their shackles, declared independence, and founded the first independent black republic in the Americas.
For Haitians – indeed for blacks everywhere – the events at Bois Caiman are a source of immense pride. For Spiritual Mappers, it is the explanation for all of Haiti’s subsequent woes.
Today, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Over half of its population lives under two dollars a day. Its infant-mortality rate is 2.5 times higher than its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. The devastating earthquake of 2010 not only shattered much of the country’s infrastructure, it left as many as 300,000 dead.
According to the Spiritual Mappers, these conditions are not the result of socio-economic instability. They are not the legacy of what is widely regarded as history’s most brutal example of the slave trade. Rather, every single one of Haiti’s problems is the result of that Vodou ceremony at Bois Caiman, and the “pact with the devil” made by its brave revolutionaries.
Simply put, Haiti is poor and unstable because of Vodou. And so the only way to make Haiti wealthy and stable is to rid the country of Vodou.
By pushing this argument, Spiritual Mappers have shifted the Haitian national narrative from one of heroic freedom from slavery, to one in which the Haitians are still slaves – only now it’s to the devil instead of the French. It is, therefore, up to these Christians to truly liberate Haitians from their spiritual bondage.
As Vodou expert Elizabeth McAlister explains, “by linking Vodou’s distinctively African-based spirituality directly with evil, [these] evangelicals construct a theology that is racist and intolerant.”
Although the Spiritual Mapping movement is a tiny fringe among evangelical Christians – and despite the fact that the vast majority of Christian missionaries in Haiti are doing selfless work feeding the hungry and educating the poor – its influence has grown enormously in recent years. Two ministries from the movement orchestrated Rick Perry’s huge prayer rally in 2011, while another prayed to protect Sarah Palin from witchcraft in 2005.
Of course, as with many other fringe movements, Spiritual Mappers now find themselves wielding a measure of influence over the White House. Last year, then-Republican candidate Donald Trump tapped Spiritual Warfare proponent Frank Amedia as his Christian Policy Adviser.
Amedia was one of a large number of Christian missionaries who flooded into Haiti shortly after the 2010 earthquake. Except that, unlike the missionaries who were there to provide food and relief to poor and suffering Haitians, Amedia and his Spiritual Mapping ministry seem to have had an altogether different agenda.
“We would give food to the needy in the short term,” he told the AP “but if they refused to give up Voodoo [sic], I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft, which is contrary to the Gospel.”
And therein lies the danger of this small but deeply disturbing subset of evangelical Christianity. For in linking all the world’s ills with demonic forces, the Spiritual Mapping movement engages in what to me is a truly evil act: the manipulation of the poor and hungry by the wealthy and well-fed all in the name of whose religion is best.
Safa Samiezade-Yazd provided additional reporting for this article.
You can read McAlister’s article on Spiritual Mapping in Haiti here. Elizabeth McAlister. “From Slave Revolt to a Blood Pact with Satan: The Evangelical Rewriting of Haitian History” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 41.2 (2012). Available at: http://works.bepress.com/elizabeth_mcalister/37