I’m writing from Washington, D.C., where we are bracing for a historic blizzard that might dump more than two feet of snow on the area. Grocery and hardware stores are being emptied of food, batteries, candles, shovels, ice melt, toilet paper, flashlights and nearly everything else. The public transportation system is shutting down. Widespread power outages are expected. The governor of Maryland has warned residents to have enough supplies for a week.
Meanwhile, in a galaxy not very far away, the infighting in the Republican presidential primary continues to lay bare divides in the religious right. With Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump, he and Ted Cruz are battling over who has garnered the most love from Christian conservatives, including charismatics and Pentecostals like Palin. Trump’s digs at Cruz are aimed at undermining his support among evangelical Christians in Iowa, where Cruz has seemed poised to challenge Trump’s lead. (Polls seem to show it could go either way.)
Cruz, who has been racking up endorsements from pastors and other religious leaders for the past several weeks, yesterday received yet another nod from a charismatic evangelical figure, suggesting, perhaps, that Palin doesn’t have the juice with the religious right that she did in 2008, when they were (no pun intended) rapturous that John McCain had picked her as a running mate. While the Cruz campaign has in the past announced religious leader endorsements in the form of a list, yesterday it highlighted the endorsement of a single, influential leader: Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City.
“Through prayer, the Lord has changed my life and altered my family’s story,” Cruz’s statement reads. “I am grateful for Mike’s dedication to call a generation of young people to prayer and spiritual commitment. Heidi and I are grateful to have his prayers and support. With the support of Mike and many other people of faith, we will fight the good fight, finish the course, and keep the faith.”
While Cruz presents Bickle as the leader of an “evangelical missions organization based on prayer,” former followers tell a very different story. As I reported for Talking Points Memo in late 2014 (note: the full piece is behind a paywall), former followers “say his theology and practices are a distortion of the Bible, and the spiritual demands placed on followers, including unquestioning obedience to Bickle’s ideas, are authoritarian and abusive.”
Because of the paywall, here’s another relevant excerpt from the piece:
“When I started IHOP I was enamored by Mike’s end-times message and the grandeur of it all,” said Kendall Beachey, who moved from Indiana to Kansas City in 2008, abandoning his college studies to become an IHOP intern. He ended up staying, and graduated in 2012 from IHOPU, which, according to promotional materials, trains “forerunner messengers” to stand against “liberal theology,” “radical Islam,” and “the mediocre expression of Christianity.”
The allure of Bickle’s teaching, said Beachey, is that his followers believe they are the heroes in his end-times vision, which is central to his theology. While it shares a general narrative with other apocalyptic end-times scenarios, Bickle’s view is post-tribulation, rather than pre-tribulation (The tribulation is the period during which, these end-times theories maintain, the Antichrist will reign over the earth, leading to wars, famines, natural disasters, and religious persecution.) Pre-tribulation, the more popularized view, such as in the Left Behind series, holds that Christians will be raptured to heaven before the Great Tribulation on earth. Bickle calls that view “unbiblical,” promising his followers that in his post-tribulation scenario “the Church will be on earth, walking in victory through the Great Tribulation. This will be the Church’s finest hour, when the power of God will be experienced in great measure, surpassing any other time in history.”
“For me,” said Beachey, “this kid who grew up in the Midwest who never had any significance, I had this storyline that gave my life an epic significance.”[Boze] Herrington, who came to IHOP with the [Tyler] Deaton group in early 2009, said that Bickle’s sermon at the popular “One Thing” conference in 2008, “The Coming Eschatological Revolution parts 1 and 2,” convinced the group to move to Grandview. These sermons, Herrington said, were recently removed from the website, but in them Bickle “talks about Jesus killing all the heads of state and there’s a part at the end of the first sermon where he says he saw an angel in his bedroom and had an ‘open vision’ that tanks were rolling across America,” Herrington said. Herrington briefly attended IHOPU and later worked in IHOP’s marketing and editing department, proofreading 30 years of Bickle’s teachings.
Herrington shared with me copies of these sermons which he kept before they were removed from the IHOP website. In one, Bickle said, “The day is coming when every head of state in the United Nations will be killed by the prayers of the saints answered in person by Jesus,” citing Psalm 110:5-6. Responding to anticipated objections to his depiction of a violent Jesus, Bickle added, “Let me tell you, the Jesus of Christmas, peace and goodwill, and the Jesus of Armageddon are the exact same person, and Jesus of Armageddon is executing the kings of the earth in order to establish peace on the earth, because the kings will be joining the greatest oppressor ever to raise up in human history, the Antichrist. These kings will be oppressors in unity with him, and Jesus is coming to confront oppression and drive oppression off the planet and to drive evil off the planet in relationship to the praying Church.”
In a more recent sermon, (and this one is still accessible on the internet), “The Battle for Jerusalem: Litmus Test for the End-Time Church,” which Bickle delivered at IHOP’s annual Israel Mandate Conference in June, Jesus is described as “the head of the army” and “politically the head of the nations.” The armies of the world will gather in Jerusalem, Bickle claimed, “to make war against Jesus.” The world’s “kings” and their armies “will be killed with a sword that comes from the Lord,” after which Jesus will “liberate Jerusalem.”
Some arrive in Kansas City driven by the need for acceptance, said a former IHOPU faculty member. “People have self-esteem needs, and the way they meet them is by attaching themselves to delusions of grandeur.” In this case, he said, they have the idea that “we are the people who are restoring the understanding of Christianity, we are the people who have the greater amount of revelation, we know what God is doing, what is about to come, and the rest of the church has to catch up with us.”
But that can backfire at IHOP—where there are high, possibly unattainable, expectations for demonstrating one’s devotion to God. “I’ve talked to many people who don’t feel loved,” the former faculty member said. “They feel like they’re a failure to God.”
For those who persevere and stay, the draw of IHOP’s elitism is what holds them, he added. “Implicitly it’s taught that we are the epicenter,” leading to a fear that if they leave, “they won’t have the same level of spiritual growth.”
As my reporting on IHOP shows, Bickle is not universally admired in Christian circles; in fact many conservative Christians are dismayed by both his unorthodox theology and IHOP’s methods.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his religious endorsements, Cruz’s conservative Christian credibility is a target for his opponents. A brand new Super PAC is attacking him in an Iowa radio ad, calling him “phony.” The ad, first reported by Politico, questions Cruz’s dedication to conservative Christian causes, like opposition to marriage equality. But it goes on to also question his commitment to tithing to his church. For evangelical Christians, tithing to their church is a biblical requirement. But many televangelists and their imitators pressure their congregants to tithe ten percent of their income to their church, regardless of their economic circumstances, in some cases urging them to tithe even more they pay their rent.
Is the tithing slap at Cruz meant to attract evangelicals who merely see tithing as an obligation, or to proponents of the prosperity gospel, who believe that if they tithe generously to their pastor or to a televangelist, God will bless them with riches in return? (The Super PAC, Americans United for Values, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Trump, who is running neck and neck with Cruz in Iowa, has aligned himself with some televangelists. Trump’s embrace of controversial televangelists started during his failed 2012 run, and continued with his 2016 run—although Kenneth Copeland, possibly the most well-known of the group that laid hands on Trump last fall, denied that the prayerful meeting was an endorsement. Palin’s endorsement created a duo of a candidate and a former candidate whose styles are more like televangelists than politicians.
But that hardly means that there’s a televangelist vote that’s lining up for Trump while other evangelicals favor another candidate. David Barton, who is heading up Super PACs supporting Cruz and is reviled by many evangelicals who are throwing their support to Marco Rubio, is a frequent guest on Christian programming, pushing his historically debunked claims about the Christian intentions of the founding fathers.
Cruz may have gotten another boost this week. The publisher Stephen Strang, whose Charisma magazine is targeted at charismatics and Pentecostals and often features profiles of and features by televangelists, also endorsed him.
As I wrote in my 2014 piece about Bickle’s International House of Prayer, “Strang, the influential publisher of Charisma magazine, which has published articles by Bickle as well as laudatory accounts of his career, wrote critically of the ‘muted voice’ of the National Association of Evangelicals,” arguing that “it’s time” for “the Spirit-filled community to stand up and take the lead.”
In his Cruz endorsement, Strang posits that non-charismatic evangelicals have been “most involved in the political process,” but they “tend to split their votes among several conservative candidates in the primaries,” which leads to a “moderate” Republican nominee who loses. “Those in the mushy middle like Bob Dole, John McCain or Mitt Romney lose,” Strang writes.
This is exactly the dynamic that is giving the Republican establishment (to the extent it still exists) heartburn. In fact, Bob Dole himself has something to say about Strang’s favored candidate. Reacting to a possible Cruz nomination, the 92 year-old Dole this week warned of “cataclysmic” losses for the GOP with the “extremist” Senator at the top of the ticket. But which of the other candidates could get realistically get the nomination? “I think it’s Trump,” said Dole.