In the middle of October, with the economy in free fall and the McCain-Palin campaign not far behind, Lou Engle, founder of The Call, which organizes stadium-sized fasting and prayer rallies, sent out an urgent e-mail to supporters. “We are in a moment of extraordinary crisis in America,” was his ominous warning. “These elections will shape the future of our nation for decades.”
With many Americans wondering whether the global financial system was about to implode, Engle’s mind was elsewhere. He was summoning his followers to what he termed “the most significant Call ever,” which will be held at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium just three days before the election.Organizing his California rally, Engle has deployed the same rhetorical weapon used by Protect Marriage, the main organizational supporter of Proposition 8 (the gay marriage ban on the state’s ballot on November 4.) Turning San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s words, “as California goes, so goes the nation,” on their head, Engle and his allies are portraying California as the bellwether of a national, apocalyptic slide into an irredeemable moral abyss of sexual immorality.
The same tactic, more broadly drawn, is driving all sectors of the fundamentalist right as the election draws near and polls show Obama ahead: one vote can make a difference in this Esther moment, and every Christian’s vote counts in the quest to save America from Jezebel’s designs.
While stirring up fears that Satan is taking over America hasn’t helped McCain in recent polls, surveys in California show a tight battle over Proposition 8, with some polls showing support for the ban running slightly ahead of opposition. Engle is a key part of a formidable and well-funded strategy, run by religious right political organizations and churches, to amend the state’s constitution to prohibit gay marriage, overturning the decision of the “activist judges” of the California Supreme Court.
Engle, a leading figure in the Third Wave Charismatic movement, praised by many cohorts for his raising up of an army of spiritual warriors for revival, has now emerged as a key political mobilizer of young Pentecostals and Charismatics for the religious right. But Engle, whose previous forays into politics focused on anti-abortion protests, is entering new territory by injecting himself into electoral politics, says Margaret Poloma, a sociologist at the University of Akron and an expert on Pentecostals and Charismatics, who first met Engle in the 1990s. “I never thought he was going to launch on his own that way.”
Engle has intertwined his longtime core issue, abortion, with his opposition to gay marriage by pinning both issues to the necessity of appointing judges who won’t allow what Engle calls “Antichrist legislation” to stand. He maintains that the prayers of his young spiritual warriors, who pray and fast at a Capitol Hill location known as the Justice House of Prayer, were responsible for the current, more conservative composition of the Supreme Court. Engle’s protegés regularly demonstrate silently in front of the Supreme Court, their lips sealed—symbolic of the silence of what they believe are murdered unborn children—by red “LIFE” stickers. As shown in the documentary Jesus Camp, Engle recruits warriors as early as elementary school for his cause.
The Call’s advisory board is stacked with prominent Pentecostal and Charismatic preachers, leading figures in the controversial Apostolic movement, which is elevating a new generation of self-appointed prophets and apostles, African-American and Latino religious leaders, Charismatic publishing giant Stephen Strang, and religious right leaders like Perkins, Harry Jackson, and Gary Bauer.
The religious right political leadership’s keen interest in Engle was evident at The Call held on the National Mall in August. The day before the event, the public relations firm Shirley Bannister introduced Engle—flanked by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins and former Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee—at a press conference just a few blocks from the White House. Perkins, one of the most visible political leaders on the religious right, noted Engle’s influence on young evangelicals, who he claimed were even more conservative on abortion than their parents, though he cited no surveys or polls to support the claim.
At the time, Engle claimed that The Call was not interjecting itself into presidential politics, but he was clearly opposed to Obama. “We’re not endorsing a candidate but challenging language of those who would say we’re Christian politicians who say that we want abortion to be rare but have voted 100% for live-birth abortion, partial-birth abortion,” Engle told reporters. “America is looking for a king, but what we need is a return to God.” Engle was lukewarm about McCain, but a few weeks later, after McCain tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate, Engle ramped up his support for the Republican ticket, likening Palin to the biblical Queen Esther who saved her people from destruction.
When he was in Washington, I asked Engle whether young evangelicals were looking for the kind of revival he was preaching about, in light of heightened interest in issues beyond abortion and gay marriage. “I don’t mean the old time Pentecostal [revival],” Engle replied, “but real returning to God with wholehearted love. [Young evangelicals] return to scriptures as the foundation. And when that scripture is revealed, and when they read Psalm 139, ‘you formed me in my mother’s womb’, ‘before I was born you knew me,’ this becomes more than doctrine, it becomes experience. It becomes knowing the love of God for the individual from the beginning of his life, he’s not an accident, they’re not a piece of protoplasm. They become fervent and vote on that issue.”
That fervency was evident on The Mall the next day in a racially diverse crowd estimated by organizers at 50,000 or more. The Call events, which Engle says are based on the solemn assemblies and fasts of Joel 2, demand repentance, prayer, and fasting in preparation for Christ’s return. “I am an end-time warrior!” attendees were commanded to declare. End-times prophecy mingled with Christian rock music, and the day saw a parade of well-known activist speakers, including Huckabee and Perkins, Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney, and Teen Mania founder Ron Luce.
Engle, per his custom, likened his crusade against abortion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. He rocked back and forth, as though davening, preached against Roe v. Wade, and shouted, as the crowd prayed and spoke in tongues, “this is a Passover Day for America. Today, we plead the blood of Jesus on the doorpost!” Purity covenants, requiring abstention from even thinking about sex outside of marriage, were distributed. Participants were urged to consecrate themselves, to be ready for the moment when Jesus “is going to rule over Washington DC and the world.”
“Repentance and revival cannot start in the building behind me,” said Huckabee, his back to the Capitol, “until it starts in the temple inside me.”
The notion that Christ’s followers, his bride, have been unfaithful to their bridegroom, was pervasive. “God will not share you with any other lover,” Engle told the crowd, standing in the blazing summer sun. “We’ve been adulterers” to God, he went on, “but we’re going to return to our wedding vows.”
Engle and his cofounder of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, evangelist Mike Bickle, insist that continual prayer is required for this covenantal relationship to be restored in preparation for Jesus’ return. Bickle said, “God wants to build a global house of prayer before Jesus returns,” and Engle called it “a global army of prayer in the last days.”
“Do you believe America can change?” Bickle demanded. “God will not do it without continual prayer.”
James Antoine, a 36-year-old Wal-Mart pharmacy employee from Houston, told me he spent a week at the Kansas City IHOP, where young people pray around the clock, which he called “powerful and life-changing.” (Antoine, who is African American, would not tell me who he was voting for but said he could not vote for a candidate who favored abortion rights.) IHOP “stirs young people,” Antoine told me, and “keeps them continuously alert about the end-times. So they can’t be distracted because they’re continuously being bombarded by the preaching of the end-times so it’s continuously on their heart and their minds.”
This kind of prayer—where young people deprive themselves of the earthly, and are so enmeshed in Bickle’s end-times theology that they can think of nothing else—is the weapon in spiritual warfare against Satan. “The enemy,” added Antoine, “has crept in unaware in our schools and universities, even in the world at large. We have not stood up. Even taking prayer out of schools, taking the Ten Commandments. He wants to remove everything that is godly. But God has called us to rise up and say it has to stop… they’ve already ruled ‘In God We Trust’ off of money. The enemy is doing all these things to bombard us. But we’ve got to do like this, we’ve got to stand back up.”
Joshua Tombley, a 19-year-old wearing jeans and a T-shirt and sporting just a few sprouts of facial hair, cheerfully discussed the end-times scenario as a marriage, linking it to Judaism. (All day, Jews were exhorted to discover Jesus.) “The church is the bride of Christ, and Jesus is the bridegroom,” said Tombley, who was passing out business cards advertising a House of Prayer, unaffiliated with Engle, in Newport News, Virginia. “In Jewish culture, you had to spend a year or more in your father’s house before you could actually get married… So God will send back Jesus to get his bride as in Jewish custom, as Jews, as Hebrews did for thousands of years, that custom was the tradition that God is working in now.”
“My theology is the Lord says ‘be ye ready when I come,’” added Antoine. “We have to be prepared, we should always be ready.”
Engle unabashedly credits prayer for George W. Bush’s presidency and his subsequent appointment of Supreme Court Justices who upheld the ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion.” “The praying church deals with the demonic realm, so that God raises up one and brings down the other,” Engle said in a recent video on The Call’s Web site, explaining how prayer proved victorious over satanic forces in the spiritual warfare of an election, adding, “I directly attribute [Bush’s election] to the prayers of the saints.”
Young people at his House of Prayer, said Engle, had been praying about judges for three years when Sandra Day O’Connor retired and William Rehnquist died. As if to prove to his acolytes that their prayer and fasting is not in vain, Engle maintains that their prayers and prophecies shaped the Supreme Court. “One of the young ladies had a dream,” Engle asserted, “that a man named John Roberts would be the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.” He beams with pride. “Don’t you think those kids were baptized with confidence? Their prayers, I believe, were literally moving a king to appoint a justice who has now led a court that has banned partial-birth abortion. Don’t tell me prayer doesn’t shape a nation.”
In one of several laudatory e-mails about Palin, Engle recently began to label Obama as Satan more explicitly. “The ideological beast of Obama’s worldview has been drawn out of its lair and now stands naked and exposed by Palin’s compassion and conviction. The beast,” he continued, “is hunting our children, our nation’s destiny, and us. The rage of the media against Palin simply further exposes the moral bankruptcy, bigotry, and lack of compassion of liberalism.”
Engle insists that he, an ardent foe of abortion, and not Obama, is MLK’s ideological heir. He likened the media to segregationists, calling them “Obama’s court prophets… Selma’s new sheriffs of the South beating the new heirs of the civil rights movement—the millions of unborn children attacked in the womb.” But despite his militant exhortation to go to war with fellow Americans, his followers see a divine hand. “I think,” said Tombley, “he’s chosen by God to do what he’s doing right now.”