The New Christianity: What the Mainstream Media Has Missed

In May 2008, Bruce Wilson, co-founder of the blog Talk2Action, made a short video featuring a recording of Pastor John Hagee preaching about how God had sent Hitler to hunt the Jews and force them to Israel. The video went viral and McCain was forced to disassociate himself and repudiate Hagee’s endorsement. Hagee slunk off the national stage.

Flash forward to September of last year. McCain (now the GOP’s presidential candidate) chooses a relatively obscure political figure, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, as his running mate. When a CNN reporter asked a GOP campaign spokesperson about Palin’s religious beliefs, she would only say that “the Republican vice presidential candidate has ‘deep religious convictions.’”

Wilson began looking into Palin’s religious background. What he found was far more interesting than the fairly run-of-the-mill Christian Zionism of someone like Hagee.

Bruce, can you explain what you found when you started looking into Sarah Palin’s religious background and affiliations?

Bruce Wilson: Sarah Palin is, broadly speaking, in the emerging postdenominational movement, which by 2000 encompassed 385 million Christians and is vastly different from the faith as it has been practiced in recent centuries. We identified Palin as in a majority tendency of postdenominationalism known as the neocharismatic movement, or the “Third Wave.”

Evangelical missionary reference work World Christian Trends calls the Third Wave “a new and disturbingly different” kind of Christianity whose members “can accurately be called radical Christians with some pentecostal /charismatic parallels” and which has, as one of the distinctive characteristics of Third Wave Christian ministry, a heavy emphasis on healing miracles including raising the dead—an emphasis promoted from the pulpit in sermons at Palin’s most central church, the Wasilla Assembly of God.

We also found extensive evidence that Palin is in a religious movement founded in 2001 that has coalesced out of Third Wave Christianity; the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR).

The NAR is bent on radically reinventing Christianity, and is fast becoming the vanguard of the global Christian Right. Its leaders have openly declared that their aim of achieving worldwide biblical government and a utopian age in which evil—as an ontological category—has been banished by purging demon spirits and unbelievers from the earth.

Palin is directly, personally linked to not one but two major NAR leaders, Windwalkers Ministry International founder Mary Glazier and Thomas Muthee—who have both publicly described battling alleged witches with prayer-warfare. Through Glazier, Palin appears to be under the authority of the man who founded the NAR and has announced the advent of a second Reformation, C. Peter Wagner.

Charismatic manifestations as extreme as raising the dead aren’t what is problematic about Palin’s religious tendencies; Third Wave and NAR theology is militantly anti-pluralistic and anti-democratic, the quintessence of Christian religious supremacy.

While our work recognized the need for a basic reassessment of the impact the charismatic movement has had on Christianity and, increasingly, on American religion and politics, it also highlighted the mainstream media’s failure to inform American voters about Palin, who might now have been just a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Why do you think your revelations about Palin didn’t catch on with the mainstream media?

I’ve been pondering that question for several months, and I’ve come up with two related levels of explanation.

The first is simply that what our stories described sounded outlandish—millions of Christians worldwide are trying to bring about an earthly utopia by driving out demons alleged to infest cities and towns, inanimate objects (cars, alarm clocks, rosary beads, big rocks, toothbrushes whatever), as well as entire ethnic groups. It sounds, until one gets used to the proposition that demons are omnipresent in day-to-day life, absurd.

The obvious question in many of our readers’ minds was I’m sure: Why haven’t I heard of this before?

The implication seemed to be that much of the journalism on religion and politics to come out over the last decade has missed massive, global changes in Christianity that carry profound political implications. Historian Philip Jenkins wrote about the enormity of those changes, which he likened to a second Reformation, in a 2002 article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Next Christianity.”

There’s actually quite a significant body of scholarship on the rise of Third Wave Christianity and even on the New Apostolic Reformation. But to find it one has to be aware those movements exist. The few mainstream journalists who interviewed us, leading up to November 4, were far less skeptical after we sent them some reference material to let them know we weren’t writing creative fiction.

Three points of reference we used were Alix Spiegel’s 1997 This American Life radio story, “Pray” (about the strange goings on at Ted Haggard’s New Life Church); Jane Lampman’s two September 1999 Christian Science Monitor stories on The World Prayer Center and the ‘spiritual mapping’ movement; and René Holvast’s 2005 dissertation for the University of Utrecht, “Spiritual Mapping: The Turbulent Career of a Contested American Paradigm,” which has been reworked into a book published last November.

So, our stories connected Palin to a religious movement that relatively few Americans know even exists, which looks acts and holds theological beliefs—even a basic outlook on life—that is very different from what secular and liberal America might think or envision as coming from the ‘religious right.’ And the religious ideas powering the movement are very strange, novel that is, compared to Christian theology of the past several hundred years.

The challenge: How do authors, amidst the tumult of a presidential election, establish an audience for explaining a new school of thought that cuts radically against the grain of orthodox thought?

Had we been able to plausibly link her to any of a number of cults or minor religions that people had at least heard of before, our work might actually have stuck in people’s minds. So there weren’t any cognitive reference points. Memory is relational—new information that fits preexisting patterns of knowledge tends to stick. Information that doesn’t tends not to. I suspect much of our writing got momentarily noticed, as being in the “oh, that’s really weird!” perceptual category, then was rapidly forgotten.

The headlines of our stories were provocative enough: “Palin’s Movement Urges Godly to Plunder Wealth of Godless”; “Palin Linked to Second Witch Hunter”; “Palin’s Spiritual Warfare Network Partners With Homeland Security”; “Palin put Religious War Advocate on Alaska Suicide Prevention Council.”

Our work did get out through some smaller progressive media platforms: Radio talk-show host Thom Hartmann (and a few other hosts) interviewed me. On the Internet, Mark Karlin of Buzzflash strongly promoted our work, accurately dubbing Palin a ‘Manchurian candidate.’

New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein interviewed us at considerable length and quoted me in her NYT story on Palin. She was one of the few journalists assigned to the beat (Garance Burke, writing for the Associated Press, also stood out) who got it. Her story, without actually naming the New Apostolic Reformation, covered much of what was important for her readers to know about the distinctive nature of Palin’s faith and religious associations.

Despite gaining broad distribution on the Internet, I think that our work didn’t spread deeply into the mainstream media because we didn’t have access to big enough distribution channels. While we were posting on some alternative news services, such as Alternet and Buzzflash, The Daily Kos and The Huffington Post, many of the biggest liberal political blogs didn’t pick up our stories.

I would add two other factors: when some mainstream media outlets did stories which, to be honest, seemed to be quite heavily derivative of our work, they didn’t credit us; and our stories may have been too dense for the 24/7 news cycle and too full of unrecognized names of individuals, organizations, and concepts.

We were very careful with our facts and as we’ve both continued our research, we’ve learned that our stories were more on target than we knew at the time.

Some religious Web sites responded favorably to your work.

Yes, perhaps the most enthusiastic response we got was from classic fundamentalists—Pre-millennial Apocalyptic Dispensationalists, to be specific. Those folks were reposting our stories, in their entirety, on their Web sites, and they praised our work for accurately describing the NAR and its theology. They’ve been aware of the movement for years, and most of the good oppositional research on it, up until now, has been done by fundamentalists—religious traditionalists in essence, who consider the New Apostolic Reformation to be a dangerous and possibly satanic heresy.

The rift seemed to go straight to the heart of the hard right: one of our stories about Palin and the NAR was reposted in its entirety on the Free Republic Web site, then a fight broke out between pro and anti-NAR site members. It was astounding!

You produced over twenty stories and several videos on Palin. What are your plans for the future?

The short answer is: books, longer and more ambitious articles, and even a full length video documentary or two. The New Apostolic movement relies heavily on visual media and pop music (much of it now carried over the Internet) for organizing and projecting its ideas, and for creating the movement’s sensual, experiential allure. So, there’s a vast amount of rich media to draw on, much of it—in terms of advertising and PR—cutting edge.

In terms of writing, I feel drawn toward unpacking how the existing lines of ideological conflict we see in our time came to be. That’s crucial, I feel, and it’s part of a craft I’ve just found a term for: ‘parapolitics’—the shaping of cultural precepts which form ideologies that in turn drive politics. The right has long been waging parapolitics but, especially in the religious sphere, the left seems to have largely forgotten it exists.