The New Disciples: Report from South Carolina

Greenville, SC— Friday night, at the Forerunner House of Prayer in Easley, South Carolina, Tallulah Dalton, a registered nurse at a local hospital, was preaching to about 20 people in the back room of Cornerstone Christian and Music Supply, an expansive box store of instruments, music, and books, on a stretch of rural highway about 20 miles west of Greenville.

She’s teaching on “how to be Christ-like,” because, she contends, the end-times are near. These self-anointed “intercessors,” or “end-times warriors,” see themselves as modern-day apostles and prophets, purifying the kingdom, “transforming” cities, regions, and the country through a new Great Awakening, preparing the world for Christ’s return.

FHOP, along with the Greenville House of Prayer, is promoting The Response, the mega-prayer rally first launched by Texas Governor Rick Perry last August, a week before he announced his now virtually defunct presidential candidacy. The Response’s organizers are organizing events at the state level, with the first one held in Iowa in early December, and one in Greenville scheduled for Tuesday.

Dalton, who told me she was definitely voting in Saturday’s primary here, refused to say for whom, intimating that she did not want to sway or cause dissension in her tiny congregation.

When I asked her whether she believed a God-anointed candidate was even in the race, she replied, “I think it’s a possibility, that maybe that person don’t know it quite yet.”

The chief motivation behind The Response, she maintained, is “not so much to encourage people to vote as much as it is to encourage people to seek God on behalf on this nation, that the right person would get into office. Obviously we believe God is sovereign. I believe whoever is in office will be by His hand. I just have that much faith in His sovereignty.”

Counterfeit Christians?

Last August, The Response appeared to be an effort to get the religious right to coalesce around a Perry candidacy. But since his spectacular free-fall, some of the most visible promoters of The Response have abandoned him for other candidates: Don Wildmon, the founder of the virulently anti-gay American Family Association, which bankrolled the event, endorsed Newt Gingrich just before the Iowa caucuses. Jim Garlow, the California megachurch pastor who campaigned vigorously for the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 (who also heads Gingrich’s nonprofit, Renewing American Leadership) endorsed him as well. The day before Dalton’s prayer meeting, the Gingrich campaign touted the endorsement of Tim LaHaye, an early architect of the religious right and co-author of the Left Behind series of novels. Yet the day after Dalton and her followers prayed “for a righteous man to be released into the White House,” a group of elite evangelical leaders convened in Texas and in three rounds of voting settled on a consensus around Rick Santorum.

Dalton’s prayer group occupies a different space than the conservative activists who spend time poring over voting records, attending campaign events, or gathering with fellow travelers at the GOP-sponsored debate Monday in Myrtle Beach, or Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting there.

Still, though, the national elites had pressed for and endorsed The Response. At last summer’s event, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called it “the highlight of my life” and praised the “next generation” of evangelicals. The old guard of the religious right isn’t blind to new religious movements in its midst, even the 24/7 prayer movement Tallulah Dalton has been swept into. Some conservatives actually consider it heretical, or unbiblical—suggesting that these self-anointed apostles and prophets are the “false prophets” the Bible warns of. (One of these critics, the blogger/activist Marsha West, says The Response participants associated with the New Apostolic Reformation are not Christians, but rather “counterfeits.”)

But when Dobson gazed out at the tens of thousands of attendees at Reliant Stadium in August, he saw a sea of young faces—white, black, Latino—who ardently believe their prayers can save the unsaved, and, in turn, the nation. Jesus is the panacea. The 2012 presidential primary is just one little blip in their quest to ready the nation for a Great Awakening.

The national press focuses on the most visible activists, the ones who appear to be driving the candidates to pander to their issues and worldviews. They look to the meeting of evangelical leaders in Texas, local megachurch pastors, or local power brokers like Bob Vander Plaats in Iowa. (Vander Plaats endorsed Santorum, but that failed to fulfill the Christian right’s wish to vanquish Mitt Romney.) At the South Carolina Citizens for Life Rally in Columbia on Saturday, that conventional story was on view: voters for whom abortion is the number one motivating issue, trying to send that message to both candidates and observers.

There, on the statehouse steps, another kind of conservative evangelicalism was on view: that of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting fame, who have endorsed Santorum. That these icons of the contraception-eschewing wing of evangelicalism marched behind the Knights of Columbus, carrying the Knights’ “Defend Life” posters, exemplifies the intensifying unity between conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics, particularly on reproductive access issues. If there was any doubt about whether the aim was more political than spiritual, Jim Bob encouraged people in the crowd to run for local office, with the aim of permanently making abortion illegal. You don’t even need political experience, he said. “Being pro-life is your credential.”

But across South Carolina—and indeed the country—voters attend tiny churches, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. Their collective views on the candidates are much more difficult to measure and assess. And while they may be consumers of Christian talk radio, or televangelism, or other religious media, they are not lock-step followers of the decisions of elites who met at a ranch in Texas, or of Jim Bob Duggar, or of anything but their own received revelation. 

Anointing of High Priests

Tallulah Dalton, the South Carolina nurse, found a home for her ministry just a year and a half ago in the spare back room of Cornerstone Christian store—which also houses the local post office. The owner, Art Maco, who tells me he came to Christ after spending the 1980s playing guitar in a heavy metal band, brings that musical aesthetic to the FHOP prayer and worship band, which performs under a banner that quotes Leviticus 6:13: “Where the fire on the altar shall never go out.” In the Hebrew Bible, this verse is part of the passage describing the offering required for the high priest’s anointment, and in particular, the sacrificial offering made by Aaron and his sons.

I’ve met many preachers like Dalton before: with no theological or church training, little more than a revelation propels them to take to the pulpit, and people follow. It’s an old story in American religion, but one that gets overlooked in the age of the megachurch (although many megachurch pastors got their start this way).

Dalton told me that around 2000, “God kept speaking two things to me,” the word “forerunner,” and the phrase, “Tabernacle of David.”

“I didn’t have a clue what it meant,” Dalton told me. She searched the word forerunner on the internet, and the first result was the Kansas City International House of Prayer, the 24/7 prayer venue founded by evangelists Mike Bickle and Lou Engle, who is also the leader of anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-Muslim The Call revival rallies across the country.

In 2002, the Kansas City IHOP was having a “forerunner conference,” Dalton said, “so I went halfway across the United States to find out what God was speaking to me. And it clarified a lot of things.” She came back to Pickens County and founded the Forerunner House of Prayer.

Mike Bickle, who played a central preaching role at The Response in Houston, has preached at Engle’s Call events alongside national figures like Mike Huckabee and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins. On the National Mall in 2008, Bickle made clear his end-times beliefs: “God wants to build a global house of prayer before Jesus returns.” He maintains his prayer movement, led by self-anointed prophets and apostles like Dalton fanning out across the country and the world, will spark a Great Awakening, a purification of the kingdom for Christ to return. The purity that he emphasizes is primarily sexual; Engle has preached against “Antichrist legislation” (any legalization of abortion or same-sex marriage); Bickle has said the “homosexual agenda” is “exploding” and that marriage equality is a satanic “deception” that is “rooted in the depths of hell.”

His view of the end-times sets Bickle apart from many other evangelicals and Pentecostals, including many, oddly, with whom he has shared the stage at The Call and The Response events. Texas televangelist John Hagee, for example, who spoke at The Response and whose San Antonio church brought busloads of congregants, preaches a pre-millenial view: that the rapture will be followed by a period of tribulation, followed by the Christ’s return for the showdown with the Antichrist at Armageddon. Huckabee, who spoke at The Call at the 2008 Washington event, shares that view as well. Major religious right figures have dismissed these theological differences as inconsequential to the larger shared political agenda.

But in Easley, in the back room of the music store, Dalton preached to knowing laughter, “We need to get out of this rapture mindset,” the “beam me up, Jesus,” mentality.

“Jesus says he’s coming back for a pure and spotless bride,” says Dalton. “He’s going to grace the church to do this, and we get to be a part of it. How awesome is that, y’all?”

That “bride”—a central feature of Bickle’s teaching, too—is what needs to be purified, Dalton maintains. The bride is the church, made up of believers like Dalton, not the churches she disparages as “activity” churches that hold events but are not the “praying” churches that Christ is looking to. “The bride has to make herself ready, she has got to be clothed in fine linen, pure and bright and clean,” she says.

As the prayer session closes out, Dalton announces that people from Easley will be caravanning to Greenville on Tuesday for The Response. “The prayer of the saints lifted in unity can change the direction of a nation,” she says. “It’s very important that we come together in one body, one accord, one mind, one spirit.”