As we head into the fall elections, there is increasing recognition of the critical role played by religious conservatives in the Republican Party and a corresponding curiosity over the seeming contradiction between the supposed values of this constituency and their rock-ribbed support of Donald Trump. Outside observers often marvel at how Christian nationalists put up with his many obvious character flaws. Some conclude the bond is merely transactional, believing the so-called “values voters” back him because he is appointing judges favorable to their positions in the so-called culture wars.
But this misreads the relationship. Christian nationalism is not a cultural movement but an anti-democratic political movement. This movement is not about ending abortion or defending the traditional family; it is about power. Religious nationalism always favors a fierce leader. It doesn’t want someone who follows the rules, it wants someone who breaks the rules and twist arms—as long as the arms belong to the dreaded enemy. Many leaders of the movement have made this explicit by comparing Trump to biblical figures like King David and King Cyrus. Trump is thus cast as an imperfect vessel whom God chose to enact His will and restore America to its “Judeo-Christian roots.”
A subsection of Trump’s most devoted allies call themselves “apostles” and “prophets.” They claim that they are engaged in “spiritual warfare” on Trump’s behalf and are prepared to call “angels” to their aid. They literally demonize their political opponents. In researching my book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, I joined this cohort at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., when I attended Revolution 2018, an annual conference that features “apostolic leaders” associated with the New Apostolic Reformation, a fast-growing movement in the charismatic tradition that counts Seven Mountains dominionist C. Peter Wagner as a forefather.
The conference was scheduled to be held at the Museum of the Bible, a place that one of the apostles, Cindy Jacobs, has characterized as “God’s Base Camp.” But it was moved at the last minute to the Trump International Hotel, which another pastor-activist, Lance Wallnau, has characterized as having “angelic activity at a different level.”
Wallnau, like other representatives of the New Apostolic Reformation, maintains that “true” Christians should seek to control what they often call the “seven mountains” of culture, or seven areas of human civilization, which typically include government, business, media, education, arts and entertainment, family, and religion. They have been and remain all in for Trump, whom they see as the essential leader on the path to dominion.
Pentecostal preacher Paula White, head of the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, tells audiences at Trump rallies and other events that “demonic networks” are trying to bring down the president. Trump has held campaign events at Pentecostal megachurches such as El Rey Jesus, a bilingual Miami megachurch whose leader, “apostle” Guillermo Maldonado, urged his congregation to attend the event, a possible violation of tax rules barring religious groups from participating in political campaigns. Cindy Jacobs has said Mr. Trump “will be seated and mantled with the power of God,” and organized thousands of her supporters to “prayer walk” for Trump in battleground states. Lance Wallnau has called Trump “God’s candidate” and has characterized the impeachment process as “a demonic battle.” “I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus,” he said, who will “restore the crumbling walls that separate us from cultural collapse.”
It might be easy to dismiss this cohort for beliefs that appear to be well outside the mainstream. But Republican Party operatives correctly see these pastor-activists as vital to the Republican turnout machine. Not only do they have a proven ability to turn out the vote for hyperconservative political candidates, but they also have demonstrated an ability to appeal to a multiracial demographic. This makes them especially valuable to a political party that seeks to inoculate itself against accusations of racism, even as it engages in race-based gerrymandering and voter suppression and overt appeals to racism.
Hosting the 2018 conference at the Trump Hotel was Lamplighter Ministries, an offshoot of the movement. It had brought in a wide range of followers from near and far, and they moved around in curious juxtaposition with the hotel’s pale interiors, gold trim, and sparkling crystal chandeliers.
A gentle man of about 30 wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt told me he made the long drive with his father to D.C. from Albany, New York. The pair could not afford the hotel’s $56 parking fee, so they parked on a faraway street. They could not afford D.C. hotel rates, either, so they decided to lodge outside the city limits. “But it’s so good to be here,” he said with delight.
For a middle-aged attendee who said she was on disability thanks to a workplace-related injury, the trip was a splurge. “I’ve never been anywhere like this before,” she told me, looking around the white-and-gold ballroom.
I fell into conversation with Johneen and Tom, a friendly, gregarious couple in their seventies who had flown in that morning from the Houston area. Johneen, who wore a scarf and sweater in softly coordinating shades of gray, told me stories about her four children and 15 grandchildren—“13 of them homeschooled!”
She confided, “We had a prophetic moment on the way here. Our plane was delayed because they had to secure a fire extinguisher that had come loose. And here we are heading into ‘The Fire!’” she exclaimed, her delicate features crinkling with pleasure and wonder.
Johneen’s husband, Tom, who was wearing a blue cashmere sweater, works “in oil,” she said. Johneen “started getting involved in intercession,” or the belief that a person can discern God’s opinion on a particular matter and involve oneself on His behalf in the supernatural realm, when the pair were living in London and “we had some issues with demons.”
At the front table, organizers handed out a stapled program and wristbands. The headline on the handout read: “Compilation—Verdicts From Heaven’s Court.” Some of the papers, which were printed on both sides (a version is available online in revised form), purported to offer a “Life Decree: Amendments to Decree of Divorce From Baal,” concerning the case of “the people of God, Plaintiff, versus the principality of Baal (Incl. Baal, Queen of Heaven, Leviathan, Defendant).”
Under the header “Re-Constitution of the United States (The Turn-around Verdict),” the handout told us: “It has been decided that the land and government (of the United States) were consecrated to Jesus Christ from inception, and remain in this standing today” and that “the Court now rules according to Psalm 15:3 that the scepter of the wicked must no longer remain on the land allotted to the righteous. The scepter, or enforcement of unjust governance, must now be rescinded. Further, the Court grants the wealth of heaven and Earth to establish this Covenant sworn to your fore-fathers by the King. The issuance of the King’s land grants and inheritances is now authorized for distribution and stewardship to this end.”
Today’s Christian nationalists talk a good game about respecting the Constitution and America’s founders, but at bottom, it seems, they prefer autocrats. In fact, what they really want is a king. Jesus is sometimes referred to as the “King of America” or “King of all nations,” but Trump, too, is often cast as a monarch. “It is God that raises up a king,” according to Paula White. The thing about kings is they don’t have to follow rules. They are the law. This makes them the ideal model of leadership for a movement that is constantly invoking the myth of persecution in order to build its base.
A giant screen behind the podium featured a large graphic of what appeared to be a red substance—blood? food coloring?—swirling in water. “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.” Several hundred worshippers sang the refrain of the Phil Collins song. On stage, a nine-piece band from Georgia played the familiar tune slowly. Soon they picked up the pace, transitioning into contemporary worship songs like “Holy Visitation” by Rita Springer, whose voice has the ragged edges that suggest familiarity with the harder side of life. In front of the room, a dancing woman whirled two flags through the air, American and Israeli.
Up at the podium, the speakers took over, wielding a gavel for dramatic effect. Jon Hamill, who founded Lamplighter Ministries with his wife, Jolene, announced, “In Jesus’s name, we declare the Deep State will not prevail,” before banging the gavel on a podium. A similar prayer ritual, directed at “the false media network,” was led by Jolene, who implored members of the audience to “repent of drinking the cup of media, because it is a false cup.”
“We have reached a moment now to set a new course for the nation,” said “apostle,” Chuck Pierce. According to his biography, “Chuck is known for his accurate, prophetic gifting which helps direct nations, cities, churches and individuals in understanding the times and seasons we live in.”
On stage, Pierce celebrated the current political moment. “The windows of access over Washington, D.C., are open!” Pierce raised his voice. “Open!”
“Freedom!” everyone cried.
Another featured speaker, Rick Ridings, took the stage to offer the details of one of his apparent conversations with God. “I said, ‘How will the nation learn to change?’” Ridings asked. “The Lord said, ‘It must play,’” he paused for emphasis, “‘the Trump card.’”
As the audience reacted with a cheer, he continued, “It was amazing to see the realignment of Israel, Jerusalem, for America.” Christian Zionism is important to this movement, because it plays a role in the theology of many of the movement’s members. It is, of course, hardly identical with whatever it is that people in Israel, a country as diverse in its politics and beliefs as America, may have in mind.
This subsection of the Christian nationalist universe may appear to be well outside the mainstream of the movement, and many of its beliefs and practices—perhaps above all an acceptance of female pastoral leadership—are no doubt heretical to hard-line evangelicals in the style of Robert Jeffress or Ralph Drollinger.
But the presence of a featured guest—Pastor Andrew Brunson, who appeared on stage with his wife, Norine, to deliver a lengthy and impassioned speech of gratitude—showed that this cohort has more avenues of access to power than one might think. Brunson, who lived in Turkey for over 20 years and pastored at an evangelical Presbyterian congregation in Izmir, was involved in “five or six different church plants” and was arrested and imprisoned for two years on allegations of “support of a terrorist organization” and “political and military espionage.” Brunson received legal representation from the American Center for Law and Justice, which is led by Trump counsel Jay Sekulow, and his cause was trumpeted by nearly every major Christian right organization in America, from Focus on the Family to the Alliance Defending Freedom. The Family Research Council regularly sent electronic communications regarding his case. After Brunson’s release was secured and he returned to the United States, he was photographed praying in the Oval Office with President Trump.
Prior to Pastor Brunson’s speech, Hamill claimed to have prayed, along with other faith leaders, for Brunson’s release in Sam Brownback’s office at the State Department. Brownback “brought us up privately to his office so we could just hear his heart,” Hamill says. “And he pulled out a picture of Pastor Andrew with a personal note that he had written and asked for the Gideon group, our community-within-a-community, and the Lamplighter families to pray for Pastor Andrew.”
Brunson was followed on stage by Pam Pryor, who led a “faith and Christian outreach” effort during Trump’s presidential campaign. Pryor, an ex-aide to Sarah Palin, has landed a job as senior adviser in the office of the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights at the State Department and is on hand to help celebrate Brunson’s release. “I just want to say if I’m ever in prison, I want Norine!” she said from the podium, and the crowd laughed along with her. Pryor’s name appeared on a leaked 2014 membership directory of the Council for National Policy, a networking organization for social conservative activists that focuses on mobilizing right-wing voters in key districts, and which The New York Times once referred to as a “little known group of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country” (see “Holding Democracy in the U.S. Hostage,” Anne Nelson’s profile of the CNP in the October 2019 Spectator).
Praising Jon and Jolene Hamill as “royalty among intercessors,” Pryor told us she, too, sets aside time for “intercessory prayer” every Tuesday at 10 a.m. “I will say there’s still a lot to pray for in the State Department, still a lot to pray for in this administration,” she said. “There are a lot of enemies still within the camp. And that’s bad, man, they are, yeah, they are still in the camp, so pray … but I have such confidence.”
As it happens, a Chanukah gathering for members of the Orthodox Jewish community was taking place in the Trump International Hotel on the very same night. For the Lamplighters, this could be no mere coincidence. “Tonight, Jewish leaders are hosted at the Trump hotel for a Chanukah celebration,” Ridings said. “We bless President Trump even as he sits with elders of the Jewish community. A righteous revolution has been released to bring America back, to turn America to God. Trump has brought us into alignment with Jerusalem.”
Throughout the event, there was only praise for the Museum of the Bible and the sudden relocation of the conference to the Trump International Hotel. I asked Johneen how she felt about the change, and she was effusive. “They’re really treating us like royalty,” she said, pointing out that the Museum of the Bible was paying for buffet meals in an attempt to compensate for the venue change. “That wasn’t included before,” she said appreciatively. When another guest marveled, “Isn’t this hotel incredible?” Johneen responded, “Isn’t it incredible what God has done?”
Johneen exuded an admirable sense of optimism and wonder, and in some ways I found myself envying her ability to read in creaky floorboards and unsecured fire extinguishers a message sent from on high. No self-doubt appeared to stand in the way of her drive to place her own story at the center of the universe. No shimmering displays of political or financial corruption, no glaring examples of political manipulation, would cloud her happy vision.
As the first night of Revolution 2018 wound down, I headed to the hotel bar. The men outnumbered the women, and they did have a certain swagger. A tall bearded man, about 40, strolled through the lounge in leather chaps and a T-shirt reading, BIKERS FOR TRUMP. His lady friend, in Minnie Mouse polka dots and six-inch platforms, giggled on his arm. A number of men in very expensive suits chatted in the middle area of the lounge in languages I couldn’t identify.
A group of Orthodox Jews were installed in an area near the front of the room. I recognized Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington; Shemtov is Jared and Ivanka’s rabbi. As I made my way over to introduce myself, his handler whispered to me, “Don’t shake his hand, obviously.” Shemtov hails from a growing hyperconservative sect that discourages unrelated men and women from touching, even to participate in a polite greeting at a public venue, under the theory that it could, somehow, become “something more.”
As I returned to the bar, four or five young men in slim-fitting suits and flashy haircuts, several wearing TRUMP 2020 buttons, sauntered up. One had what appeared to be a tattoo of an Iron Cross discernible just above his collared shirt.
Over a glass of Trump champagne and some perfectly pickled radishes, I watched the chyrons flow across the overhead television tuned to Fox News. “ANTI-CHRISTMAS CRAZINESS … WHERE IS THE TOLERANCE ON THE LEFT? … LIBERALS: THE NEW CENSORS … DEMOCRATS: THE PARTY OF KILLJOYS … CLIMATE CHANGE ALARMISM IS GOING TOO FAR.”
This article is adapted from Katherine Stewart’s most recent book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury).