U.S. President Donald Trump is seen with his personal pastor, Paula White, at an event honoring evangelical leadership in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on Aug. 27, 2018. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Donald Trump may not know how to hold a Bible, but that hasn’t stopped white evangelicals from being his most persistent supporters. The U.S. president’s evangelical followers have portrayed him as America’s deliverance, a flawed man recently converted to the cause around the time of his presidential campaign. In the decade prior, he’d bragged about sexual assault, cheated on his wife, and claimed he had no sins that needed forgiven. But these could all be overlooked because in 2016 he became a new Christian trying his best. Except the timeline is false. Trump has had a personal minister since 2002, a fringe televangelist controversial even within evangelical circles. Paula White is one of the most famous members of the neo-charismatic movement, and her beliefs are terrifying.
In January, she came to public attention after a sermon where she invoked the name of Jesus and commanded “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.” She later explained that the phrase was metaphorical, and I see no reason to doubt her. But several years earlier, when she claimed that infamous demon lords and hidden sorcerers were arrayed against Trump, she was speaking quite literally. White’s vision of “spiritual warfare” isn’t rhetorical. Like thousands of other preachers both in America and worldwide, she subscribes to an apocalyptic supernatural vision that drives politics, money, and sometimes violence.
Charismatic Christianity itself is simply the mixing of certain Pentecostal beliefs with other denominations or nondenominational Christianity. It has a strong focus on the Holy Spirit and the concept of spiritual gifts and modern-day miracles. At its best, it’s a welcoming, positive tradition that boosts spirits, promotes introspection, and welcomes those who feel rejected by mainstream churches. The services are lively, often mixing sermons, praise and worship music, and spiritual practices. They can provide a sort of euphoria and a chance to relieve stress.
At its worst, though, charismatic Christianity is a domain of cynical hucksters, judgmental self-proclaimed prophets, and intense bigotry. The faith healing traditions are harmless and perhaps even emotionally beneficial when they supplement normal medical treatments, but they can be deadly when they completely replace modern medicine.
But while faith healing and speaking in tongues are the most famous practices, the most psychologically dangerous is the discernment of evil spirits and the practice of spiritual warfare. This practice is inspired in large part by Ephesians 6:12, which the New International Version translates as, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
In charismatic Christianity, the enemy is very real, and his demonic and mortal agents have supernatural powers as well. People who claim to have the gift of discernment frequently use it to air petty grievances or express their bigotry, claiming people they don’t like are being influenced by unclean spirits. When a demon is supposedly revealed, followers rebuke it in the name of Jesus, claiming that their savior has given them authority over evil spirits.
Some charismatics see the practice as somewhat metaphorical and frown on its overuse as being too fascinated with the works of the enemy. But the fringe neo-charismatic movement has embraced the most literal and paranoid form, twisting even the most straightforward biblical passages into secret lore. For example, in mainstream Christianity, Luke 11:21-22’s reference to a “strong man” guarding a house from burglary is usually interpreted as a metaphor for Satan. In neo-charismatic circles, preachers instead talk about a class of demon called “strongmen” that must be bound by certain occult rituals, though they would never refer to their own practices as “occult.”
One of White’s favorite targets is Leviathan. In her theology, Leviathan is not a mundane crocodile nor a type of dragon from Middle Eastern mythology. Rather, it’s a demon prince in the form of a many-headed dragon that is responsible for people experiencing everyday fatigue. Fortunately, she offers countermeasures—available to anyone who makes a $74 donation. Other packages are available for donations of $40 and $65, presumably offering protection against slightly fewer classes of demons.
Many neo-charismatics share similar beliefs. They practice what they call “strategic-level spiritual warfare,” where they name and describe various powerful demons who rule over various geographic territories. They try to discern the witches and other followers who act as lieutenants and recruiters, and they search out and destroy objects of occult significance that spread demonic influence. In charismatic theology, this world is dominated by Satan, and they are the only ones who see the threat.
This belief might seem comical, but its adherents seek out political influence as part of their secret war. Trump’s spiritual advisor is both a leading figure in the movement and a strong believer in the worldwide demonic conspiracy. In 2016, when she rebuked “spirits of Jezebel” who stood against Trump, she was simultaneously attacking women who spoke out against him and engaging in spiritual warfare against the demons she associates with them. She believes opposition to the president is spearheaded by territorial demons, and she’s not alone. While she may not have actually converted Trump to Christianity, she has certainly converted many Christians to Trumpism and spread the neo-charismatic influence into mainstream spaces.
Neo-charismatics often associate minorities with demon worship and witchcraft. Misogyny is rampant, and even White has been challenged by other neo-charismatics for presuming to serve as a pastor to men. Political opposition to LGBT rights is also a spiritual battle, and Lester Sumrall used to claim he could smell the demons in gay people and wrote that they should be banned from churches everywhere. And though there are many black charismatic Christians, including White’s own mentor, neo-charismatic literature is full of exotic and wicked African and Asian sorcerers. Neo-charismatic missionaries have often used this imagery to advocate for the persecution of LGBT people and other minorities.
In the past, they’ve also clashed with other Christians, including mainstream evangelicals, and they frequently condemned Catholics and Mormons as purveyors of dark magic. But White and her allies have recently embraced a more pragmatic approach. They’ve forged alliances with mainstream evangelicals and others with whom they previously feuded. When I attended a charismatic church in the late 1990s, the mainstream conservative evangelical Jerry Falwell was a frequent target of derision. The feeling was apparently mutual, as Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church had at least one service portraying neo-charismatic faith healers as heretical charlatans preying on the desperate. But Jerry Falwell Jr. joined their alliance and promoted White’s latest book, as did many others such as Franklin Graham. Some Christian conservatives sounded the alarm, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore and the executive editor of Christianity Today (a leading evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham that later supported Trump’s removal from office). Much like their secular equivalents, the dissenters have largely been ignored or even condemned for their stances.
Though I disagree with Moore on almost everything else and condemn many of his past statements on other subjects, I’m sympathetic to him on this issue. As a teenager, I attended a welcoming charismatic Christian church that gradually became more cultlike and more hateful as the pastor fell under the influence of neo-charismatic doctrine. My family left fairly soon afterward, but the loss of community and feelings of disillusionment were heart-rending. It must be horrific for people like Moore to see a gang of snake oil-selling magicians gain so much influence among his peers.
But this a concern for all of us, not just the faithful. Like their mostly secular equivalent QAnon, which sometimes crosses over with believers in spiritual warfare, neo-charismatic leaders are promoting Trump as a champion of the people struggling against hidden enemies who are conveniently drawn primarily from progressives and minorities. But unlike QAnon believers, who have to settle for the occasional retweet, neo-charismatics have the direct ear of a sympathetic president and act as his spiritual advisor. Their theories are almost certainly reinforcing his paranoia, and they may have convinced him that he’s some sort of messiah figure—or he may treat the whole thing as just another scam to be run on the rubes.
Even more concerning is the influence they’ve had over believers, both neo-charismatics and mainstream evangelicals introduced to them through allies like Falwell Jr. and Graham. People who believe in demonic conspiracies are well positioned to transition into secular conspiracy theories, including QAnon, Pizzagate, and classic anti-Semitism. If Trump is defeated, and prophecy once again fails, the danger they pose will be more than spiritual.