"Unfriending" America: The Christian right is coming for the enemies of God — like you and me

Rising far-right Christian movement linked to GOP calls for "kingdom revolution" led by an "army of believers"

Published June 17, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

A statue modeled after the Statue of Liberty holds up a cross instead of a torch with "America Return to Christ" outside of World Overcomers Church in Memphis, Tennessee, United States on January 07, 2018. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A statue modeled after the Statue of Liberty holds up a cross instead of a torch with "America Return to Christ" outside of World Overcomers Church in Memphis, Tennessee, United States on January 07, 2018. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

"You've got a friend in Pennsylvania!" was the theme of the state's  ad campaign to promote tourism in the 1980s. That was a veiled historical reference to the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, the liberal Christian sect to which William Penn, for whom Pennsylvania is named, belonged. But since the early 2000s there has been a quiet campaign in the Keystone State and beyond to unfriend anyone outside certain precincts of Christianity — and most Quakers would almost certainly be among the outcasts.

That campaign got a lot less quiet this April, as many leaders of the neo-charismatic movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation, who have been hiding in plain sight for a generation, began ramping up a contest for theocratic power in the nation and the world. Their first target is Pennsylvania.

All roads lead to Pennsylvania

On April 30, Sean Feucht, a musician and evangelist for conservative Christian dominion, spoke at Life Center Ministries, the Harrisburg megachurch of Apostle Charles Stock. (The honorific "Apostle" designates a leading church office in the NAR.  That said, there are many apostles in the movement, and not all of them pastor churches.) During his appearance, Feucht highlighted his national tour of state capitals, called Kingdom to the Capitol, that he was conducting along with Turning Point USA, the far-right youth group led by Charlie Kirk. "[W]e are going to end this 50-state tour here in Harrisburg," he announced.

It will probably be three to four weeks before the general election. This is a state, it's the Keystone State — the seed of a nation — God is not done with this state.

The "seed of a nation" refers to the famous 17th-century words of William Penn. (Much more on this below.) 

Sometimes Feucht's tour has ventured into darker terrain. He told an audience in Austin, Texas, that "no one has hope for" their city:

Why are we going to all these 50 capitals — because they're amazing cities? … they're actually not. They're the most horrible cities in America.

Indeed. Feucht and his movement consider the 50 state capitals to be demon-infested bastions of ungodly government. His tour has openly become a campaign to "unfriend" the nation. He wrote in an "Open Letter to Church Leaders" on April 23: 

Unfriend? That seems a little harsh for some. Yet [New Testament author] James didn't seem to think so — "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."

Feucht's effort to connect young people with what his movement considers William Penn's ancient vision for Pennsylvania is part of the wider, epochal campaign of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a movement at the cutting edge of Pentecostal and Charismatic evangelicalism, which is now the second largest Christian faction in the world after the Roman Catholic Church and the largest growth sector in American and global Christianity.

This is a central story of our time, and one that has scarcely penetrated our national consciousness. Sean Feucht's ministry, for example, is overseen by NAR apostles — but media coverage does not reflect that context.

Books have been written on the NAR and there has been prominent reporting in the Washington Post, the New Republic, the New Yorker, Religion Dispatches and Salon. But little of this seems to get absorbed into a shared common understanding about the Christian right. 

The NAR seeks to consolidate those Christians it recognizes as "the Church" in what it believes to be the End Times. Although many NAR leaders have been closely aligned with Donald Trump, they insist that they aim for a utopian biblical kingdom where only God's laws are enforced. Most therefore hold to a vision of Christian dominion over what they call the "seven mountains": religion, family, education, government, media, entertainment and business. (This is what is meant by Dominionism.) 

The New Apostolic Reformation aims to take over government at all levels, and also to erode institutional Christianity, destroying all doctrines and denominations it sees as obstacles to the Kingdom of God.

But as with any religious movement, the NAR's notion of what God requires is a matter of interpretation, and in this case God's intentions are said to be revealed through modern-day, mutually recognized apostles and prophets, some of whom lead vast networks of believers, whom they often call "prayer warriors." These dynamic networks seek to dissolve traditional Christian denominations and institutions, peeling away members and sometimes whole congregations. When pundits speak of non-denominational Christianity, this is mostly what they mean.

The NAR's long-term plan is to transform all of institutional Christianity to their vision of how the church was organized in the first century A.D. In their view, the only legitimate church offices, as described in the Book of Ephesians, are apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists and pastors (but no popes, bishops or presidents). This is called the "fivefold ministry."

NAR leaders understand perfectly well that their views are revolutionary. In addition to wanting to take over government at all levels, they are engaged in a long-term erosion of institutional Christianity, including the destruction of doctrines and denominations that they see as obstacles to advancing the Kingdom of God. They call such errors the "sin of religion." That is why NAR apostles and prophets sometimes stay on the down-low — by foregoing churchy garb and open use of their titles, for instance.

Some apostles are patient revolutionaries. Others are accelerationists. Some participated in planning meetings at the White House before the Jan. 6 insurrection and played visible roles in the days leading up to the storming of the U.S. Capitol.

The "seed of a nation"

Dr. Anthea Butler, a historian of African-American and American religion at the University of Pennsylvania, offered a blunt assessment of the situation to an audience at Harvard last year, saying that evangelical Christianity has been "captured by Pentecostals and Charismatics."

"I worry about our democracy," she said. "Democracy is belittled" in the "theocratic way in which all of these people are positioning themselves." 

"I pray we don't get into a Civil War," she added.

Plenty of evidence to justify Butler's concern can be found in a series of 50 prayer conference calls staged by leading apostles in the first four months of 2023. 

Reported here for the first time, audio recordings and transcripts of these calls reveal a religious movement that sees itself at war with demonic forces, and believes that God may enter the fray soon and carry his believers to ultimate victory. The calls follow from prophecies delivered by Apostles Chuck Pierce of Texas and Dutch Sheets of South Carolina. They published an account of their 50 state tour almost two decades ago in their 2005 book "Releasing the Prophetic Destiny of a Nation." 

These national calls — one per state, held in the same order Pierce and Sheets had visited them — were hosted by Apostle Clay Nash of Arkansas. Clearly the most important was Pennsylvania.

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A number of elected officials and political figures — nearly all of them Republicans — also participated. These recordings provide an intimate look at the relationship between the Republican Party and this burgeoning theocratic movement. The presence of prominent Republicans on these calls — and sometimes their remarks — reveal the depth and breadth of the movement's role in state-level GOP politics. 

Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania's defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2022, and his wife Rebbie were featured during the final call on April 28, organized by Apostle Abby Abildness. In this intimate setting, Mastriano expressed what may be his core political program: 

Abby said we are the seed of a nation and God has blessed us as a special place. As the Keystone State, we hold the keys for this nation.

Following from Sheets and Pierce, Abildness described Pennsylvania as a "governmental shift state." She explained what that means: "[T]he way that government would be successful is if all the legislators were believers in God."

Abildness said the political figures on the call were "representing God unashamedly." In addition to Mastriano, these included state Reps. Stephanie Borowitz and Dave Zimmerman and Judge Patricia McCullough, who is running for a state Supreme Court seat in 2024. But Abildness complained that "the enemy of our souls is conspiring to take over Pennsylvania leadership."

Apostles, prophets and public officials

The state calls featured state and national apostolic leaders who offered prophetic prayers. Some of these included intimate, illuminating moments in which religious and political leaders openly opposed to democracy showed their true colors. Some of what they said suggests potential violence to come.

The California prayer call featured state Sen. Brian Dahle, the 2022 Republican candidate for governor, along with his wife, Assemblywoman Megan Dahle. Brian Dahle called on God to raise an army to "push back the enemy ... and let the righteous stand":

As somebody who sits on the [Senate] floor every week, listening to the enemy roar like a lion and move — Father God, they're coming after our children. They're coming after the sanctity of marriage. … Rise up an army, Father God! An army of believers, Father God! And then move with your holy spirit here in California.

Dahle epitomizes how deeply NAR elements have been integrated into the Republican Party. He is an adviser to Revive California, a Christian-right political mobilization project affiliated with Apostle Ché Ahn's Harvest International Ministry in Pasadena. Revive California describes itself as "an association of apostolic leaders uniting to see historic revival and reformation come to California and the United States." Other advisers include state Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove, Apostles Jim Garlow and Samuel Rodriguez of New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, and Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding. Three members of Johnson's church, one of whom is a member of Dahle's staff, now constitute a majority on the five-member Redding city council. 

The Colorado call also revealed the normalization of this theocratic faction. The newly-elected head of the state Republican Party, David Williams, made clear that he wanted to align the GOP with his version of God. 

"Father God, they're coming after our children," said Brian Dahle, the 2022 GOP nominee for governor of California. "They're coming after the sanctity of marriage. … Rise up an army, Father God! An army of believers, Father God!"

"As the head of the Colorado Republican Party," Williams declared, "I want to make sure that our renovation [of the party] is dedicated to the Lord and that we have come under his covering and his alignment. And that any decisions that we make on behalf of the people that we wish to serve are in total line and total agreement with scripture and whatever the will of the Lord may be."

The Alabama call featured Chief Justice Tom Parker of the Alabama Supreme Court. (Former Chief Justice Roy Moore had spoken at Pierce and Sheets' prophetic 2003 event in the state.) Also on the call was newly-elected state Rep. Mark Gidley. Apostle Kent Mattox identified Gidley as part of his "apostolic cohort" of leaders seeking transformation towards establishing God's kingdom in Alabama. Mattox said that there is an angel for each state and that Alabama's was the "Angel of Justice":

We are calling on the other 50 angels to align with the Angel of Justice, and to begin to move in unison, as uniting angels over the United States of America, to bring about the purposes and plans of God.

Parker explained why, when first elected in 2004, he traveled to Washington to be sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: "I wanted to come under that line of faithful interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that he represents."

Parker also cited Isaiah 1:26, in which God declares: "I will restore your judges, as in days of old, your counselors, as in the beginning. Afterwards, you will be called The City of Righteousness, the Faithful City." He did not mention that two verses earlier, God says what would happen first: "Therefore the Lord, the Lord Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares: 'Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.'"

In any case, Parker wants a charismatic revival in the state's judiciary. His remarks suggested that he has asked Apostle John Kilpatrick, of the famous Brownsville charismatic revival in Pensacola, Florida, "to speak to our judges":

So I am asking the Lord to put revival on their hearts … that there will be a growing hunger in the judges of Alabama, and around the nation for more of God. And that they will be receptive to his moves toward restoration of the judges, so that they can play their forecast role in revival in this nation.

The Texas call was organized by Apostles Tom Schlueter and Bob Long, who along with Chuck Pierce had a hand in getting then-Gov. Rick Perry to run for president in 2012, and helping organize his de facto campaign launch — a prayer rally of some 30,000 people. 

The call featured state Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock. Schlueter introduced Perry, saying, "I consider him a friend, he is a worker for the Kingdom of God," adding that Perry was "one of the major movers" behind the effort to make Lubbock and other Texas cities what they call "sanctuary cities for the unborn."  

Perry prayed that God would provide a "protective hedge" around those seeking to advance a "biblical worldview" and for "an army of believers that recognize that what's at stake is souls, souls for an eternity with you or souls for an eternity in hell." Perry added, however: "He's not a god of imposition, he's a god of choice and we thank you for that."


Former New Mexico state Sen. Isabella Solis: "We declare a kingdom revolution! ... It's time for the church to get spiritually violent! To love passionately and shift government."

Iowa's call featured state Sen. Sandy Salmon and state Reps. Luana Stoltenberg and Brad Sherman. Sherman, who pastors a church in Iowa City, said, "We have been blowing the trumpet to start our meetings. ... We are so aware that we are directing the angelic hosts. We are calling the armies of God together and ... I just want to declare that tonight that God is calling his army together."

New Jersey's call featured Mayor Alfonso Cirulli of Barnegat, who as deputy mayor in 2021 used his township email to organize a bus to Washington for the Jan. 6 protest. He prayed that God "raise up people ... that will look at the abomination of ... LGBTQ laws, transgender laws, abortion laws, sex curriculum laws." He hopes these people will "turn this thing around."

The New Mexico call featured prayers by state Rep. Randall Pettigrew and former state senator and 2022 lieutenant governor candidate Isabella Solis. Since losing that race, Solis and her husband, long affiliated with Chuck Pierce's Glory of Zion International, have launched an apostolic ministry. On the call she declared, "It's time for the church to take dominion/possession" and called for God to "superimpose heaven on earth":

We declare a kingdom revolution! ... It's time for the church to get spiritually violent! To love passionately and shift government.

Solis expressed confidence that there will be "a general of righteousness appointed to govern the state of New Mexico, and the Ecclesia will be established." 

The New York call featured one of the few Democrats affiliated with this movement, Mary Ann Brigantti-Hughes, an elected judge in the Bronx. (She was censured by the New York State Bar Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2014 for, among other things, coercing employees to pray with her in her office and to attend church services.) Republican Assemblyman David DiPietro prayed that God would "take us from being the most ungodly state" and bring "transformation" and "revival." 

What's wrong with this picture?

"The Lord had ordered our steps to end with Pennsylvania, the 'Keystone State,'" Pierce and Sheets write in their book, adding an explanatory note: "The keystone is the stone at the top of an arch that holds everything together." They pronounce that God's government is "the absolute government over our nation and that every other civil government would align with His purpose. Watch for great shakings ahead!"

To be fair, NAR leaders envision the nation that would sprout from this seed as one free of poverty, racism and other forms of injustice. But there are apparent flaws in their utopian vision.

Abby Abildness has been the leading exponent of NAR's vision for Pennsylvania. In a 2017 Facebook video, she explained:

We are what Chuck Pierce and Dutch Sheets said: We're the "governmental shift state," to bring this change in our nation.

The NAR narrative holds that God gave William Penn a vision for a righteous state that would be a "holy experiment" and the "seed of a nation." Pierce and Sheets also drew on "The Seed of a Nation," a 2000 book by Darrell Fields, who wrote that Penn had provided

a grand opportunity for this land's own indigenous people and every other ethnic group that came to America to know God, not through manipulation, but through a righteousness that so firmly confessed the value of all men.

The logical flaw in that argument appears obvious: Not all people who came to the New World wanted to "know God," at least not in the sense Fields means, and it is emphatically untrue that most Indigenous people welcomed the opportunity to know God in that same way.

William Penn's notion of religious liberty, says Quaker activist Chuck Fager, "has been revised into the 'religious liberty' of the Dobbs decision, the 'Don't say gay' bills, the guns-everywhere laws."

NAR's historical interpretations of convenience are a further flaw in their vision. William Penn was unmistakably an important figure in colonial history and an important religious leader, but Fields, Pierce, Sheets, Abildness and other NAR figures ignore his history as a slaveowner. This disconnect between the myth of Penn and the complicated reality strikes at the heart of the NAR identity, which has tried to avoid imputations of racism or white supremacy. NAR overtly embraces all races and ethnicities in its conception of God's kingdom, and features Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic and Indigenous people as apostles, prophets and other leaders.

Veteran Quaker writer and civil rights activist Chuck Fager doesn't believe Penn's legacy is all bad, but says he is horrified by the hijacking of Penn's anti-theocratic vision and legacy. 

"In Penn's day, and for many generations afterward, his writings stood as a vigorous, clear, anti-theocratic religious witness" Fager writes. But Penn's notion of religious liberty, he says, "has been revised into the 'religious liberty' of the Dobbs decision, the 'Don't say gay' bills, the guns-everywhere laws, anti-vaxxerism and targeting trans folk and same-sex marriage."

Fager argues that Abildness and her movement are seeking to build "a biblically-based, utopian model for peace and religious liberty for all the other nations ... a 'God-ordained destiny' of a utopian network of theocratic states she sees ready to emerge, with Philadelphia serving them as something between Jerusalem and the Vatican."

Blame it on the Masons

There is a still more disturbing side to Pierce and Sheets' bright vision of "a grassroots movement" for their utopian theocratic order. Their vision is framed by a darkly conspiratorial view of history.

Pierce and Sheets prophesied the emergence of seven worship centers "that will cut off the head of the enemy in the state." They are not specific about whose heads might need to be chopped, so I asked Dr. André Gagné, a theology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, what he thought. It's hard to say where the "seven centers" come from, he said (that number is frequently used in the Bible), but "the phrase 'enemy in the state' suggests that the government is infested with demons."

Pierce and Sheets write that they seek to restore Penn's original, divinely inspired pre-constitutional utopian vision. But they say the holy seed was contaminated in an epochal and inexplicable twist of fate — and they know who's to blame. 

It's an old villain: the fraternal order of Freemasons, whose origins go back to stonemason guilds of the 13th century, and which later became a center of Enlightenment thought and leadership in the 18th century. 

Pierce and Sheets view the Masonic order (a venerable target of right-wing conspiracy theory) as an occult religion, contaminating Christianity and its leaders and obstructing the advance of the Kingdom of God:

We see the contamination of the seed with the leaders of the Masonic order — such as Pennsylvania's own Benjamin Franklin. As a result, the holy seed of the gospel began to be mixed with the esoteric philosophies of freemasonry. Today the lodge itself lists many Blue Lodges in the State. The result is that thousands, some serving in leadership in the church, have made pacts with other gods.

Gagné told Salon that Pierce and Sheets echo the "systematic demonology" of NAR's founding organizer, the late C. Peter Wagner, who proposed different forms of "spiritual warfare": Ground-Level Spiritual Warfare, such as exorcism; Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare, dedicated to combatting "territorial spirits"; and Occult-Level Spiritual Warfare, which contends with occult practices and "false religions."

They "clearly see Freemasonry as a dangerous and corrupting influence on Christianity, which leads to demonization — or literal infestation with demons," Gagné said. "It's likely that they even see church leaders whose families have Masonic ties as demonized in this way."

In fact, this is a typical NAR view. Prophet Lou Engle, who has staged large prayer rallies in the U.S. and around the world under the rubric of The Call, offers a good example. In 2011, leaders of The Call in Detroit considered the major focus of their efforts to be a spiritual battle against the "demonic spirits" of freemasonry and Islam.

Like Pierce and Sheets, Abildness takes a dim view of anyone she believes is standing in her way. On the Pennsylvania prayer call, she asked God to deal with unnamed "enemies," evidently meaning anyone who disagrees with NAR or who publishes anything critical of the movement:

We declare deceptions be revealed and that truths be good news to rally the citizens — including those right-wing watchers that are being drawn to watch this grassroots movement and try to stop it. ... We will fight — you will fight — and triumph for us in the battle. Thank you, God. You render victory over enemies' ineffectual attempts at trying to stop this holy seed.

Similarly, prominent Apostle Lance Walnau issued an imprecatory prayer and prediction in his Easter message on April 8:

In May, you're going to see some of the disciplinary hand of God come down upon those people that have been standing in the path of what he wants to do.

There is no visible indication that God punished any of his alleged enemies in May, but NAR figures often engage in these kinds of prayers — requests that God smite his (or their) supposed enemies, who turn out to be mostly their fellow citizens, many of them Christians. As Salon reported last year, Mastriano's political events often featured imprecatory prayers and the blowing of shofars (the ram's horn used by the ancient Israelite army and now used in traditional Jewish services). One refrain from Psalm 68 was often heard: "Arise, oh God, and let your enemies be scattered!"

Networking the networks

Meanwhile, NAR leaders have been quietly creating a political capacity meant to conquer the seven mountains. This involves building what they call apostolic "relational" networks and blending them to further the tasks at hand. (Such as Doug Mastriano's improbable campaign for governor.)

On the prayer call, Abildness thanked God "for the righteous alliances growing in Pennsylvania to release the holy seed of a nation. We decree and declare that righteous legislators ... will rise up ... and that only legislative actions will pass that are aligned with God's holy purposes."

These alliances go back to at least 2017 when, Abildness said, Apostle-Prophet Cindy Jacobs asked her to form the Pennsylvania Apostolic Prayer Network, which seeks to organize the state's 67 counties and operates under Jacobs' auspices. As western regional organizer Renaid Almgren put it, "We are networking the networks."

The Pennsylvania model for politically organizing the apostolic networks may well surface elsewhere. The current partner networks include Abildness' own Healing Tree International, along with Generals International, headquartered in Texas and led by Jacobs; the Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network, based in Oklahoma and led by Apostle John Benefiel; and the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which operates a national network of state legislative prayer caucuses that promote a package of prefab Dominionism-driven, Christian nationalist bills that until recently was called "Project Blitz." 

What would Stalin do?

The "unfriending" mentioned by Sean Feucht is in all likelihood just the beginning. Since the 2022 elections, there has been a noticeable uptick in the threatening rhetoric of NAR leaders and the political figures associated with them, both on the prayer calls and in public. Their politics appear to be animated less by "conservative" political philosophy or even strong religious values than by a vengeful vision of purging those who refuse to be converted and are deemed to be demonically possessed enemies. 

Abildness closed out her time on the prayer call by suggesting that Mastriano had not actually lost his race for governor. (Indeed he had, by nearly 800,000 votes.) Perhaps the famous quote attributed to Joseph Stalin, she said, was accurate: "It's not the people who vote that count; it's the people who count the votes." 

NAR leaders like her will likely continue to stoke distrust in the normal function of elections and government. The struggle between what actually happens and conspiracy theories about what doesn't happen will almost certainly continue. There will always be someone to blame — Freemasons, Communists, witches, antifa, Black Lives Matter or someone else from the long menu of potential scapegoats. The responses will not necessarily be peaceful.

By Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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