Meet the New Apostolic Reformation, cutting edge of the Christian right

Christian nationalism has new momentum — and a new movement that openly longs for "dominion" over secular America

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published January 2, 2024 5:30AM (EST)

US President Donald Trump is seen with Pastor Paula White at an event honoring Evangelical leadership in the State Dining Room of the White House on August 27, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump is seen with Pastor Paula White at an event honoring Evangelical leadership in the State Dining Room of the White House on August 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Lance Wallnau’s book, “God’s Chaos Candidate” played a significant role in solidifying evangelical support for Donald Trump in 2016, brushing aside concerns about his obvious lack of morality. 

Paula White-Cain gave the invocation at Trump’s inauguration in 2017, at his re-election campaign kick-off in 2019 and his Jan. 6, 2021, pre-insurrection rally. On the second occasion, she gave what experts describe as a ‘spiritual warfare’ prayer: “Let every demonic network that is aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus.” 

Dutch Sheets engaged in a swing-state “prayer and prophecy tour” after Joe Biden’s election in November 2020, playing a leading role in building religious support for the Jan. 6 insurrection, in coordination with Trump’s White House

All three are prominent members of a rapidly-growing, anti-democratic religious movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation, which few Americans have heard of, except in passing or by way of heated denials. But a new book from Canadian scholar André Gagné, “American Evangelicals for Trump: Dominion, Spiritual Warfare, and the End Times,” could change that, as the NAR seems poised to play an even bigger political role in 2024. 

Gagné’s book is “a concise, authoritative primer on one of the most consequential religious and political movements of our time,” said Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates (and Salon contributor), in a recent online discussion. While the NAR may be confusing to outsiders, Gagné shows that it’s knowable, Clarkson said, as the most energetic popular expression of dominionism, defined as “the theocratic idea that … Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” 

While the online discussion itself was conducted off the record, Gagné, Clarkson and several other participants engaged with Salon afterwards.

In 2011, Lance Wallnau told his followers, “If you're talking to a secular audience, you don't talk about having dominion over them. This ... language of takeover, it doesn't actually help."

“Too many of the larger public, and too many who report news, know little about this movement,” said John Dorhauer, recently retired general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, via email. “The trap one must avoid in writing about this subject and reporting on the movement is to do so in a way that comes across as credible without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. The truth is you are in fact writing about a conspiracy. Because of that, large swaths of the American public are just predisposed to dismiss this as too far-fetched to take seriously.”

Gagné’s book is significant, Dorhauer said, because he clarifies and differentiates “various ideologies, theologies and end-game scenarios” in ways particularly helpful to “those of us looking to think strategically about how to offset the damage to our democracy.”  

NAR, Clarkson explained, is hard to understand because it is “constantly changing, [and] has factions in tension with one another. … They are wily because they are worried that the rest of society will figure out who they are and what they are up to.”

Wallnau himself advised caution to his followers in a 2011 discussion: “If you're talking to a secular audience you don't talk about having dominion over them. This whole idea of taking over and that language of takeover, it doesn't actually help. It's good for preaching to the choir and it's shorthand if we interpret it right, but it's very bad for media.” 

Researcher Bruce Wilson describes NAR as “highly experimental, always trying new things to see what work. The star megachurch ministries, among which are Bill Johnson's Bethel Church in Redding, California, Mike Bikel's IHOP in Kansas City, and Rick Joyner's Morningstar in South Carolina, are all hotbeds of innovation,” he said. Wilson says he has uncovered well-funded programs launched “to obscure, to confuse and confound reporters and journalists and academics who are writing about and discussing dominionist Christianity.”

The "most radical change" since the Protestant Reformation

Arguably the greatest strength of Gagné’s book is its “focus on how [NAR] adherents speak of their beliefs and practices,” as he describes it, providing a coherent, objective record that can that’s not an outsider’s interpretation — thus evading an objection that religious conservatives have invoked for decades when subject to unwanted scrutiny. This is reflected both in the book’s origin and in its crucial explanation of the NAR, which C. Peter Wagner, who coined the term, described as “the most radical change in how churches operate since the Protestant Reformation.”

Rather than focusing inward on nurturing their local congregations under the guidance of elected church elders, NAR churches focus outward through networks in alignment with other churches, under the guidance of higher-up “apostles,” to engage in “spiritual warfare” against demonic forces, and conquer the “seven mountains of culture” and establish dominion over all the world.  As Dorhauer says, it really is a conspiracy aimed at controlling the world — in the name of Jesus, of course, with the self-reinforcing network of apostles and prophets claiming authority in his name. 

The book had its origins on Twitter, Gagné explained, as he applied knowledge from his two fields of interest — ancient biblical texts (he has translated the Gospel of Thomas) and the ways people make sense of them — to help people understand Trump’s seemingly unlikely appeal to religious voters. 

“I did long threads about evangelicals and the Bible, and the reception of the Bible by evangelicals and their fascination with power and with Trump,” he told me. Initially, his biggest audience was in Europe, which led to the first version of this book being published in French in September 2000. “I wrote it in about three months because the deadline was very short,” he recalled. This in turn spurred interest in an English translation, now published with an additional preface, epilogue and indices. 

This really is a conspiracy aimed at controlling the world — in the name of Jesus, of course, with a self-reinforcing network of apostles and prophets claiming authority in his name.

By focusing on the words of those involved, Gagné cuts through enormous amounts of confusion around the NAR. Its defining characteristic, he writes, “relates to the ‘amount of spiritual authority delegated by the Holy Spirit to individuals,’” which was also “applicable to non-charismatic church leaders.”

The NAR model, he writes, “revolves around the restoration of the five-fold ministry [a concept drawn from Ephesians, referring to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers] and an apostolic system of governance. This model challenges the democratic structures of churches,” essentially reversing the Protestant Reformation’s centering of the individual believer working out their own salvation, and its democratic church governance structures based on systems of elders.

“Wagner never saw himself as the founder of the NAR, but rather coined the term ‘New Apostolic Reformation’ to describe something that he believed already existed,” Gagné told me. For example, Wagner cited the “African independent church movement” of the early 20th century and the “Chinese rural house church movement that was around in the mid-1970s. And then he talks about the third large component of the NAR, which for him was the grassroots church movement in Latin America,” also in the 1970s.

What Wagner saw in these examples and others, Gagné said, “was a new mode of church governance which focused on apostolic leadership and networks.” So he didn’t claim credit for the idea, but did create new networks to sustain the NAR both in America and around the world, “most notably the International Coalition of Apostolic Leaders and its U.S. affiliate, USCAL.” Wagner even included “all sorts of individuals and groups and churches” who might object to their inclusion in the NAR, another source of confusion. But while he wanted to include all sorts of churches with strong, charismatic leadership, the vast majority of NAR leaders and followers are “neo-charismatic Pentecostals,” or NCPs as Gagné calls them.

Wilson takes a more microscopic approach to determine who is or isn't in the NAR. “My benchmark or heuristic for figuring that out is: Do they work together, and do they seem to be advancing a common political agenda?” he said. “In my experience, the NAR is all about networking, and who individual leaders network with, associate with, is everything.” 

Dominion theology, "victorious eschatology" and the Seven Mountain Mandate 

When it comes to theology, Gagné focuses on the “idea of wanting to establish the kingdom of God on earth, the notion of dominion,” a thread long present in evangelical Christianity, but largely more as an aspiration than a master plan, as it is for the NAR. “Wagner was clear on what had influenced him in terms of dominion theology,” Gagné said, and specifically referenced Calvinist philosopher and theologian R.J. Rushdoony, the founder of what is known as “Christian Reconstruction.” (See Julie Ingersoll’s book "Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism,” and a Salon interview.) 

Another important influence was onetime evangelical bishop Earl Paulk, who “popularized a teaching that is called ‘kingdom now,’” Gagné said, which claimed that “Christ in us must take dominion over the earth.... The next move of God cannot occur until Christ in us takes dominion.” 

It’s worth noting here that the dominionist belief in dramatically expanding Christians’ power over the secular world is inherently in conflict with previously more popular evangelical beliefs that the sinful world should be left behind, as reflected in the popular “Left Behind” novel series. In contrast, Gagné said, “Wagner had a view which is called ‘victorious eschatology,” where he links that idea to dominion theology.” He quotes Wagner saying, “We no longer accept the idea that society will get worse and worse, because we now believe God’s mandate is to transform society, so it gets better and better.” 

If victorious eschatology and dominion theology fit together, so do two other elements of the NAR philosophy. The first of those is the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” an idea first developed in the mid-70s by Lauren Cunningham and Bill Bright.

The dominionist belief in dramatically expanding Christians’ power over the secular world is inherently in conflict with previously more popular evangelical beliefs that the sinful world should be left behind.

“The Seven Mountain Mandate is not a theology, it's more of a strategic marketing tool to mobilize people,” Gagné explained. “If Christians are to rule … that's what I call the political theology of power. But how do you mobilize people to act upon that idea? You come up with a mobilizing strategy and that strategy is the Seven Mountain Mandate.” The mountains represent different aspects of culture: religion, politics, education, family, business, arts and entertainment, and media. “The goal is to have Christians in influential positions — maybe at the top of those mountains — to influence the culture of each of the sectors of society. And when you do that you will exercise dominion. This is how you bring about God's kingdom.” 

The leading promoter of this idea was Lance Wallnau, whose book “Invading Babylon – The 7 Mountains Mandate” points toward another important element: the idea of spiritual warfare. That has long been part of evangelical rhetoric, but Wagner dramatically expanded on it in the 1990s, identifying three distinct levels. 

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The first, “ground-level spiritual warfare,” involves things like exorcism and the casting out of demons, akin to the powers Jesus supposedly conferred on his disciples. The second, “occult-level spiritual warfare,” involved battling demonic powers acting through purportedly occult practices, meaning anything from yoga to Satanism to New Age spirituality. The third, “strategic-level spiritual warfare,” involves battling against an imagined hierarchy of high-ranking demonic spirits that control geographic and demographic entities, along with the demonic networks aligned against Trump that Paula White-Cain prayed to be broken and torn down.

All of this, Gagné says, is based on profoundly misreading the Bible. NAR leaders “are not always willing to anchor the reading of the Bible according to more traditional Christian interpretation — and even less so on scholarly exegesis. There's a lot of subjective interpretation, there's a lot of ‘I'm reading myself into the Bible and into the stories of the Bible.’ We need to be very very careful in how we contextualize these passages on spiritual warfare. There's no place in the New Testament where Christians are actually called to actively pursue the devil, to actively engage against spiritual forces,” he stressed. “When you read Ephesians 6, and it says you take on ‘the whole armor of God,’ it's a metaphor for faith and the word of God and salvation … this gives you strength to resist the devil. It's a very personal fight. It's not like I'm engaging the devil left and right against principalities and powers all over the place.”

Gagné has been reading the works of the early Christian monks known as the “Desert Fathers.” “They talk about spiritual war. And spiritual warfare is within them,” he said. “It's about mastering the passions that are leading you astray from God's will. It's not about engaging adversaries left and right that don't agree with you politically. There's none of that in the Bible.” 

Spiritual warfare and the 2020 election

“Since the Trump presidency, and especially since the advent of Paula White-Cain as a spiritual adviser close to Trump, there has been a mainstreaming of spiritual warfare,” Gagné said. “She's the one that had the most visible platform to practice this, and we have multitudes of videos to prove this,” such as White-Cain’s aforementioned invocation at Trump’s first re-election rally, featuring a "spiritual warfare prayer” that includes “demonizing Trump's political adversaries."

Now, Gagné says, “all that language is out in public. Everybody's hearing this constantly," and right-wing political figures "are using this more and more as ways to demonize their political adversaries, to disqualify them.”

Spiritual warfare rhetoric and ideology intensified over the course of the 2020 election campaign, along with prophecies of Trump’s re-election as God’s instrument. But that "didn't turn out so well,” Gagne noted wryly, and pro-Trump “prophets wound up looking very bad.” Denial was the first response of many, who took part in various protests culminating on Jan. 6, when White-Cain spoke at the rally where Trump exhorted the crowd to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” 

A day earlier, Trump’s hyper-Christian supporters held a “Jericho March" around the Supreme Court, where the imagery was “extremely violent,” Gagné said, driven by visions “of  destruction, death … conquering one's political adversaries, turning over the actual regime. It's not surprising that [we saw] Christians involved in the storming of the Capitol with their banners and their shofars because of all this hyped-up spiritual warfare rhetoric. That was the consequence. It's an unwillingness to accept the results of democracy.”

"It's not surprising that we saw Christians involved in storming the Capitol with their banners and their shofars because of all this hyped-up spiritual warfare rhetoric. That was the consequence.”

Trump’s “big lie” was most popular among NAR believers, but also produced a split that seems to have grown more serious. In April 2021, a group of NAR leaders posted a Prophetic Standards Statement “designed to increase accountability while continuing to encourage and support this gift” (meaning the gift of prophecy), as Charisma magazine described it. But many of the most high-profile apostles and prophets didn’t sign on. Gagné and Clarkson have written about the unfolding rift here and here

The situation now highlights both the NAR’s strengths and weaknesses. “Their strength is that they're stealth,” Gagné said. “Nobody has to carry a card to be part of the NAR,” which is essentially a movement of ideas that now “boasts now some 2000 apostles in 85 different countries across the world.” But the lack of rigid structure also feeds into the movement’s weakness, including the ideological or theological schisms that have recently appeared. 

“Media has a very important role to play in speaking about this movement and how it will use the levers of democracy to eventually subvert democracy,” Gagné said. “If we don't get it right, people can't understand what it is.” 

One major obstacle, Wilson warns, is the right-wing infrastructure meant to obscure and protect dominionism. His research has uncovered a group of sympathetic ultra-wealthy individuals known as the Gathering, who he says meet monthly. “They have experts to advise them on how to best invest their philanthropic dollars to advance the kingdom — that's explicitly what it's about." They’ve also “created their own program to advance the careers of young scholars going into the Ivy League.” 

Wilson also cited “another operation called the Faith Angle Forum, which grooms journalists — it misinforms and misleads journalists about the religious right in a very advanced way” at all-expenses-paid retreats targeting “top journalists from all the top venues — the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic.” Wilson says he has audio recordings of founder Michael Cromartie “talking about how the Washington Post went to him to select good reporters to cover religion. Basically Cromartie was on the Rolodex of every religion and politics reporter of any note.” 

One resource to help counter this is a three-part “reporters guide” to NAR that Gagné and Clarkson wrote for Religion Dispatches. It’s a helpful start, but more will be needed. Gagné’s book, as Clarkson notes, it’s “at once the primer for beginners and a guide for the perplexed for those who are already tackling it.” 

“The rise to power of House Speaker Mike Johnson, himself an active participant in the NAR, makes this work on this subject so important,” Dorhauer said. “We are very late in the game trying to figure out what happened, who made it happen, what their motives are, what their endgame is, and how we stop this.”

One of Gagné’s final points is that “We have to stop mocking” the NAR and other dominionists, “because these people are very serious.... We have to stop downplaying it and put a light on it and say, ‘They believe this.’ We're not the measure of the entire world. People have different ways of conceptualizing the world and how people should live in it.” The important response, he said, is “taking it very seriously, and reporting about it very seriously. Politicians should know about it also, and should do what is necessary to make sure that America remains a pluralistic and democratic society.”

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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