A production of Sola Media
White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

The Politics of Enthusiasm

Release date:

August 19, 2011


Ethics Politics

Just as the Iowa straw-poll concluded last Saturday, with Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul taking first and second place, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy.  Happily, the kingdom of Christ is neither threatened nor furthered by the kingdoms of this age.  Nevertheless, the way in which not only the media but professing Christians distort Christianity in public should be of serious concern to all Christians—including those who support the political agenda of offending candidates.

Irresponsible Journalism
The media has had a feeding frenzy over Gov. Perry’s prominent role in a Houston prayer service.  Secularists will be unhappy with any political leader who exhibits strong religious convictions in public.  The furor over Michele Bachmann’s former membership in the Lutheran Church-Wisconsin Synod, which is confessionally bound to the view that the papacy is “antichrist,” points up the incomprehensibility of traditional churches (Catholic or Protestant) to many journalists.  The press hostility churned the already murky waters of religious and historical ignorance into a whirlpool of secularist bigotry.  No one in the press corps apparently Googled the fact that the confessions of 10 Presbyterian and 2 Dutch Reformed U. S. presidents said the same thing.

At the same time, why is it that so many public figures belong to strange churches or identify with extreme movements and leaders?  President Obama’s now estranged pastor, Jeremiah Wright, traced God’s hand in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack to American sins against non-white and disadvantaged peoples.  “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” he preached.  Of course, it’s wacky, but the only difference from a lot of right-wing sermonizing is the choice of targets (and reasons) for divine retribution.

In the last go-around, the media also pored over sermons from close supporters of Republican candidates.  Senator John McCain was embarrassed by the prominent endorsement of televangelist John Hagee.  In September 2008, Sarah Palin’s pastor, Ed Kalnins, of Wasilla Assemblies of God, had to apologize for extreme statements he made in sermons about John Kerry supporters going to hell and myriad identifications of particular natural and man-made disasters with God’s judgment on specific groups. [See Robert Stern’s USA Today article and Alexi Mostrous’s Times article.]

Front-Page Enthusiasm
This year journalists are watching tape from a lot of sermons and televangelist rants.  In spite of the astounding (and dangerous) religious ignorance of society’s fourth estate, there is a disturbing storm brewing in this campaign.

However much the press will get it wrong—and oddly declare the free exercise of religion somehow unconstitutional—U.S. politics seems more dominated than ever by what the Protestant Reformers called “enthusiasm.”  Meaning literally, “God-within-ism,” Luther and Calvin had in mind the radical Anabaptists who thought they were new apostles.  Hearing God’s voice directly within, they did not need an external Word (the Scriptures) or the external ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline.  Some of the early radicals even sought to take over civil government.  In the city of Mühlhausen, Thomas Müntzer succeeded, albeit briefly, until his violent, polygamous, and communist theocracy (“The Eternal League of God”) was defeated.  Like Müntzer, many political radicals since have appealed to the twelfth-century mystic Joachim of Fiore and his prophecy of a coming “Age of the Spirit” that will replace all external government and churches.  Everyone will know God by direct revelation and there will be no need for the law or the gospel, the state or the church.

The religious left and the religious right have roots in the Second Great Awakening, which in many ways carries on this radical Protestant impulse.  And while Charles Finney’s broad agenda of public justice and personal morality has split into two divergent streams (indeed, political parties), they are twin offspring of revivalistic Protestant enthusiasm.

Mormonism is a quintessential offspring of the millennarian, restorationist, and heretical impulse of radical Protestant sects in nineteenth-century America.  Although Mitt Romney professes deep commitment to his Mormon beliefs, he has shown no sign of taking his cues from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Salt Lake City.  Still, according to a Pew survey, 34% of evangelicals say they’re reticent to see a Mormon in the White House.

That’s ironic, because the other Republican front-runners not only believe that the extraordinary office of apostle is still in effect (as Mormonism teaches), but apparently share the hope of their closest religious advisors that they will be emissaries of the Spirit to bring a decadent nation back to God—through the political process.

First, Michele Bachmann.  Though she used to belong to a conservative Lutheran church, Bachmann’s faith seems to have been shaped more by the Pentecostal-theonomist synthesis of “dominion theology.”  (See Ryan Lizza, “Leap of Faith: The Making of a Republican Front-Runner,” The New Yorker, Aug 15 2011, p. 54-63).  She has spoken openly of having had a vision of the person she was to marry, while he was having the same vision of her.  Influenced initially by Francis Schaeffer’s “A Christian Manifesto,” she eventually enrolled in the Oral Roberts University Law School and then moved to Virginia Beach, where her husband took a degree in counseling at Pat Robertson’s Regent University.  Serving on the school board of a charter school led by Christian activist Dennis L. Meyer, she says she admired his philosophy of governance: “Denny encouraged the board to do things and move forward not because we ‘think’ it should be done a certain way, but because God wants us to.”  She also became interested in the writings of David A. Noebel, founder of Summit Ministries in Colorado.  (Having visited the “Summit” for a week during my college years—even giving a lecture, I can only say that it is as close to an indoctrination camp as anything I’ve seen.)  Noebel, a longtime member of the John Birch Society, links the Beatles to Communism in extraordinarily creative ways.  Going on to serve on Summit Ministries’ board, Bachmann then entered politics to try to turn America around.

Second, Rick Perry. First, a little background—sorry in advance for the autobiography.  I edited two books in the 1990s—The Agony of Deceit (1990) and Power Religion (1997).  The first one investigated the theology of then-prominent prosperity evangelists, such as Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, and the coterie of televangelists especially connected to the PTL and Trinity Broadcasting Network (including Joel Osteen’s father).  Along with R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, C. Everett Koop, Walter Martin, and others, my goal was to search beneath the televangelism scandals in the news to examine the heart of prosperity theology itself.  After a TIME magazine story on the book and its charges, a firestorm of controversy ensued—including letters from the lawyers of some prominent televangelists.

The theology that undergirded many of the televangelists’ ministries was shared by other men and movements like C. Peter Wagner, the Vineyard movement, the “Toronto Blessing,” and the “Kansas City Prophets.” Together they were the self-styled “Next Wave,” a Third Great Awakening.  Behind this movement lay the “Latter Rain” (a.k.a. “Shepherding”) movement of the 1970s: a bizarre aberration all its own that continues in the New Apostolic Reformation movement I mention below.

Through many of these leaders, the radical fringes of Pentecostalism found their way into more mainstream evangelicalism.  Wayne Grudem, who defended John Wimber and the Vineyard movement, published a rebuttal of D. A. Carson’s excellent chapter in Power Religion, where Carson offers a careful exegetical argument against continuing prophecy.  (I interact with Prof. Grudem’s argument below.)

More radically, many “Third Wave” Pentecostals linked up with R. J. Rushdoony’s “Christian Reconstructionism,” radical defenders of the antebellum South, and other assorted enthusiasts.  Popular versions of dispensational premillennialism (waiting for the Rapture while the world gets steadily worse) gave way to an extreme—and highly politicized—postmillennialism (preparing the way for a golden age of Christian dominion before Christ returns).

That’s where the New Apostolic Reformation (NAP) comes into the picture.  C. Peter Wagner, Fuller Seminary professor and pioneer of the church growth movement, was the theologian of the Vineyard movement.  He also launched the phenomenon of  “spiritual mapping,” where various cities or regions were identified with specific demons to be bound by international prayer warriors.  I met with some of these leaders years ago and I don’t question their sincerity, but I do question their orthodoxy.  Until recently, I had assumed that the whole thing was just another revivalistic movement that had come and gone like an Arizona monsoon.  Not so, evidently.  Enthusiasm never goes away, it just keeps reinventing itself.

According to Wagner and the NAP circle, the office of prophet and apostle, moribund for centuries, was restored in 2001—with Wagner and his associates as the chief candidates.  While most Pentecostals have been somewhat a-political and the Assemblies of God (a Pentecostal denomination) has consistently repudiated the succession of movements leading to the NAP, this group is radically postmillennial and politically engaged.  Its “Latter Rain” roots are on many points theologically heterodox, its discipline verges on cultic, and now it seems that it wants political power.  The “New Reformation” such groups envisage is more like the radical Anabaptist theocracy of Thomas Müntzer that Luther thundered against in “Against the Fanatics” and Calvin excoriated in “Against the Anabaptists.”

Why all of this background?  Reportedly, Governor Perry has close ties with the New Apostolic Reformation group.  Rather than rehearse the reports, you can read and evaluate them for yourself, especially the Texas Observer story and the recent Rachel Maddow report.  I’m not suggesting that we should uncritically accept the claims of journalistic neutrality from either source, but this movement—and similar yet less defined sub-groups—will no doubt bring greater disgrace to the cause of Christ in the minds of a biblically illiterate society.  You’ll hear more about it in coming months.  Regardless of how one judges the merits of the candidates’ political positions, the close identification of evangelical Christianity with radical enthusiasm (a direct, unmediated, extraordinary work of the Spirit in charismatic individuals) will only become more justifiable in the minds of many of our neighbors.  Its politicization will only make it more difficult to have serious conversations with our friends and co-workers not only about the common good of civil society but the gospel.

UPDATE8.19.11 10:30am PDST

Although the famous orthodox Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen voted for Democrat Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic presidential candidate, evangelicals created a massive phalynx against John F. Kennedy’s bid in 1960. The public concern at least was that the Pope would run America, since Kennedy was obliged to an infallible magisterium. To many thoughtful Protestants, the worry was hardly far-fetched. The Vatican had repeatedly branded the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, particularly the doctrine of separation of church and state, as “the Americanist heresy.” In an 1895 encyclical Pope Leo XIII made this stand officially binding on all Roman Catholics. In a 1906 encyclical Pope Pius X called such separation “a most pernicious error,” as did Pius XI in 1922. Even by mid-century, John Courtney Murray was treated as a firebrand in his defense of compatibility between Roman Catholic teaching and U.S. democracy. It was Murray who finally won, his hand being evident in the Second Vatican Council’s softened position. Times have changed indeed. Gary L. Bauer, who was a leading conservative evangelical activist and presidential candidate, told USA Today in 2005, “When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech that the Vatican would not tell him what to do, evangelicals and Southern Baptists breathed a sigh of relief. But today evangelicals and Southern Baptists are hoping that the Vatican will tell Catholic politicians what to do.”

Wouldn’t it be a little ironic if it turns out that, when it comes to invoking direct authority from living apostles for policy, the Republican candidate who will end up posing the least cause for alarm at least on that score may be a Mormon?