Mike Johnson Is Mainstreaming the Spirituality that Gave Us the Capitol Riot
The speaker of the House helped institute a half-day prayer gathering with faith leaders who mobilized their followers to turn out for Jan. 6th.
LAST WEEK, THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE and other congressional leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. with evangelists, pastors, and other Christian leaders, and over the course of several morning hours, they prayed, repented, and asked for God’s blessings on the United States. You might be forgiven for thinking that all this praying and schmoozing must have taken place at the well-known National Prayer Breakfast. It did not. This event took place one day earlier a few blocks away from the Capitol at evangelicals’ favorite D.C. outpost, the Museum of the Bible, where these leaders had gathered for the second annual National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance.
This event has been billed as a more radical alternative to the newly bipartisan and toned-down National Prayer Breakfast. It was designed for Republican politicians—including, most prominently, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson—to meet and pray with right-wing charismatic/Pentecostal and evangelical Christian leaders. This year’s gathering was a somber affair, focused on national penitence and lamenting the many sins of America. It also demonstrated the mainstreaming of the beliefs and values of a new set of insurgent Christian-right leaders—several of whom played major roles in bringing about the violent events of January 6th.
Yes, you read that correctly: This past week, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line to the presidency, spent hours praying with the Christian leaders who did the most to encourage religious participation in what became the Capitol riot.
In my work as a scholar of American religion, I’ve been tracking a tectonic shift over the last few years in the leadership of the American religious right. In my forthcoming book and in a short documentary released this week, I detail how a fringe set of charismatic evangelical Christian leadership networks known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) have become a vanguard among Christian elites supporting Donald Trump and the Trump administration. The NAR is the backbone of Christian Trumpism, offering not only theological rationales but supernatural prophecies to support Trump, and they have inspired other Christians to rally around the embattled former president, as well.
You may not have heard of the faith leaders affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation—they aren’t the A-list celebrities of the religious right, and the NAR isn’t formally constituted as a denomination or organization in its own right—but they are some of the key brokers of today’s evangelical alignment around Donald Trump. And in the chaotic season between the 2020 election and the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, NAR leaders were enormously influential mobilizers who convinced many right-wing Christians to turn out for the storming of the United States Capitol.
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The NAR framework was developed by a maverick evangelical seminary professor named C. Peter Wagner. In the 1990s, he became fascinated with nondenominational charismatic Christian movements, which had been growing like gangbusters since the 1970s. Wagner was convinced that, in the twenty-first century, God would inaugurate a new era in the Christian church and in world history through the commissioning of new apostles and new prophets to lead the church. (“Apostle” and “prophet” are titles that occur in the New Testament in reference to respected early Christian leaders who either followed Christ during his earthly ministry or performed supernatural acts of prophecy in the years that followed, but most Christians believe that these roles died out after the era of the early church.) Another important part of Wagner’s vision was the embrace of miraculous “spiritual gifts,” or the ability of Christian believers to perform supernatural signs and wonders, as most Christians believe Christ and his original apostles to have done.
Wagner came to identify himself as an apostle under this novel schema, and in 1999, he retired from his teaching post at Fuller Theological Seminary, a bastion of mainstream evangelical theology, and started building infrastructure to accommodate this new model of diffuse, nondenominational church networks led by other apostles and prophets. He developed a set of low-profile NAR institutions (educational institutions, professional societies, and mentoring groups), all under his own leadership, which brought hundreds of young aspiring apostles and prophets into his orbit. These NAR networks became increasingly politically radicalized in the late 2000s and 2010s, adopting an aggressive paradigm of Christian thought known as “dominion theology,” which holds that believers are mandated by God to take control of and transform modern societies into provinces of the kingdom of God.
These days, there is a lot of talk about Christian nationalism, a catchall term for a largely inchoate political theology that takes America to be a nation built by and for Christians. While Christian nationalist ideology has given rise to a variety of specific theological expressions and assumes a number of forms, politically, the NAR occupies the extreme end of the Christian nationalist spectrum. Proponents of NAR teaching believe that Christians need to “conquer” key positions of influence in society (often referred to as the “Seven Mountains of Societal Influence”) so that they can “reform” society into a Christian utopia. It is not hyperbole to call the NAR a Christian supremacist movement that is intent upon a spiritual takeover of society.
NAR leaders also have a complex set of beliefs and practices concerning the interface of the natural world with the supernatural, with special attention paid to demons and “spiritual warfare,” which is the practice of battling against malign spiritual forces through prayer. They believe that everything in the world is either under the sway of demons or in alignment with the Lord and his angels—a Manichaean view of ultimate reality—and they often refer to the apostles and prophets as “generals of spiritual warfare,” who carry special authority from God to contend with and cast out the most powerful of these demons. The untold story of January 6th is that, beginning on the day the 2020 election was called for Biden, NAR leaders orchestrated a massive spiritual warfare campaign to see Trump reinstated, and that campaign culminated in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Dozens of NAR or NAR-affiliated Christian ministers, including some of Wagner’s closest disciples, were present in the crowds surrounding the Capitol, employing their practices of spiritual warfare to defeat the demons they believed had helped their enemies to steal the election from Trump while also giving an ultimate spiritual warrant to others in the crowd who were intent on reinstating him at all costs.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO that National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance last week. The event is the brainchild of three men: NAR apostle Jim Garlow (a Trump evangelical adviser), Family Research Council president Tony Perkins (a stalwart of the religious right establishment), and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson. In fact, according to Garlow, these alt-prayer breakfast events were inspired by Johnson well before he was elected speaker.
Johnson was at this year’s gathering, of course, taking the stage several times over the span of the five-plus hour itinerary, leading a coterie of Republican representatives in reciting prayers, and then being prayed over by the other attendees in turn.
Livestreams and recordings of the event make it possible to directly observe the creep of Christian supremacy into the highest levels of American politics.
Various pastors prayed from the stage during the event, including Ché Ahn, pastor of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, California. Ahn is one of the world’s most influential NAR apostles, leading a network of over 25,000 churches and ministries spread across more than 65 countries. He is also international chancellor of Wagner University, founded by its namesake to train leaders in spiritual warfare and in NAR theology, which Wagner entrusted to Ahn as a “spiritual father” to his spiritual son.
Inspired by Wagner’s dominion theology, Ahn doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. Instead, he wants to see conservative, NAR-style Christianity reign supreme over the United States. As he decreed prophetically when he addressed the pre-January 6th crowds in Washington, D.C. the afternoon before the Capitol riot: “We are going to rule and reign through President Trump and under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Another portion of the gathering last week was led by Ahn’s close associate and coauthor, NAR prophet Lou Engle. For more than thirty years, these two men have backed some of the most extreme anti-abortion efforts and theologies in the world. Engle’s efforts to enlist children in this same activism was the subject of a 2006 documentary, Jesus Camp. Amid the chaos of Trump’s election lies in late 2020, Engle publicly prayed for “righteous judges, who will rule by a covenant of the law that’s even above the Constitution.”
In a constitutional republic, our self-preservation instincts should go into fight-or-flight mode when we hear anything about laws above the Constitution. In the leadup to January 6th, Engle helped Jim Garlow lead marches of Christians around government buildings to baptize Trump’s election lies.
During the morning program of the National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance, prayers and political-spiritual reflections from participants were interwoven with evangelical-style worship songs led by a fairly obscure charismatic worship leader named Alma Rivera.
Rivera is not a nationally famous worship leader of the sort we might expect at such a high-powered gathering. So why did the event’s organizers choose her to lead them in worship? It might have something to do with what she is most famous for: leading a worship-and-spiritual-warfare session (alongside other NAR prophets) just yards from where insurrectionists were invading the Capitol building on January 6th.
Last, but certainly not least, the prayer gathering showcased the influence of Dutch Sheets, the most effective of the Christian leaders who mobilized people for January 6th. A retired pastor and NAR political apostle extraordinaire, Sheets believes that his prophetic prayers and rituals outside the White House in December 2000 are the reason that contested election ultimately went in favor of George W. Bush.
Sheets might sound eccentric, but it’s important that we don’t write him off as some addlebrained kook. As soon as the 2020 election was called for Joe Biden, Sheets threw himself wholesale into a multipronged effort to mobilize sympathetic Christians in prayer, spiritual warfare, and protest against the demonic Democratic forces he believed were stealing the election from Trump. He launched a daily prophecy broadcast on YouTube, and most of the episodes garnered upwards of a quarter million views in the weeks leading up to the insurrection. Some of the prophecies and visions Sheets shared on his broadcasts between the election and January 6th sound eerily, conspicuously similar to what actually transpired that day, no doubt inculcating the belief among Christians who trekked to D.C. that they were fulfilling prophecy and were acting as the very (violent) hand of God.
In the buildup to January 6th, Sheets also toured the country with an itinerant band of NAR prophets, traveling to each of the contested states and holding livestreamed pro-Trump prophecy sessions electric with fervor for holy violence. (If you want a sample of what that looked like, brace yourself and hit play on this video.)
Sheets’s incitement tour was planned and executed in coordination with leaders inside the Trump administration. He even brought his same roving band of prophets to the White House for a two-hour meeting with administration officials just one week before January 6th. The details of this meeting have never been leaked, but Sheets’s prophet associates have alluded to the discussions. One said that “strategy was given to us from people in the know . . . that I cannot really talk about,” suggesting that figures inside the Trump administration were actively instigating and attempting to harness Christian nationalist militancy on the eve of the Capitol riot.
THIS IS WHAT THE MAINSTREAMING of Christian extremism in America looks like. These are just a few examples of the dozen-plus NAR-affiliated leaders who took the stage last week to lead our elected representatives in prayer. These NAR leaders weren’t the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, or the multitudes that physically stormed the seat of Congress; they are the faith leaders, the theologians, and the prophetic instigators who pointed those people to the Capitol building and declared that it needed to be exorcized and conquered for the kingdom of God.
There is, today, a January 6th–based spirituality built around conspiracy theories, around upholding Trump as a type of messiah, and around aggressive Christian theologies of power and dominion. We see it in the cult of martyrdom that surrounds the violent criminals who are now being prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the government. We see it in the integration of evangelical worship music into right-wing political rallies. We see it in the mystical ties that continue to bind evangelical Christians to Trump.
NAR leaders shaped and cultivated that January 6th spirituality. Their presence and prominence at the National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance represents the effort to transform that spirituality—sponsored and superintended by the speaker of the House himself—into a decorous garb that public officials can wear openly.
Correction (Feb. 8, 2024, 11:30 a.m. EST): As originally published, this article incorrectly stated the National Prayer Breakfast and National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance happened on the same day. They happened one day apart.