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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Evangelicalism's Perry/Bachmann Problem

Warning: This is a longish piece with links to many important articles. I think it will be worth your while, but make sure you have a few minutes to digest it.

I have been dealing this week with a major frustration: Extremely poor reporting and commentary in major secular media on Governor Perry and Michelle Bachmann has led to a flurry of superficial rejoinders by Christian thinkers who I respect and whose opinions matter. Key examples of the former are Ryan Lizza’s lengthy piece in The New Yorker on Bachmann, Sarah Posner's post at Slate, and Bill Keller’s article in the New York Times Magazine; key examples of the latter are Lisa Miller and Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, Charlotte Allen in The Los Angeles Times and Douglas Groothius and Scot McKnight at Patheos. Even Ross Douthat, while going further in his acknowledgement of the seriousness of the questions, still misses the core issues.

What I believe has happened (and please give me your feedback on this) is that evangelicals have gravitated to the worst aspects of the secular articles—namely, the underlying fear of any type of religious presence in the public arena and the ignorance of the complexity and diversity of evangelicalism—to dramatically underplay the legitimate concerns over Perry’s and Bachmann’s religio-political vision. The Christian writers who I mentioned (and there are many others) are either focusing too narrowly on specific errors in the secular media (Groothius, Allen do this I believe) or too broadly on the question of religion and public life (Miller, Gerson and McKnight do this). What they are missing is the mountain of serious scholarship and thoughtful writing that is the foundation of genuine concerns over the types of ideas and spiritualities that have had, according to Bachmann and Perry themselves, a significant influence on them and their staff. 

We are at an important time in the 2012 campaign when reporters and citizens are taking their first serious look at the candidates. These initial impressions can be significant. I am genuinely concerned that evangelicals who are in positions of leadership, and are opinion shapers, are moving too quickly to construe the questions over Perry and Bachmann’s religio-political worldview as “just another example” of the secular media’s ignorance of or disdain for traditional religious beliefs. They risk papering over profound differences that moderate evangelicals have had with the authors and institutions that have shaped Bachmann and Perry. What I am providing here, then, is a link to resources for thoughtful people who want to think again about Bachmann and Perry. What the evidence shows in plain sight is the influence of aspects of Protestant thought that many evangelicals have traditionally found troubling and suspect. Whether it should be labeled "dominionism",  "reconstructionism", "fundamentalism" or "neopentecostalism" is a question beyond my expertise, but that it not be confused with mainstream evangelicalism or conservative Christianity is imperative. If we allow the likes of George Grant and the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) to be confused with mainstream evangelicalism we risk damage to our credibility, damage to the gospel, and damage to the broader argument that religion and religious institutions have a vital role to play in promoting the global common good. And we risk legitimizing and even encouraging aspects of thought and action that some of us have spent much of our professional lives resisting and challenging. Reading Ralph Reed this week is a case in point. He is clearly seeking to interpret the recent controversies as evidence of a decades long pattern of misunderstanding the “evangelical vote”. I think Reed has made a career out of misrepresenting evangelicalism, and I think he is doing it again. Before we cede the ground to Reed, lets be sure that we have examined these new leaders carefully, and be sure that we really want to help frame them as evangelicals to the broader culture.


I know that some of you probably have closed your minds to the signficance of dominionism and others of you have probably not even heard of the term. If you are going to properly understand Bachmann and Perry you need to think anew about dominionism and its current enthusiasts in what is called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). So far as I can tell the lead researcher on this is Rachel Tabachnick. A very helpful interview by Terry Gross gives an excellent overview of her research.

This is a key quote from the interview:

"Having the Southern Baptist background and growing up in the Deep South has helped me to be able to do this research and has also helped me realize something that might not be apparent to some other people looking at the movement," she says. "This is quite radically different than the evangelicalism of my youth. The things that we've been talking about are not representative of evangelicalism. They're not representative of conservative evangelicalism. So I think that's important to keep in mind. This is a movement that's growing in popularity, and one of the ways they've been able to do that [is because] they're not very identifiable to most people. They're just presented as nondenominational or just Christian — but it is an identifiable movement now with an identifiable ideology." [Emphasis added]

This interview has given her scholarship a broader audience and she has prepared a summary of her work here. She has a devestating critique of Lisa Miller's analysis of dominionism hereI am not speaking for the quality of all of the work done by the organization that she works for because I don’t know enough about it, but she has done her homework, she knows the broader religious landscape and she is onto something vital that some of the Christian reports have been woefully ignorant of. The complete layout of the 150 articles she and others at her organization have done in the last three years on the NAR is here. She is also the leader of NARwatch, a great resource that many of us (including me!) have been ignorant of for too long. You won't agree with everything there, but Rachel and her colleagues are the premier source for information if you really want to know what this movement is about and why it matters to the broader questions around religion in public life.


I know that many of you are, like me, leery of guilt by association arguments. Tangential connections and obscure linkages is the stuff of conspiratorial thinkers on each side of the political spectrum. That is not the point of this next section at all. Peter Waldron is not an obscure, third tier adviser. Any of us who know politics know the importance of staff, particularly in the formation and development of a campaign and its theme. Peter Waldron is a central figure in the development of Bachmann’s campaign in Iowa and now in South Carolina. The Atlantic has an overview of his past work and Richard Bartholomew details his connections to the global churchFred Clark looks at Waldron’s writing and Warren Throckmorton provides basic evidence of Waldron’s take on “dominion”.  Kyle Mantyla goes into greater detail than Rizza did about Bachmann’s mentor, John Eldsmoe, and pushes back against efforts to downplay the influence of dominionism on Bachmann's politics.


For Governor Perry the best place to start is with a profile of him for the Texas Observer. I know that magazine is to the left of most of us, and I know that this article suffers from some of that malady, but it does lay down some important benchmarks for understanding Perry and his decision to hold The Response prayer rally just days before announcing his run for president. In discussing The Response I want to be clear that I do believe in spiritual warfare and in the power of prayer. Having said that,  I have often been around people who hold very different understandings of prayer and spiritual warfare. I try not to judge them and I hope they don’t judge me. My point in digging into some of these beliefs is because the way that the people in the network around Perry do “spiritual warfare” is directly relevant to their relationship with Perry and his with them. I believe reports about the principal individuals and institutions that shaped The Response are important to understanding the worldview of Perry and to raising the question of whether his spiritual politics is just “more of the same” or whether it is something we should be cautious about labeling evangelical. Here is an important article by Tabachnik on how controversial this type of prayer is even among folk who are way more charismatic than the average evangelical. Sometimes we can forget how difficult reporting on this type of spirituality can be for a  non charismatic and we assume that the person is being condescending. Read this reporter’s genuine struggle to explain in these two posts what these NAR folk mean by “spiritual warfare” and ask yourself if this is “more of the same” debate over religion and public life.

The institutions that support these beliefs and spirituality are not distantly connected to Perry. It is not as if Perry has in any way distanced himself from or tried to explain carefully his relationship with them. If Perry wanted Christians and the national media to not view him as linked to this movement then he would have organized his famous “The Response” prayer rally much differently than he actually did. I know some evangelicals think the media made to much of his prayer rally, but I think that when you actually look at the national coverage the opposite is true. The national media at the event was too ignorant of the individuals and institutions represented there to really grasp who it was that Perry was embracing (literally) at this event. That is why the best immediate report on the event came from a Texan who is fully immersed in the religious landscape of the state. He had this to say about it:

there were plenty of moments that should've startled the national press corps. For example, right before Perry's sermon he hugged and thanked one Alice Patterson, an "apostle" from San Antonio who Perry says he frequently prays with.
Who was this woman, one of two people he had next to him as he began speaking?
Patterson was active in the Texas Christian Coalition in the 90s but has since flung herself into the New Apostolic Reformation movement…[she has written that] [t]he Democratic Party… is "an invisible network of evil comprising an unholy structure" released by Jezebel (emphasis in the original). Yes, that Jezebel.
And she knows because she saw her – literally – in 2009 at a prophetic prayer meeting.
I saw Jezebel's skirt lifted to expose tiny Baal, Asherah, and a few other spirits. There they were–small, cowering, trembling little spirits that were only ankle high on Jezebel's skinny legs. 
Elsewhere in the book, Patterson writes that the "Church is not to provide for widows less than 60 years old. ...If she is younger than 60, this scripture says that she should return to the home of her parents with the object of getting married." She also writes that the "minimum wage is against the Word of God" and that taxes should be no more than the biblical tithe (10 percent) for all Americans, rich or poor.
Imagine for a second that Barack Obama had been a close prayer partner with someone who had the equivalent of Patterson's beliefs. Further imagine that Obama had "initiated" an exclusionary religious event and put someone like Patterson on a short list of organizers. Imagine that Obama had then embraced this person on stage before launching into a 12-minute sermon that suggested that a majority of the world's population was condemned to hell. [emphasis added]

The more you dig into The Response the more convinced you will become that these types of stories are going to go from a trickle to a current in the months to come. Evangelical writers, and the broader media, have to decide how they really want to frame these stories and how they want to engage the debate that these stories will fuel, because they are not going away. Perry and Bachmann are tied to aspects of Christianity in America that many of the evangelicals I know would have serious reservations about and would not want to feel obliged to defend or own. As Rachel Tabachnik puts it:

"It is those dismissing the threat of Dominionism who threaten to paint all evangelicals with one brush. I agree that it is true that most evangelicals have no theocratic intentions, but as the New Apostolic Reformation's activism becomes more widely publicized (and it will), some Americans may assume that the apostles are representative of American evangelical belief.  Lisa Miller and the other naysayers are not helping to educate the public on the differences between the New Apostolic Reformation and the majority of conservative evangelicals and this is tragic, most of all for evangelicalism."


  1. Well organized, well written, and very informative. I hope more folks will read your article. You find the 'light' between the novelty hunters who create conspiracies for a news bite and the lazy, ignorant attempt to toss it all into one evangelical basket. The politicians in question know that most voters won't dig deep enough to discover the truth and will be inclined to vote based on whatever taps into and resonates emotionally with our own idealistic notions. We all have our pet crazies lurking just below the surface waiting for someone to champion them out of the closet. Thanks for taking a sane approach.

  2. Thanks, Xaris. I appreciate your words. I really tried to nail this one and I am glad you found it helpful. It is the rare post that I do that I really feel could have an impact on the broader work of proclaiming the gospel, but I think this one could. I have seen souls damaged by some of these theologies, and it would be a shame to see them gain a legitimacy via insufficient vigilance on our part.