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Welcome to the family

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This fascinating long-form piece in the WAPO by Stephanie McCrummen is well worth your time. Here’s the lede:

The pastor was already pacing when he gave the first signal. Then he gave another, and another, until a giant video screen behind him was lit up with an enormous colored map of Fort Worth divided into four quadrants.

Greed, the map read over the west side. Competition, it said over the east side. Rebellion, it said over the north part of the city. Lust, it said over the south.

It was an hour and a half into the 11 a.m. service of a church that represents a rapidly growing kind of Christianity in the United States, one whose goal includes bringing under the authority of a biblical God every facet of life from schools to city halls to Washington where the pastor had traveled a month after the Jan. 6 insurrection and filmed himself in front of the U.S. Capitol saying quietly, “Father, we declare America is yours.”

Now he stood in front of the glowing map, a 38-year-old White man in skinny jeans telling a congregation of some 1,500 people what he said the Lord had told him: that Fort Worth was in thrall to four “high-ranking demonic forces.” That all of America was in the grip of “an anti-Christ spirit.” That the Lord had told him that 2021 was going to be the “Year of the Supernatural,” a time when believers would rise up and wage “spiritual warfare” to advance God’s Kingdom, which was one reason for the bright-red T-shirt he was wearing. It bore the name of a church elder who was running for mayor of Fort Worth. And when the pastor cued the band, the candidate, a Guatemalan American businessman, stood along with the rest of the congregation as spotlights flashed on faces that were young and old, rich and poor, White and various shades of Brown – a church that had grown so large since its founding in 2019 that there were now three services every Sunday totaling some 4,500 people, a growing Saturday service in Spanish and plans for expansion to other parts of the country.

“Say, ‘Cleanse me,’ ” the pastor continued as drums began pounding and the people repeated his words. “Say, ‘Speak Lord, your servants are listening.’ “

– – –

The church is called Mercy Culture, and it is part of a growing Christian movement that is nondenominational, openly political and has become an engine of former president Donald Trump’s Republican Party. It includes some of the largest congregations in the nation, housed in the husks of old Baptist churches, former big-box stores and sprawling multimillion-dollar buildings with private security to direct traffic on Sundays. Its most successful leaders are considered apostles and prophets, including some with followings in the hundreds of thousands, publishing empires, TV shows, vast prayer networks, podcasts, spiritual academies, and branding in the form of T-shirts, bumper stickers and even flags. It is a world in which demons are real, miracles are real, and the ultimate mission is not just the transformation of individual lives but civilization itself into their version of God’s Kingdom: one with two genders, no abortion, a free-market economy, Bible-based education, church-based social programs and laws such as the ones curtailing LGBTQ rights now moving through statehouses around the country.

This is the world of Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White and many more lesser known but influential religious leaders who prophesied that Trump would win the election and helped organize nationwide prayer rallies in the days before the Jan. 6 insurrection, speaking of an imminent “heavenly strike” and “a Christian populist uprising,” leading many who stormed the Capitol to believe they were taking back the country for God.

Even as mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations continue an overall decline in numbers in a changing America, nondenominational congregations have surged from being virtually nonexistent in the 1980s to accounting for roughly 1 in 10 Americans in 2020, according to long-term academic surveys of religious affiliation. Church leaders tend to attribute the growth to the power of an uncompromised Christianity. Experts seeking a more historical understanding point to a relatively recent development called the New Apostolic Reformation, or N.A.R.

A California-based theologian coined the phrase in the 1990s to describe what he said he had seen as a missionary in Latin America – vast church growth, miracles, and modern-day prophets and apostles endowed with special powers to fight demonic forces. He and others promoted new church models using sociological principles to attract members. They also began advancing a set of beliefs called dominionism, which holds that God commands Christians to assert authority over the “seven mountains” of life – family, religion, education, economy, arts, media and government – after which time Jesus Christ will return and God will reign for eternity.

None of which is new, exactly. Strains of this thinking formed the basis of the Christian right in the 1970s and have fueled the GOP for decades.

What is new is the degree to which Trump elevated a fresh network of N.A.R.-style leaders who in turn elevated him as God’s chosen president, a fusion that has secured the movement as a grass-roots force within the GOP just as the old Christian right is waning. Increasingly, this is the world that the term “evangelical voter” refers to – not white-haired Southern Baptists in wooden pews but the comparatively younger, more diverse, more extreme world of millions drawn to leaders who believe they are igniting a new Great Awakening in America, one whose epicenter is Texas.

Dominionism is the Protestant version of the Catholic integralism that’s being advocated openly and aggressively by delusional wack job and chaired Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule, and much more subtly and dangerously by people like William “Opus Dei is for squishes” Barr. (That these two strains of Christian theology each consider the other to be a Satanic heresy is the kind of complication that can no doubt be dealt with “later.”)

The story is full of compelling detailed reporting. Here’s a horrifying little passage:

By late afternoon Sunday, the parking lot was empty and the rest of the work of kingdom-building could begin.

One day, this meant a meeting of the Distinct Business Ministry, whose goal was “raising up an army of influential leaders” across Fort Worth.

Another day, it meant the church hosting a meeting of a group called the Freedom Shield Foundation, a dozen or so men huddled over laptops organizing what one participant described as clandestine “operations” around Fort Worth to rescue people they said were victims of sex trafficking. This was a core issue for the church. Members were raising money to build housing for alleged victims. There were always prayer nights for the cause, including one where church members laid hands on Fort Worth’s sheriff, who sat with a Bible in his lap and said that the problem was “the demonic battle of our lifetime” and told those gathered that “you are the warriors in that battle.”

Another day, it meant the steady stream of cars inching toward the church food bank, one team loading boxes into trunks and another fanning out along the idling line offering prayers.

A man in a dented green sedan requested one for his clogged arteries.

A man trying to feed a family of seven asked in Spanish, “Please, just bless my life.”

A stone-faced woman said her mother had died of covid, then her sister, and now a volunteer reached inside and touched her shoulder: “Jesus, wrap your arms around Jasmine,” she said, and when she moved on to others who tried to politely decline, the volunteer, a young woman, gave them personal messages she said she had received from the Lord.

“God wants to tell you that you’re so beautiful,” she said into one window.

“I feel God is saying that you’ve done a good job for your family,” she said into another.

“I feel God is saying, if anything, He is proud of you,” she said in Spanish to a woman gripping the steering wheel, her elderly mother in the passenger seat. “When God sees you, He is so pleased, He is so proud,” she continued as the woman stared straight ahead. “I feel you are carrying so much regret, maybe? And pain?” she persisted, and now the woman began nodding. “And I think God wants to release you from the past. Say, ‘Jesus, I give you my shame.’ Say, ‘Jesus, I give you my regret,’ ” the volunteer said, and the woman repeated the words. ” ‘You know I tried my best, Jesus. I receive your acceptance. I receive your love,’ ” the volunteer continued, and now the woman was crying, and the food was being loaded into the back seat, and a volunteer was taking her name, saying, “Welcome to the family.”

These people are the enemy. Listen and understand: They are out there, they can’t be bargained with, they can’t be reasoned with, they don’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and they absolutely will not stop, ever, until liberal democracy in America is dead.

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