January 2022 Church & State - January 2022

False Prophets: They Claim To Speak For God. They Say They Know The Future. And They Just Might Be Pushing Christian Nationalists To New Extremes.

  Rob Boston

For a self-proclaimed prophet who says he has been ordained by God to see the future, Gerald Flurry has a pretty poor track record when it comes to making predictions.

Flurry, editor of The Philadelphia Trumpet, a magazine published by the Philadelphia Church of God, predicted that Donald Trump would win a second term as president. That alone is not unusual; what’s odd is that Flur­ry’s prediction came after the election had been officially called for Joe Biden.

Referring to Biden, Flurry wrote on Nov. 9, 2020, “It does appear strongly that this man will be America’s next president. But I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT BELIEVE THAT AT ALL. Regardless of how things look right now, I am confident that Donald Trump will remain president. … Why? Because a Biden presidency is contrary to Bible prophecy.”

It wasn’t the first time Flurry was wrong. He had previously predicted that Barack Obama would be the last president of the United States, and that Jesus Christ would return in 2020.

Nor is Flurry the only “prophet” making claims about politics in evangelical circles. Far from it. In recent years, dozens of self-proclaimed prophets have arisen in the evangelical world. Often not tied to any specific church, some of them travel the country making appearances in conservative evangelical congregations. Others post videos on YouTube or keep in contact with supporters via social media.

Writing in Politico last year shortly after Biden took office, longtime religion reporter Julia Duin noted that dozens of prophets had predicted that Trump would be reelected, or that he would somehow remain in office even after losing the popular and electoral vote.

Among them was Johnny Enlow, a California Pentecostal pastor who called Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration meaningless. Duin reported that Greg Locke, a Nashville pastor who’s popular on social media, predicted that Trump would “100 percent remain president of the United States for another term.”

Duin also wrote about Kat Kerr, based in Jacksonville, Fla., who insists that Trump won “by a landslide,” and claims that God told her he will serve for eight years.

Enlow, according to Duin, was even more specific, asserting, “There’s not going to be just Trump coming back. There’s going to be at least two more Trumps that will be in office in some way.” Trump, he has said, is “the primary government leader on Planet Earth.”

A handful of prophets, among them a young prognosticator named Jere­miah Johnson, subsequently admitted they were wrong. But most have simply doubled down. They’re either still insisting Trump will re-take office, or have retrofitted their original prophecy to fit new facts. Flurry, for example, is now claiming that Trump will reclaim the presidency in 2024 – although he hasn’t closed the door on Trump’s taking back the White House sooner.

Ted Goertzel, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University, noted recently in an article for Skeptical Inquirer that failed predictions rarely slow down such prophets.

“Believers,” he wrote, “are generally unconcerned about the lack of objective statistical evidence that prophecy works.”

Indeed, prophecy has a long tradition in Christianity, especially in Pentecost­al/ char­ismatic wings. Herbert W. Armstrong’s World­wide Church of God, founded in 1933, often interpreted contemporary events through the lens of biblical writings.

And, of course, interest in prophecy and prognostication isn’t limited to conservative Christians. A form of secular prognostication (think Nostradamus books) remains popular among Americans eager for a peep into the future.

But religiously ­tinged Proph­ecy-themed books have often topped bestseller lists. In 1970, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was the best-selling nonfiction book of the year, spawning a feature film and several sequels. More recently, the late Religious Right activist and writer Tim LaHaye produced several prophecy books. Televangelist Pat Robertson was also known for his prophecies, many of which were vague or failed outright. (Here’s just one: Robertson predicted in 2008 that a major war would erupt in the Middle East later that year or in early 2009, and that the conflict would escalate into nuclear strikes on America.) The current flock of Christian prophets are distinguished by their willingness to wade into political issues and their freelance nature.

As New York Times reporter Ruth Graham noted in a February 2021 article about the prophets, “Many are independent evangelists who do not lead churches or other institutions. They operate primarily online and through appearances at conferences or as guest speakers in churches, making money through book sales, donations and speaking fees. And they are part of the rising appeal of conspiracy theories in Christian settings, echoed by the popularity of QAnon among many evangelicals and a resistance to mainstream sources of information.”

Politically tinged prophecy has another drawback: It is inherently divisive.

“The rise of Religious Right proph­ets is part of the recent trend, on the part of the Right, to conflate religion and politics,” Katherine Stewart, author of the recent book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, told Church & State. “The fundamental problem is that whenever the political cycle is understood to be a series of ‘signs’ coming from on high, democracy suffers. If God supposedly chooses the ‘right’ candidates, then it is easy to see the people on the other side of the political aisle not as fellow citizens but as agents of evil.”

The prophets’ predictions, whether they come to pass or not, are portrayed as a form of special knowledge that people outside the evangelical community lack – and this can have real-world impacts.

The country has seen this play out during the coronavirus pandemic, with prophets claiming to know more than medical experts. In March 2020, prophet Lance Wallnau dismissed fears of COVID, asserting that it would be similar to the seasonal flu.

“There is a spirit on media that will exaggerate this virus so badly that you will need to insulate your head in order to keep yourself free from paranoia,” Wallnau wrote. “I anticipate 2 to 3 weeks of nuttiness from the world system. At the same time, there is special access to the Lord until this thing has passed.”

American evangelicals embraced claims like this. They resisted early stay-at-home orders and, as the nation approaches year three of the pandemic, their vaccination rates continue to lag.

Claims that Trump really won the 2020 election, a staple of the proph­ets’ repertoire, have become an alternative reality for many conservatives but are especially embraced in evangelical circles. A poll released in February 2021 by the Survey Center on American Life found that 54% of non-evangelical Republicans believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Among evangelical Republicans the figure was much higher, at 74%.

One of the reasons evangelicals may be resisting the reality of Trump’s loss is because his political rise was fueled in part by prophets. Prominent among them was Mark Taylor, a former firefighter, who claims that God told him in 2011 that Trump would be elected president the following year.

As Taylor tells it, he was asleep in front of a television when he woke up long enough to see Trump on Fox News Channel. At that point, the voice of God boomed, “I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this. For as Benjamin Netanyahu is to Israel, so shall this man be to the United States of America!”

Trump failed to run in 2012, but that didn’t dissuade Taylor. He simply retrofitted the prophecy for 2016, when Trump ran and won. Liberty University later produced a fictionalized account of Taylor’s experiences entitled “The Trump Prophecy.” Released to a limited number of theaters in October 2018, the film was a box-office flop.

Like other right-wing prophets, Taylor predicted that Trump would win reelection in 2020. He also prophesied that the media would come to realize Trump was right about many things and let up on its criticism. Neither of those things came to pass.

Taylor isn’t the only prophet obsessed with Trump. James Beverley, a research professor at Tyndale University in Toronto who has studied charismatic forms of Christianity, collected more than 500 prophecies about Trump going back nearly 15 years. He analyzed them in a 2020 book, God’s Man in the White House: Donald Trump in Modern Christian Prophecy (coauthored with Larry N. Willard) and found that many were, as Beverley told Politico, “usually vague, sometimes totally wrong, and, with rare exception, have failed to be properly critical of Trump.”

Although some prophets were bullish on Trump early on, most evangelicals, Beverley said in an interview with Church & State, weren’t following the New York real estate developer, a man hardly known for his piety.

“Trump garnered only brief attention among evangelicals before he announced as candidate,” he said. “Even then, Trump was initially viewed with deep skepticism but then slowly he caught on in parts of evangelicalism.”

During his run for the White House, Trump worked the conservative evangelical crowd hard. He even hung out with some of the prophets, among them Paula White, a Florida evangelist and TV preacher. Although known primarily for her advocacy of the controversial “prosperity gospel” doctrine, which holds that God wants people to be rich, White also styles herself as a prophet. She later came to work for Trump in the White house, heading up faith-based and community initiatives.

White’s track record in predicting the future was no better than any of the other prophets’. The day after the 2020 election, with the results still up in the air, she assured her flock that Trump would prevail.

“You will give us victory,” White preached from the pulpit of her Orlando church. “I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory. The Lord says it is done!”

It’s unclear what White was hearing, because three days later the election was called for Biden.

Prophecies that fail to come true don’t seem to shake Christian nationalists, though.

“Most of the major prophets who say Trump is still God’s man have large and faithful followers who either adopt the stance of their prophet or are not willing to jettison particular prophet[s] or don’t want to abandon the prophet over this one blunder, that is, if they recognize it as an error,” Beverely said.

How is the popularity of the prophets affecting America’s political landscape? There is some evidence that acceptance of the prophets did motivate some of the Christian nationalists who were involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The Washington Post and other media outlets have interviewed people who took part in the riot because they believed prophets who said Trump would remain in office.

About two weeks after the riot, Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein interviewed a North Dakota man, Cliff Dyrud, who traveled from his home in Fargo to the nation’s capital on Jan.6 because he believed several prophets who claimed Trump would remain president, despite having lost to Biden. Dyrud, who was not among those who breached the Capitol, was convinced Trump would eventually be restored to power – because of the words of prophets.

Shortly after the attack, Brad Christerson, a professor of sociology at Biola University in California, wrote a piece for the online site The Conversation in which he placed much of the blame for the assault on the prophets and the theology they embrace.

Christerson cited a segment of evangelical Christianity that he called Independent Network Charismatic (INC), which, he wrote, “played a unique role in providing a spiritual justification for the movement to overturn the election which resulted in the storming of the Capitol.”

INC, he wrote, “promotes a form of Christian nationalism the primary goal of which is not to build congregations or to convert individuals, but to bring heaven or God’s intended perfect society to Earth by placing ‘kingdom-minded people’ in powerful positions at the top of all sectors of society, the so-called ‘seven mountains of culture’ comprising government, business, family, religion, media, education and arts/entertainment. … They see Trump as fulfilling God’s plan to place ‘kingdom-minded’ leaders in top government positions, including Cabinet members and Supreme Court appointments.”

Stewart said the strident language employed by the prophets is contributing to the country’s already fractured nature.

“I am starting to hear more and more of this kind of dehumanizing language aimed at political opponents at right-wing and Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings,” she said. “At the 2021 Road to Majority con­ference, for instance, the Pentecostal preacher Johnny Enlow, a self-pro­claimed ‘prophet’ who has authored multiple books including The Seven Mountains Prophecy, warned that if Christians don’t fight to ‘conquer darkness,’ the world goes ‘under control of the deep state, illuminati, demon­ic possession for hundreds of years.’”

 

 

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