|2012 presidential hopeful, Texas Governor Rick Perry (left), will be hosting a prayer meeting called 'The Response' on August 6 with many sponsors from the New Apostolic Reformation [GALLO/GETTY]
Prior to 9/11, the Taliban government in Afghanistan did not register very much on American radar screens, with one notable exception: when it blew up two colossal images of the Buddha in Bamiyan province in early 2001. But destruction of treasured artifacts isn't just limited to the Taliban.
There's a right-wing politico-religious presence centred in the US, but with a global reach, engaging in similar practises, destroying religious and cultural artifacts as a key aspect of its ideology of "strategic level spiritual warfare" (SLSW).
Until recently a fringe evangelical movement, warned against as deviant, "spiritual warfare" is rapidly positioning itself within America's mainstream political right. It's well past time for political journalists to start covering what this movement is up to.
As an example, leaders have bragged online about the destruction of Native American religious artifacts, which their twisted ideology somehow sees as a liberating act, promoting "reconciliation" between estranged groups of people. Critics, however, see it as reflecting an eliminationist mindset, while traditional conservative evangelicals have denounced the ideology as un-biblical. Some even claim it is actually a form of pagan practice dressed up in Christian clothes, according such artifacts a spiritual power that the Bible itself denies.
The ultimate goal is to replace secular democracy, both in America and around the world, with a Christian theocracy, an ideology known as "dominionism". The supposed purpose is to "purify" the world for Christ's return - again, strikingly similar to what the Taliban believe, but also significantly at odds with more common, long-standing Christian beliefs about the "end times", as well as the nature and purpose of prayer, and the roles of human and divine power.
This description might seem utterly fantastical, but copious evidence for it is hidden in plain sight, scattered across the internet, in books, on YouTube, and tracked by a small community of researchers at sites such as Talk2Action.org and RightWingWatch.org, as well as by evangelical critics. The question is: When will America's mainstream media catch up?
The missed story in the 2008 campaign
Known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a term coined by its intellectual godfather, C Peter Wagner, this movement surfaced in the 2008 campaign, with video of one of its most prominent practitioners, Kenyan witch-hunter Thomas Muthee, anointing Sarah Palin - but the mainstream media largely missed the real story on a number of counts.
They generally failed to realise that Muthee was part of a Western-based movement, indeed, he starred in the first "Transformations" video, a pseudo-documentary series advancing SLSW, advertised as having been seen by 200 million people in 70 languages.
Media also overlooked clear evidence that Palin herself was part of an Alaskan group involved in SLSW, dating back to when she was just 24 years old. More basically, media failed to grasp the radical nature of NAR, and its departure from earlier evangelical practice. This is so new that many academic experts haven't caught up with it.
Additionally, many in the media relied on Charisma magazine for guidance - a publication deeply aligned with the NAR. Add this to the media's general skittishness when accused of bias by Palin and her supporters, and the result was a perfect storm of story suppression, much of it seemingly quite reasonable.
A rare exception, which did not occur until very late in the campaign, was Laurie Goodstein's October 24 story in the New York Times, "YouTube Videos Draw Attention to Palin's Faith", which did discuss spiritual warfare and Palin's involvement, but barely brushed against the underlying agenda of dominionism and its more troubling implications.
The story this time
Inside USA - Christianity in US politics
This election cycle, the media will have another chance to get the story right. The NAR has made great strides since 2008, and already, NAR figures are deeply involved in organising for Texas Governor Rick Perry's August 6 prayer meeting, "The Response".
On July 12, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow did a segment highlighting some of their more bizarre claims in a series of video clips. These included Wagner saying that the Japanese stock market collapsed because the emperor had sex with a demon (the sun goddess), another leading NAR figure, John Benefiel, calling the Statue of Liberty "a demonic idol", and a third figure, Mike Bickle, calling Oprah Winfrey "a forerunner to the Harlot movement", or, as Maddow put it, a "harbinger of the antichrist".
But these aren't just a collection of random bizarre claims. As researcher Rachel Tabachnick - who's been studying NAR since 2008 - wrote the day after: "These video clips should receive much more national exposure, but they need to be viewed in context of the movement they represent."
Not your father's religious right
Encompassing a variety of organisations and networks of activist groups, the NAR is not just concerned about particular issues, such as abortion or gay rights, or even about so-called "values", which is the impression that even Goodstein's 2008 story left with readers.
Rather, the NAR is committed to replacing democracy with a religious dictatorship, which it sees as a necessary prelude for Christ's return to earth.
Consequently, the NAR is also openly dedicated to destroying religious and cultural groups who do not share their beliefs - even including others on the Christian Right. They openly denounce Mormonism and Roman Catholicism as demonic, but in the end all Protestant denominations are seen as impediments to creating one unified religious establishment which should in turn control all of society, entirely replacing America's secular democracy, and bringing about their own version of "one-world government".
This is explicitly articulated in terms of what's known as the "Seven Mountains Mandate", which seeks to establish Christian dominance over seven culture-shaping spheres of activity: business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family, and religion. On one of Muthee's several visits to Sarah Palin's church in Wasilla, he spoke for about ten minutes about the Seven Mountains Mandate.
The NAR's non-church, non-denominational apostolic/prophetic organisation is key to its recent rapid growth and its relative invisibility to outsiders, but it also departs significantly from traditional scriptural teachings long held dear by evangelicals, as do many of its teachings.
Indeed, in August 2000, the Assemblies of God, America's largest Pentecostal denomination, adopted a statement warning against a number of tendencies, under the heading "Deviant Teachings Disapproved", including, but not limited to, some prominent elements involved in the NAR. However, Tabachnick informed me that "unfortunately many in the Assemblies of God have changed their tune on this and embraced the NAR".
Yet many have not changed, and the warnings still serve to highlight how this latest development is not the same religious right wing as in your father's day.
One tendency warned against was dominionism itself, which the document called "unscriptural triumphalism". It also warned against "the problematic teaching that present-day offices of apostles and prophets should govern church ministry at all levels", and against "excessive fixation on Satan and demonic spirits". These are all major aspects of NAR theology, as is the concept of "generational curses", which the document also warns against.
In short, the NAR may be gaining substantial ground on the religious right, but in doing so, it is profoundly undermining a raft of biblical teachings that the vast majority of evangelicals have staunchly clung to until quite recently. This is, indeed, not your father's religious right. It is arguably destroying your father's religious right.
Strategic level spiritual warfare: A myth? A heresy? Or worse?
Because of the goal of gaining dominion over all of society, spiritual warfare to drive out demons who supposedly stand in the way of this goal plays a central role in NAR thinking. There are, three levels to spiritual warfare, as Talk2action.org explains in their glossary of NAR terms:
Ground level spiritual warfare is casting out demons from individuals. Occult level spiritual warfare is a confrontation with demons operating through witchcraft and esoteric philosophies (examples are Freemasonry and Tibetan Buddhism). Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare is the highest level, dealing with confrontation of territorial principalities that control entire communities, ethnic groups, religions, and nations.
While there are many evangelical critics of spiritual warfare and the NAR, and a great deal of material online, Bishop Michael Reid - who has three degrees from Oral Roberts University, including an honorary Doctorate of Divinity - literally wrote the book on the subject.
Although he's since had his own gay sex scandal - much like Wagner's long-time close associate, Ted Haggard - his 2002 book, Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare: A Modern Mythology? remains a devastating Bible-based critique, in which he writes, regarding SLSW:
"There is no foundation in the Old Testament for this practice, nor any indication that the devil has any intrinsic power or authority. Satan's only weapon is deception and his only sphere of influence that which God permits for His own eternal purposes.
"In the New Testament, the picture is similar; there is no evidence to suggest that Christians are called to engage in an on-going conflict with spiritual forces in the cosmic realm. The Scripture is quite clear in its teaching that Christ defeated Satan completely at Calvary and that Christians have been freed from his power."
Reid sees this unscriptural ideology usurping God's role and elevating mere mortals to a higher place - precisely the sort of thing that NAR's leading advocates accuse secularists of doing:
"The whole focus of SLSW is on the devil and his demonic host ... Man has become the fulcrum of redemption, holding the balance of power between God and the devil in the battle for the souls of men, and the gospel itself rendered impotent without the preliminary work of pulling down demonic strongholds ... These are serious matters which call into question the very basis of the Christian faith."
"The Harlot Babylon is preparing the nations to receive the antichrist. The Harlot Babylon will be a religion of affirmation, toleration, no absolutes, a counterfeit justice movement ... I believe that one of the main pastors as a forerunner to the Harlot movement is Oprah."
Mike Bickle, NAR
In short, SLSW is implicitly about the egos of "spiritual warriors", rather than Christian humility.
Reid also repeatedly suggests that SLSW is actually pagan in origins, and thus a form of syncretism, the very sort of mixture between Christianity and older pagan religions that biblical literalists of all stripes abhor. For example:
"Hesselgrave draws the analogy between warfare prayer and the prayer typical of Indo-European paganism with its dualistic understanding of the eternal co-existence of good and evil. The latter is viewed as a means 'to control the gods', but, in contrast, prayer in biblical thought is 'submission' to God'.
The idea that spiritual warfare as practised by the NAR is itself a pagan practice, perhaps even a form of demonic battle or that it elevates man over God are perceived examples of what psychologists call "projection", an ego defence mechanism.
But long before there were any psychologists, the Bible weighed in, Matthew 7:5: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." We turn now to another such example.
Oprah and the Antichrist - A case of projection?
On July 12, Rachel Maddow began the segment mentioned earlier with a video of NAR bigwig, Mike Bickle, in which he said:
"The Harlot Babylon is preparing the nations to receive the antichrist. The Harlot Babylon will be a religion of affirmation, toleration, no absolutes, a counterfeit justice movement. They will feed the poor, have humanitarian projects, inspire acts of compassion for all the wrong reasons. They won't know it ... I believe that one of the main pastors as a forerunner to the Harlot movement is Oprah."
Although Maddow naturally focused on the claim that Oprah was somehow a harbinger of the antichrist, it's arguably even more interesting that Bickle so accurately - if inadvertently - describes one of the NAR's own favourite practices, what it calls "reconciliation" between groups that are estranged from one another, be they ethnic, racial or nationalist. These often, but not always, involve the destruction of religious/cultural artifacts and are supposed to lift so-called "generational curses".
One such example revolved around Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, formerly a US senator.
"Brownback has taken part in NAR 'Reconciliation' events since 2003, and subsequently introduced Senate resolutions apologising to Native Americans," Tabachnick wrote at Talk2Action.org last year. "These Reconciliation ceremonies are not about pluralism, but about proselytising - for both charismatic evangelical belief and right wing politics."
Eventually one such resolution was incorporated into legislation. On the other side, a number of Native American NAR leaders were involved in the ritual destruction of objects said to depict false gods. Given the centuries-long history of the many ways that Native American culture has been destroyed by white America, it is nothing short of absurd to claim that "reconciliation" can be brought about by further acts of cultural destruction. Yet, that is precisely what the NAR practices.
This is, at best, to use Bickle's own word, a "counterfeit" movement.
Another indication of how counterfeit such "reconciliation" is lies in just who represents each side. In this example, it was eventually the US government on one side, and a religious network of self-hating Native Americans on the other. If that seems a bit lopsided, it is more typical than not.
A similar pattern can be found in reconciliation rituals with "Jews" who are so-called "messianic Jews" - meaning they are actually practising born-again Christians. That's a bit like a "reconciliation" between Italian and Brazilian soccer fans, with the Brazilian fans being from the Italian embassy in Brasilia.
In another case, religion wasn't even really a factor, as a small, private reconciliation ritual in Texas was performed to bring black people back to the Republican Party. In her book, Bridging the Racial and Political Divide: How Godly Politics Can Transform a Nation, Alice Peterson describes how Susan Weddington, then chair of the Texas Republican Party, organised the ritual.
When the time came, Peterson wrote, she expected Weddington to ask forgiveness for whatever White Republicans had done - she seems to have no idea what that might have been. Instead, Weddington asked forgiveness for the Black Republicans who left the party.
Nowhere in Peterson's account is there any hint that Blacks became Democrats when Democrats renounced their racist past during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and Republicans eagerly wooed tens of millions of White Democrats who fled their party as a result. In short, such make-believe "reconciliation" has nothing to do with spiritual truth, and everything to do with historical lies.
Work to be done
If this all seems a bit overwhelming, that's only because it is.
If the media had taken a serious critical look at Palin's religious beliefs and practices in 2008, all the above and more could have been examined and discussed in detail over the past three years. As it is, there is a lot of catching up to do.
There is no question that American political journalists are up to the task - if they put their minds to it. The only question is, will they do it? Will they dare to seriously consider the evidence of a Taliban-like movement in right-wing Christian America, seeking to impose its own form of "godly" government in place of the secular democracy established more than 200 years ago?
Journalists could begin to answer that question by taking a long hard look at the NAR figures endorsing Rick Perry's prayer event on August 6. Let's hope they do.
Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newsletter.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.