Newt's Last Prayer: Christian Dominionists Go Gingrich
Four days after Newt Gingrich scrambled the Republican primary race with his surprise South Carolina win, a man named Dutch Sheets came forward to endorse the former House speaker, saying he was the only candidate with the “heart, experience, backbone, Constitutional brilliance and intellectual strength to defeat Obama and lead America back to greatness.” It was the kind of embrace that tends to make politicians skittish. After all, Sheets is a self-proclaimed apostle and a leading figure in a radical Christian movement, known as the New Apostolic Reformation, which teaches that Christians must infiltrate and take control of government and other worldly institutions to pave the way for Jesus’ return. And that’s just the beginning. Sheets also believes, among other things, that his prayers led directly to Saddam Hussein’s capture and that Washington is controlled by “antichrist” forces. As for Barack Obama, Sheets insists that he is Muslim and that his presence in the Oval Office is a sign that God has “turned us over to our enemies” as part of his “judgment on America.” His ultimate goal is to “raise up” an army of “kingdom warriors that are ready to do whatever it takes to bring forth [God’s] kingdom rule in the earth.”
During the last presidential race, both Obama and John McCain struggled to tamp down furor over their links to pastors with inflammatory teachings, so you might expect that Gingrich would be scrambling to distance himself from Sheets. In fact, the opposite is true. Gingrich has appointed Sheets co-chair of his Faith Leaders Coalition, the group charged with rallying the faithful behind his candidacy, and has been appearing with Sheets’s fellow apostles at events across the country—part of wide-ranging effort to forge ties with Dominionist leaders who believe America was founded as a Christian nation and that our government should be rooted in biblical law.
Gingrich didn’t always ally himself so closely with spiritual warriors. While he made common cause with religious conservatives during his reign as Speaker of the House, he was better known for his small-government, anti-tax policies and his bare-knuckle political wrangling. But as he has laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign, Gingrich—a onetime Southern Baptist turned devoted Catholic—has forged deep inroads with conservative Christians, particularly those who want our government to be infused with Biblical principles. In his 2006 book, Rediscovering God In America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future, Gingrich made the case that our founders never intended church to be separated from state and that “the secular left has been inventing law and grotesquely distorting the Constitution” to push faith from government and the public square.
A few months after the book debuted, Gingrich went on a radio program hosted by evangelical kingmaker James Dobson to publicly repent for his philandering. He also began appearing at secretive gatherings known as Pastors’ Policy Briefings, which tend to crop up in key battleground states around election time. These all-expense-paid, two-day events are designed to persuade conservative evangelical pastors—nearly 10,000 of whom have attended—to rally their flocks behind candidates who embrace conservative policies and a biblical worldview. The speakers rosters are packed with Christian right luminaries and Republican politicians. (Mike Huckabee’s appearances at the 2008 briefings in Iowa, where he was the lone Republican candidate, are credited with helping him win the state’s primary.) But most politicians appear a handful of times, at most. Gingrich has been has been a far more constant presence. In fact, according to Rachel Tabachnick, a researcher who studies the New Apostolic movement, Gingrich is one of the most frequent speakers, having appeared at more than two dozen briefings. Often, he and David Barton, a self-styled Christian historian and GOP operative, deliver dueling keynote addresses.
While the briefings are closed to the public and the press, footage of one event was recently released as a part of a Christian voter registration drive. It paints a stark picture. Barton, who is rail thin and speaks with a thick Texas drawl, begins by bombarding the audience with historical facts designed to prove that our founding fathers were devout Christians who believed religion and government should be intertwined. He then makes the case that the founders intended the Declaration of Independence—which speaks of men being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” —to be the foundation of American government, rather than the secular Constitution. What this means, Barton argues, is that our nation is meant to be governed according to the “God-given moral law” laid out in the Bible, with democratic process reserved for less weighty matters, like traffic violations. “We the people don’t get to vote on whether you have a right to life. That’s not subject to popular vote because that’s an inalienable right,” he explains. “We can vote and see what we want the speed limit to be. We can vote and decide what we want for city playgrounds or parks. That’s fine. That’s social compact.”
Gingrich’s talk, while more subtle, hits on the same themes. He quotes from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which speaks of “religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government.” (Barton often cites the same text as proof that our founders intended religion to be woven into government and taught in public schools). He also argues that it’s crucial that public school students be taught that our founding fathers meant for power to come from God, and even suggests a way to translate this idea into policy: “Pass a law that says every child from K through 12 and every young person who goes to a state-funded university or college will encounter the Declaration of Independence at least once a year, and we will work at making them understand what the term ‘we are endowed by our Creator’ means.” Gingrich adds that he has studied the founding documents, including the Declaration, and believes they call for “a very bold restructuring of Washington, DC, on a scale that nobody in Washington in either party is prepared to talk about.” Spoken by an elder statesman as a follow-on to Barton’s talk, which argues that the Declaration calls for a theocracy, these words are an ideological hand grenade.
It was through the Pastors’ Policy Briefings that Gingrich—whose campaign declined to comment for this story—reportedly hit on the idea of launching a group called Renewing American Leadership, which he did in 2008. David Barton was among the founding board members. California pastor Jim Garlow, who helped organize the campaign to repeal California’s gay-marriage law and has likened the gay rights movement to an “antichrist spirit,” was later named president. At the time, the Tea Party had just exploded on the scene, and the group’s stated goal was to bring religious and fiscal conservatives together, in part by making a biblical case for conservative economic policies. This has indeed been part of the program. According to a report from the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, just after the 2010 elections, Barton, Gingrich and Garlow hosted a conference call for pastors to celebrate Republican gains in the House and make the case that progressive taxation, deficit spending and the minimum wage ran counter to biblical teachings.
But Renewing American Leadership has also built bridges to the ascendant Dominionist movement, known as the New Apostolic Reformation or NAR. An offshoot of Pentecostalism—the second largest branch of Christianity and one of the fastest growing—the movement has been spreading rapidly within existing churches and congregations. While there are no credible estimates on the number of adherents, the prayer rallies convened by some NAR leaders fill stadiums. At the movement’s core is a group of self-proclaimed apostles and prophets who see themselves as the forefront of a second Reformation that will transform not only the church, but every facet of society. In fact, one of the apostles’ main teachings is that believers have to infiltrate and take control of what they call the “seven mountains of culture”—religion, family, business, arts and entertainment, education, media and government—before Jesus can return. And when they speak of taking dominion in these spheres, they often resort to the language of war. “The way some of the leaders talk, you’d think they were an army planning to take over the world,” says Margaret Poloma, a professor at the University of Akron and a practicing Pentecostal who has studied the New Apostolic movement. “It sounds to me like radical Islam.”
Led by Barton and Garlow, who has deeps ties to the NAR movement and has embraced its Dominionist message, Renewing American Leadership began hosting events that showcased apostles and their teachings, alongside traditional evangelical leaders. In the run up to the 2010 mid-term election, for instance, Gingrich’s group organized a series of events called Pray & ACT. Participants were urged to spend forty days fasting and praying to bring biblical values into government and asked to sign a pledge promising to “work tirelessly in all the ‘seven spheres of cultural influence,’ ” a reference to the seven mountains mandate. The project reportedly kicked off with a prayer service led by apostle Lou Engle, who espouses a particularly fierce brand of spiritual warfare; When Uganda was weighing a bill calling for the execution of gays, Engle staged a prayer rally in Kampala and praised the nation for its “courage” and “righteousness.”
Another apostle named Lance Wallnau, who is a leading proponent of seven mountains ideology, was also among Pray & ACT’s featured speakers. In his talk, Wallnau stressed the importance of believers infiltrating various cultural spheres and seizing high office. “When we have elections, when we have victories, short-term victories, we go back and celebrate it like that’s it,” he explained. “Well, here’s what Napoleon says about warfare: The object of war is victory, but the objective of victory is occupation. We don’t win until we occupy high places.”
In other venues, Gingrich and the apostles have also shared stages and joined together in worship. At the 2009 Rediscovering God in America conference, hosted by the Rock Church in Virginia, for instance, Engle laid hands on the former House speaker and prayed that God would “extend his influence for righteousness in this nation.”
From the campaign trail, Gingrich has continued to play to his Dominionist allies. He has appointed Garlow co-chair of his campaign’s Faith Leadership Coalition. Gingrich’s policy platform, the 21st Century Contract with America, includes a proposal for a day-one executive order to create a “Presidential Commission on Religious Freedom.” The body’s main purpose, according to the twenty-page proposal on the Gingrich campaign’s website, is to study Gingrich’s Christian revisionist reading of history—including the notion that our founders believed our “government must be infused with Christian principles”—and propose steps for bringing our nation in line with this vision.
Despite these overtures, NAR leaders didn’t initially back Gingrich’s candidacy. Tabachnick says she believes this was partly because of misgivings about his sordid personal history. “They saw Gingrich more as a Rove-like figure,” she explains, “an elder statesman who could advise them on political strategy, rather than their anointed candidate.”
Instead, the apostles seemed to throw their weight behind Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose controversial August prayer rally was orchestrated in part by NAR ministries and featured numerous apostles and prophets on stage. But then Perry’s campaign foundered. Shortly after Perry bowed out of the race in the run up to the South Carolina primary, Wallnau—the seven mountains proponent who has appeared at Renewing American Leadership events—sent a message to the movements’ networks, including those in South Carolina. In it, he urged adherents to read an eighteen-page treatise Garlow had written outlining the reasons conservative Christians should support Gingrich. Among them: his “Churchillian fortitude,” his “understanding of war” and his talent for taking “a verbal chain saw to the hallow trunks of the trees of radical secularism.”
After Gingrich’s South Carolina win, apostle Dutch Sheets signed on as co-chair of his Faith Leaders Coalition. Sheets ranks among the movement’s most powerful figures. He is one of four apostles with authority over its national “prayer warrior” networks, which have offshoots in all fifty states. These are used to disseminate prophecies and mobilize followers behind conservative policies and candidate, partly by issuing “prayer guides” that double as political organizing tools. One of the guides for the 2012 election cycle instructs believers to “ask the Lord to remove the lie of ‘Separation of Church and State’ from this nation’s governmental philosophy” and “give favor to pro-life, pro-biblical defense of marriage, pro-fiscal conservative candidates.” In a bid to sway the 2012 elections, the apostles aim to recruit 500,000 new members to their prayer networks between now and November.
This machinery could give Gingrich a leg up in the Southern states he’s counting on to salvage his flagging campaign on Super Tuesday. In the mean time, more apostles are lining up behind him. The night before the Nevada caucuses, Las Vegas–based apostle Paul Goulet hosted a prayer rally featuring the former House speaker at his 5,000-member mega-church. Before launching into his speech, Gingrich asked the children in the audience to join him on stage. “This is the future of America, and the reason we’re here is we want to learn what kind of future are they going to have,” he said. “If I am president, these children are not going to grow up in a secular country dominated by elites who despise our history, dislike our culture and dislike our religion.” The crowd burst into rapturous applause.