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.”