July 11, 2021
photo above: Mercy Culture Church in Fort Worth. (Dylan Hollingsworth for The Washington Post)
WN: Oh dear! Oh dear! As my good Jesuit-trained friend Gerry Ayotte says, drawing on Tradition back to the Fathers and Mothers of the Church,
God speaks loudest in the silence.
In the fully choreographed cacophony described in the highlighted article below, the only still small voice not joining in such monstrous spiritual bedlam is evidently God’s:
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.—1 Kings 19:11-12.
The great Christian theologian and mystic Ivan Illich1 spoke at times of the danger of the Lord “passing one by.” I suspect what is highlighted below is tragically just such a gargantuan instance. I suspect that indeed, the Lord is not anywhere to be found in “the great strong wind;” nor in the “earthquake;” nor in the “fire” of the highlighted idolatrous religious movement. It is but one more destructive instance of American “Christianity” elevating the Flag–and this time Trump!–to a supreme place above the Cross, above the nonviolent Way of the Cross; transposing the Cross, as in the above image, into an Orange-Haired Moloch. Please click on the image or following for a thoughtful post with the same title as the image: Amazing Disgrace.
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 transforming individual lives but also turning 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.
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 NAR.
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.
That is where the pastor wearing the bright-red T-shirt, Landon Schott, had been on the third day of a 40-day fast when he said the Lord told him something he found especially interesting.
It was 2017, and he was walking the streets of downtown Fort Worth asking God to make him a “spiritual father” of the city when he heard God say no. What he needed was “spiritual authority,” he remembered God telling him, and the way to get that was to seek the blessing of a pastor named Robert Morris, an evangelical adviser to Trump, and the founder of one of the largest church networks in the nation, called Gateway, with nine branches and weekly attendance in the tens of thousands, including some of the wealthiest businessmen in Texas.
Morris blessed him. Not long after that, a bank blessed him with the funds to purchase an aging church called Calvary Cathedral International, a polygonal structure with a tall white steeple visible from Interstate 35. Soon, the old red carpet was being ripped up. The old wooden pews were being hauled out. The cross on the stage was removed, and in came a huge screen, black and white paint, speakers, lights and modern chandeliers as the new church called Mercy Culture was born.
A few rows back, the pastor stood with one hand raised and the other holding a coffee cup. And when the last song faded, a worship team member walked onstage to explain what was happening in case anyone was new.
“The Holy Spirit is in this room,” he said.
Now everyone sat down and watched the glowing screen. Another video began playing — this one futuristic, techno music over flash-cut images of a nuclear blast, a spinning planet, advancing soldiers, and when it was over, the pastor was standing on the stage to deliver his sermon, the essence of which was repeated in these kinds of churches all over the nation:
America is in the midst of a great battle between the forces of God and Satan, and the forces of Satan roughly resemble the liberal, progressive agenda. Beware of the “seductive, political, demonic, power-hungry spirit that uses witchcraft to control God’s people.” Beware of “freedom that is actually just rebellion against God.” Beware of confusion. Beware of “rogue leaders.” Beware of a world that “preaches toleration of things God does not tolerate,” and on it went for a full hour, a man with a microphone in a spotlight, pacing, sweating, whispering about evil forces until he cued the band and gave instructions for eternal salvation.
“Just say, ‘Holy Spirit, would you teach me how to choose to obey you,’ ” he said, asking people to close their eyes, or kneel, or bow, and as the drums began pounding again, the reaction was the same as it was every Sunday.
People closed their eyes. They knelt. They bowed. They believed, and as they did, people with cameras roamed the congregation capturing peak moments for videos that would be posted to the church’s website and social media accounts: a man with tattooed arms crying; a whole row of people on their knees bowing; a blond woman in a flower-print dress lying all the way down on the floor, forehead to carpet.
When it was over, people streamed outside, squinting into the bright Fort Worth morning as the next 1,500 people pulled in past the fluttering white flags.
“Welcome to Mercy,” the greeters said again.
Those inside the movement have heard all the criticisms. That their churches are cults that prey on human frailties. That what their churches are preaching about LGTBQ people is a lie that is costing lives in the form of suicides. That the language of spiritual warfare, demonic forces, good and evil is creating exactly the sort of radical worldview that could turn politics into holy war. That the U.S. Constitution does not allow laws privileging a religion. That America does not exist to advance some Christian Kingdom of God or to usher in the second coming of Jesus.
To which Penate, the former mayoral candidate, said, “There’s a big misconception when it comes to separation of church and state. It never meant that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. It’s just loving the city. Being engaged. Our children are in public schools. Our cars are on public streets. The reality is that people who don’t align with the church have hijacked everything. If I ever get elected, my
Or as a member of Mercy Culture who campaigned for Penate said: “Can you imagine if every church took a more active role in society? If teachers were preachers? If church took a more active role in health? In business? If every church took ownership over their communities? There would be no homeless. No widows. No orphans. It would look like a society that has a value system. A Christian value system.”
That was the American Kingdom they were working to advance, and as another Sunday arrived, thousands of believers streamed past the fluttering white flags and into the sanctuary to bathe in the Holy Spirit for the righteous battles and glories to come.
Please click on: An American KingdomFootnotes
- You may click on the book’s image to learn more about Illich. You are in for a treat–and an enormous stretch!