June 28, 2020

Millions of Evangelicals Believe Trump Is Fighting Literal Demons

U.S. President Donald Trump is seen with his personal pastor, Paula White, at an event honoring evangelical leadership in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on Aug. 27, 2018. Mandel / Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Believers in “spiritual warfare” are primed to adopt even more dangerous conspiracy theories.

By Emily Brumfield-Hessen

Donald Trump may not know how to hold a Bible, but that hasn’t stopped white evangelicals from being his most persistent supporters. The U.S. president’s evangelical followers have portrayed him as America’s deliverance, a flawed man recently converted to the cause around the time of his presidential campaign. In the decade prior, he’d bragged about sexual assault, cheated on his wife, and claimed he had no sins that needed forgiven. But these could all be overlooked because in 2016 he became a new Christian trying his best. Except the timeline is false. Trump has had a personal minister since 2002, a fringe televangelist controversial even within evangelical circles. Paula White is one of the most famous members of the neo-charismatic movement, and her beliefs are terrifying.

In January, she came to public attention after a sermon where she invoked the name of Jesus and commanded “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.” She later explained that the phrase was metaphorical, and I see no reason to doubt her. But several years earlier, when she claimed that infamous demon lords and hidden sorcerers were arrayed against Trump, she was speaking quite literally. White’s vision of “spiritual warfare” isn’t rhetorical. Like thousands of other preachers both in America and worldwide, she subscribes to an apocalyptic supernatural vision that drives politics, money, and sometimes violence.

Charismatic Christianity itself is simply the mixing of certain Pentecostal beliefs with other denominations or nondenominational Christianity. It has a strong focus on the Holy Spirit and the concept of spiritual gifts and modern-day miracles. At its best, it’s a welcoming, positive tradition that boosts spirits, promotes introspection, and welcomes those who feel rejected by mainstream churches. The services are lively, often mixing sermons, praise and worship music, and spiritual practices. They can provide a sort of euphoria and a chance to relieve stress.

At its worst, though, charismatic Christianity is a domain of cynical hucksters, judgmental self-proclaimed prophets, and intense bigotry. The faith healing traditions are harmless and perhaps even emotionally beneficial when they supplement normal medical treatments, but they can be deadly when they completely replace modern medicine.

But while faith healing and speaking in tongues are the most famous practices, the most psychologically dangerous is the discernment of evil spirits and the practice of spiritual warfare. This practice is inspired in large part by Ephesians 6:12, which the New International Version translates as, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”