By Forrest Wilder, Texas Observer
On September 28, 2009, at 1:40 p.m., God's messengers visited Rick Perry.
On this day, the Lord's messengers arrived in the form of two Texas pastors, Tom Schlueter of Arlington and Bob Long of San Marcos, who called on Perry in the governor's office inside the state Capitol. Schlueter and Long both oversee small congregations, but they are more than just pastors. They consider themselves modern-day apostles and prophets, blessed with the same gifts as Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles.
The pastors told Perry of God's grand plan for Texas. A chain of powerful prophecies had proclaimed that Texas was "The Prophet State," anointed by God to lead the United States into revival and Godly government. And the governor would have a special role.
The day before the meeting, Schlueter had received a prophetic message from Chuck Pierce, an influential prophet from Denton, Texas. God had apparently commanded Schlueter -- through Pierce -- to "pray by lifting the hand of the one I show you that is in the place of civil rule."
Gov. Perry, it seemed.
Schlueter had prayed before his congregation: "Lord Jesus I bring to you today Gov. Perry. ... I am just bringing you his hand and I pray Lord that he will grasp ahold of it. For if he does you will use him mightily."
And grasp ahold the governor did. At the end of their meeting, Perry asked the two pastors to pray over him. As the pastors would later recount, the Lord spoke prophetically as Schlueter laid his hands on Perry, their heads bowed before a painting of the Battle of the Alamo. Schlueter "declared over [Perry] that there was a leadership role beyond Texas and that Texas had a role beyond what people understand," Long later told his congregation.
So you have to wonder: Is Rick Perry God's man for president?
Schlueter, Long and other prayer warriors in a little-known but increasingly influential movement at the periphery of American Christianity seem to think so. The movement is called the New Apostolic Reformation. Believers fashion themselves modern-day prophets and apostles. They have taken Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on ecstatic worship and the supernatural, and given it an adrenaline shot.
The movement's top prophets and apostles believe they have a direct line to God. Through them, they say, He communicates specific instructions and warnings. When mankind fails to heed the prophecies, the results can be catastrophic: earthquakes in Japan, terrorist attacks in New York, and economic collapse. On the other hand, they believe their God-given decrees have ended mad cow disease in Germany and produced rain in drought-stricken Texas.
Their beliefs can tend toward the bizarre. Some consider Freemasonry a "demonic stronghold" tantamount to witchcraft. The Democratic Party, one prominent member believes, is controlled by Jezebel and three lesser demons. Some prophets even claim to have seen demons at public meetings. They've taken biblical literalism to an extreme. In Texas, they engage in elaborate ceremonies involving branding irons, plumb lines and stakes inscribed with biblical passages driven into the earth of every Texas county.
If they simply professed unusual beliefs, movement leaders wouldn't be remarkable. But what makes the New Apostolic Reformation movement so potent is its growing fascination with infiltrating politics and government. The new prophets and apostles believe Christians -- certain Christians -- are destined to not just take "dominion" over government, but stealthily climb to the commanding heights of what they term the "Seven Mountains" of society, including the media and the arts and entertainment world. They believe they're intended to lord over it all. As a first step, they're leading an "army of God" to commandeer civilian government.
In Rick Perry, they may have found their vessel. And the interest appears to be mutual.
In all the media attention surrounding Perry's flirtation with a run for the presidency, the governor's budding relationship with the leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation movement has largely escaped notice. But perhaps not for long. Perry has given self-proclaimed prophets and apostles leading roles in The Response, a much-publicized Christians-only prayer rally that Perry is organizing at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Aug. 6.
The Response has engendered widespread criticism of its deliberate blurring of church and state and for the involvement of the American Family Association, labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its leadership's homophobic and anti-Muslim statements. But it's the involvement of New Apostolic leaders that's more telling about Perry's convictions and campaign strategy.
Eight members of The Response "leadership team" are affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation movement. They're employed or associated with groups like TheCall or the International House of Prayer (IHOP), Kansas City-based organizations at the forefront of the movement. The long list of The Response's official endorsers -- posted on the event's website -- reads like a Who's Who of the apostolic-prophetic crowd, including movement founder C. Peter Wagner.
In a recent interview with the Observer, Schlueter explained that The Response is divinely inspired. "The government of our nation was basically founded on biblical principles," he says. "When you have a governmental leader call a time of fasting and prayer, I believe that there has been a significant shift in our understanding as far as who is ultimately in charge of our nation -- which we believe God is."
Perry certainly knows how to speak the language of the new apostles. The genesis of The Response, Perry says, comes from the Book of Joel, an obscure slice of the Old Testament that's popular with the apostolic crowd.
"With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God's help," Perry says in a video message on The Response website. "That's why I'm calling on Americans to pray and fast like Jesus did and as God called the ,Israelites to do in the Book of Joel."
The reference to Joel likely wasn't lost on Perry's target audience. Prominent movement leaders strike the same note. Lou Engle, who runs TheCall, told a Dallas-area Assemblies of God congregation in April that "His answer in times of crisis is Joel 2."
Mike Bickle, a jock-turned-pastor who runs the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, a sort of command headquarters and university for young End Times enthusiasts, taught a 12-part series on Joel last year.
The Book of Joel describes a crippling drought and economic crisis -- sound familiar? -- in the land of Judah. The calamities, in Joel's time and ours, are "sent by God to cause a wicked, oppressive, and rebellious nation to repent," Bickle told his students.
To secure God's blessing, Joel commands the people to gather in "sacred assembly" to pray, fast, and repent.
More ominously, Bickle teaches that Joel is an "instruction manual" for the imminent End Times. It is "essential to help equip people to be prepared for the unique dynamics occurring in the years leading up to Jesus' return," he has said.
The views espoused by Bickle, Engle and other movement leaders occupy the radical fringe of Christian fundamentalism. Their beliefs may seem bizarre even to many conservative evangelicals. Yet Perry has a knack for finding the forefront of conservative grassroots. Prayer warriors, apostles and prophets are filled with righteous energy and an increasing appetite for power in the secular political world. Their zeal and affiliation with charismatic independent churches, the fastest-growing subset of American Christianity, offers obvious benefits for Perry if he runs for president.
There are enormous political risks, too. Mainstream voters may be put off by the movement's extreme views or discomfited by talk of self-proclaimed prophets "infiltrating" government.
Catherine Frazier, a spokesperson for the governor's office, wouldn't respond to specific questions but wrote in an email, "The Response event is about coming together in prayer to seek wisdom and guidance from God to the challenges that confront our nation. That is where the governor's focus is, and he welcomes those that wish to join him in this common cause."
For the moment, Perry's relationship with the New Apostles is little known. Few in Texas GOP circles say they've ever heard of them. "I wish I could help you," said Steve Munisteri, the state Republican Party chair. "I've never even heard of that movement."
"For the most part I don't know them," said Cathie Adams, former head of the Texas Eagle Forum and a veteran conservative activist.
Nonetheless, Perry may be counting on apostles and prophets to help propel him to the White House. And they hope Perry will lead them out of the wilderness into the promised land.
Listen closely to Perry's recent public statements and you'll occasionally hear him uttering New Apostle code words. In June, Perry defended himself against Texas critics on Fox News, telling host Neil Cavuto that "a prophet is generally not loved in their hometown."
It seemed an odd comment. It's the rare politician who compares himself to a prophet, and many viewers likely passed it off as a flub. But to the members of a radical new Christian movement, the remark made perfect sense.
The phrase "New Apostolic Reformation" comes from the movement's intellectual godfather, C. Peter Wagner, who has called it, a bit vaingloriously, "the most radical change in the way of doing Christianity since the Protestant Reformation."
Boasting aside, Wagner is an important figure in evangelical circles. He helped formulate the "church growth" model, a blueprint for worship that helped spawn modern mega-churches and international missions. In the 1990s, he turned away from the humdrum business of "harvesting souls" in mega-churches and embarked on a more revolutionary project.
He began promoting the notion that God is raising up modern-day prophets and apostles vested with extraordinary authority to bring about social transformation and usher in the Kingdom of God.
In 2006, Wagner published Apostles Today: Biblical Government for Biblical Power, in which he declared a "Second Apostolic Age." The first age had occurred after Jesus' biblical resurrection, when his apostles traveled Christendom spreading the gospel. Commissioned by Jesus himself, the 12 apostles acted as His agents. The second apostolic age, Wagner announced, began "around the year 2001."
"Apostles," he wrote, "are the generals in the army of God."
One of the primary tasks of the new prophets and apostles is to hear God's will and then act on it. Sometimes this means changing the world supernaturally. Wagner tells of the time in October 2001 when, at a huge prayer conference in Germany, he "decreed that mad cow disease would come to an end in Europe and the UK." As it turned out, the last reported case of human mad cow disease had occurred the day before. "I am not implying that I have any inherent supernatural power," Wagner wrote. "I am implying that when apostles hear the word of God clearly and when they decree His will, history can change."
Claims of such powers are rife among Wagner's followers. Cindy Jacobs -- a self-described "respected prophet" and Wagner protégée who runs a Dallas-area group called Generals International -- claims to have predicted the recent earthquakes in Japan. "God had warned us that shaking was coming," she wrote in Charisma magazine, an organ for the movement. "This doesn't mean that it was His desire for it to happen, but more of the biblical fulfillment that He doesn't do anything without first warning through His servants."
There is, of course, a corollary to these predictive abilities: Horrible things happen when advice goes unheeded.
Last year Jacobs warned that if America didn't return to biblical values and support Israel, God would cause a "tumbling of the economy and dark days will come," according to Charisma. To drive the point home, Jacobs and other right-wing allies -- including The Response organizers Lou Engle and California pastor Jim Garlow -- organized a 40-day "Pray and Act" effort in the lead-up to the 2010 elections.
Unlike other radical religious groups, the New Apostles believe political activism is part of their divine mission. "Whereas their spiritual forefathers in the Pentecostal movement would have eschewed involvement in politics, the New Apostles believe they have a divine mandate to rescue a decaying American society," said Margaret Poloma, a practicing Pentecostal and professor of sociology at the University of Akron. "Their apostolic vision is to usher in the Kingdom of God."
"Where does God stop and they begin?" she asks. "I don't think they know the difference."
Poloma is one of the few academics who has closely studied the apostolic movement. It's largely escaped notice, in part, because it lacks the traditional structures of either politics or religion, says Rachel Tabachnick, a researcher who has covered the movement extensively for Talk2Action.org, a left-leaning site that covers the religious right.
"It's fairly recent and it just doesn't fit into people's pre-conceived notions," she says. "They can't get their head around something that isn't denominational."
The movement operates through a loose but interlocking array of churches, ministries, councils and seminaries -- many of them in Texas. But mostly it holds together through the friendships and alliances of its prophets and apostles.
The Response itself seems patterned on TheCall, day-long worship and prayer rallies usually laced with anti-gay and anti-abortion messages. TheCall -- also the name of a Kansas City-based organization -- is led by Lou Engle, an apostle who looks a bit like Mr. Magoo and has the unnerving habit of rocking back and forth while shouting at his audience in a raspy voice. (Engle is also closely associated with the International House of Prayer, Mike Bickle's 24/7 prayer center in Kansas City.) Engle frequently mobilizes his followers in the service of earthly causes, holding raucous prayer events in California to help pass Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative, and making an appearance in Uganda last year to lend aid to those trying to pass a law that would have imposed the death penalty on homosexuals. But Engle's larger aim is Christian control of government.
"The church's vocation is to rule history with God," he has said. "We are called into the very image of the Trinity himself, that we are to be His friends and partners for world dominion."
"It sounds so fringe but yet it's not fringe," Tabachnick says. "They've been working with Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Sam Brownback, and now Rick Perry. ... They are becoming much more politically noticeable."
Some of the fiercest critics of the New Apostolic Reformation come from within the Pentecostal and charismatic world. The Assemblies of God Church, the largest organized Pentecostal denomination, specifically repudiated self-proclaimed prophets and apostles in 2000, calling their creed a "deviant teaching" that could rapidly "become dictatorial, presumptuous, and carnal."
Assemblies authorities also rejected the notion that the church is supposed to assume dominion over earthly institutions, labeling it "unscriptural triumphalism."
The New Apostles talk about taking dominion over American society in pastoral terms. They refer to the "Seven Mountains" of society: family, religion, arts and entertainment, media, government, education, and business. These are the nerve centers of society that God (or his people) must control.
Asked about the meaning of the Seven Mountains, Schlueter says, "God's kingdom just can't be expressed on Sunday morning for two hours. God's kingdom has to be expressed in media and government and education. It's not like our goal is to have a Bible on every child's desk. That's not the goal. The goal is to hopefully have everyone acknowledge that God's in charge of us regardless."
But climbing those mountains sounds a little more specific on Sunday mornings. Schlueter has bragged to his congregation of meetings with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, and the Arlington City Council. He recently told a church in Victoria that state Rep. Phil King, a conservative Republican from Weatherford, had allowed him to use King's office at the Capitol to make calls and organize.
"We're going to influence it," Schlueter told his congregation. "We're going to infiltrate it, not run from it. I know why God's doing what he's doing ... He's just simply saying, 'Tom I've given you authority in a governmental authority, and I need you to infiltrate the governmental mountain. Just do it, it's no big deal.' I was talking with [a member of the congregation] the other day. She's going to start infiltrating. A very simple process. She's going to join the Republican Party, start going to all their meetings. Some [members] are already doing that."
Doug Stringer, a relatively low-profile apostle, is one of the movement's more complex figures -- and one of the few people associated with The Response who returned my calls. His assignment for The Response: mobilizing the faithful from around the nation. Though he's friendly with the governor and spoke at the state GOP convention, Stringer says he's a political independent, "morally conservative" but with a "heart for social justice."
Stringer runs Somebody Cares America, a nonprofit combining evangelism with charitable assistance to the indigent and victims of natural disasters. In 2009, Perry recognized Stringer in his State of the State address for his role in providing aid to Texans devastated by Hurricane Ike.
Stringer's message is that The Response will be apolitical, non-partisan, even ecumenical. The goal, he says, is to "pray for personal repentance and corporate repentance on behalf of the church, not against anybody else."
I ask him about his involvement with the Texas Apostolic Prayer Network, which is overseen by Schlueter. Six of the nine people listed as network "advisors" are involved in The Response, including Stringer, Cindy Jacobs and Waco pastor Ramiro Peña. The Texas group is part of a larger 50-state network of prophets, apostles and prayer intercessors called the Heartland Apostolic Network, which itself overlaps with the Reformation Prayer Network run by Jacobs. The Texas Apostolic Prayer Network is further subdivided into sixteen regions, each with its own director.
Some of these groups' beliefs and activities will be startling, even to many conservative evangelicals. For example, in 2010 Texas prayer warriors visited every Masonic lodge in the state attempting to cast out the demon Baal, whom they believe controls Freemasonry. At each site, the warriors read a decree -- written in legalese -- divorcing Baal from the "People of God" and recited a lengthy prayer referring to Freemasonry as "witchcraft."
Asked whether he shares these views, Stringer launches into a long treatise about secrecy during which he manages to lump together Mormonism, Freemasonry and college fraternities.
"I think there has been a lot of damage and polarization over decades because of the influence of some areas of Freemasonry that have been corrupted," he says. "In fact, if you look at the original founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, he had a huge influence by Masonry. Bottom-line, anything that is so secretive that has to be hidden in darkness ... is not biblical. The Bible says that everything needs to be brought to the light. That's why I would never be part of a fraternity, like on campus."
Why would Perry throw in with this crowd?
One possible answer is that he's an opportunistic politician running for president who's trying to get right, if not with Jesus, with a particular slice of the GOP base.
Perry himself may have the gift of foresight. He seems preternaturally capable of spotting The Next Big Thing and positioning himself as an authentic leader of grassroots movements before they overtake other politicians. Think of the prescient way he hitched his political future to the Tea Party. In 2009 Perry spoke at a Tax Day protest and infamously flirted with Texas secession. At the time it seemed crazy. In retrospect it seems brilliant.
Now, he's made common cause with increasingly influential fundamentalists from the bleeding fringe of American Christianity at a time when the political influence of mainstream evangelicals seems to be fading.
For decades evangelicals have been key to Republican presidential victories, but much has changed since George W. Bush named Jesus as his favorite philosopher at an Iowa debate during the 2000 presidential campaign. There is much turbulence among evangelicals. There's no undisputed leader, a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson, to bring the "tribes" -- to use Stringer's phrase -- together. So you go where the momentum is. There is palpable excitement in the prayer movement and among the New Apostles that the nation is on the cusp of a major spiritual and political revival.
"On an exciting note, we are in the beginning stages of the Third Great Awakening," Jacobs told Trinity Church in Cedar Hill earlier this year. (Trinity's pastor, Jim Hennesy, is also an apostle and endorser of The Response. Trinity is probably best known for its annual Halloween "Hell House" that tries to scare teens into accepting Jesus.) "We are seeing revivals pop up all over the United States. ... Fires are breaking out all over the place. And we are going to see great things happening."
Moreover, various media outlets have documented a possible coalescing of religious-right leaders around Perry's candidacy. Time magazine reported on a June conference call among major evangelical leaders, including religious historian David Barton and San Antonio pastor John Hagee, in which they "agreed that Rick Perry would be their preferred candidate if he entered the race," according to the magazine.
Journalist Tabachnick says politicians are attracted to the apostolic movement because of the valuable organizational structure and databases the leadership has built.
"I believe it's because they've built such a tremendous communication network," she says, pointing to the 50-state prayer networks plugged into churches and ministries. "They found ways to work that didn't involve the institutional structures that many denominations have. They don't have big offices, headquarters. They work more like a political campaign."
But if the apostles present a broad organizing opportunity, the political risks for Perry are equally large.
In 2008 GOP nominee John McCain was forced to reject Hagee's endorsement after media scrutiny of the pastor's anti-Catholic comments. Similarly, Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign nearly fell apart when voters saw video of controversial sermons by the candidate's pastor, Jeremiah Wright. If anything, Perry is venturing even further into the spiritual wilderness. The faith of the New Apostles will be unfamiliar, strange, and scary to many Americans.
Consider Alice Patterson. She's in charge of mobilizing churches in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma for The Response. A field director for the Texas Christian Coalition in the 1990s, she's now a significant figure in apostolic circles and runs a San Antonio-based organization called Justice at the Gate.
Patterson, citing teachings by Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce and Lou Engle, has written that the Democratic Party is controlled by "an invisible network of evil comprising an unholy structure" unleashed by the biblical figure Jezebel.
Patterson claims to have seen demons with her own eyes. In 2009, at a prophetic meeting in Houston, Patterson says she saw the figure of Jezebel and "saw Jezebel's skirt lifted to expose tiny Baal, Asherah, and a few other spirits. There they were -- small, cowering, trembling little spirits that were only ankle high on Jezebel's skinny legs."
Those revelations are contained in Patterson's 2010 book Bridging the Racial and Political Divide: How Godly Politics Can Transform a Nation. Patterson's aim, as she makes clear in her book, is getting black and brown evangelicals to vote Republican and support conservative causes. A major emphasis among the New Apostles is racial reconciliation and recruitment of minorities and women. The apostolic prayer networks often perform elaborate ceremonies in which participants dress up in historical garb and repent for racial sins.
The formula -- overcoming racism to achieve multiracial fundamentalism -- has caught on in the apostolic movement. Some term the approach the "Rainbow Right," and in fact The Response has a high quotient of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans in leadership positions.
Lou Engle, for example, is making a big push to recruit black activists into the anti-abortion ranks. "We're looking for the new breed of black prophets to arise and forgive us our baggage," he said at Trinity Assemblies of God, "and then lead us out of victimization and into the healing of a nation, to stop the shedding of innocent blood."
Rick Perry is a white southern conservative male who may end up running against a black president. It doesn't take a prophet to see that he could use friends like these.
There's one other possible reason for Perry's flirtation with the apostles, and it has nothing to do with politics. He could be a true believer.
Perry has never been shy about proclaiming his faith. He was raised a Methodist and still occasionally attends Austin's genteel Tarrytown United Methodist Church. But according to an October 2010 story in the Austin American-Statesman, he now spends more Sundays at West Austin's Lake Hills Church, a non-denominational evangelical church that features a rock band and pop-culture references. The more effusive approach to religion clearly appealed to Perry. "They dunk," Perry told the American-Statesman. "Methodists sprinkle."
Still, attending an evangelical church is a long way from believing in modern-day apostles and demons in plain sight. Could Perry actually buy into this stuff?
He's certainly convinced the movement's leaders. "He's a very deep man of faith and I know that sometimes causes problems for people because they think he's making decisions based on his faith," Schlueter says. He pauses a beat. "Well, I hope so."
But the danger of associating with extremists is apparent even to Schlueter, the man who took God's message to Perry in September 2009. "It could be political suicide to do what he's doing," Schlueter says. "Man, this is the last thing he'd want to do if it were concerning a presidential bid. It could be very risky."
(Official state portrait of Perry via Texas governor's website.)