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In existential midterm races, Christian prophets become GOP surrogates

The evangelist Lance Wallnau, who says he has the gift of prophecy, engages the crowd at a September rally for Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano (R). (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Lance Wallnau used to be a corporate marketer who privately believed that power lay in prophetic revelation. Then came 2015, and he began sharing a word from God: Donald Trump was “anointed.”

Seven years later, prophecy is booming. And for Wallnau, it’s been a busy run-up to the midterm.

In July, Wallnau prayed over Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) before a cheering Atlanta arena audience. By early September, he was at a conference outside Colorado Springs with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.). And, a few days after that, here he was in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pa., for GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, whom he compared to George Washington at Valley Forge.

“Now there’s another Christian colonel who is in charge,” Wallnau told the crowd of hundreds standing in a suburban restaurant parking lot. “They may out-gather, they may outmaneuver, and in my opinion they may know how to out-cheat. But they cannot outflank us if we move as one. … The whole country will be affected by what happens in Pennsylvania.”

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All over the country this year, figures like Wallnau, hailing from the right wing of prophetic and charismatic Christianity, have been appearing with candidates as part of a growing U.S. religious phenomenon that emphasizes faith healing, the idea that divine signs and wonders are everywhere, and spiritual warfare.

The American Renewal Project has been working to inspire Christian pastors and church members to step into politics in North Carolina. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Longtime watchers of religion in the United States say this rise of prophetic figures is the result of multiple forces. Among them are a collapse of trust in institutional sources of information, the growth of charismatic Christianity and its accompanying media ecosystems, and a Trump presidency that brought in from the fringe spiritual figures long rejected by the political and evangelical establishments.

“For two millennia of church history, people have been claiming to be prophets,” said Matthew Sutton, a Washington State University historian of American religion who has focused on apocalyptic and charismatic Christians. “But it’s a new tactic in the United States for it to be part of waging culture war.”

What it’s meant to be a “prophet” has changed many times, but the term has typically been used as an adjective, not a noun, Sutton said; anyone might say something “prophetic” against sin or injustice. Most Christians in the United States, he said, have emphasized other spiritual roles mentioned in the Bible, such as “teacher” or “elder” — not “prophet” or “apostle,” which they believed ended with the biblical text. But in recent decades, some Americans have been resurrecting the title of prophet and giving it new meaning.

This election cycle, Sean Feucht, a longhaired California prophetic figure and unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 2020, has appeared with Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). Dan Cox, Maryland Republicans’ pick for governor, shared a stage with prophetess Julie Green. The events Wallnau attended included appearances by long-established right-wing prophetic figures including Dutch Sheets, Mario Murillo and Hank Kunneman.

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Wallnau, 66, grew up as the son of an oil executive in Philadelphia and says he became a Christian at a young age, when he was in a military academy, and began to believe strongly in prophecy. At first, he worked in corporate marketing for the company where his father worked, but gradually shifted into business consulting and public speaking, with a religious bent. His persona is high-energy, chatty and very anti-liberal, with a ribbon of conspiracy theories running through, like a less angry, scripture-citing Rush Limbaugh.

In 2015, he began publicly sharing his thoughts about the future. In the months before the 2016 election, 4 million people watched his video titled “Prophetic Word on Donald Trump.”

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But Wallnau’s public profile then “was small potatoes compared to now,” he said in an interview. Two million people combined on platforms including Rumble, Facebook and Audible — where he hosts a podcast, “The Lance Wallnau Show” — now follow him for his mix of theories about shadowy schemes by “the elites”; advice on digital currencies; and what he says are words, warnings and prophecies from God.

“It’s market demand,” Wallnau said. “Confidence in institutions is at an all-time low. In our community, there is such a need for knowing; the psychological need for certainty is a human craving, for consistency. You have to have a meaning for something, or it scares you.”

On that, Sutton agrees.

“Prophecy gives comfort in the sense that it can tell us how the future will be. For these folks, it’s affirming a positive vision in which they always will triumph. It’s a way of affirming their choices and values and bringing them comfort in a world with values that are different from their own,” Sutton said.

At the Mastriano campaign event in September, the nominee was onstage, as was keynote speaker Donald Trump Jr., but neither was the person Dori Groff drove from West Virginia to see. When Wallnau took the mic, Groff, 45, excitedly grabbed her little daughter’s hand and ran forward. Years ago, when Groff worked in multilevel marketing, she had come across Wallnau on a cassette tape. Now she listens to him daily.

“He was into how to motivate people, but he was a preacher, too,” said Groff, who says she is now a home-school teacher.

Groff, who said she was raised in Pennsylvania by Mennonite parents who had Limbaugh on every day, says she finds Wallnau funny and honest about what she sees as a moral decline in the country. She feels comforted by prophetic words. When she thinks of modern prophets, she thinks of the role of prophets in the Bible who warned and protected Israel. Prophecy, she says, isn’t about giving people answers to mundane questions.

“The prophetic isn’t like: ‘God told me you should take I-95,’ ” Groff said. “They are warnings to get your life back in order — to people, to the church, to the political scene.”

In 2022’s diffuse religious marketplace, it’s hard to measure what these self-avowed prophets can deliver, exactly, for politicians. Polls of the Pennsylvania governor’s race show Mastriano, whose events declare that God is on his side in an existential fight against evil, trailing Democrat Josh Shapiro significantly. Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Experts say the prophets, through their huge social platforms, offer a conduit to millions of voters — and more star power than the once-common blessing by the local pastor.

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The prophets “are so radicalized, much more than the traditional Christian right,” said Paul Djupe, who studies charismatic belief and religion and politics at Denison University. A large segment of Americans from different religious groups “believe God reveals his plans for the future to humans as prophecy,” he said.

Djupe’s research shows a very strong correlation between believing in prophecy and believing that God told prophets Trump would be president in 2020. It also shows a strong connection between apocalyptic and prophetic belief and radical, anti-democratic politics.

“It’s like: ‘The other side is evil. I know that because I’m in touch with God. And God tells me their plans are demonic,’ ” Djupe said.

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Republican politicians including former Texas governor Rick Perry had engaged with this realm of Christianity before, said the author Sarah Posner, who has written two books about the Christian right and politics. But Trump changed something. “He made all of these B-listers and C-listers, he turned them into celebrities, hosting events at the White House where they’d sing songs and speak in tongues,” Posner said. “These changes in the charismatic world are becoming mainstreamed in evangelicalism.”

But the expanding involvement of some prophets in politics has created strife in the broader charismatic-Pentecostal-prophetic world. Multiple prophets wrongly and divisively prophesied that Trump would remain president in 2020, causing a crisis for some believers. A group of charismatic leaders, many of them Trump critics, crafted a Prophetic Standards statement meant to affirm the “essential” role of prophetic gifts, with a gentle warning.

“Prophetic ministry is of great importance to the Church and must be encouraged, welcomed, and nurtured,” the statement read. “We recognize the unique challenges posed by the internet and social media, as anyone claiming to be a prophet can release a word to the general public without any accountability or even responsibility. While it is not possible to stop the flood of such words online, we urge all believers to check the lives and fruit of those they follow online.”

Wallnau said he didn’t sign the Prophetic Standards statement because he felt it was motivated by anti-Trump sentiment. But Wallnau’s views on the prophecy boom are complex.

On his social platforms, he rails against people “pressuring prophets to offer prophecies like a Pez dispenser about Trump and the deep state.” Prophets aren’t perfect, he says, and Christians should use prophecy to supplement their prayer and faith in God, not as a predictor of specific futures.

“There is a prophetic movement, but for that to take place, we need a new generation of prophetic seers and listeners who hear what God is saying, not in some adolescent fever trying to heap all the prophecies and conspiracies they can digest,” he told his Facebook audience this fall in a show about how prophecy works. “We live by faith, not prophecy about the election.”

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Yet Wallnau says a bigger issue in the prophetic community is Christians who did not accept that God anointed Trump, and his social platforms are full of promises to “expose” or divulge “the truth.” He has posted multiple times about the attack last month on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), suggesting “something strange going on here.”

Wallnau’s Facebook page says “entertainment web site,” and that label can seem apt. On camera, he’s the fired-up, righteous political prophet whose studio set is backdropped with a huge image of the U.S. Capitol and “We The People” plastered across his desk and who says of the midterms and Democrats: “God is bringing his battering ram down! Bam! Bam!” In an interview, he emphasizes the need for people to listen carefully to one another, and he quotes the atheist moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who often speaks about how to heal the country’s divisions.

“I’m sorry to say it, but low-info voters will go to their favorite pundit or to the National Enquirer or to a YouTube prophet. It’s an embarrassment to those of us who think of ourselves as prophets,” Wallnau said. “But we still believe in the prophetic.”

Most prophetic believers today, Wallnau said, “still believe God speaks, and they don’t listen to any of us.” He calls his own record on prophecy “pretty good,” in part because he hedges and doesn’t embrace conspiracy theories as fully as others. “I go right to the edge, but God helps me from going over the cliff,” he said.

Some of Wallnau’s followers praise him for charity work he does. But, at times, he asks his fans for some, too — urging them to blend their support for his spiritual gifts with financial support.

“That’s how come I have a regular fount of what’s going on in the world — I give it away! Like for example, you want to grow in your finances? Give it away! Give it away when God tells you to give it away,” Wallnau said in a show in September about how prophecy works. He turned to his co-host, Mercedes Sparks, as both started to chuckle.

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“How can they give it away?” he asked Sparks.

“Like if they want to partner with us? With this type of teaching?” she said.

“The giving connects you with what you’re sowing into,” Wallnau said. “If you sow into spirit of the prophet revelation or the word, you get prophetic revelation and the word. … So you want to go to and partner with us, because I’m into raising up the gifts that God gave you.”

The political prophets, he knows, have believers who will follow them no matter what. Which, Wallnau says, worries him: With hungry audiences comes more pressure for prophets and wannabe prophets to make midterm predictions, and thus more false prophecies and more disillusionment.

“I’m worried [after Tuesday] it’ll get hotter,” he said. “When you start dabbling with kings and governments, you better be authorized.”