A religious movement that seeks to become a dominant influence in society and government is gaining ground in America. But since several key pastors of the New Apostolic Reformation shared the stage at a prayer rally last month with a leading Republican presidential candidate, the movement has also generated controversy.
Interview with C. Peter Wagner on the New Apostolic Reformation
Thousands of people gathered in a stadium in Houston, Texas, last month, for a day of prayer.
The man who called them together is now a top candidate for the Republican nomination for president: Texas Governor Rick Perry.
"You call us to repent, Lord, and this day is our response," Perry said.
Perry organized the rally with several pastors that are part of a movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation.
The NAR is a collection of Christian preachers who present themselves as modern-day apostles and prophets. And it's a major player in what's commonly called the "dominionist" movement. It aims to have America be ruled as a Christian nation.
Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have all reportedly associated with pastors or churches with "dominionist" views.
The NAR in particular seeks to influence what it calls the "seven mountains": government, religion, media, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.
C. Peter Wagner, who gave the movement its name, says it is not about creating a theocracy.
"We don't believe in taking over a nation. But we believe in exerting as much influence in every one of the mountains to see the values of the Kingdom of God within a democratic society, within religious pluralism," Wagner said.
But critics say the New Apostolic Reformation aims to end religious pluralism. And even many conservative Evangelical Christians consider it a cult.
NAR pastors often blame abortion and homosexuality for natural catastrophes. Wagner says the movement believes social ills such as crime, poverty and racism are caused by diabolical influences.
"We feel that Satan sends certain demonic forces and these would be high ranking ones - to bring darkness and evil to segments of society such as cities or neighborhoods or regions or nations," Wagner said.
He says pastors lead "Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare," or intensive prayer ceremonies, to exorcize demons from specific geographical areas. One of the pastors at the Houston rally, Mike Bickle, leads the International House of Prayer megachurch in Kansas City, which runs a round-the-clock prayer session.
Rachel Tabachnick of Talk to Action, which monitors the Religious Right, says the NAR promotes intolerance.
"They claim that when they go in and remove demons from an area, and have these ceremonies, that then a place thrives in some way. If there was a drought, there's rain; there's economic improvement, corruption declines, things like that. So what they are essentially teaching is that, if our community has a problem, or if our nation has a problem, then this is because we have people who are demonically controlled," Tabachnik said.
Critics say the NAR is stridently anti-Muslim. And they warn its affection for Israel and Jews is predicated on a desire for them fulfill Christian end times prophesies.
Catherine Bowler, a professor of American Christianity at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, says critics are reading the movement too literally.
"The language is pretty metaphorical - like the spiritual battle language. While it stresses people out, it's still within the realm of unseen forces," Bowler said.
At the same time, Bowler says the NAR's newfound boldness in American politics is fueled by its strength in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Exact figures are hard to come by, but the movement is growing rapidly within a Charismatic Christian movement that has hundreds of millions of followers worldwide.
Forrest Wilder is a journalist at the Texas Observer magazine who investigated the New Apostolic Reformation's ties to the governor in an article entitled "Rick Perry's Army of God."
Wilder says Perry is good at latching onto new popular movements, as when his alignment with the anti-tax Tea Party helped him win reelection last year.
"Same thing could be going on here, he's tapped into a development within the religious right where there's a lot of energy and a lot of momentum and excitement," Wilder said.
Surveys show that most Americans disapprove of churches getting involved in politics. But experts say the NAR's growing influence, and its diverse following including many blacks and hispanics, could be useful to whichever candidate ends up facing incumbent President Barack Obama in next year's election.