If you spend anytime online at all, there’s a high likelihood that at some point last week you saw a rather, well, interesting video clip of Donald Trump’s religious adviser and the director of the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, Paula White. Here she is, praying for “satanic pregnancies” to “miscarry,” directly condemning the “animal kingdom” and even seemingly taking aim at the fish in the sea. Watch the clip. It’s short:
Immediately, Twitter erupted with condemnation. Here was pro-life Paula White seemingly calling for babies to miscarry. And what was a “satanic pregnancy” anyway? This was a common response:
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons @GuthrieGF“We command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now” — Special Adviser to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative Paula White https://t.co/gtdZyGfkxy
But it’s wrong. White isn’t asking for babies to die. She’s doing something else—engaging in an overt and very aggressive form of a spiritual practice of millions of fellow Americans and hundreds of millions of fellow Pentecostal Christians across the globe.
She’s waging spiritual warfare.
Unless you’ve had much exposure to American Pentecostal Christianity or to the growing Pentecostal church in the global South—and unless you’ve spent lots of time with poor and working-class Christians in both urban and rural America, you’ve likely not experienced much Pentecostalism—there’s a good chance you just did a double, or perhaps triple take.
Millions of Americans recognize what’s happening here? Those millions are supplemented by hundreds of millions of fellow believers around the world?? Oh, and what on earth is spiritual warfare?
If I tried to explain all of these phenomena in one newsletter, it would stretch close to book length, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version. Even this requires some lead-up, so here goes: The modern incarnation of Pentecostal (also sometimes referred to as charismatic) Christianity was born at the so-called Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles. Led by an African-American pastor named William Seymour, the revival was marked by exuberant, hours-long worship services.
American revivals featuring hours-long services are nothing new, but this revival featured the “gifts of the spirit.” Pentecostals reject a Protestant doctrine called cessationism, which holds that God has withdrawn most of the supernatural gifts that the apostles exercised in the early church, including prophecy, tongues, and gifts of healing. Those gifts, they argue existed for a time and a purpose. They exist no longer, at least not in the common practice of the church.
Pentecostal Christians utterly reject this idea. They believe that believers aren’t just baptized by water; they are at a distinct moment baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that spirit-baptism can endow believers with all of the spiritual power and spiritual gifts of the early church.
Rarely has a spiritual movement grown more potent more quickly. And rarely has a religious revolution gone more unnoticed by the Western elite. In 1906, there were a few hundred folks gathered at the Apostolic Faith Mission in Los Angeles. By 2020, the number of Pentecostal believers hit more than half a billion worldwide.
Most Pentecostals believe in the gift of tongues. They believe in the gift of prophecy. They believe in gifts of healing. And they most definitely believe in spiritual warfare.
To be clear, the concept of spiritual warfare isn’t unique to Pentecostal Christianity. Cessationist Christians believe in angels and demons. The Catholic Church carries out exorcisms. It’s impossible to believe the Bible is the word of God and not see that there exists a spiritual realm. The difference is that Pentecostal Christians—more than virtually any other branch of Christianity—emphasize the spiritual realm as the critical sphere of battle not just for salvation, but also for health, prosperity, and even national well-being.
There are many scriptural bases for this belief, but the root is found in the book of Ephesians:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
What does this mean?
Perhaps the single-most vivid (and most influential) illustrations of a Pentecostal view of spiritual warfare came from Frank Peretti’s wildly popular supernatural thrillers. Beginning most notably with This Present Darkness (almost 3 million copies sold) he wrote books that featured interlocking worlds of spirit and flesh, where angels and demons engaged in almost Lord of the Rings-style warfare in the spirit realm as believers strengthened their angelic allies through prayer or weakened them through sin and inattention.
Concepts and strategies of spiritual warfare spread through Christian pop culture. Pastors spent weeks at a time explaining spiritual warfare. Christian bookstores filled with fiction and non-fiction titles outlining exactly how to do battle against demonic forces. An increasing number of men and women called themselves “prayer warriors.” (The term is part of the Christian vernacular now. You can see it all over social media—“Calling all my prayer warriors: I’m having surgery tomorrow”—but if a person is invested in spiritual warfare, becoming a prayer warrior is part of their identity.)
So, what does this have to do with Paula White, the “animal kingdom,” the “marine kingdom,” and “satanic pregnancies”? Think of spiritual warfare existing on a spectrum, with folks at the more moderate end praying, for example, that the “demonic spirit of addiction” release their son or daughter and people at a more radical edge developing an entire battle plan against malign spirits who torment specific parts of the world from the demonic realm. White joins many other believers on that more radical edge.
They believe in “territorial spirits,” a concept based in part on Daniel 10, when an angelic being indicates that he was delayed in coming to Daniel because the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” opposed him for 21 days. The intervention of “Michael, one of the chief princes” freed the angel to see Daniel. It’s plain from the context that this passage is referring not to human princes but rather an angelic conflict with a likely demonic entity.
To take another example, Ephesians 2 describes believers who were once “dead in the trespasses and sins” and who followed the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”
Many, many Pentecostal Christians not only take these verses literally and specifically, they extend them broadly to this time and this place. Thus, geographic regions have demonic princes at their head, so do the different physical realms (animal, marine), and the spiritual conflict thus isn’t merely for human souls, but over creation itself. Romans 8:21 speaks of the hope that “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
So, translating White, she seeks to liberate the animal and marine world of demonic influences, and when she speaks of “satanic pregnancies” or “satanic wombs,” she is referring not to human pregnancies and human wombs, but rather of satanic ideas and plans “birthed” in the spiritual realm.
How does this play out in real life, apart from Paul White? How does this make Pentecostal Christians—especially those deeply involved in spiritual warfare—different from Evangelicals who also believe in angels and demons but who do not have the same theology of spiritual warfare?
Let’s imagine a Baptist church is sending missionaries to a city. The pastor and congregation would likely pray that the people who hear their message would have “eyes to see and ears to hear” the Gospel. They may pray that God “open doors” and that people would have “soft hearts and open minds.” They’ll also pray that God grant the missionaries extraordinary courage and wisdom. Each of these prayers represents a request for supernatural intervention, but they are not specifically aimed at heavenly beings.
A Pentecostal church sending missionaries to the same place is likely to pray quite differently. In addition to the prayers above, they’ll also pray to “bind the strongman” (the demonic entity) Satan has sent to govern the demons of the city. They’ll “take authority” (declare their power) over all demonic spirits. And as the prayer warriors are receptive to the Holy Spirit during the prayer, they’ll get even more targeted—naming and calling out very specific kinds of demonic spirits.
Think of this as the spiritual equivalent of softening the beaches in advance of the Normandy invasion.
There are readers who will look at all this and scoff at the weirdness of it all. They’ll be amazed that anyone “falls for this.” If you’re a prosperous, successful lawyer, it’s doubtful that you pray to bind the demonic commander of the courthouse before you deliver a closing argument. You have confidence in your words. If you’re a surgeon, it’s doubtful you’re directly challenging any demons before operating on a human spine. You might pray for calm and endurance, but then you go to work.
But remember that Pentecostal Christianity was born out of America’s poor and working-class communities—people who feel the tremendous, grinding weight of poverty, of addiction, of oppression—and it is sweeping through the global south in communities who face many of these same challenges. These people are not privileged. They don’t have the power and confidence of America’s prosperous Christian class. The Holy Spirit bursts into their lives like a supernova of hope.
I grew up in the very cessationist, fundamentalist a capella churches of Christ. I was ultimately predestined to be a Presbyterian. But for almost a solid decade between my departure from the church of Christ and my arrival in the Presbyterian church in America, my wife and I attended Pentecostal churches. She was saved at Times Square Church in Manhattan. I spent time as an interim youth pastor at an Assemblies of God church in Kentucky, and I can tell you that neither before nor since have I seen lives so fundamentally, immediately, and radically transformed as they were at those churches.
Pentecostalism—like all Christian traditions—is vulnerable to exploitation, to false hope and false teachers. For example, the heretical prosperity gospel is a viral infection within the Pentecostal church, and I could write an entire separate essay on its malign influence (and on Paula White’s role in American prosperity heresies). Spiritual predators can and do prey on desperate people.
But the story of Pentecostalism is not the story of vulnerable people, easily manipulated. It’s often the story of extraordinary faith, remarkable courage, astonishing compassion, and revolutionary personal change.
Let me close with a quick story. I built my religious liberty law practice defending two very different kinds of Christian clients—student groups at elite universities and small Pentecostal churches facing persecution from local governments. At one of my first hearings, I represented a tiny church that faced closure at the hands of a local zoning board in part because the pastor lived at the church and supplemented his tiny pastoral salary by fixing cars in the church garage.
The zoning issue was complicated, the law wasn’t clearly on our side (this was before Bill Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act), and we threw ourselves on the mercy of the zoning board. The entire church of some three dozen people was present for the critical session, and I saw a small group of older ladies in the back, heads bowed.
They were my prayer warriors.
I’ll be honest. My own skills were failing me. I was losing. I tried arguing the few bits of the law that were on our side. The board was unimpressed. I tried pulling on heartstrings. The church was a source of life and hope to folks who were on the margins of their communities. There were ex-cons in the congregation. There were recovering addicts. However, hearing about the unsavory characters in the room (some covered head to toe in tattoos) only seemed to make things worse. The board was set to vote against the church.
Then the strangest thing happened. It was as if the entire board spontaneously forgot Robert’s Rules of Order. They made an improper motion against the church. They withdrew it, messed up again, and then finally took a break to figure out how, exactly, to rule against us. In those precious moments I was able to strike a deal to save the church so long as it made modest changes. It turned out that there was at least some compassion in the room.
When it was all over, I was sweating. We’d pulled a rabbit out of the hat. We’d gotten lucky. If they could have made just one proper motion, the church would be forced to move. The prayer warriors, however, were beaming. They were exultant. One of the ladies came up to me afterward and said, “We prayed that if we were going to lose that a spirit of chaos and confusion would fall on the board, and it did.” With all their hearts they believed that they had been on the front lines of the real battle. I was but a secondary player.
I wholeheartedly agree about my secondary status. As for the primacy of their specific battle in the spiritual realm, that’s a mystery I’ll leave to God.
In the preface to Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote about “two equal and opposite errors” that people make about devils: “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight”.Paula White seems to be leaning into the latter error. A great many of us make the first mistake.
One last thing ...
Earlier this week, I was in a text thread with dear friends, and we were expressing our concerns about the 2020 election, the direction of the church, and our respective roles in the coming weeks and months. We pundits and analysts are often pressured to express certainty even when certainty is elusive and choices are hard. One of my friends put this years-old song by Sara Groves in the thread. It spoke to me. It might speak to you: