Over 75 percent of white evangelical Christians (a conservative estimate, the poll numbers suggest between 76% and 81%) voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Given Trump’s tenure, some imagined this number would decline, but polls following the 2020 election show similar support. Since Trump’s ascendancy in the 2016 primary, scholars and pundits have scrambled to explain the relationship between socially conservative Christians and the former star of The Apprentice, whose life and demeanor do not align with the public’s perceptions of evangelical Christian values.
Evangelicals (and some pundits) have proposed a theological rationale for the alliance between Trump and evangelical Christians. Trump is described as “an Isaiah 45 Cyrus” or as akin to the Persian king who freed the Jews held captive in Babylon. Evangelical leaders like Lance Wallnau see Trump as a “nonbeliever appointed by God” who will, in Wallnau’s words, “restore the crumbling walls that separate us from cultural collapse.”
An epistemology of feeling, I propose, is another entry point to the assemblage that spins together white evangelical Christianity and Trump supporters. As in charismatic churches, feeling, intense feeling, has become a marker of truth in contemporary political discourse.
The slide of fact into feeling was captured succinctly in a 2016 interview with former house speaker Newt Gingrich. Presented with FBI statistics that proved the newly GOP-nominated Trump’s claims about rising crime in the U.S. were false, Gingrich responds, “I’ll go with how people feel.”
One source of “feeling-only truth”—truth that is not tied to facts—is the training that takes place in charismatic-evangelical Christian churches. White evangelical Christians are trained in prayer, in worship, in a variety of practices, to associate intense moments of feeling with God’s presence, as a marker of God speaking—and are therefore habituated to accept intense emotion as a verifier of truth or as a medium of truth.
In my reading, T.M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back explains how evangelical Christians develop a feeling-based, highly personal, impossible to prove—or disprove—standard of truth. It is an ethnographic account of the Vineyard Network of Churches, a neo-charismatic Christian movement in the U.S., founded in the 1970s. Luhrmann focuses her text on the “problem” of belief in modernity, asking how it is possible for people to accept God is real, given the impossibility of proving, according to the scientific standard of truth, that God exists. Luhrmann details how, through the practice of prayer, in small group meetings, during ministry after worship, and in a myriad of other training sessions, members of the Vineyard Community learn to experience their own minds as partially “porous”—the phrase Charles Taylor coined to describe pre-modern Western subject for whom the boundary between self and external world is open. Vineyard believers learn to locate God’s thoughts amongst their own. As people become adept at hearing God, Luhrmann writes, their senses begin to “leak,” causing the boundaries around the senses to become blurred. For example, while praying for a local school, one interviewee describes experiencing a horrible stretch, which she interprets as the presence of evil at the school. The leaking process means that Vineyard believers come to “have sensory experiences of immaterial things” and believe these experiences to be a form of revealed truth (138).
Despite observing “leaky” human subjects who sense immaterial things and locate, in their own minds, God’s thoughts, at the conclusion of her book, Luhrmann highlights the role of the limits of human knowledge. She argues members of the Vineyard community cannot absolutely evaluate whether another person has truly heard the voice of God, because they are not inside the mind of another person. Luhrmann concludes that Taylor’s “buffered self” of modernity—the closed inverse of the porous self—holds for the Vineyard members. Which is to say, rather than experiencing external forces, she argues the church members opt into a kind of magical realism, a willing suspension of disbelief, that allows them to believe they hear God without external, verifiable, objective evidence.
Luhrmann’s conclusions, I contend, are not adequately attentive to the role that feeling plays in charismatic practices—even where feeling presents obvious and evident force in Luhrmann’s own ethnographic account. For example, Luhrmann explains people who are training to be prayer ministers are taught to attend to the emotional state of the person for whom they are praying. Luhrmann explains, “The implicit theory is that God will speak to the person in ways that lead the person being prayed for to be emotionally moved” (50). God speaks to the minister such that God’s presence can be verified via the emotional response of the individual receiving prayer.
I agree with Luhrmann’s assertion that members of the Vineyard communities are trained to hear God, but suggest that participants are not suspending disbelief, per se, but instead individuals are trained to accept intense feeling as a marker of God’s presence and therefore of truth. Feeling itself can become an episteme, can register as a phenomenon, it can be a mode of knowing that is above reason, or at least supplements and modifies reason.
Intense feeling is characteristic of Donald Trump’s political presence. The Trump rally, replete with chanting, screaming, and a long, rambling speech is an affect-laden performance. For people trained in charismatic-evangelical communities, Trump’s intense performance feels true. The knowledge production at a rally prioritizes feeling over concepts. Put theologically, Trump’s performance feels like a revelation, or as though a novel claim being made by God. While it is not an explicit process, Trump’s words are affectively imbued with the authority of God.
So in a sense, it doesn’t matter how factually false what Trump says might be—his claims feel true. This is a partial explanation for how white evangelical Christians have so easily aligned themselves with Trump. And it is a place to begin exploring the slide of facts into fiction in our political discourse, and the rise of feeling-only truth: the rise of feeling-only truth, like what is modelled by Gingrich, can, in part, be traced to the training charismatic-evangelicals, and through the evangelical media machine many Christians, receive in listening for God.
Yet in another sense it does matter what Trump says—because his message of white grievance, American “greatness,” and even aspirational authoritarianism clearly resonated with his voters.
Another charismatic-evangelical community—one that shares historical DNA with the Vineyard Network of Churches—is The International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Missouri (IHOPKC). The self-identified “prayer ministry,” founded by charismatic leader Mike Bickle, recently celebrated its twenty-first year of 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week prayer.
The prayer at IHOPKC takes the form of “harp and bowl” where the harp or constant music, jangling electric guitars, rhythmic drums, sustains the prayer floating up like incense from the bowl. A fiery prayer leader uses scripture to pray for the local community, or government. Prophetic singers, working antiphonally or in call and response, sing spontaneous phrases that pick up on the prayer, amplifying the content and raising the intensity in the room.
Mike Bickle is constantly telling and re-telling the “prophetic history” of IHOPKC, which demonstrates that the community was foretold by a series of powerful prophets; and now the community is a “forerunner,” preparing the way for the return of Christ and a future in which Jesus will rule over the earth in a 1000-year theocracy.
Yes, a literal 1000-year theocracy. Because IHOPKC has been very online since their start, it is possible to trace how their prophetic history has been re-made over the years—revised, in order to maintain a layer of plausible evangelical Christian orthodoxy. For example, accessing the Internet Archive reveals that a provocative description of the millennial kingdom as a “theocratic dictatorship under Jesus Christ” was removed from IHOPKC’s website in the mid-2000s
To offer a final example, consider when Peter C. Wagner’s “dominion” theology, which calls for Christians to take control of all spheres of life came under fire as part of the New Apostolic Reformation and IHOPKC issued a statement of “denial” claiming that they do not advocate for Christians to take control of government until Christ returns.
Yet language of theocratic control has reappeared, afresh, at IHOPKC, where a new section of their website called “7M-Pact”(read “7 Mountains”) invites visitors to spend 2021 focusing on which area of society they can reach. The “7 Mountains Mandate” (7MM) calls for Christians to exert influence over 7 areas: arts, business, religion, media, education, family, and government. While this mandate is attributed to Loren Cunningham (YWAM) and Bill Bright (Campus Crusade)—Wagner understood the 7MM as an extension of dominion theology. The impulse for IHOPKC to align themselves with theocratic “dictatorship,” which is arguably an authoritarian impulse, re-emerges again and again.
Truth at IHOPKC is driven by both feeling and conceptual claims. The feeling, intense feeling, that marks God’s voice serves to verify moments of revelation. This mechanism allows familiar claims to power, like authoritarian claims, to be re-asserted while feeling fresh, feeling novel.
Trump’s appeal is both in the way he performs with intense feeling that serves as a verifier of truth; and his appeal is in the assertion of familiar nodes of power, like authoritarianism, with freshness, as though they are novel and not the same old tools of oppression that have driven American politics since its founding. The feeling-only epistemology wielded by Trump, which thrives on and fuels authoritarianism, remains a threat to America’s deeply flawed, but long-lasting democracy.
“Fight for Trump” resounded as a battle cry at Trump’s January 6, 2021 “Save America” rally. Shortly after the rally, bolstered and urged by Trump, rage-filled protesters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and stormed the U.S. Capitol Building to challenge the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election win.
Seeking to overturn the results, these insurrectionists successfully entered the Capital Building, some people were swept up and carried by the intense moment, and others were explicitly desiring to see congresspersons “hanging” for treason. The congresspersons were successfully evacuated, but five people died during the Capitol riot; two of the deaths were murder.
Truths devoid of facts, fueled by feelings, and asserting dangerous power, are not merely a matter of disagreement; these claims have life and death consequences. The claim that Trump won or “Big Lie” persists in our political discourse and, at the time of writing, evidence points to Trump making a third run for president.
Political theologians seeking to address the breakdown in truth in contemporary political discourse can learn from study of charismatic-evangelical truth. First, these churches demonstrate one way feeling becomes part of effective truth-making and it is worth exploring in more depth the role that feeling herein plays. Second, the porosity demonstrated by charismatic-evangelical Christians demonstrates that the modern liberal subject evades concepts like “the buffered self” and suggests we need richer accounts of the modern liberal subject.
Truth is revealed in charismatic-evangelical communities as part of collective practices where feelings, concepts, and power work together to generate subjects. How do we theorize subjects who come to action and make truth in this sticky, complicated, mess?