Christmas Specials | Make America Godly Again

Many Trump supporters believe God has chosen him to rule

The Economist tries to find out why

An illustration showing Donald Trump with a halo and cash stuffed in his pockets. He has a smark and is standing with his hands outsretched surrounded by worshippers.
image: Agnès Ricart
Listen to this story.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.

Say the word “apostle” and people think of stern, halo-crowned men with names like Peter or John. Not a bloke called Greg from Mississippi. Unlike the first apostles, who were partial to robes if stained-glass windows are anything to go by, Greg prefers jeans and cowboy boots. Another difference: Greg did not attend the last supper. He is very much alive.

An affable, burly man with a shaved head, Apostle Greg Hood can often be found at the premises of an organic, gluten-free snack-food company in Franklin, Tennessee. Mr Hood runs his ministry and school, Kingdom University, from this warren of offices; the owners of the snack-food firm are friends.

On a recent Friday night, he stands behind a lectern in a repurposed garage at the back of the building. Mr Hood is teaching a class on the theology of his sect, a charismatic Pentecostal movement bent on making America a Christian nation. Behind him are a whiteboard and signs advertising the school’s various “colleges”: business, government and “kingdom studies”.

His 15 students are a mix of black and white. Most are middle-aged and insulate themselves from the air-conditioning with shawls and flannel shirts, but a few are young women in ripped jeans. They sit at folding tables, with textbooks, laptops and tiny plastic goblets containing a few drops of communion wine. A camera on a tripod streams the seminar to people watching online. The class opens with a prayer and the strange, sibilant sounds of students speaking in tongues.

“We have learned that Jesus did not come to give us a religion, right?” Mr Hood says. “He only promised us a kingdom.” As he quotes from the gospel of Matthew, students flip open their Bibles to the relevant passage. “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Mr Hood asks the class to complete the verse. “Your what come?” “Your kingdom come,” the students say. Mr Hood nods his head. “Your kingdom come—and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

In a folksy tone, Mr Hood gives this familiar verse an unusual gloss. “God’s not religious. He’s a government man, if I can put it like that,” he guffaws. “He’s a king, a ruler.” His authority does not end at the church gates. It flows through the halls of government, too.

Or at least, it ought to. America was founded as a Christian nation and is destined to become one again. This does not mean “that we are looking to take over the government.” But believers must elect “righteous” politicians courageous enough “to shake all the structures that are not kingdom, to dismantle these structures.” That might mean voting for somebody who isn’t a churchgoer. “I don’t necessarily want a Christian president...We don’t need a Sunday-school teacher. We need a bull in the china shop,” says Mr Hood.

“We got one,” says a student wearing a baseball cap with a cross on it. “Amen,” agrees Mr Hood.

For years scholars have tried to explain why conservative Christians so avidly support Donald Trump, a man who is more intimately acquainted with the seven deadly sins than the contents of the Bible. Some chalk it up to Mr Trump’s conservative policies. (He appointed the judges who gave back to the states the power to ban abortion.) Others think they share Mr Trump’s nostalgia for America’s past—an era when white Christians dominated the country. Yet another factor may also have played a role: the belief that Mr Trump was anointed by God to lead the country.

In 2016 a self-styled prophet named Lance Wallnau had a vision: the next president would be a latter-day Cyrus, the Persian emperor who, though not Jewish, was chosen by God to free the Jews from captivity. Mr Wallnau proclaimed Mr Trump, then a Republican candidate, the Cyrus of his dreams. The message was, even though he is not evangelical, “Trump is sent by God to deliver conservative Christians back from cultural exile,” says Matthew Taylor of the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies in Maryland.

Mr Wallnau and Mr Hood are leaders of a Christian revival known as the apostolic movement or New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), which emerged in the 1990s. (Mr Hood denies belonging to the NAR yet espouses its beliefs.) Its adherents believe that God wants them to build his kingdom on Earth. Hindering them are demons, who govern vast swathes of the planet. To use a metaphor favoured by Mr Wallnau, these demons control seven mountains, each symbolising a sphere of life: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government.

To vanquish the demons, believers must reform the church. The bureaucracy of Protestantism must go. The church must be ruled instead by independent, supernaturally gifted apostles and prophets, as it was in its early days. This is controversial: the church has not recognised apostles since the first crop appointed by Jesus, and Protestants broke with Catholicism because they believed spiritual authority resided in scripture, not a caste of intermediaries.

Champions of latter-day apostles and prophets retort that only these figures have the charisma, dynamism and spiritual authority to kindle the fervour necessary to best the demons, says Mr Taylor. By waging spiritual war against Satan’s demon-generals, apostles and their flocks will recapture the seven mountains and plant God’s flag in America.

It is hard to measure the size of this loosely organised sect. Yet there are indications that it is popular. Non-denominational churches—a category to which the apostolic movement belongs—are the only branch of Christianity in America that is growing. Harvest International Ministry, a network launched by an apostle nearly 30 years ago, claims to have more than 25,000 affiliated congregations around the world. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest religious body in America in terms of number of congregations, still has twice as many churches in America. But it was founded more than 175 years ago.

Many Americans agree with the apostolic movement’s tenets. A survey in 2023 by Paul Djupe of Denison University in Ohio found that a quarter of Americans believe in modern-day prophets and prophecies. In a Pew poll in 2021, more than a third of white evangelicals said the government should stop enforcing the separation of church and state.

To that end, apostles engage in political activism. They shun the Democratic party (membership is a form of “demonic worship”, Mr Hood has written) and cultivate ties with Republicans. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert and Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House, are affiliated with the movement. Mr Trump is central to its plans.

During the presidential campaign of 2016, Mr Wallnau observed that Mr Trump had already climbed the mountains of media and business and said God had foretold that he would also conquer the government peak. The rest of the apostolic movement quickly endorsed Mr Trump. Several of its leaders advised him during his presidency and formed a “spiritual strike force” called POTUS Shield to protect him from Satan. Many prophesied that he would win re-election in 2020, and their followers believed them. In a survey conducted by Mr Djupe shortly before the election, three in ten Americans believed Mr Trump “was anointed by God to become president”.

After Mr Trump lost, an apostle named Dutch Sheets went on a tour of swing states, dubbed Operation Valkyrie, to prevent Satan from “tak[ing] over the nation”. “Through late November and early December, Dutch Sheets and his travelling band of prophets build this fever pitch of charismatic anger and assurance that God is going to intervene,” recounts Mr Taylor in a podcast on the subject. Much of the rhetoric at these prayer meetings sounded like a call to arms: “the militiamen...of the kingdom of God are rising up in this hour” and “expose the neck, swing the sword, finish the job.” Hundreds of thousands of viewers watched live-streams of these rallies in late 2020.

On January 6th 2021 many heeded the call. “Christian Nationalism was the central driving force” that day, wrote Andrew Seidel, an expert, in testimony to Congress. Prophets battled the evil spirits embedded in the Capitol by praying, their voices amplified on a PA system. Protesters blew shofars, ram’s horns which they believe can summon the forces of heaven. Many protesters brandished flags emblazoned with the words “An Appeal to Heaven”, the apostles’ rallying cry for a Christian conquest of America.

Neither Mr Sheets nor Mr Hood was in the Capitol when rioters stormed it. But they spoke at a spiritual-warfare conference call with 4,000 apostles and their disciples. “America, you’re being saved,” Mr Hood declared. “You’re rising up, you’re standing up, you’re coming up out of the ashes,” his voice a battering-ram of righteousness. “This is the day I have promised you, says the Lord. Awakening is here.”

Blessed are the meek?

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Black Robe Regiment,” Mr Hood says to the class. This was a group of 18th-century ministers who preached in favour of independence from the British. Like Revolutionary-era supermen, they wore the uniform of the Continental Army under their robe, claims Mr Hood, and “they’d lay their pistols on their pulpit as they preached.”

“Maybe we need a little bit of that going on...These guys, after they would preach, they would lead their men into the battle against the crown of England... How many people in pulpits today are willing to stand up and to speak what we believe is righteous?”

A student asks a question. Earlier Mr Hood had entreated his students “to love your neighbour as yourself, even if they don’t know God”. The student wondered, “How do we love and be like the Black Robe Regiment? Because some day, there is going to be a war.”

Mr Hood agreed. No matter the outcome of the presidential election in 2024, “we’re going to see violence in our nation.” But, he said, “politics should never drive us to blows.” When another student wondered how to respond to what she considered the unjust imprisonment of the January 6th rioters, Mr Hood continued to preach restraint. “You don’t get speak out, but you don’t commit violence.”

The students’ confusion is telling. Many apostles disavow violence but then appear to encourage it. Earlier, Mr Hood had told students: “When you see turmoil on the streets and you see cities burning…fight for the heart of the king.” On January 6th Mr Hood seemed to celebrate the rioters for doing God’s work.

Later Mr Hood clarifies that when he speaks of fighting, he means against Satan. “I don’t believe God approved of the riot at the Capitol at all.” But he sees how he could be misunderstood. “We have to really be careful. I know the language can be kind of funny sometimes. And sometimes this is a fault of ours… Sometimes we don’t understand when we’re talking in more public places that… those who are not Christians do not understand ‘Christianese’.”

That distinction between spiritual and temporal combat was certainly lost on the January 6th rioter who attacked police with a flag pole; hanging from the pole was the “Appeal to Heaven” banner. It was also lost on the one who wore the flag like a cape as he entered the Capitol. By day’s end it was spattered with blood.

Explore more

This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the headline "Did God choose trump?"

Christmas double issue

From the December 23rd 2023 edition

Discover stories from this section and more in the list of contents

Explore the edition

More from Christmas Specials

On safari in South Sudan, one of the world’s most dangerous countries

The planet’s biggest conservation project is in its least developed nation

Interactive Wine and climate

Global warming is changing wine (not yet for the worse)

New vineyards are popping up in surprising places; old ones are enduring

How five Ukrainian cities are coping, despite Putin’s war

From ravers to rubbish collectors, residents tells their stories