Growing segments of Christian denominations and other conservative faiths are targeting “the occult,” claiming it is a dangerous societal trend that must be exposed. Commensurate with that rise is an increase in Christian media attention about “spiritual warfare” and the need for surveillance and elimination of occult movements – which includes “Witchcraft” and “Paganism.”
“Believers are in a spiritual battle,” said Dr. Charles Stanley, an evangelical broadcaster and founder of In Touch Ministries in Atlanta, “between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.”
He argued that denial of Satan’s existence is a form of temptation and a very real danger. “The devil is real,” he said. “Jesus talked to him in the wilderness, cast out demons, and taught about the devil’s schemes. Christ would not have spoken of the adversary if he didn’t exist.”
First Baptist Atlanta announced that Stanley passed away yesterday, making this message his final sermon.
The notion of imminent spiritual warfare pervades in other parts of the media landscape. Trump conspiracy theorists have been comparing the former president’s legal troubles to Christ’s crucifixion. “Seems there was someone else who was tortured and crucified this week,” read one post on Gab, a platform popular with Trump supporters. A similar post on Telegram put Trump’s case in apocalyptic terms: “Good vs Evil. Biblical times. Divine timing.”
“This is a war that we’re in,” said Trump loyalist Michael Flynn said last year. “This is a big spiritual war.” He referred to Nancy Pelosi as a demon, earning a standing ovation at an event in Oklahoma.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis quoted the famous passage in Ephesians 6:11, calling believers to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes,” though the Governor changed the word devil to the word “left.”
“They see this as spiritual warfare, and Trump is on the side of the angels,” John Fea, a historian at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, told AP last week. Fea researches evangelical Christianity’s role in American history. “In this view, Trump is politically a savior, he is going to restore America, and he will rise from the ashes in November despite the persecution and the suffering.”
In February, religious scholar Matthew D. Taylor, from the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, said, “It’s really a movement that’s only been around for less than 30 years… [it was] seen as fringy, was seen as the realm of hucksters, seen as kind of low-brow and populist and extremist.”
But Taylor added that this has become a very real movement of “strategic spiritual warfare” complete with “spiritual warfare generals” leading intense prayer, singing, prophecy, and other rituals.
Unfortunately, Catholics too have swept themselves into this trend. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has been preoccupied with the rising presence of Paganism and concerns about the Church having “an increasing number of exorcism inquiries even as its cultural influence otherwise declines.” He has even offered spiritual advice to Witches.
Father Vincent Lampert, the exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told the National Catholic Register that after the COVID-19 pandemic, exorcism requests have increased from 2,000 inquiries yearly to over 3,500 per year.
“I always tell people that [this increase] is not because I believe that the devil has upped his game. I think it is because more people today are more likely to play the devil’s game.” Father Lampert then clarified, “so because faith in God is in decline, people still want to fill this void, this need in their life for the supernatural. Unfortunately, sometimes people will turn to the world of the occult.”
What is meant by “the occult” is not clear. One concerned author mentioned the rise of “WitchTok” and other forms of “manifesting practices.” But the span is wide, from Ouija boards to pre-Christian Paganism to Spiritism. It is apparently shocking to these “spiritual warriors” to find materials on astrology, divination, and “alternative” beliefs in bookstores and online.
Concern about the occult, coded with specific religious propaganda, moved into theaters last week also. The recent film “Nefarious” was inspired by the book A Nefarious Plot by New York Times best-selling author Steve Deace.
The co-writers and directors, both of whom are well-known in Christian circles for films like “God’s Not Dead” (2014), said of the new film that “it’s a supernatural thriller. What we need to realize is that [people] today are doing Ouija boards, tarot cards, Reiki, yoga, getting pagan tattoos. All these are ways that people are getting infested. If you play with the devil, he will come. […] All the world [is] surrounded by the occult, especially on TV and in the movie theaters. So it’s a perfect time for this to show the wickedness and the evil of the devil.” They noted that the devil hopes you don’t see the movie. While the film is not exactly Catholic-friendly, Fr. Carlos Martin, affirmed that it is the best film representing an exorcism.
Truth be told, the Catholics can sort out their own approach to managing the presence of the occult and whatever spiritual concerns they have among themselves and for their community. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future […] All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion.” It notes that “Wearing charms is also reprehensible,” and so on.
The same applies to other denominations of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion. What concerns they might have about a spiritual war is between them, their faith, and their god.
But Christian rhetoric rarely stays in Christian circles. It spills into the mainstream and the language of spiritual warfare is disordered, corruptive, and provocative. It flirts with incitement of violence over and over.
Regrettably, the two millennia old obsession with Paganism is showing to be alive and well today in America. Indeed, Taylor warned earlier this year that the rhetoric of Christian nationalist pastors can tip over into actual violence. The same is true for portrayals of Pagans or any practice framed as Satanic. Being on the wrong side of a spiritual war means you become a target.
In the past 24 hours, there have been two new deployments.
Yesterday, Minnesota state Senator Eric Lucero – who describes himself as a “voice for pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-law enforcement, medical freedom, education transparency, election integrity, tax cuts, and more” unleashed a rant in the Minnesota Senate to prohibit funds from being used for any activities related to the “occult, divination, necromancy, soothsaying, Satanism and pedophilia.”
Lucero said that sin is everywhere and that institutions must be stopped from grooming the minds of young children. He added that evil has infiltrated into all areas of society and that one such area is “art,” which includes “pictures, plays, theater, sculpture or any other type of art to be used to promote the occult of the wicked practice of grooming young children.”
Minnesota Republicans having a normal one today. #mnleg pic.twitter.com/3lRWBC7PqA
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 18, 2023
In a transphobic response to a Tablet magazine article about misgendering, Pagan faith groups within the U.S. Army, and a litany of other ails he equates to modern Paganism and LGBTQ+ paranoia, the magazine’s editor at large Liel Leibovitz wrote for Commentary about the misinformed worldview of “paganism” and how it is a “spiritual crisis afflicting contemporary America,” misinforming society about binarism, equity, diversity, and justice because “the intellectual-industrial complex continues to push its pagan convictions.”
He considers Pagans to be assassins. “‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted,'” he writes. “These were the last words, allegedly, of Hasan i-Sabbah—the ninth-century Arab warlord whose group, the Hash’shashin, gave us the English word ‘assassins.’ And his dictum perfectly captures the soul of paganism, illuminated by the idea that no fixed system of belief or set of solid convictions ought to constrain us as we stumble our way through life.”
Unsurprisingly, Leibovitz’s answer is the Torah. “When pagans waving the banner of diversity, equity, and inclusion insist that we judge others by the color of their skin, not the content of their character, tell your children that the Hebrew prophets offered a much more transformational vision of racial justice, one that inspired everyone from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. When pagans calling themselves environmentalists tell your children to worship the earth, introduce them to the Talmud for a superior attitude that is as mindful of production as it is of conservation. When pagans quarrel and cancel, teach your children the value of building real communities, and of the tried-and-true blueprints for real human happiness given to us by our faith traditions.
“If you can,” he advises parents, “rescue them from pagan schools as well, or, at least, teach them that there are better options.”
Where those schools are is not clear. But Leibovitz advises against the “pagan call for perpetual warfare.” But with such words, the demonization of all things Pagan is again on the rise.
Factually, however, there is no Pagan call to warfare. That language of constant struggle is a preoccupation from other faiths and practices. The links above are clear examples of it.
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