In the 1940s, an argument erupted among a group of American Christians far from the mainstream.
Pentecostals, the spirit-filled worshippers known mostly for speaking in tongues, were at a crossroads, divided over the extent of God's modern-day miracles. If God made apostles and prophets during the New Testament era, did he still create them today?
Most Pentecostals said no, and went on to build the movement's major denominations.
A minority disagreed — and amazingly, their obscure view is now in the crosshairs of a presidential race. Some critics, fearing these little-known Christians want to control the U.S. government, suspect that Republican Rick Perry is their candidate.
The Texas governor opened the door to the discussion with a prayer rally he hosted in August, a week before he announced his run for president. Organizers of the Houston event, such as Lou Engle, leader of The Call prayer marathons, and Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, had for several years been under the watch of mostly liberal writers alarmed by the preachers' rhetoric.
The end of the world is an intense focus of many of the religious leaders involved in the rally. Engle has said that the tornado that leveled Joplin, Mo., last May was evidence of God's judgment on the country over abortion. Bickle views acceptance of same-sex marriage as a sign of the end times.
These preachers believe demons have taken hold of specific geographic areas, including the nation's capital. They also promote a philosophy of public engagement known as the "seven mountains," which urges Christians to gain influence in business, government, family, church, education, media and the arts as a way to spread righteousness and bring about God's kingdom on earth. The language seems close to dominionism, the belief that Christians have a God-given mandate to run the world.
Ever since Perry gave the leaders a broader platform, religion scholars and activists have been debating whether these church leaders represent a real threat, an apocalyptic vanguard maneuvering to establish a Christian government. The task of measuring their influence is complicated by the preachers' wide range of teaching and practice, and by the many different expressions of dominionism under various names.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow warned that dominionists want to prepare the world for Jesus' return by "infiltration and taking over politics and government." Michelle Goldberg, author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," wrote at The Daily Beast, "We have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican Party before."
Randall Stephens, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., who researches Pentecostals and politics, called warnings of a conservative Christian plot an overreaction. "I think this is a rabbit hole people fall down and it has a whiff of conspiracy," Stephens said.
Anthea Butler, who has written extensively about dominionism with author Sarah Posner on the liberal website ReligionDispatches.org, considers the outlook troubling and worth examining, but cautioned against overstating its strength.
"I don't know if 'threat' is the right word. I think 'problem' is the better word," said Butler, a religion scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.
Perry has never said anything that would directly link him to dominionism. However, he fueled speculation about his views at the rally by quoting from Joel 2, a Bible book the preachers favor, which tells of a prayer assembly of spiritual warriors as the world ends. On stage with the governor was Alice Patterson, author of "Bridging the Racial and Political Divide: How Godly Politics Can Transform A Nation," who believes there is a "demonic structure behind the Democratic Party."
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