By Paul A. Djupe, Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Jason M. Adkins
“The story started on 9/11, that He [God] would raise up a president out of New York that would turn this nation around. And for the towers that fell, God said He would give him two terms….We have prophecies that said it would happen in the 240th year of America’s reign, 2016….President Trump won the election.” So claims prophet Hank Kunneman on the ElijahList show on May 28, almost six months after the electoral college certified the results of the 2020 presidential election. Yet still others were prophesying a coming reversal: “Soon! It has to be this year.” That was how prophet Johnny Enlow updated his timeline about Trump’s restoration at the end of May on the Flyover Conservatives podcast, while his wife joked that, “We used to say ‘It has to be this month.’”
Prophecy (claims to receive God’s communication directly) is nothing new to the American scene, nor to the world since the Bible is chock full of prophets. But the social media era has brought all forms of religious practice, including the work of prophets, to the public. Prophets were seemingly everywhere during the last year, which surely says quite a lot about the social media feed of someone interested in religion and politics.
Such religious prophecy has been wrong over and over again (see the great work of social science When Prophecy Fails), but failure does not necessarily have the effect among true believers that you might expect. Festinger, Rieken, and Schacter found that many redoubled their faith, at least to a point (motivated reasoners eventually do “get it”). Well, we’ve just lived through a period of epic failure of prophecy, with many claiming to have divine counsel that Donald Trump won the election and would be restored to the presidency at some later date. Of course, the date continues to be pushed back as the exchange between the Enlows put on stark display. How did Americans respond to this cascade of failed prophecy?
To our knowledge, no one has asked these questions of Americans before (at least there’s no entry in the ARDA measurement cache). So, in a March 2021 survey, we included four items that tap belief in a prophetic religion, in which humans channel the messages and powers of God and through those prophetic voices God is active on earth. We asked respondents about the extent to which they agreed with the following statements:
- God reveals his plans for the future to humans as prophecy.
- God told these prophets that Trump would win the presidential election.
- God has given some people the power to heal others through prayer and the ‘laying on of hands.’
- God is in control over the course of events on Earth.
Many people hold these beliefs, as the figure below shows. Thirty-seven percent agreed or strongly agreed that prophecy is real, while fewer – only 19 percent – agreed that God told prophets his plan that Trump would win. Larger numbers (40 percent) believe in faith healing powers, while a slim majority of Americans indicate that God is in control over the course of events on Earth. These items scale well, with a high Cronbach’s alpha score of .87.
The prophecy index correlates strongly with the belief that we are living in the “prophesied end times” (r=.62), the rudiments of the QAnon conspiracy (r=.52), an index capturing the prosperity gospel (r=.68), and that evil is present and active in the world (r=.54). All are measures of the presence of supernatural forces in early affairs and all of them are associated with high boundaries with the world. These boundaries are crucial to sustaining a belief in prophecy because they keep a distance from disconfirming information. A belief in prophecy is also strongly correlated with a belief that Trump was anointed by God to become president (r=.665 – so close!), but also that all presidents are anointed by God (r=.660).
If you want to understand religious politics on the right in 2021, you need to understand the role of prophecy. The belief that there are direct lines to God is key to supporting a large number of ministries that imbue fervent wishes with divine sanction. And once these hopes acquire divine sanction, it becomes harder to accept any other result. In fact, those contrarian results then take on a gloss of evil since they run counter to “God’s plan.” This was Enlow’s point in a recent appearance on the Elijah Streams Youtube channel, “If you go against God’s person that he’s using, his instrument, even if you think you have 100 percent devotion to God, it’s going to cost you. … This is a line in the sand, this ‘Trump Test.’” It is no surprise at all that belief in prophecy is highly correlated with a Christian nationalism scale (r=.70), nor is it surprising that prophecy believers are more likely to believe that Christians will be persecuted by a Democratic administration (r=.49). Believers in prophecy hold to a Manichean worldview where there are definable lines of good and evil that just so happen to hew close to the ingroup.
But does it have to be this way? Can errant belief be corrected? Some prophets actually apologized after their Trump predictions failed to materialize and we used part of one statement in an experiment. One third of the sample received no treatment before answering the statements about prophecy above, one third read about an apology from California pastor Kris Vallotton, while one third read about prophet Robin Bullock doubling down on Trump’s rightful place. [for the text, see note 2] These two are representative of the reactions of prophets out there, though more appear to have doubled-down rather than recanted.
Did the treatments have any effect on Americans? Well, as usual, it depends. Nothing happens at the sample level, but groups within the sample had different reactions to the treatments, as expected. For instance, evangelicals’ support for the idea that God told prophets that Trump would be president drops when they read the apology statement by about 10 percent so they look like the rest of the sample (I collapsed the 1-5 scale to run from 0-1, where 1=strongly agree). But the control and the “double down” conditions show equally high support. So, their support for prophecy could change, but probably only if they heard an apology and no other message, which may be unlikely. From this vantage point, the prophetic sector does not appear to be in much crisis as was recently suggested.
Since white evangelicals are likely to be Republicans, it pays to examine the treatment effects by partisanship, which the following figure does. Notably, Democrats show no movement, while both independents and Republicans show drops from the control to the apology, though only significantly so for Republicans. Republican support for the prophetic messaging about Trump rebounds in the double down condition. It is also worth acknowledging that support for prophecy runs fairly consistent across partisan groups. There is no massive divide here between partisan camps, despite the stereotypes.
Religion by prophecy of this sort does not need to be political. But prophecy does need to be relevant to be potent and to enable the prophet to stay in the game. This is quite obviously an entrepreneurial business and the content of prophecy will track with what people are concerned about at the time. I’ve not done any sort of systematic survey of prophecy, but, in this time in 2021, it’s no surprise that we can find highly political prophetic messages, especially as white conservatives have been hearing constant threats about their basic freedoms if their side loses. What’s particularly important about acknowledging the connection is that we can expect prophecy to whip up concerns and fears by giving them divine sanction. That is, by assuring people that Trump is going to win, they are also confirming that God has taken sides and will defeat the evil forces trying to engineer another outcome. This is just one more way in which religion is encouraging the threats to democracy we face in this country.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (check out his posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.
Jacob R. Neiheisel, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He very rarely tweets anything of note, but his account can be found here just the same.
Jason M. Adkins is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Morehead State University. His tweets are sparse and random, but can be found here, while more of his work can be found at his website.
1. The wording for our QAnon question is, “Within the upper reaches of government, media, and finance, a secretive group of elites thwarted Donald Trump’s efforts at reform, fomented street violence, and engaged in child trafficking and other crimes.” See this post for more.
2. The apology treatment read:
On November 7, the day Joe Biden was declared the president-elect, one prophet, Kris Vallotton, of the mega-congregation Bethel Church in Redding, California, notably apologized. “I take full responsibility for being wrong,” he said on Instagram. “There was no excuse for it. I think it doesn’t make me a false prophet, but it does actually create a credibility gap.” And he’s not the only one. After apologizing on January 7 for his own prophecy that Trump would be reelected, Jeremiah Johnson called parts of the prophetic movement “deeply sick.” In early February, he released a new YouTube series called “I Was Wrong: Donald Trump and the Prophetic Controversy.”
The “double down” treatment read:
Robin Bullock is among the various self-proclaimed prophets who guaranteed that Donald Trump would win the 2020 election. During a service on Tuesday, Bullock claimed, “We are in a full-on spiritual war. There is no administration right this moment in the White House. Biden is not the president. He’s sitting in the seat, but that’s not who he is. There’s no anointing there. The rightful king is still the rightful king, and he will be the rightful leader.”