Earlier this year we looked at Liberty University’s production of a low-budget biopic of “firefighter prophet” Mark Taylor. See: “Liberty U promoting biopic of Trump-idolizing conspiracy theorist” and “Liberty University’s hero ‘prophet’ eager for Trump to declare martial law.”
I was, at the time this first was announced, too gobsmacked by Taylor’s sheer crackpottery and by the clumsy awfulness of Liberty’s propaganda effort to notice how this collaboration represents a big generational shift within the religious-right faction of the Republican Party. But let’s step back and notice what we have here.
The Trump Prophecy is explicitly a story from within the Pentecostal/charismatic wing of “INC” Christianity. It’s right there in the name: “prophecy.” Mark Taylor claims to have the spiritual gift of prophecy, which in that tradition means he believes that God speaks to him directly in visions that foretell the future. His story is being affirmed, endorsed, and promoted by Liberty University and by the school’s leader, Jerry Falwell Jr.
Look back a generation and you wouldn’t see this kind of comfortable collaboration between charismatic “prophets” and fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell Sr. In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, Falwell and other fundie preachers denounced such spiritual gifts and their claims of new and special revelation from God. Falwell et. al. argued that such claims were not merely unbiblical, but anti-biblical — an attack on and an affront to “the authority of the scriptures.” The revelation provided by the “literal” words of our inspired, infallible, inerrant Bibles (translated into English and interpreted exclusively by American men like them) were sufficient. That was the central message of these fundie preachers, and the purported “prophecies” of the self-proclaimed charismatic “prophets” challenged that, undermining the Bible’s monopoly on revelation and thus, in their view, undermining the Bible itself.
This anti-Pentecostal strain of fundamentalism can still be found in fundie preachers like mega-church pastor John MacArthur — guys whose quest for power is channeled mainly within their religious fiefdoms. But fundamentalist leaders who have abandoned separatism in exchange for a quest for political power and cultural influence have become more cautious these days about potentially offending the charismatic/Pentecostal white evangelicals they rely on as political allies.
This shift was gradual — a slow dance that began between Jerry Sr.’s fundamentalist Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s charismatic Christian Coalition. Falwell and Robertson never saw eye to eye on charismatic gifts or the sufficiency of biblical revelation, but they developed a warm friendship based on their shared devotion to what both saw as the most essential component of their faith: Republican politics. (Blest be-ee the tie-ie that biiinds …)
Still, though, you’d never have seen a fundamentalist from Jerry Sr.’s time promoting the “prophecy” and special revelation of a guy like Mark Taylor. The fact that Jerry Jr. has no hesitation about doing so suggests to me that he’s inherited all of his father’s partisan politics, but little of his father’s religious beliefs.
Back in June, when Liberty first began promoting its “major motion picture,” Fox News ran a story about it. The Fox hook was that persecuted Christians were being denied their God-given right to run political ads on Facebook — a spin provided and suggested by the film’s main money-man, right-wing Christian nationalist producer Rick Eldridge. “We think it’s going to help unite this world but that’s a message Facebook doesn’t want us to tell,” Eldridge told Fox.
Fox reporter Caleb Parke generally seems to agree that helping “unite this world” behind the divine right of Trump’s authoritarian leadership is not an inherently “political” or “controversial” proposition. But at least Parke does acknowledge that some of Mark Taylor’s other “prophecies” might seem that way:
One of the more controversial claims Taylor has made, that is not included in the movie, is that President Barack Obama will be charged with treason and that Trump will release cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease that the pharmaceutical industry has kept secret.
The word “controversial” is doing a great deal of work in that sentence. Whether or not the government and the pharmaceutical industry have been keeping secret cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease is, according to Fox News, a matter of some “controversy.”
What we have here is a variation of a very old urban legend/conspiracy theory. It was already an old trope back in 1951, when Ealing Studios made a delightful comedy romp based on the idea. The Man in the White Suit stars a young Alec Guinness as a quixotic scientist who stumbles across a formula for creating a brilliant white fabric that repels dirt, never tears, and never wears out. His invention puts him at odds with the textile industry, which fears it will put them all out of business. So poor Alec Guinness winds up on the run, chased by crooked capitalists and angry mill workers alike. Hilarity ensues.
You’ve surely encountered some version of this idea. The claim may be that “they” already have a light bulb or a battery that never dies out, but we can’t buy one because the invention has been suppressed by greedy industrialists whose fortune is based on planned obsolescence. Or perhaps “they” already have invented a car that gets a thousand miles to the gallon, or cold fusion in a jar, or perpetual motion. But they’re keeping it secret, suppressing it to protect their profits from selling us the inferior products they’ve allowed us to have instead.
It’s an odd idea, based in both a cynical critique of capitalism (the game is rigged by greedy rich people) and also in a credulous embrace of the most starry-eyed aspects of capitalist ideology (supply will always be created to meet demand, even if the thing demanded is impossible).
Mark Taylor’s version of this conspiratorial legend is more sinister than The Man in the White Suit. In his version, “they” have a cure for cancer and a cure for Alzheimer’s, but “they” refuse to share it with us common people. In Taylor’s “prophetic” visions, Donald Trump — God’s ordained champion of all that is good — will liberate these secret cures, the blind will see, the lame will walk, and good news will be preached to … um, white Christians.
I wish I could tell you that the prompt for this rambling post was something pleasant — that TMC was replaying old Alec Guinness comedies this month or something. But I’m afraid that’s not what spurred this discussion.
What prompted it, rather, was realizing that another self-appointed “prophet” from the Charisma/INC crowd was now joining Taylor in promoting this conspiracy theory: “Hank Kunneman: God Will Release Cures for Cancer and Alzheimer’s in Response to Synagogue Massacre.”
Kunneman is pastor of an Oklahoma City mega-church and a frequent guest on Christian nationalist television and radio programs. Like his many peers in the charismatic “prophecy” racket, Kunneman claims to receive direct messages from God — messages that cannot be questioned because they carry all the authority of God. And Kunneman says that God told him that God is starting to lose patience with “them” over their keeping all the cures for everything from the public:
“God says, ‘There has been a signing into law, those who have been afflicted but can find no cure, no help, that medical cures that are out there, that exist, but they’ve been stopped through bureaucracy, they’ve been stopped through politics, they’ve been stopped through legislation,'” [Kunneman] said. …
Kunneman prophesied that President Trump would “join hands” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring to the world “medical cures and scientific discoveries” that have been created in Israel.
“God says, ‘Watch as cancer shall be known as a thing of the past,’” Kunneman declared. “‘Alzheimer’s, diabetes shall be known as a thing of the past,’ says the Lord.”
Kunneman’s particular spin on this hoary urban legend is interesting. Part of the reason this conspiracy theory has proved so enduring is that it makes for a good story. It provides us with villains who have a logical, comprehensible motive: greed. That’s the crucial ingredient in any promising conspiracy theory: the alleged conspirators have to have a reason to conspire. What’s in it for them? Follow the money.*
That’s why the Eternal Battery/Lightbulb/White Suit story and its close relative the Secret Cure(s) are compelling. They offer an at least semi-plausible working theory as to why the conspirators are conspiring. It’s because textile industrialists would go bankrupt if Alec Guinness’ secret formula became public. Or it’s because cruel hospital administrators and pharmaceutical companies can make more money sucking patients dry with the painful, expensive, and largely ineffective treatments that are now all “they” offer the general public. (The latter conspiracy theory also offers some cut-rate therapeutic theodicy: The suffering of the natural world is “explained” by placing the blame on greedy, unnatural villains.)
In Kunneman’s variation, though, these greedy capitalist villains are replaced with bureaucrats and politicians and legislators. I understand why Kunneman prefers that set of villains, but I don’t understand how the story is supposed to work in that case. Why would bureaucrats and politicians cruelly hide away cures to such diseases? How could they do so? What’s in it for them?
Kunneman doesn’t offer an answer to that question because he doesn’t think he needs one. Neither does the large audience who hangs on every word of his “prophecy.” The villains in the stories they tell don’t have any motive other than just being villains. They’re just evil, OK? They like watching people suffer and die from cancer and Alzheimer’s just for kicks and giggles. You know, just like they enjoy killing sweet little innocent babies.
I realize this is kind of my hobbyhorse, but yet there it is. Even cancer and Alzheimer’s are now being blamed on the central figures of white American religion: Satanic baby-killers.
That’s more explicit in Taylor’s variation of this Trump-cures-cancer conspiracy theory, which he cribs entirely from the whole Pizzagate-turned-up-to-11 netherworld of “QAnon” and “The Storm.” (Taylor’s “visions from God” seem to come mostly when he’s reading some of the weirder outposts of Reddit.)
But it’s implicit there in Kunneman’s version of the legend, too. The story he’s telling requires a vast, powerful, wealthy, global conspiracy of “Them.”
And that always means one thing.
Kunneman seems to realize this and tries, desperately, to inoculate against it by involving Netanyahu as Trump’s co-champion, suggesting that these cures will come from Israel (waves “Hi” to Chaim Rosenzweig), and packaging the whole thing as God’s merciful response to the horrific slaughter in a Pittsburgh synagogue. But none of that changes the fact that his conspiracy theory requires the mechanations of a pure-evil cabal of wealthy, global string-pullers, and that this cabal will inevitably always wind up being identified as “The Jews.”
What happens when the willfully credulous Christian nationalists of Kunneman’s flock see their hopes for an imminent cure for all diseases fail to materialize? Who will they blame? Not Kunneman. And not Donald Trump.
Most of them probably won’t express this blame violently. But some will. And the others will stand by, offering thoughts and prayers for all the fine people on both sides.
Granted, two B-list “prophets” spreading the same conspiracy theory is not yet evidence of a trend — even though one of them has been endorsed by the largest white evangelical university in America. But this is worth noting and keeping an eye on, because — like all lies — it cannot lead us anywhere good, and it has the potential to be deeply, darkly serious.
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* This is why I’ve never understood the appeal of Flat Earth conspiracy theories. I can’t follow the money because there is no money. I can’t understand why any global conspiracy would bother conspiring such a thing because what’s in it for them? Nothing.
The same is true, of course, for the conspiracy theory that claims climate change is a “hoax.” Why would millions of people participate in such a massive, elaborate hoax? The really dim proponents of this conspiracy theory say it’s because of money and greed — a claim based on a wildly mistaken impression of how much adjunct faculty get paid. The more sophisticated version says it’s because all of those millions of scientists and researchers and polar bears and glaciers are secretly Communist and they’re just using climate change as a Trojan horse for the tyrannical global socialist OWG they seek to impose.
Setting aside the complication of being asked to believe in secretly Maoist glaciers, this claim just seems like shoddy storytelling. It’s barely concealed plagiarism from the McCarthyite Red Scare of the 1950s. We’ve all heard this one before, thanks, and it wasn’t that good the first time. If a conspiracy theorist is going to ask us for our time and attention, is it too much to ask that they put a bit more creativity, originality, and effort into the scheme? Craftsmanship, people. That’s all I ask.
Well … storytelling craftsmanship and also a refusal to join in spreading the kind of vicious anti-Semitic lies that always lead to murder. That’s all I ask.