Reading Time: 9 minutes (Zoltan Tasi.) Come with me down a hidden path.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The notion of spiritual warfare isn’t new at all in fundagelicalism. In fact, it’s a go-to standby non-solution to everything that ails the Christians who buy into it. Well, I bet you had no idea that the gaining of a happy family life hinges completely on spiritual warfare! Today, let me show you magical thinking at its very worst.

(Zoltan Tasi.) Come with me down a hidden path.

How to Achieve a Happy Family, According to Russell Moore.

Russell Moore, a major Christian leader, gave a speech about family life last October.

He declared that of course living in a family is always difficult for everyone. Always. Without fail. And he decided that it’s difficult because his god created families to challenge Christians’ sense of control-lust.

The way Russell Moore explains it, the Christians in his audience fear any loss of control. For whatever it’s worth, they almost certainly do. Fundagelicals tend overwhelmingly to be authoritarians by nature. Control-lust derives from fear, after all. Sometimes, that fear turns into anxiety and a rigid authoritarian follower personality. At other times, the fearful person becomes an authoritarian leader, with a nearly predatory approach to gaining and guarding power.

When authoritarians only have themselves to deal with, that’s one thing–and it’s bad enough for those coming into contact with them. But when they create families, they surround themselves with other human beings with their own wills and drives. Very quickly, the family’s situation deteriorates into a multidirectional power grab.

Consequently, the family lives of fundagelicals are marked far more often by chaos, conflict, hostilities, and fear than by love, harmony, and happiness.

Instead of suggesting something that might really help, Russell Moore recommends spiritual warfare to fix people’s relationship woes.

The worst part of his blather? He’s far from the only Christian leader out there talking like this. 

“Most Fundamentally A Spiritual Warfare.”

spiritual warfare crop up as I read authoritarian Christian advice about family relationships.

Crosswalk informs us that literal demons attack “the institution of marriage.” Really, the whole post offers a smorgasbord of WTFery:

For the war against, as well as within, the institution of marriage is most fundamentally a spiritual warfare.

Another Christian leader refers to sex itself as spiritual warfareA whole book recently published teaches Christians how to conduct spiritual warfare to save their marriages. But it’s far from the only such book. Way back in 2012, Iris Delgado published one called Satan, You Can’t Have My Marriage.

Other blogs follow the same line of thinking, like this lady. She offers a prayer devotional to her readers titled Praying Through Spiritual Warfare For Your Marriage. The comments on her post break the heart. Another, Equip Your Marriage, offers a similar guide but in a more fighty-sounding way. The author of this other one needs to take a moment.

Coming out of Christian advice sources, we see one fact quickly. All of these Christians consider spiritual warfare to be of tantamount importance in relationships.

So What Is It?

Spiritual warfare is a right-wing Christianese term. It means praying, just in a rowdier and more ostentatious way. The Christians who like this idea fight with ghosts in their heads, imagining each round in detail.

This form of prayer often features such fundagelical hits as squinting extra-hard, messy-crying, knitting the brows together, glaring at the ceiling, shouting in mangled King James Version English, shaking fists and pounding on the floor, and loudly breaking out into baby-babble, all depending on the Christian’s beliefs.

This performance functions as a magic spell. The Christians envision the process as them literally wading onto a battlefield (in their minds), armed and armored like knights (in their minds), to do battle with the near-infinite forces of Satan (in their minds).

The goal of all this performance art is to work themselves into absolute, overwrought euphoria. If they can do that, then they think the spell succeeded. Of course, if they fail, then they ask churchmates to help them re-cast the spell later.

Christians can perform this spell as often as they please. When the troublesome situation resolves, either through luck or effort, then they declare victory. So yeah, it works exactly like prayer does–or rather, doesn’t.

Leviathan In His Bathtub.

A decade ago, a post on Fundies Say the Dumbest Things (FSTDT) almost broke the skept-o-sphere with collective mockery. It was an account from a Christian about a bout of spiritual warfare he’d undertaken. (Typos belong to him.)

Leviathon is a spirit I have battled as well. It was a hard battle but was won. It was about four months or more ago. My wife and I were in McDonalds and were having a conversation with an angel and Leviathon had come up. I told the angel that i wanted to fight this demon and he said I could. On the way back to the hotel I asked the angel if he could bring the demon to a predestinated place and he said yes. I figured that since Leviathon was from the depths of the sea he would be used to the cold water so I filled the tub up with scalding hot water and blessed the water. The angels (there were two now) brought Leviathon bound to the tub and fought with me. We all pulled our swords from our hips and began running this demon through with all my strength and everything I had. I would say it took atleast half an hour or more. We were all spent but the battle was won.

That’s probably about as good of a blow-by-blow as we’re likely to encounter.

Magical Thinking.

Of course, absolutely nothing about this process will bring about happier, more harmonious relationships of any kind. In fact, spiritual warfare epitomizes the concept of magical thinking. 

In magical thinking, a person performs a task that they think will help bring about some desired outcome. However, that task has absolutely nothing to do with that outcome. Many superstitious customs qualify as magical thinking–from throwing salt over one’s shoulder to not stepping on sidewalk cracks to crossing oneself after seeing something ominous.

And Christianity contains a lot of this kind of thinking, from the length to the breadth of its flavors. Myself, I even had a prayer I felt compelled to recite whenever I drove anywhere. If I failed to remember to do it, I had to pull over and recite the prayer. Thus soothed, I could continue on my way.

Sadly, none of these rituals actually accomplishes anything. Magical thinking disconnects cause and effect.

That said, getting this wrought up feels like a very active process. Even more than that, by doing it, Christians flatter themselves with delusions about their own power and importance.

Really, that’s what TRUE CHRISTIANS™ want, at the end of the day.

Piercing the Magic.

Of course, as a one-time Pentecostal, I learned about spiritual warfare. Often, I performed the rituals along with my churchmates. But I struggled mightily with a challenge to my faith when Biff started a campus club to cast this magic.

As it turns out, when spiritual warfare got disentangled from its church context, it really looked ridiculous to me. I didn’t deconvert on the spot, no. But I don’t remember working myself up like that ever again. It was another few inches of water drained from my faith pool, never to be replenished.

When I finally deconverted, Biff took that as a sign to engage in spiritual warfare for both my soul and our marriage. Here, too, I perceived how ridiculous this nonsense was. Biff didn’t pray on his own time, only in church. But suddenly, he began praying at home. And not just any praying. I got treated to the full-meal deal of SPEERCHUL WARFARE here. He wailed, screamed in tongues, the whole nine yards. UGH.

Afterward, he would emerge from our bedroom closet with a half-reproachful, half-hopeful glare at me. Had his god strong-armed me back into belief again? Had I suddenly been consumed with the desire to scoot back into the role Biff preferred for me? When the magic spell continually failed to work, he took that as a sign to cast it again, but more and harder. I took to leaving our home to ride my bike or go walking to avoid the second-hand humiliation I felt for him.

At the time, it blew my mind that my husband would rather do all that than work out our problems like adults. But in retrospect, I understand why he went that route.

(Artem Maltsev.) Communication? WHAT IS THIS FOUL SORCERY OF WHICH YOU SPEAK?!?

Another Day, Another Christian Huckster.

In recent months, we’ve looked at a number of Christians looking to make a side profit from their religion’s decline. We saw Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer dive into revitalization. And now Russell Moore’s out there slinging his own product.

Indeed, his speech was meant to support his new bookThe Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home. You might have noticed, as well, that several of the blogs I linked contain products pitched along similar lines. Offering spiritual-warfare advice to troubled spouses and parents has become quite the cottage industry in Christianity.

Spiritual warfare represents that most precious of all Christian ideas. Yes, I refer here to intense action directed to imaginary purposes.

It’s worse than a waste of time and energy, however. I mean, it is that–very much so. But it’s worse.

When these Christians finish their spiritual warfare, their situation remains exactly the same. However, now those Christians have emotionally exhausted themselves. Thus, they are that much less able to resolve their problems in real-world ways.

But I’m not sure they really want to do that, anyway. And just as I did with Biff, I understand why these hucksters offer this advice–and why Christians take it.

What the Spell Accomplishes.

In toxic Christianity, adherents strive to achieve goals. Their goals can be stated, or overt. Conversely, their goals can be unstated, or covert. Often, the methods Christians use to achieve their stated goals don’t make any sense at all. (For example: the entire anti-abortion crusade; apologetics as a field.) That’s because their methods actually seek to achieve an unstated goal that is more important than the stated one.

Spiritual warfare works like that. The goal in performing this spell varies, but usually looks like achieving some vast improvement in Christians’ relationships, or to end a seriously bad habit, or to move forward in life in some material way.

If achieving these goals were really the most important thing to the Christians involved, and they realized that the goals remained way out of reach, then they would change their methods. Indeed, I realized that the few happily-married Pentecostals I knew during my time as a Christian had either gotten stone-cold lucky in their marital partners (as precisely one couple had), or else had quietly rewritten our denomination’s rules for marriage.

This second group of couples had realized that the current rules–containing spiritual warfare and all–simply didn’t produce a happy marriage. So they changed whatever they needed to change to achieve that goal. A happy marriage mattered more to them than following the rules.

But a lot of other Christians cherish the rules more than they do having a happy family. That’s where spiritual warfare comes in.

Everybody Look Busy!

You’ll notice quickly, when reading resources about spiritual warfare, that nobody really describes exactly how to perform this magic. Sometimes a source offers up advice to read and study the Bible regularly and to pray, but nobody can differentiate it from just regular prayer and Bible study.

Indeed, a writer for Billy Graham’s site wrote several pages of text about “The Reality of Spiritual Warfare.” In it, not once did he outline a single real-world aspect of this idea. Similarly, Wikihow offers a how-to list on how to perform spiritual warfare. This list offers some visualization exercises. Other posts from Christian leaders fail in similar ways.

Not a single one of these Christians offers any tangible ways to know that spiritual warfare is occurring. After reading for days, you still won’t know when a bout of it ends, how to objectively tell who won or lost, or how even to tell that supernatural beings are present or absent for it.

In its way, this shortcoming works as a feature, not a bug. Toxic Christians constantly seek to escalate an existing, established practice or belief to stand out from their peers. Hey, out-hardcoring the flock confers some serious real-world benefits!

Since nothing whatsoever about spiritual warfare tethers to reality, it works well as a way to win those contests.

Deflating the Whole Idea.

So right-wing Christian leaders sure want their flocks to think that spiritual warfare is their first, last, and only line of defense in creating and maintaining happy marriages and families. (Of course, they talk the same way about protecting America from demons, natural disasters, and feminists. It’s very versatile magic.)

And yet I will now rudely deflate their entire ideology around this topic with one sentence:

Lots of non-Christians have happy, fulfilling, harmonious marriages and families without conducting a single second of spiritual warfare. 

Oops! Hey, wanna see me deflate it even more?

I’m pretty sure we can find actual fervent Christians who could say the same thing.

Ouch! Oh, you wanna see the killing blow?

The groups that preach spiritual warfare tend also to have the highest divorce rates in America, out of all religious groups, while atheists enjoy the lowest rates.

It sure seems like the more spiritual warfare someone does, the worse the outcome, while the less of it someone does, the better their chances of cultivating happy relationships.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: If I were getting married tomorrow and was wondering how to cultivate a long and happy relationship, I would be inclined to do the dead opposite of whatever right-wing Christian leaders suggested.

I guess that’s decent life advice in general though.

A Never-Ending Money Train.

But Christians are abysmally bad at examining their behavior to ensure they’re making progress toward their goals.

After they perform their magical spellcasting and their problem remains, they will only blame themselves. As with Christianity’s “good news,” the message of spiritual warfare remains perfect–sacrosanct–above and beyond questioning. Moreover, this messaging remains fairly consistent throughout that end of Christianity. Hucksters present these teachings as a surefire, absolutely certain way to achieve good relationships.

Thus, if a Christian performs the spell and doesn’t get the results desired, either that Christian cast it incorrectly, or else their god just doesn’t want to comply. And that means that the Christian asking for that result wanted something outside of their god’s will, which–again–gets blamed on the Christian. So they’ll return to that trough repeatedly without thinking about maybe trying something else. Their hope in that ANGLE, that certainty, matters more than the results themselves.

Really, there’s no way for Christians to lose with spiritual warfare. Sure, they might destroy their families and marriages doing it, but they’ll certainly preserve what’s really important to them.

NEXT UP: We look at a Christian marriage-advice book that pretty much hits all the tropes for WORST. EVERYTHING. EVER. See you soon!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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