He's on a mission from God: Pennsylvania GOP candidate Doug Mastriano's war with the world
Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, pictured at a rally on May 14, 2022, is considered to extreme for some in the party. (Michael M. Santiago/AFP)

An animating element of politics in the age of Trump is that some people are increasingly living out religious metaphors. These metaphors are derived from contemporary understandings of the Old Testament by new elements within Christianity. This has been central to the campaign of Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who recently won the Republican nomination for governor of Pennsylvania. (He will face Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state's current attorney general, in November.) These metaphors are also integral to a movement of the post-insurrection religious and political right that is still in its formative stages.

This article first appeared on Salon.

As reporting by the New Yorker, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Word & Way and Paul Rosenberg at Salon has shown, there is something going on in Pennsylvania that is transforming politics in the state, and maybe on a larger scale as well.

Mastriano, a retired Army strategist and intelligence officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, appears to have a disturbing understanding of the relationship between metaphor and reality when it comes to biblical narratives. He suggested to an interviewer that today's Christians should emulate the warriors of Old Testament Israel.

RELATED: Trump's army of God: Doug Mastriano and the Christian nationalist attack on democracy

"God can intervene in history," he said, adding that such interventions are carried out by "a man or a woman," such as the biblical Queen Esther (who got authorization from the King of Persia for the Jews to kill all their enemies); and the prophet Gideon (who led 300 soldiers against a far greater force).

Mainstream media generally describe Mastriano as an "election denialist" and a "Christian nationalist." He unconvincingly denies the latter, but he and his supporters are also more complicated than the label usually suggests. He is well known for having spoken at the Jericho March in December 2020 that unsuccessfully called for the Electoral College to switch its votes to Donald Trump. He was also slated to speak at the "wild protest" on Jan. 6, 2021, organized by "Stop the Steal" activist Ali Alexander, along with the likes of Roger Stone, theocratic activist Lance Wallnau and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. And of course, promoting the Big Lie has been central to his politics since Trump's election defeat.

But there's more.

Some religious leaders who back Mastriano's campaign say they are in direct communication with God, see themselves as God's army, and see Mastriano as a general in their war for the world.

Mastriano's core support is a fusion of QAnon, the far-right Patriot movement and the revivalist New Apostolic Reformation -- which views him as a military and political leader in advancing the biblically prophesied end times. We see this in his role in the Jericho March during the run-up to Jan. 6, and more recently when he joined members of the "Shofar Army'' in a ceremony of "spiritual warfare" on the Gettysburg battlefield, and as the headliner at a conference, Patriots Arise.

May the metaphors be with you

The Jericho March was derived from the biblical story of the battle of Jericho, which took place during the journey of the Israelites, led by Joshua, to the Promised Land. God had instructed them to march seven times around the city blowing shofars. The walls of the city collapsed, and the army rushed in, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, and killing everyone in the city. The Ark of the Covenant, as fans of the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" film (among others) will recall, is a chest containing the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses.

Religious extremists who back Mastriano's campaign say they have direct messages from God, and see him as a general in God's army of conquest.

The story of the 2020 Jericho March purportedly began with God giving two different individuals the same vision, calling them to set up a march in Washington as well as in the capitals of the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in the days before the presidential electors were to cast their votes. (They were ultimately held in other states and Canada as well.)

Supposedly God wanted the marchers to oppose alleged corruption and restore election integrity — as well as Donald Trump's presidency. In Washington, crowds marched around the Capitol, the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court.

"God commanded this to happen like he did to Joshua," Apostle Abby Abildness explained on a religious talk show. "We believe God is gonna move'' and "that there will be that victory," she continued. There was "great hope" that Pennsylvania's electoral votes, which Joe Biden had won convincingly, would "go to the president." Of course, that did not happen.

In instances like this, believers see a difference between a foretelling of events,and a prophecy that reveals God's intentions. If an event doesn't turn out as expected, they believe, it is necessary to keep on trying, to ensure that somehow, someday, God's will will be done.

Her immanence

Apostle Abby Abildness is a quietly powerful national and international religious leader, as well as a legislative lobbyist at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. She says she meets with legislators at least once a week, praying and "bringing forth a religious freedom agenda." She also led Jericho marches in Harrisburg.

Her manner is more that of a soft-spoken college professor (which she used to be) than a political preacher. She is nevertheless an important leader in the contemporary religious movement called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), which is a dynamic theological and organizational revamping of much of pentecostal and charismatic Christianity. For decades, NAR has led the abandonment of traditional mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations in favor of prayer networks.

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These prayer networks are led by what is known as the "five-fold ministry" as mentioned in the biblical book of Ephesians: Apostle, prophet, teacher, pastor and evangelist. The networks comprise both physical churches and prayer groups of various sizes.

Abildness is a leader in several such networks, which aim to take control of what they call the "Seven Mountains" of society in order to achieve Christian dominion. These metaphorical mountains are religion, family, government, business, education, arts & entertainment and media. Abildness, whose mountain is government, is working with her allies to increase electoral engagement in apostolic networks, and to involve them in pushing for legislation. She heads the Pennsylvania Apostolic Prayer Network and plays leading roles in other important international networks, including the Oklahoma-based Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network headed by Apostle John Benefiel and the Texas-headquartered Reformation Prayer Network, led by Apostle Cindy Jacobs.

The NAR has generally abandoned written doctrines along with denominations, in favor of its own notions of Old Testament biblical law. Its movement is further informed by revelations from those understood to be apostles and prophets revealing what God wants. They believe God wants Doug Mastriano.

Dancing with the ones who brung him

Last year, Mastriano denied to Eliza Griswold of the New Yorker that he was a Christian nationalist. "Is this a term you fabricated?" he asked. "What does it mean and where have I indicated that I am a Christian Nationalist?" Of course Griswold did not invent the term, which has been used by scholars and journalists for decades.

Mastriano doth protest too much. He has sponsored several bills based on models found in the Christian nationalist legislative playbook formerly called "Project Blitz." These bills would have mandated teaching the Bible in public schools and made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. In the face of organized opposition and intensive media coverage by the New York Times, the Guardian and Salon, among others, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which published the Project Blitz legislative playbook, scrubbed all mention of Project Blitz from its website in 2019. But the affiliated Pennsylvania State Legislative Prayer Caucus remains. Its state director, then as now, is Abby Abildness.

RELATED: A grassroots Christian movement joins the fight against Christian nationalism

Mastriano has also denied that he works directly with NAR. He has however, had a close relationship with Abildness and the wider NAR. She has, for example, interviewed him on her podcast and worked with him in the legislature. She calls him "a military strategist" who leads a group of about 30 conservative state legislators (although he's only been in the legislature since 2019). She also introduced him at a regional NAR conference of several hundred people in October 2020, in Gettysburg, which is in Mastriano's senatorial district.

On the Fourth of July in 2019, Mastriano joined Apostle Abby Abildness on the Gettysburg battlefield, where they prayed to "preserve the monuments" from antifa. They were victims of an internet hoax.

There, Abildness told the story about walking the Gettysburg battlefield with Mastriano, his wife and a "prayer team" on the previous Fourth of July. The senator and the apostle went to "pray to preserve the monuments" from antifa, which she believed might be coming to destroy them. She had trepidations, she said, but explained, "When the people pray, God is with us. We're not to fear, we have God. We need to stand up. Speak out. And move forward in this battle. Amen!" (Hundreds of armed militia members, bikers and others who had also heard the rumors showed up to defend the monuments and prevent the burning of the American flag. It turned out the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by a troll on social media and then hyped by right-wing media.)

The conference's headline speaker, Apostle Chuck Pierce from Texas, was preceded by the sounding of the shofar by the Shofar Army, which then led the crowd in shouting, "Arise, oh God, and let your enemies be scattered!" This refrain is from Psalm 68, one of many Old Testament imprecatory prayers in which the faithful ask God to smite his enemies.

A new Joshua

Reported here for the first time are two videos featuring Mastriano before his run for governor. Filmed on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 18, 2020, just days after his prayers against antifa with Abildness, the videos reveal his involvement with a group called the Shofar Army. In the videos, Mastriano performs a ritual act of spiritual warfare — blowing shofars with the Shofar Army and Prophet Bill Yount of Blowing the Shofar Ministries. But as later became clear, they understood the warfare as physical, not just spiritual.

Some of these Christians wore a Jewish prayer shawl called a tikkit, and wielded the three-foot-long hollowed-out ram's horns called a shofar, which was used by ancient Israelite armies to sound battle commands and community alerts, and is used today in religious services for the Jewish High Holidays.

In one video, the leader, Earl Hixon, prays, "Thank you Father, we tread upon the enemy." Pointing to Mastriano, he continues, "Father God, I am looking to our new general here, that you have appointed, this Joshua. In Jesus' name!" Mastriano raises his outstretched arm in apparent acknowledgment. A year later, Warren Baker, a member of the group, sounded the shofar at the launch event for Mastriano's campaign for governor. (Former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump campaign attorney Jenna Ellis also attended the launch.)

In the second video, Hixon follows the Army's shofar blasts by declaring he wants to "mark this day in the history of eternity." He then leads the Army in shouts of the imprecation, "Arise, oh God, and let your enemies be scattered!"

Salon asked André Gagné, professor of theological studies at Concordia University in Montreal, and author of a study of Trump's evangelical followers, to help interpret the videos.

Hixon recognizes "the 'angelic hosts, the warring hosts that have gathered here on this journey,'" Gagné explained. "This is a reference to the assistance of angelic beings in the battle to be waged. Hixon thanks God for this 'Joshua,' pointing to Mastriano, believing that from this moment there will be new 'anointing' on him."

Joshua, of course, led the Jews to the Promised Land, fighting the Canaanites along the way, including the genocide at Jericho.

Gagné continued, "Hixon also says that Mastriano now has 'got new eyes, the new eyes of a seer' and connects it to the idea that "we're on the physical ground, yes, there's the grassroots, but there is a double-edged sword as well in Jesus' name."

This, Gagné says, refers to the "opening of Mastriano's 'spiritual eyes' and the presence of the 'angelic and warring hosts.'" It may also refer to the need to wage war on two fronts, both the physical and the spiritual.

"This entire ritual," says theology professor André Gagné, builds a bridge between the language of 'spiritual warfare' and possible physical violence."

"This entire ritual," Gagné continued, "potentially builds a bridge between the language of 'spiritual warfare' and the physical realm, where possible physical violence could eventually be enacted to push back against the forces of darkness and establish the Kingdom of God."

"Now, the blowing of trumpets," he concluded, "is found in different contexts in the biblical record, and the ritual means different things for Christians. But in this specific 'spiritual warfare' ceremony, the most likely meaning is associated with the expectation and possible eruption of physical warfare."

Rising and shining

Mastriano was the star of a two-day Patriots Arise conference at a hotel near the Gettysburg battlefield the following year, in April 2021. The small stage was festooned with flag bunting and "Mastriano for Governor" signs. The event announcement declared,

It is TIME (sic) for the Patriots to Arise for God & Country! Just as they did in the first American Revolution during 1776.

The conference opened with a sounding of the shofar by 10 members of the Shofar Army. The call, blown three times, was what leader Don Kretzer called "an alarm sound that has been around for almost 4,000 years."

"Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on holy mountain! The day of the Lord is here!" Kretzer declared. Paraphrasing (and embellishing) God speaking to Moses in the Old Testament book of Numbers, he continued:

When you go into a land against an enemy who appears to be stronger than you, that tries to oppress you; when I hear the sound of alarm, I will remember the covenant I've made with you, and I am coming to rescue you, America!

The Shofar Army and NAR leaders envision themselves as waging "spiritual warfare" against a host of enemies, whom they understand to be possessed or controlled by demons. So when they repeatedly ask God to smite his enemies in this way, some people, as Gagné suggests, may feel compelled to act out the metaphors in more literal fashion. (It's probably fair to wonder whether that informed what happened on Jan. 6.)

The conference hosts, "apostolic and prophetic" leaders Allen and Francine Fosdick, auctioned items as a fundraiser for Mastriano ("our dear brother in Christ warrior") but not for any of the other far-right Christian GOP primary candidates from Pennsylvania and Maryland who were also present.

He was clearly in his element.

Prophet Julia Green of Iowa preceded Mastriano at the podium. She said that Mastriano had heard about a prophecy God had given to her, and that was why he had invited her to appear at his events. She read the prophecy from her laptop while Mastriano waited to speak at a nearby banquet table:

Doug Mastriano, I have you here for such a time as this, saith the Lord. It is now time to move forward with the plan that you have been given. Yes, Doug, I am here for you and I have not forsaken you. The time has come for their great fall; for the great steal to be overturned. So keep your faith in me.

Green further prophesied that current Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, would be "removed by my hand" in the wake of a scandal, and that "Treason will be written on him for all eternity." The crowd cheered. Wolf's allegedly treasonous acts were not identified (and have not surfaced to this point). Mastriano said nothing.

The conference began with a dramatic QAnon video comparing conspiracy-theory adherents to American soldiers. It was followed by anti-vax, anti-mask and anti-tax speakers, as well as Bobby Summers, an advocate for the idea of "sovereign citizenship."

Making the demons tremble

The event was similar (albeit much smaller) in terms of theme, tone and content to the ReAwaken America tour, led by Michael Flynn. There have been 15 such conferences since April of last year, drawing thousands of people to each event.

These events are headlined by such figures as Roger Stone, Jenna Ellis and Eric Trump, along with anti-vax and anti-mask presentations and, of course, endless propaganda about alleged election fraud. There is also a strong revivalist Christian component, including opening the event with the blowing of shofars, and speeches by pastoral provocateurs such as noted book-burner Greg Locke.

At a ReAwaken event last year, Prophet Amanda Grace explained the meaning of blowing the shofar, saying it had driven some of God's greatest biblical victories:

When the shofar was blown the walls of Jericho fell. When the shofar was blown, Gideon and an army of 300 men defeated over 147,000 Midianities. It's an announcement to the enemy that his stronghold is about to fall. Demons tremble at the sound of the shofar.

She calls the shofar "a weapon of our warfare. And when we blow it, the power of God comes full force into that situation."

One aspect of the tour is the evident cross-fertilization of the factions of the religious and political right that is reshaping American conservative politics and public life, from the MAGA movement to Jan. 6 to the Mastriano campaign.

Controversial right-wing activist and publisher Floyd G. Brown explained a bit about how this works in his introduction of tour regular Pastor Dave Scarlett at an April 2022 ReAwaken event in Salem, Oregon. Many people who watch Scarlett's "His Glory" show are Christians, Brown said, "but many of them aren't."

"They are Patriots," he continued. "And I've heard him say many, many times, if you watch 'His Glory' and you're a Patriot, you often become a Christian. And if you watch 'His Glory' and you're a Christian, and if you don't know what's going on, you slowly become a Patriot."

Brown announced that "His Glory" would air on his new commercial streaming service, Liftable TV, which seeks to promote a "biblical worldview" and "truth-centric news." It's like a Reader's Digest of Christian-right streaming, rebroadcasting shows from the likes of anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, 7 Mountains Dominionist Lance Walnau and of course Dave Scarlett, who often hosts Julie Green as a guest.

Green's May 25, 2022, interview with Scarlett illuminates much about the Mastriano campaign and the wider movement. Green says that Mastriano campaign functions "are not a normal, everyday political event. … They are all focused on the Lord. They are powerful! They are anointed!" She calls Mastriano "a very powerful man of God."

Scarlett replies that he has talked with a "certain general" (without naming him) who said, about candidates he supports, "that these rallies in the 2024 cycle will start out with [evangelical Christian] praise music, then the candidate, who is a Patriot Christian, will come forward, give whatever their message is, then it will end with revival. It's going to end with altar calls."

Green replied that this was "already happening" at Mastriano's events.

Throughout Mastriano's rise, those around him have been open about their intentions. In a December 2020 broadcast of "The Damascus Road," host Earl Hixon explains their common purpose, to murmurs of agreement from his panelists: Abby Abildness, shofarists Don Kretzer and Bill Yount, and Pastor Brett McKoy, whose Maryland church hosts the broadcast.

Mastriano was supposed to be present, but was under COVID quarantine at the time. Hixon says that in light of that, they wanted the group to serve as Mastriano's "surrogate":

What we have here is the introduction of an army. This is what our King is endeavoring to do — especially on this battlefield we call the United States. This is what we are here for. ... We are all on the front lines. We are aware of what's happening in this country... that's why we're here, talking about the Mountains of Dominion.

A time to "break the bonds"

Those around Mastriano and his campaign — from Abildness to the Patriots Arise conferees, the Shofar Army and Prophet Julie Green — see themselves as entering a future where the temporal meets the supernatural.

When God is ready, they believe, the heavens will open and angelic forces allied with Christians of the right sort will battle the demonic forces of Satan to the end. This apocalyptic vision drives their support for Mastriano.

Those around Mastriano believe that when God is ready, angelic forces allied with Christians of the right sort will battle demonic forces to the end.

There is always some tension, in this domain of Christianity, between what people believe may be imminent and what may turn out to be a long way off. Regardless of the timing, they have no doubt about God's intentions, and about their commitment to carry them out.

Abildness made this clear in her keynote on the second day of Patriots Arise, when she revealed an experience she had on the Gettysburg battlefield. God had called her there, she said, because he was ready to answer a general's 150-year-old prayer. She and members of her apostolic network found themselves "in a portal where the general had prayed."

"We realized heaven is watching," she said, and that "we are joining heaven. We are joining the people of the ages in this prayer." The time was coming, she said, to "break the bonds" with "a government that is not leading the way they should."

"We realized that heaven is with us."

Mastriano himself declared, later that day, "We will win in November, and my God will make it so."