Futures Found Wanting

In her recent book on confession and witchcraft in early modern France, French Studies scholar Virginia Krause argues that early modern demonology was a ‘science of the night’. The activities of the Devil, and of the witches who served him, occurred in the darkest hours, ‘when the shadows hide his shadow’ (2015, 49). Their influence was felt, but their crimes were hidden. For the period’s witch-hunting demonologists, ‘trying to understand witchcraft was like peering into the darkness of an impenetrable night’ (ibid. 55). To compensate for this visual obfuscation, several strategies were developed for gathering evidence of the witch’s occult acts. The ‘auricular regime’ of confession itself was the most prominent, creating a new epistemic framework within which testimony became seen as the guarantor of truth. Through this and other methods old and new, the demonologist came to believe he could at least perceive—if not necessarily pierce—the darkness that veiled demonological truths.

Krause’s work is distant in historical and geographical focus from David Robertson’s own, which explores the discursive function of the UFO in modern millennial conspiracist cultures. Both, however, share an attentiveness to the construction of socioreligious threats, and the epistemic strategies by which these constructions are realised. Figured as discursive objects, both the witch and the UFO exceeded (or were thought to exceed) the epistemic capacities of contemporary knowledge, necessitating the creation of new forms of knowing. Robertson explores such new forms both in terms of their epistemic strategies and their discursive function. Regarding the former, he analyses the role of epistemic capital (in millennial conspiracisms and as a concept more broadly) in creating counter-epistemic economies that seek to encapsulate and exceed normative epistemic frameworks, suturing traditional and scientific knowledge to alternative knowledges: experience, channelling, and the painstaking synthesis of data and connection. Regarding the latter, he identifies discourses of ‘prevention’ as a strategy of alleviating cognitive dissonance when prophecies fail. In these discourses, prophetic failures are coded not as the fault of the prophet or believers, but as the result of malevolent agencies blocking the advent of utopia. In doing so, it relocates blame from the self, and the community aligned with that self, and places it onto an Other, for which epistemic capital provides the means of discernment and delineation.

Such delineated qualities often mimic those of traditional, theological demons. Indeed, the idea that contemporary conspiracism’s malevolent forces might replicate features of Christian demonology is not itself a novel point. Robertson himself notes this, as have Michael Barkun (2013) and Christopher Partridge (2005). Millennial conspiracism thus comes to share much with more traditional Christian theodicies. Evil becomes its problem to solve. But while those theodicies might appeal to the unknowability of divine will or the demonically-induced fallenness of creation to explain the persistence of worldly evil, conspiracism (also) situates it in the machinations of shadowy networks of agents, more and less supernatural. It is here, more than anywhere else, that conspiracism truly meets demonology. It is simply not enough to name the source of evil or even to understand its nature. It must be located, codified, and catalogued. Its agents must be identified. Whether the means are the confessional regimes of the old scientia daemonis or the experiential, channelled, or synthesised strategies of millennial conspiracism, the conspiracy’s demonological truths—whether literal or metaphoric—must be unveiled.

As a discursive strategy of Othering, Robertson argues conspiracy is specific in that it constructs Others as both active malevolences and as originating from within society itself. The witch, often marginalised by class and gender, might seem an odd comparison here, but the crime of witchcraft was one of treason as much as heresy. Their messages encrypted in demonic languages and their actions concealed in deepest darkness, witches were discursively constructed as walking unseen among the good folk of Christendom, secretly turning society to demoniac ends. The witch was thus a part of Christendom, but its deviant part, the part that needed to be located and excised so that the Body might heal and world order could assume its proper path. For those who have spent time with conspiracist cultures, millennialist or otherwise, this image (albeit perhaps modernised, secularised, or overtly de-Christianised) will be a familiar one. Conspirators—whether human, alien, demonic, or some combination or hybridisation of the three—operate discursively to signal a world potentially being led astray. Their crimes are hidden, but their influence is felt.

Conspiracists, who often construct themselves as heretics and mavericks free of the constraints of socioreligious orthodoxy, would likely abhor any comparison to the witch-hunting demonologists of early modernity. Today’s hoarders of epistemic capital are rarely the rich or powerful. They work (or would like to think they work) at the societal margins, circulating in counter-economies of secrets and disregarded data. By contrast, the early modern demonologists were ultimately agents of regnant order. While they strove (at least theoretically) to maintain a world order constructed as under threat, millennial conspiracists strive to uncover those forces preventing its radical transformation. Both, however, depict a profound anxiety about the trajectory of their society and the desire to rectify it. They share that disorienting sense of crisis, exacerbated by events real and imagined, seen as driving many apocalyptic, millennialist and conspiracist narratives, and the identities of the communities that narrate and are narrated by them (O’Leary 1994). Their anxieties are formulated around perceived failures of historical progression. In millennial conspiracism and early modern demonology alike looms the threat of an unwilled and unwanted tomorrow. When prophecy fails, or the present simply becomes written as ‘the failure of the future’—to use Robyn Weigman’s formulation of apocalypse (2000, 807)—contingency measures become necessary, and the construction of malevolent counter-agencies can become a matter of cognitive and communal survival. Behind both conspiracism and demonology lies the ascription of agency to the shifts in a society, not just in the concatenation of disparate specificities—individuals, movements, organisations, events—but in gestalt. Society as a whole, and the future that society seemed to promise, is seen as failing to reach its fulfilment.

But the processes of societal transformation are often opaque. Thus the means for their detection requires the development of a new ‘science of the night,’ one which could piece the darkness veiling demonological truths. Robertson’s work lays bare many of the methods of this new scientia daemonis. Its means of accruing epistemic capital shares traits with both its historical forebears and its contemporary cousins. Such family resemblances point to another of Robertson’s observations: the lines drawn between ‘new’ religions and their older—more codified, more established, (ergo) more legitimate—kindred. When a Christian activist sits in prayer and the Holy Spirit reveals the demonic forces structuring the US Democratic Party—to use an example Sean McCloud reports on (2015, 32)—the line between traditional revelation and the channelled knowledge of a David Icke or Wilcock becomes at best nebulous. Both are inadmissible in the courts of dominant epistemic strategies, but they nonetheless draw on the same sources of knowledge and strategies of knowing to identify, codify, comprehend, and thereby either conquer or circumvent those worldly and otherworldly forces striving secretly in the service of futures found wanting.


  • Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Second Edition (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2013).
  • Virginia Krause, Demonology, Witchcraft, and Confession in Early Modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  • Sean McCloud, American Possessions: Battling Demons in the Contemporary United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Stephen D. O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, Volume 2: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture (London and New York: Continuum, 2005).
  • Robyn Weigman, ‘Feminism’s Apocalyptic Futures,’ New Literary History 31:4 (2000), 805–825.

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.


Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.


Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.



[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one.

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.