Love and Spiritual War: Prayer and Community in Modern America

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom D (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
David W. McConeghy, University of California, Santa Barbara
At the end of the 20th century Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians found new ways to combat the declension they saw in their communities. At the root of their efforts was an affirmative answer to the question of whether the divisions among Christian congregations could be bridged to instigate a cross-denominational spiritual revival. They marched and walked in cities and neighborhoods across America in events such as Prayerwalk Austin, LOVE L.A., and the Boston Prayer Summit. Some events emphasized a kind of radical spiritual guerrilla warfare, and participants saw themselves as prayer warriors fighting on the front lines of a cosmic battle against Satan for America’s soul. Others fought against potentially divisive theological remedies for America’s declension by emphasizing common spiritual ground such as God’s love for humanity and relied on inter-denominational teamwork and fellowship to ease theological and cultural divisions among congregations.

Love and spiritual war were thus two competing narratives for America’s future, but leaders from each camp hoped to marshal their supporters in major praise marches and prayer events around the United States. Spiritual competition for influence on the practices and rhetoric essential to America’s redemption highlights important questions about the role of episodic inter-denominational events in shaping religious understandings of modern America. Beyond engagement or distance with secular culture, we can ask why prayer, and particularly public prayer, became a key feature of late 20th century religious practice. What was it about these communities and their idea of revivalism that led believers to choose intercession over more direct action? Can prayer make communities? Turning our attention to the ways prayer was instrumental in the religious imagination of the future of American communities reveals not just the shape but also the popularity of the search for spiritual solutions to America’s cultural crises.

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