The Trump Prophets Regroup
This spring, the media mogul Stephen E. Strang made an unusual apology to readers in the pages of his glossy magazine. Mr. Strang presides over a …
This spring, the media mogul Stephen E. Strang made an unusual apology to readers in the pages of his glossy magazine.
Mr. Strang presides over a multimillion-dollar Pentecostal publishing empire, Charisma Media, which includes a daily news site, podcasts, a mobile app and blockbuster books. At 70, he is a C.E.O., publisher and seasoned author in his own right. Despite all that, Mr. Strang worried something had gone awry.
“I’ve never been a prophet,” he wrote in a pleading March editor’s note. “But there were a number of prophets who were very certain that Trump would be elected.”
This had not come to pass. Mr. Strang continued, “I hope that you’ll give me the grace — and Charisma Media the grace — of missing this, in a manner of speaking.”
Over the past five years, he had hitched his professional fate to the Trump presidency, in a particularly cosmic way: promoting, almost daily, the claim that Trump’s rise to power was predestined by God. Interviewed in Mr. Strang’s various platforms, a rotating cast of religious leaders spoke with mystic authority on this subject.
Where secular pundits were blindsided by Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory, the prophets of Charisma had been right. And they predicted another sweeping victory for Mr. Trump in 2020. For Mr. Strang, the last year presented the following question:When you are in the business of prophecy, what do you do when prophecy fails?
Mr. Strang reflected on this question in a series of interviews last month.
He mused, “God has plans and purposes we don’t understand.”
This month, Mr. Strang will release his first post-election book, titled “God and Cancel Culture.” The text does not dwell long on questions of prophecy, failed or otherwise. Instead, it skips into the pandemic political zeitgeist, approvingly featuring vaccine skeptics like Stella Immanuel and megachurch pastors who defied lockdowns. The election conspiracist and pillow salesman Mike Lindell does the introduction.
Mr. Strang seems to have discovered that one way to handle being publicly wrong is to change the subject and to pray readers stick around.
Beyond the spiritual test of unrealized prophecies, there are very earthly stakes here: Under Mr. Strang’s stewardship, Charisma had grown from a church magazine to a multipronged institution with a slew of New York Times best sellers, millions of podcast downloads and a remaining foothold in print media, with a circulation of 75,000 for its top magazine. It is widely regarded as the flagship publication of the fast-growing Pentecostal world, which numbers over 10 million in the United States. With its mash-up of political and prophetic themes, Charisma had tapped a sizable market and electoral force. In 2019, one poll found that more than half of white Pentecostals believed Mr. Trump to be divinely anointed, with additional research pointing to the importance of so-called prophecy voters in the 2016 election.
In his new book, Mr. Strang mentions the former president only in passing, with far more attention going to topics such as the coming Antichrist and loathed government overlords seeking to stamp out religion wholesale.
Mr. Strang summed it up, “The fact is there are people who want to cancel Christianity.”
“Christians and other conservatives need to wake up and stand up,” Mr. Strang said in an interview. “It says that right on the cover of the book.”
The supernatural and mass media have long been fused in the story of Pentecostalism. In 1900s Los Angeles, Aimee Semple McPherson broadcast news-style reports of miracles and prophetic words over her own radio station in Echo Park. Oral Roberts conducted healing crusades through the TV screen. The duo Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker mastered the flashy style of prime time talk shows.
Mr. Strang’s journalism career began in Florida as a rookie reporter at The Sentinel Star, where he covered more mundane topics like police and town hall meetings. In 1975, Mr. Strang founded Charisma, then a small periodical put out by Calvary Assembly of God, a congregation in the Orlando area that he attended with his wife. Mr. Strang bought the magazine from the parent church in 1981 and dove into religious publishing.
In time, Charisma prospered. The editorial voice had the sunny boosterism of a hometown newspaper, covering the personalities of the Pentecostal world, an audience that Mr. Strang believed was woefully underserved. While competitors such as Christianity Today courted the buttoned-up elite of American evangelicalism, Charisma cornered a niche market of what are called charismatic Christians, set apart by their interest in gifts of the spirit, including things like healings, speaking in tongues and modern-day prophecy. Mr. Strang eschewed matters of stuffy dogma for eye-popping tales about the Holy Spirit moving through current events. Editorial meetings would focus on looking for what one former employee called “the spiritual heat” behind the headlines of the day.
“We didn’t want to become the kind of boring publications many ‘religious’ journals are,” Mr. Strang wrote in an early editor’s note. “That is why we went first class with this publication.”
In time, he surpassed competing publications. With a slick and dependable product, Mr. Strang unified diverse groups who might otherwise squabble over doctrine or not attend the same kinds of churches at all.
“Strang became the ultimate Pentecostal businessman,” said John Fea, a historian of evangelicalism at Messiah University. “At Charisma, he fused the marketplace, faith and entrepreneurship.”
Mr. Strang’s project stretched to include a book imprint, several spinoff magazines and educational materials for religious schools. By 2000, the company had expanded to a plush $7.5 million, 67,000-square foot headquarters outside Orlando. At the time, The Orlando Sentinel reported that the company employed about 200 people and expected revenue that year of $30 million.
Yet the internet upended the world of publishing. By 2015, when Mr. Trump began his quest for the White House, Charisma, like much of the media industry, was dealing with declines in print advertising, revenue and circulation.
Mr. Strang did not initially support Mr. Trump’s candidacy, but once the nomination had been clinched, a new theme rippled through the pages of Charisma: Mr. Trump was not just some ally of political convenience, he was anointed by God.
In the months to come, the pages and airwaves of Charisma featured a range of religious leaders and lay people telling of a Trump victory. Each claimed that God had revealed — in dreams, visions or ethereal signs — that Mr. Trump would take the presidency. There was, for example: Jeremiah Johnson, a youthful seer from Florida (“a relatively young man but has remarkably accurate prophetic gifts”); Kim Clement, a onetime heroin user from South Africa (“he reveals the heartbeat of God”);and Frank Amedia, a Jew-turned-evangelical preacher with a penchant for spiritual warfare (“known for his bold and accurate prophetic words”).
At this time, Charisma’s staff was producing 15 stories a day, many related to the election. (Typical headlines read: “Prophecy: God Sent Donald Trump to Wage War Against Destructive Spirits” or “Prophecy: Donald Trump Is Unstoppable Because the Lord Is Unstoppable.”)
“Running stories about politics got clicks. And stories about prophetic words also got clicks,” Taylor Berglund, a former editor at Charisma, said. “So you combine these two and you had the most popular articles on the site.”
Monthly readership of the Charisma website rose to somewhere between two and three million, Mr. Berglund said. “There was a real incentive to keep posting like that,” he said.
Leah Payne, a scholar of religion at Portland Seminary, said there has long been “a real appetite in the Pentecostal community” for the kinds of prophecies that took off at Charisma during those months, delivered by people “who believe that the Holy Spirit can and does give anyone special insight into the future.”
As the polls closed in November 2016, most mainstream news outlets scrambled to explain how projections for a big Hillary Clinton victory had been so off. But Mr. Strang felt vindicated.
“Those prophecies may have sounded ridiculous,” he wrote later, “but Trump was elected, just as the prophets had said.”
In the next months, the Trump administration brought a cohort of Pentecostal leaders closer to the halls of power than ever before. Mr. Strang’s longtime acquaintance Paula White, a televangelist from Florida, became a spiritual adviser to Mr. Trump. At one point, the president was pictured smiling and holding Mr. Strang’s 2017 book, “God and Donald Trump.”
Advocacy groups that monitor the religious right tracked Charisma’s influence with alarm, concerned about the combination of divisive politics with divine prophecy. Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at Right Wing Watch, called Mr. Strang’s work harmful “pro-Trump propagandizing” because it cast political battles as holy wars. “This extreme demonization of one’s political opponents is toxic to our political culture,” Mr. Montgomery said.
Mr. Strang’s boosters and critics often portray the company as a large and influential entity, and by most available metrics it does command a relatively large audience for a religious publisher. But Charisma’s staff appears to have shrunk since the early 2000s, when The Sentinel reported that the company employed 200. According to former staff members, in 2020 there were about 60 employees, with fewer than 10 in editorial. Charisma disputed those figures but declined to provide any information about its finances or number of employees.
And for all of his hagiographic overtures, Mr. Strang’s love for Mr. Trump appears to always have been lopsidedly unrequited. The two met only once, for a brief interview in Florida.
“I was never on the inside circle,” Mr. Strang said. “I went to the White House zero times.”
Still, he remained a dutiful fan. Mr. Strang wrote three more glowing books about the president, including “God, Donald Trump and the 2020 Election.” In one chapter, the book explored the possibility that Mr. Trump could lose, but it came down squarely on the side of a preordained victory.
And so, on Election Day 2020, Mr. Strang flew to Texas to appear on the livestream of one of his friends, the televangelist Kenneth Copeland.
As exit polls were trickling in, Mr. Strang donned a red MAGA hat and beamed at the camera. “I believe Trump is going to win,” he told viewers. “The prophets have been saying that.”
The next morning, Mr. Strang was surprised to find that, though ballots were still being tallied, a Biden victory seemed likely, and he would not accept the outcome for some time. He instructed his readers to ignore the mainstream media and fortify themselves in prayer.
“I was feeling we were in a fairly serious place,” Mr. Strang said. “The Christian community I serve was actually kind of depressed.”
Charisma did not recognize Mr. Biden as president-elect until after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and the congressional certification of Mr. Biden’s victory.
In the interim, Charisma gave a platform both to people who questioned the results and those who accepted that Mr. Biden was the president-elect. It also waded through a related challenge: the prickly question of what to do with all the failed divine predictions Charisma had published.
Mr. Strang interviewed repentant prophets, such as Mr. Johnson, who shut his ministry after Mr. Trump was not re-elected. Mr. Strang also highlighted prophets who refused to budge, and he parroted Mr. Trump’s howls on Twitter about a stolen election. (“I personally do believe the election was stolen,” Mr. Strang said.)
After the events of Jan. 6, Mr. Strang did condemn the violence in Washington in forthright language. At the same time he featured leaders who attended and heralded the gathering as a “prophetic breakthrough.”
When a Charisma contributor named Michael Brown organized an open letter calling for firmer standards on prophecies (“We really had egg on our faces,” Mr. Brown recalled in a phone interview), Mr. Strang endorsed and published the plea at Charisma. But Mr. Strang also said his overall editorial approach wouldn’t change much at all. “No,” he said. “We won’t back off from the prophets.”
His oft-repeated defense, in discussing the election fallout, is that he was simply doing his job, presenting alternate views.
“We quoted other people,” Mr. Strang said. “I’m not a preacher. I’m a journalist.”
Mr. Strang built Charisma from the ground up, he also likes to say, and will run it as he pleases. “I don’t have to answer to anybody. I don’t have a boss. I answer to God,” he said. “And I answer to Uncle Sam, you know, with the I.R.S.”
Yet with division still lingering in the prophecy crowd, Mr. Strang ultimately seems to have decided to sidestep the question of 2020 and what was stolen or divinely ordained and simply to move on to boogeymen the whole family can agree on: the new administration, virus health mandates, what he has cast as liberal cultural censorship of conservative views and, most broadly, society’s diabolical scheme against Christianity.
Mr. Strang’s new book was given a fitting debut at a megachurch rally in Michigan in late August, which was in part sponsored by Charisma and featured a lineup of conservative personalities who decried state health mandates over the course of the weekend.
Trump flags billowed outside next to QAnon merchandise, and top billing went to MAGA stalwarts like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Mr. Strang plugged his book onstage, speaking to an audience of several thousand, and sold copies in the foyer.
In an email exchange afterward, Mr. Strang ventured a cheery, if tentative, prediction of his own: He might have another hit.
“I signed books all afternoon,” he typed. “People tell me I’ve hit a chord.”