What Happens After Christian Prophets Admit They Were Wrong About Trump?

On YouTube, charismatic prophets are hurrying to reframe their failure for disillusioned followers

Image: Jeremiah Johnson Ministries/YouTube

After a year mangled by shattering uncertainty, political upheaval, and plague, it sure would be nice to have a safe bet, a window into the future, an omniscient someone pointing the way through.

Over the past year, psychics and tarot card readers saw a boom in business— so did a serious uptick in complaints of fraudulent psychics and spiritual advisors to AARP’s helpline. Astrologers’ grew their $2.2 billion industry, kicked off with a spike in Google searches for “coronavirus astrology” last March. There’s the malarkey of QAnon, set down by their prophet, Q. And among the charismatic Christian set, there’s been a flood of armchair prophets building a following on YouTube.

“YouTube is a huge new factor for these prophets,” notes Robert Schoone-Jongen, emeritus professor of history at Calvin University, in an interview over email. “Also the charismatic faction has been growing more in recent years, with its plethora of unsupervised ministers who are free to claim to the heart’s desire.”

With the YouTube prophecy phenomenon, just about anyone with a Bible and a decent podcast mic can spout messages they believe God or the Holy Spirit have ferried to them. Hundreds of thousands of people watch each video—and find links to self-published books and podcasts in the comments.

There are a few ways to interpret this phenomenon. Surely, legions being stuck in lockdown looking for answers grew online flocks. For some, the uptick in prophecy is the work of the Holy Spirit. There’s also an overturning of old hierarchies. Charismatic traditions include women and people of color, although, as Ruth Graham noted for the New York Times, “the most successful politically oriented prophets of the Trump era were white and appealed to an audience that resembled Mr. Trump’s base.”

And oh, the prophecies they had. Pat Robertson predicted a Donald Trump reelection that would spark war, assassination attempts, and ultimately, the “End Times.” A video featuring Paula White’s rhythmic speaking in tongues called upon African and South American angels to assure Trump’s victory and went viral (especially after its mashup version with “evangelist cat.”)

But after the election was called for President Joe Biden, there was a scramble.

Kris Vallotton, co-founder of the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, prophesied Trump’s win, then posted an apology for his wrong prophesy on November 7, then removed the apology after blowback, and then reposted it January 8.

The mixed prophetic messages have left believers trying to suss out the difference between wrong prophecy and false prophets. In the Bible, prophets often, but not always, challenge power; they are often mocked and mistreated. False prophets make all the shows of piety but are said to lead others away from God, sometimes through faking divine inspiration. In Jewish and Christian scripture, prophecies don’t always come to pass—depending on what you believe, many are very much still TBD. Prophecies traditionally can be understood as deferred or delayed, which is a point brought up by some self-described prophets who insisted well into January that a miraculous turnaround was coming. Trump could still win!

If you read the comments below social media posts by prophets who have reckoned with and apologized for their incorrect predictions, many of their followers won’t accept the backpedal. The followers assure them they didn’t get it wrong. Be patient. Trump’s win will come to pass in God’s time.

The day after the violent insurrection at the Capitol — where “Jesus Saves” banners intermingled with Confederate flags, a gallows, and treasonous death threats — YouTube prophet Jeremiah Johnson issued a statement concerning his prophecy that Trump would win reelection: “I was wrong, I am deeply sorry, and I ask for your forgiveness.”

He went further, stating, “I specifically want to apologize to any believer in whom I have now caused potential doubt concerning the voice of God and His ability to speak to His people. As a human being, I missed what God was saying; however, rest assured, God Himself is NOT a liar and His written Word should always be the foundation and source of our lives as Christians.”

Within 72 hours, Johnson posted again, saying he had received multiple death threats, thousands of emails from “Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things.” For admitting he was wrong, Johnson was called a “coward, sellout, a traitor to the Holy Spirit, and cussed out at least 500 times.”

This week, Johnson launched a series on YouTube, called “I Was Wrong.” He begins with a lineage of his past prophecies that had come to pass. He nailed the Dodgers World Series win, he explains, with a prophetic series of dreams that also indicated Amy Coney Barrett would take her Supreme Court seat — and that Trump would win the election.

The result of all this has left believers trying to suss out the difference between wrong prophecy and false prophets.

As political scientist Ryan Burge notes, citing data drawn from American National Election Studies and the Cooperative Election Study, the more frequently white evangelicals attended church, the greater their support of Trump. For many, layered atop those other regular influences, the prophecies justified and cemented their political-religious beliefs.

The social changes of the past 10 years are a factor driving the recent fervor for prophecy, explains historian Robert Schoone-Jongen. Gay marriage and growing immigrant communities in large and small towns are changes “unsettling to communities that like to think of themselves as the ‘real America.’” The displacement of Middle America as the cultural heartland it once believed itself to be is one source of angst, along with declining political power. This “fosters a sense of a lost influential past and an uncertain future.” Schoone-Jongen adds, “These kinds of circumstances have historically led people to look for an intervention, often a divinely generated one.”

Certainly, those who clung to Trump victory prophecies had a diet of ingredients taken in variable amounts: pro-Trump pastors, the assurances of online prophets, and often, a theology steeped in Christian nationalism. The political was made into a sign of faith, backed up with words from God broadcast on YouTube.

Except Trump lost. The prophets were wrong. Reality has been discombobulated for many now forced to recast all those words of assurance, that their personal political views correspond with God’s will unfolding before them.

Johnson tried to recast his prophecies in the first episode of his I Was Wrong series. He’d had warning dreams about Trump’s potential character flaws, he told his audience. He seemed to be the only one having those warning dreams, and he remembers being “met with the anger and frustration of the Body of Christ.” After about half an hour of asserting his credibility by citing his various other messages from God, Johnson returned to the Trump prophecies that were proved false.

“God wants the charismatic movement to be humbled.” Indeed.

He explained he got caught up in the moment, the news cycle. His dreams had been warnings about what would happen if Trump ran for a second term. He should have heeded the warning, prayed privately. He said he’s sorry for the people he disillusioned. It’s not the fault of believers who didn’t pray enough. He cannot excuse his wrong claims by saying the election was a fraud, like others in the prophetic movement who have kept going on, acting like their prophecy was correct “when in fact, it clearly isn’t,” he said.

There is something oddly healing in seeing Johnson, despite his defensive stance at the start, grappling with the implications of not just missing what he thought God was telling him, but missing failings within himself. As Americans absorbed new, traumatizing video of the insurrection as evidence in the impeachment, and Trump’s legal team presented its weak defense leading ultimately to acquittal, a person admitting culpability is a sharp contrast.

Holy spirit or conscience, with heat rising in his cheeks, Johnson looked like a man coming to grips with what he’s done. He tells his audience he’ll see them next week. Under the video is a donation link for his ministry.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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