The following is a Q&A about Passing Orders.
In brief, what is Passing Orders about?
Passing Orders is an exploration of the politics of evangelical ‘spiritual warfare’ in the USA today. Spiritual warfare is, broadly speaking, the idea that Christians are called to battle demonic forces. They do this through both prayer and political activism, but also through developing elaborate and detailed demonologies that allow them to map the dark forces they see as assailing America. The book takes this demonology seriously, and shows how far from being a fringe part of contemporary religion it is integral to wider projects of American empire and Christian nationalist movements we see on the rise across Europe and the Americas. It traces how demonology underlies and reinforces systems of structural violence in America today—queerphobia, antiblackness, Islamophobia, settler colonialism—and argues that demonology acts as a strategy of legibility for the creation and classification of difference, sorting humanity into hierarchies of being and non-being to justify certain models of social, political and religious order—what in the book I call orthotaxies, models of ‘right order.’ At the same time, the book reads these demonologies against themselves, excavating how reading these constructions of demonized difference otherwise can give us resources for thinking alternative social orders, for new futures that might still be forged through strategies of subversion, solidarity, and survival.
What place does spiritual warfare have in American evangelicalism, and in the US landscape more broadly?
The modern history of American spiritual warfare originates with the growth of Pentecostalism and spread into evangelicalism more broadly during the charismatic and neo-charismatic revivals of the post-war and late Cold-War eras. The movement is global, however, and practitioners of spiritual warfare today form fluid, global non-denominational networks in which concepts flow through missionary networks and media ministries. The US often retains pride of place among these, however, as a seat of divine power, especially in works produced within America. This status is reflected in narratives of threat, where disparate religious and political movements come to be imagined as a united threat to the US nation and (therefore) to God’s divine plan. This is where we see spiritual warfare intersecting with wider Christian nationalist currents, as groups constructed as ‘anti-American’—Muslims, queer and trans people, socialists—are framed as agents of demonic power, and events like the Latin American refugee caravan in 2018 and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 come to be interpreted as demonically-inspired threats to the nation. Many of the ‘court evangelicals’ influential in the Trump presidency like Paula White and Robert Jeffress are practitioners of spiritual warfare, and ideas of spiritual warfare are especially prominent within viral pro-Trump conspiracy movements like QAnon. Events like the pro-Trump protests in Washington, DC on December 12, 2020, saw conservative evangelical and Catholic Christians come together to perform ‘Jericho Marches’—a form of prayer walk used by spiritual warriors to exorcise demonic influence from places—to overturn the presidential election. Then, the far-right insurrection on January 6 showed that these religious actions are not just abstract. They can feed into and help justify acts of political violence.
What initially drew you to this area of study?
It grew out of an initial research project into apocalypticism in the War on Terror. I found that while there was a lot of scholarship on apocalypticism and the US religious right generally, very little focused on demonology. Satan and the Antichrist were often present, but there was little sense of the plurality, the multiplicity of the demonic that I was finding in the primary sources. Critical work on demonology mostly focused on early modern European witchcraft or, as in Birgit Meyer’s work, the current religious landscape in postcolonial nations like Ghana, but even there ‘demons’ are often treated more amorphously or collectively. My sense was that there was something going on in American religion and politics that was being overlooked, but also that there were key differences between demonic figures and how they were being used. I rarely saw the spirit of Jezebel—one of the most ubiquitous demons in these texts—evoked to demonize Muslims, for example, despite widespread Islamophobia, while the spirit seen as behind ‘Islam’ was never called on to demonize feminists, queer or trans people. So I wanted to examine demonology with the seriousness I thought it needed, but also to unpack how different demonic figures were conjured to demonize different groups. At the same time, the project was the result of a lot of personal factors. Several members of my family were deeply into conspiracy culture while I was growing up. Coming to terms with that environment in early adulthood very much directed me towards more outré forms of religion and politics, especially around questions of and hostility to otherness—an otherness that, as a queer, non-binary person, often included me. Growing up queer in the UK under section 28 and when most queer-coded figures in media were villains, it might not be surprising that I was drawn to one of the most villainized figures—demons—and really unpack what they were being used to represent: not simply otherness or even evil but often a specifically queered other, a racialized other, a colonized other. An otherness the dominant order found singularly threatening.
How do you understand concepts like demonology and demonization and the relationship between them?
Demonology generally refers to the subset of Christian theology that deals with the reality and activity of demons. This more institutionalized, formal demonology has fallen out of fashion in mainstream Christian denominations and in a lot of secular scholarship the term is now often used to refer simply to ideas of violent othering, of unjustly marking certain groups as threats. This is often what people mean when they use ‘demonization.’ This framing tends to obscure how more formal demonologies remain vibrant parts of global Christianity today, especially the Pentecostal and charismatic variations in which ideas of spiritual warfare are often central. It also obscures how ‘demonization’ often carries with it an archive, a set of concepts inherited from more formal demonologies that it seeks to impose on those it targets. Many of these—willful deviance, ontological invalidity, denial of reproductive capacity—have been and remain central to material structures of systemic and direct violence, such as queerphobia and antiblackness. They also have a particular relation to ideas of sovereignty, which the book explores. So Passing Orders pushes past understandings of demons as just ‘evil spirits’ to think of them as enframed by a specific radically asymmetric relation to sovereign power, one which structurally deprives them of legitimate being, action, and futurity. Archetypally this sovereignty is God’s, but in the context of spiritual warfare today it is also America’s, the settler state’s, Empire’s, and thus the wider apparatuses of coloniality and racial capitalism. These wider debates about sovereignty, ontology, and futurity have been discussed at length in Queer Studies, Black Studies, and Indigenous Studies, but these discussions hadn’t been brought into dialogue with scholarship on ‘demonology proper’ in a concerted way. That dialogue is one of the things the book tries to foster, even if only as an initial step, an opening.
What were your main inspirations while writing and researching?
I draw my framing of demonology from Bruce Lincoln on the one hand and Marcella Althaus-Reid on the other. Lincoln helped me see how demonology was a discourse that worked to construct and categorize threats to an in-group, an ‘us’, while Althaus-Reid gave me a lens to approach the demon as a kind of subject-position, as something that was leveraging a critique at that ‘us’ and the normative systems of race, gender, and sexuality that sustained it. More widely, both Erin Runions’s The Babylon Complex and Sean McCloud’s American Possessions were influential in helping me theorize US demonologies today, as were Adam Kotsko’s The Prince ofthis World and Neoliberalism’s Demons for analyzing demonology’s more secularized legacies. So it draws closely on work from both religious studies and political theology. But the text’s backbone is indebted to queer, critical race, and decolonial theory. Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects stands out here as the book that first got me to connect my research into demonology to the discussions happening in cultural studies and critical theory. Works by Lee Edelman, Heike Schotten, Achille Mbembe, Katherine McKittrick, Jared Sexton, Walter Mignolo, and Audra Simpson were all critical in giving me the language and concepts to see how the ideas I was wrestling with regarding demonology were inextricable from the pervasive systems of power that structure our world today. It helped me see how the archive of demonology was core to the construction and enforcement of normative models of order, both overtly theological and more secularized ones.
What does the title of the book, Passing Orders, refer to?
The title speaks to several things. The most straightforward is the idea of sociopolitical orders as being in a state of passing, understood both in the sense of passing away and as a kind of masquerade of normativity—passing as both dying and dissimulation. And alongside these of passing as trespassing, transgression of the borders and boundaries of a given order. I found that this threefold sense of passing was core to contemporary demonologies, which often hinged on notions of deceptive mimicry and the illegitimate entry into and possession of space, but also in the belief these are transient states whose falsity will ultimately be exposed, rectified, and replaced by divine truth. This led me to think about how demonology intersects with constructions of “passing” in the context of race, sexuality, gender, immigration, etc. As part of the queer and trans communities I think about the politics of passing a lot, especially in how it can both reinforce various normative structures but also undermine their claims to possess some essential truth. The latter fits into how such marginalized subjects are often demonized as “counterfeit” versions of a normative identity. But the ability for marginalized subjects—queer, trans, and racialized subjects, for example—to “pass” as straight or cis or white, undermines the claims that straightness, cisness, or whiteness to have some unique and irreplicable essence that justifies their assumed primacy. It exposes their constructedness. This exposure is threatening. It creates a drive for security, for policing borders around a self or community whose normative supremacy is seen as under attack. We see this discursively in claims that there is always a ‘tell’ that exposes the passing subject—a sign pointing to a revelation of ‘real’ identity that condemns the subject while reinstating normativity in a way that often mirrors apocalyptic narratives. We also see it materially in attempts at creating and reinforcing legal and extra-legal regimes that seek to curtail autonomies of being and belonging, as in rising transphobia, xenophobia, and white nationalism—Christian or otherwise. This then gets at another meaning of the title, the sense in which political, moral, and juridical orders are passed down from on high in an attempt to protect a specific model of “right order”—an orthotaxy—from the realization of its own passing.
Given the subject matter, was the material hard to work with and what are the risks of this kind of work?
Critically analyzing far-right ideologies always comes with risk. At best, it’s psychologically and emotionally draining but it can easily get a lot worse. I’ve fortunately managed to avoid a lot of the darker consequences this work can bring—for now, at least—but the primary sources were always difficult to address, often in ways that you don’t see until you come up for air and realize you’ve been holding your breath. And as someone who in the texts I explore would often be classified as “with demons”—in the dual sense of both affliction and affiliation that I unpack in the book—a lot of the material weighed heavily. This is also where a lot of my secondary and especially theoretical literature acted as a nourishing counterweight to the primary sources. And that material also helped me derive a certain joy at reading those primary materials otherwise, more subversively—the frisson of excavating those disavowed possibilities that the notion of being “with demons” allowed: new concepts of selfhood and community, of reworked pasts and unknown futures, of resistance or refusal in the face of nigh-omnipotent systems of domination.
In closing, why do you think people should read the book?
The book cuts to the heart of the surge of white Christian nationalism we see in the US today, one that recent events have shown is not only not going away but is very likely to get worse, and shows the way it is rooted deeply within American political and religious life. It explores a potent but understudied part of this surge—demonology—and its ties to the key political struggles of our day, against white supremacy, settler colonialism, Islamophobia, queer- and trans-phobia, and anti-Black violence. But the book is also more than a study. It inhabits these struggles, and shows how reading the demonologies constructed around them otherwise can give us resources to push through the effects of power towards the possibility of something other. The book lives in this tension, between study and subversion, between exploring the imposition of power and unearthing the possibilities of resistance. If that sounds appealing—if you want a book that both shows the deep hold that Christian apocalyptic thought has on the US today while striving to carve out ground for other possible worlds—then I recommend you give Passing Orders a look.