Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Saturday at the Hilltop Conference: Lou Engle's Charisma

To read an introduction to the Hilltop Conference, click here. To read about Faytene Grasseschi and Benjamín Núñez's comments on abortion, click here. To read about George Otis Jr.'s talk, click here.

On Saturday, April 13th, I observed the Hilltop Conference at the Holiday Inn Rosslyn in Arlington, Virginia. Shortly after a second talk by Benjamín Núñez on faith in Mexico, prayer, and the dangers of "offense" in the church, I got some sushi and came back to the hotel. While waiting for the next workshop, I sipped water in the lounge area in front of the main hall. Amidst the voices of the other waiting attendees, I heard a familiar voice behind me. A gravelly, fatherly voice I'd heard in many videos before.

Lou Engle was chatting with another man about supernatural events in California and connecting with like-minded houses of prayer. A few moments later, he warmly greeted a group of women. I was immediately struck by how personable and approachable he was, exuding warmth and charisma when he spoke.

Part of me immediately felt enthusiastic, and I was tempted to walk up and speak to him. Just as quickly, I decided against it, suddenly confused as to why I felt sudden enthusiasm at his arrival. Maybe it was because I was seeing an infamous preacher in the flesh for the first time. Maybe it was because he exuded so much charisma.

As I reflected on this, the reasons for Engle's success as a preacher became clear. Infectious charisma and warmth can take a preacher far. If I felt enthusiasm in his presence -- someone who despises Engle's homophobia and anti-choice messages -- wouldn't a younger, more impressionable Christian feel it too? That kind of charisma can garner support for very disturbing movements to combat abortion rights and LGBTQ equality.

* * * * * * *

As the day went on, I took in a talk by Netz Gomez on the role of the expanding U.S. Hispanic community in the church. After dinner, I returned to the Holiday Inn to listen to the main event: an evening session with Lou Engle himself. His talk was scheduled for 7 p.m., so I arrived in the main hall at 7 p.m. sharp. As with other workshops, the session began with music and ecstatic worship, but I wasn't prepared for just how long this worship session would last.

7:15 PM: This place is jumpin', that's for sure. They'll probably have Lou Engle take the stage in a minute or two.

7:30 PM: Um . . . is he going to speak now?

7:45 PM: Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I want to get back home at a sane hour. I need to take the Metro back into Maryland and drive 90 minutes back home. He was supposed to speak at 7.


But as of 8 p.m., the room was still quaking from music and worship energy. Across the room, I could see Lou Engle rocking back and forth in ecstatic prayer. Everyone around me was jumping, swaying, or shimmying to the drone of worship music. And no one showed any signs of stopping.

I sat quietly, observing the scene. As my eyes panned over the crowd, I was startled to see a girl staring at me, impassively. She'd noticed that I was the only one not swept up in the collective ecstasy. For a moment, our eyes locked, and I thought to myself, She knows. She knows I'm not one of them.

I wish I could give a play-by-play account of Engle's message, but I didn't say. Eventually, impatience drove me to leave. I'd waited an hour for Engle to speak, only to sit through an hour of high-energy worship. Even if I didn't get to observe Engle's talk, I still came away with fresh insights. The New Apostolic Reformation attracts and retains followers through many means -- namely, the promise of a magical reality and causes to rally around -- but its true power lies in the charisma of its leaders and the emotions it stirs in its followers.


  1. Wow! More great reporting, Ahab. The girl could have spotted you as an outsider, she could have been a kindred spirit, or she could have guessed you were single and was plotting to make a move on you.--If fundie women are anything like Mormon women I'm amazed that you make it out of these events unscathed. :)

    1. Donna -- Fortunately, I have yet to be tackled and dragged away by lovelorn hordes during my infiltrations.


All comments are subject to moderation. Threatening, violent, or bigoted comments will not be published.