12/10/2007 03:42 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Casting Out Demons in Colorado Springs

Tragic shootings can happen anywhere -- a school, a mall, Phil Spector's house -- but when the site of the carnage is New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the response is likely to be somewhat different. When it comes to violent crime and other societal ills, many evangelical Christians are deep believers in root causes. Not so much poverty, homelessness or mental illness, but the real root causes: demons.

The founding pastor of the New Life megachurch, the now-disgraced Ted Haggard, was nothing if not media savvy. He once warned his followers not to talk about demons and supernatural battles when secular reporters came calling. But behind closed doors, Haggard was a major proponent of spiritual warfare, the battle "against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

That's from the book of Ephesians, but the Bible is ambiguous about what it actually means, and some modern evangelicals interpret it a way that many theologians say the Bible never intended. A full explanation of spiritual warfare, especially as understood by more sophisticated believers, requires more space than we have here (you'll find more in my forthcoming book, Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture), but the pop Christian version espoused by Haggard and his ilk is fairly straightforward: Demons, literal ones, minions of the equally literal living Satan, are everywhere, infecting cities and nations with sin and death. The job of the Christian believer (though to be fair, not the most important job, most evangelicals would say) is to cast out these demons by locating them, identifying them, and saying the right incantatory prayers to dispel them. If it sounds like the stuff of fantasy books, that's because it is. The modern understanding of spiritual warfare is largely derived from two hugely influential novels by Christian author Frank Peretti that have sold millions of copies since the mid-1980s.

The first step in spiritual warfare, the location of demons, is known as spiritual mapping. This step-by-step guide explains one version of the process, which involves combing neighborhoods for cults (such as Mormon temples and Unitarian churches), porn stores, establishments "owned and/or operated by the homosexual community," and "abortuaries." It's not clear if Haggard used exactly this tactic, but he quite famously relied on something like it when establishing New Life Church. As the Colorado Springs Gazette explained in 2004, "Haggard was instrumental in creating an evangelical-friendly environment in Colorado Springs, partly by using a technique called 'prayer walking.' [C. Peter] Wagner said Haggard and members of his ministry would walk through town in the early 1990s, praying as they went, establishing beachheads for a spiritual rejuvenation." (Wagner is the head of Global Harvest Ministries, a leading spiritual warfare outfit with close ties to New Life.)

So what does this have to do with the recent shootings? Though you probably won't hear any of New Life's members say it for the cameras -- they literally got the memo, remember -- it's almost certain that a fair number immediately concluded that the attacks were Satan's revenge against Colorado Springs' evangelical community for doing its job too well. As a pastor named Dutch Sheets told the Gazette, Colorado Springs -- "the evangelical Vatican" -- would be a hell of a prize, so to speak: "There is a great warfare for this city, and there's no doubt in my mind that Satanic forces would be doing everything possible to hinder (the work done here)."

After all, they already believe Satan tempted Haggard with meth and man-whores for the same reason.