Every day, for the two months following the 2020 presidential election, a Catholic priest in Madison, Wisconsin, held a traditional Latin mass, followed by a less traditional ritual: an exorcism to purge the evils of election fraud. Rev. John Zuhlsdorf—or Father Z, as he’s known on his popular blog—said his goal was to protect “against demonic influence in the vote certification process” and “to protect vote counters from the temptations from the devil to commit fraud.” His actions shocked many Catholic observers, but as strange as the story might sound, it’s unlikely to be the last case of a partisan exorcism.
For something as unusual as casting out demons, Zuhlsdorf’s performances aren’t flashy; they’re remarkably routine. In other exorcisms available online (he has removed the election-related ones), Zuhlsdorf recites a prayer casting out Satan and fallen angels, before sprinkling the area with holy water and blessing it with a Relic of the True Cross. Here’s a less controversial exorcism he did in April:
In the Catholic church, major exorcisms (the kind you see in movies) serve to expel a demon or demonic influences from a desperate and tormented individual. Zuhlsdorf expanded the concept, working with his own DIY interpretation of the rite. He cast himself as a bulwark against the forces of evil (or, as he has sometimes called them, “bad guys”). On his blog, he exhorted his fellow priests to join him in protecting “the emergence of the TRUTH about what happened on Election Day.” He continued (emphasis his):
Moreover, I prayer that, because Catholic Joe Biden surely knows what happened with voting, I ask his Guardian Angel to protect him from demonic influence and… for the sake of his immortal soul – also to concede the election for the sake of the TRUTH and the common good.
At 78 years old Biden is closing in on the end of his life and he will have to account for what he has done before the Just Judge. To have participated in such a horrible lie is surely a mortal sin. … For the sake of his immortal soul and for the good of the nation, please – all you angels and saints – intercede with God. Please – Holy Spirit of truth give prevenient grace and illumination and drive far away the attacks of Hell.
If journalists hadn’t taken note of Zuhlsdorf’s actions, he may have continued to perform these election exorcisms for weeks without complaint. After all, he had previously performed an exorcism aimed at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, and he hadn’t stirred up any scandal. But in mid-January, after the British publication the Tablet and the Jesuit magazine America reported on the exorcism, he ran into trouble for lying about having the bishop of Madison’s permission. (The bishop says he gave permission for the priest to do a COVID-related exorcism.) Zuhlsdorf then announced he was leaving Madison, complaining about the “atmosphere of ‘cancel culture’ now infecting the Church” and saying he was working on a plan to get his “mo jo” back.
Zuhlsdorf, a pugnacious and old-fashioned clergyman who converted from Lutheranism, identifies with the element of the Catholic church fascinated by old rituals. Zuhlsdorf was unattached to any local parish and instead leads a society dedicated to preparing and encouraging priests to say the Mass in Latin. In his remaining time, he promotes traditionalism in a popular blog, read by like-minded conservative Catholics, and has gained notoriety for suggesting, among other things, that it wasn’t sinful to wish for Pope Francis’ death. According to the Tablet, tens of millions of people have visited Zuhlsdorf’s blog over the years, making it one of the most highly read Christian blogs.
“He’s not some fly-by-night exorcist,” said Andrew Chesnut, the chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Nor is he alone; there have been at least two similar exorcisms in the last few months. In October, the archbishop in Portland performed an exorcism at a public park to purge the community of evil in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. On that same day, the archbishop in San Francisco performed an exorcism outside a church where protesters destroyed the statue of Father Junipero Serra. “It’s obviously part of a pattern,” Chesnut said. “We’re seeing increasingly highly public, political exorcisms on behalf of the political right in the U.S.”
Exorcism as a concept has never been fully apolitical, according to David Frankfurter, a religion professor at Boston University. In the Middle Ages, exorcisms were employed to send messages about the demonic nature of certain enemies or ideas. Even in more modern times, the process of identifying the source for demonic possession—watching gay porn, for example—could send a message about what was considered particularly sinful.
But in the past, the Church actively discouraged exorcisms, seeing them as an embarrassment in an era of science and reason. In the 1973 film The Exorcist, a priest tells an anxious mother that to grant an exorcism, “I’d have to get into a time machine and get back to the 16th century.” At that time, that skepticism would have been common.
Soon afterward, though, the Pentecostal movement began to bloom in the U.S. and abroad. The demand for exorcisms grew (possibly helped along by the movie). Unlike in the bureaucratic Catholic church, in which a Bishop has to approve an exorcism—and investigate if a person is simply suffering from mental illness—in Pentecostal Christianity, anyone can expel demons anytime they want. The Catholic church began losing adherents. Given the power of evangelical Protestantism, it was no longer an embarrassment to be associated with these supernatural elements. Some clergy put together official literature and training for exorcisms, and the Vatican eventually approved their programming. Pope Francis, who comes from a part of the world where more spiritual elements are more commonplace and who embraces “Big Tent” Catholicism, has welcomed this exorcism boom. “Catholics in ‘50s and ‘60s would have been mortified,” said Joseph Laycock, the author of the Penguin Book of Exorcisms.
While we don’t know how many exorcists there are, we do know that every diocese in the world is supposed to have one—and while that was an on-paper-only rule for a long time, the number of exorcists is growing. (The priest’s identity tends to be a secret.) Most exorcisms are done in Latin America and Africa, probably because those countries have the strongest competition from Pentecostalism, according to Chesnut. The trend fits with what experts described as a general global pull toward Pentecostalism: the increasingly popular Catholic charismatic movement—in the news recently because of discussions of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s religious beliefs—emerged as a Catholic version of pentecostalism, said Julie Byrne, the chair of Catholic Studies at Hofstra University. Laycock speculated that Zuhlsdorf may have gotten the idea for such broad exorcisms from practices like “prayer mapping” and ideas about “territorial spirits” in certain forms of evangelical Protestantism.
Experts predicted that as more political exorcisms occur, American bishops will be forced to address the issue—and they will be divided in their response. Exorcists with political motivations will likely become less visible in their work in an effort to amplify the message of their display. “Traditionally it’s not any of our business—it’s about the spiritual health of people who want exorcism,” Laycock said. “But now it’s the most public person in the world. Father Z wants everyone to know Biden is evil.
“One thing exorcism does is it’s a way to take something you don’t like and publicly, through ritual, mark it as something that is spiritually evil,” he added. “In periods of great political change, we tend to see things like exorcism and witch trials and demonological thinking used to explain anything. So I think, in the short run, we’ll see more of this.”