The Great Pokémon Freak-Out: Gotta Catch ‘Em All – And End Up In Hell!

Last night after dinner my 18-year-old son grabbed his smartphone and announced that he was going outside to capture Jigglypuff.

I rolled my eyes. “Pokémon Go, right?”

“Yep.”

As Paul went out the door I had to laugh internally because even though I really don’t understand how this new “augmented reality” app works (and don’t really care to), I remember something he does not: The great Religious Right Pokémon freak-out!

Come back with me now to the late 1990s. Bill Clinton was in the White House. “The Big Lebowski” and “American Beauty” were popular movies. The internet was in its infancy. Harry Potter books were flying off book store shelves. Cell phones were large. And Pokémon was a true phenomenon. The trading cards were just the start. Stores were inundated with plastic figures, plush toys, cartoon videos, etc.

Naturally, because children were enjoying this thing, Religious Right groups had to attack it. I never figured out exactly what the Religious Right found so objectionable about Pokémon (and, to be honest, I don’t think the groups did either). But when in doubt, just go with the all-purpose cry of “occult!” and you’re off to the races. After all, some of the Pokémon had horns. 'Nuff said.

This article from a fundamentalist Christian apologetics website lays out the argument pretty well. “Is Pokémon dangerous?” the author asks. “Potentially, yes it is. It conditions the child who plays the game into accepting occult and evolutionary principles.”

Yikes! The occult and evolution – it’s a twofer guaranteed to make the Religious Right’s version of Jesus cry!

Some fundamentalists went beyond just carping. In a memorable incident from August of 1999, a minister in the Religious Right Mecca of Colorado Springs took a blowtorch to some Pokémon cards and an action figure as a crowd of children looked on. (One of them was the pastor's own kid, who had to sit there and watch his toys go up in flames. We’re definitely talking “Father of the Year” material here.)

“It’s got sugar coating on it, but, underneath, it’s poison,” growled Pastor Mark Cowart of Grace Fellowship Church.

In May 2001, I profiled the American Family Association (AFA) for Church & State. The story contains this interesting nugget: The AFA at that time “heartily recommended” a group called Kjos Ministries. The ministry attacked Pokémon, for allegedly promoting witchcraft.

An emissary of Beelzebub floats over New York City (surprise!) during a 2015 parade.

Will history repeat itself as this new game’s popularity spreads? Perhaps – although some churches see Pokémon Go as an opportunity for evangelism. Apparently, some Pokémon are known to hang around church parking lots, and at least a few pastors are hoping that game players take a break from catching them all and wander inside.

But I miss the old days. I feel certain that someone somewhere in the world of fundamentalist Christianity will go off on a tear about how it’s all a satanic plot. (But then, what isn't, according to the Religious Right? Over the years, these groups have labeled rock music, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, feminism, Harry Potter books, fantasy novels, LGBT rights, fairy tales, public education, etc. as "satanic." It’s amazing that the entire country hasn’t gone over to Old Scratch yet.)

I have faith. Surely someone will come through on this. How about it, Bryan Fischer? Can't you save us from these demonic and weird Japanese things before what we catch is the destruction of our very nation?