Our former president is, by all indications, selling access to secret documents he stole from the White House. Representative Lauren Boebert told Republican voters last week that “we are in the Last Days,” and they are “ushering in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green compared electric airplanes to “slave ships.” Senator Lindsay Graham called for a revolt if the former President is punished for his espionage. Florida Governor Ron De Santis just arranged the kidnapping of a group of immigrants in another state, shipping them a thousand miles away to Martha’s Vineyard in a publicity stunt.
You’ve probably asked yourself, “Who trusts these people?” Why do they defend these indefensible leaders? Surely they see the same things we do. Why don’t more of them break away?
More importantly, you’ve probably asked yourself where this madness stops. What would it take for Republicans to acknowledge reality and abandon these disastrous leaders?
No reckoning is coming. Republicans will turn on democracy itself, and on you, before they question their leaders. It is vitally important for the rest of America to understand why. Leaving a cult is harder than it looks.
It’s impossible to grapple with the madness of our politics without an appreciation of evangelical life, a subject very few Americans outside of conservative Christian denominations comprehend. White evangelical Christians form the overwhelming bulk of Trump’s support. He’s become a demigod for them, a living symbol of their values. Today, dissenting from the evangelical community’s political values means losing your religion, and losing your religion is more costly than you think.
I lost my religion. It wasn’t fun. The hardest part of losing your religion isn’t leaving. It’s surviving out in the world after your religion has left you. Most people would rather endure endless abuse, humiliation and moral whoredom rather than endure that lonely chill. Evangelicals won’t leave Trump behind unless a new God rises to take his place.
Why do people leave? Sometimes it happens suddenly, connected to a terrible life event like a divorce, death or sexual assault. More commonly, losing your religion is a steady erosion, punctuated by a few flashbulb moments.
Sunday morning, the day of rest, is absolute bedlam in an evangelical household. True believers don’t just waltz through the church doors happily in time for the 11 am service. Those who love Jesus have to pack in a practice session for the worship service. There’s Childrens’ Church and Sunday School. Planning with the prayer team. Sunday is gameday. Slide through those doors after ten and you’re a target for the outreach ministry.
Walking into my parents’ room one Sunday morning when I was 15, I found my mom watching Jim Bakker on TV, scrambling to get ready. I’d been sent to deliver some message from Dad, instead I found myself glued to the screen. Bakker was standing on the white carpet of his gaudy TV pedestal next to a pile of cash, plowing through it with a snow shovel while pleading for more. This seemed ridiculous on its face. It crystallized doubts that had been building in me for years.
I said that this guy was a crook and I was amazed people sent him money. The air froze. Mom was very upset. She sputtered that Bakker was doing God’s will in spite of all the people trying to destroy him. This surprised me. After all, look at him. “Mom, he’s building an amusement park. Why does Jesus need a rollercoaster?”
The heat of her reaction took me off guard. I got a speech about all the lives that could be reached for Jesus on the amusement park midway. There would be a Jerusalem Land or something that would teach people about Jesus or something. None of it made sense. She expressed her concern about my eternal soul. “I love you son, and I want you to be with us in Heaven.”
I was not some missionary project, staying out all night, listening to rock and roll or “smoking drugs.” I was an A student who had read the Bible from cover to cover multiple times. I had preached from our church pulpit in a Sunday service, services that regularly boasted nearly a thousand people. I was a righteous dork who everyone assumed was on his way to a long virgin career stretching into seminary and “the ministry.” I’d never gotten the “I worry for your soul speech” and never thought I would.
In our evangelical universe there were things you didn’t talk about, plain as day realities you were expected to ignore. Deep inside, I’m sure I already understood these rules, but it seemed that home should be safe. You should be able to state the obvious among the people who love you most. That morning was a revelation.
Shedding my faith began before that moment and continued for a long time after. It was a progression, stripping away the barnacles of a repressive culture while searching for an authentic self beneath. That morning something cracked. That morning I learned that loyalty to this cult was so powerful that even my mother would look on me with suspicion if I acknowledged what I was seeing. That day, not only did I realize that the people around me weren’t interested in reality, but that they would turn on me if I brought it into their world.
Across the years of evangelical childhood I’d had moments of doubt. Speaking in tongues always seemed like gibberish, even when I did it. Pro tip – use lots of b’s or g’s for your consonants, connected with short vowels. Go all free style and you could accidentally lay down a Holy Spirit Tourette’s moment of quasi-profanities, all kaka’s and pe pe’s. It has happened. God will not be mocked.
As I kid, I heard more about sex in church than anywhere else. Evangelicals absolutely love sex, the nastier the better. Church is where I first heard the words “cunnilingus” and “fellatio.” These people talked about sex constantly. There were “ministers” whose whole job it was to travel from church to church delivering very lurid sex education courses to pubescent Christian kids. Even at the time, I couldn’t avoid the impression that these people were just a little too interested in my dirty thoughts.
People said they heard God’s voice. I didn’t, though I felt compelled to say I did. When I realized what I was doing, it made me wonder if everyone else was faking it too.
Summer church camp was a charismatic carnival. Kids from evangelical churches all over Texas were shipped off to poorly supervised country camps where Jesus could move beyond the prying eyes of stodgy church deacons and nervous parents.
A lady showed up to camp once to explain the horrors of demonic possession through secret messages in rock music. She didn’t seem OK. She’d play Stairway to Heaven backward and tell us the satanic message it was hiding. I couldn’t hear the message among the eerie noise, but I pretended I did. Afterall, I didn’t want to let demons into my life, would you?
One of my peers in the youth group, let’s call him Billy, was paraplegic. Billy was irritable and bitter. Every time we went to church camp some young cultist, filled with the spirit, would gather a group of zombie-eyed Jesus teens to “lay hands” on Billy. Sometimes they had to talk him into it. To everyone’s surprise, Jesus never healed Billy. He must not have had enough faith.
Seeing these “healing” assaults carried out within the erotic frenzy of a Holy Ghost-filled camp meeting was one thing. Kids get carried away when they’ve drunk too deeply of the opiate of the masses. Young zombie-eyed prayer warriors wandered these camps with little supervision, performing spiritual feats from prophecy to exorcism without oversight. It all seemed to roll off our backs.
On occasion, these irresponsible healing displays would unfold in our home church. Seeing adults who should have known better, and a community that should have protected him, subject this child to such a pointless and demoralizing ritual was ugly. One such prayer service when I was 14 left me doubting the safety of that environment and appeared to have ended Billy’s spiritual journey with us. I’ll never forget the tears on Billy’s face. It was cruel. In our hearts we all knew it wouldn’t work. Someone should have stopped it.
Looking back, one of the organizing principles of an evangelical community is that everyone knows that none of this is real. Yes, these communities are magnets for people with genuine mental illness, people with a medical inability to tell fantasy from reality. By and large though, members of these churches are expressing “belief” in fantastic, unreal notions as a token of loyalty.
Maintaining the theater of belief takes work, which is why evangelical Christians are so maniacal about filtering what they see and hear. Sustaining a state of “belief” in a set of patently false assertions is a form of community meditation, a shared transcendent experience. Unless you’re suffering from a mental illness, you can’t maintain that balancing act without knowing you’re doing it. Some minimal recognition of the unreality of these beliefs is what keeps people from jumping off roofs to prove they can fly or passing up chemotherapy in favor of prayer.
They know what they’re doing. They aren’t stupid or crazy. The act of sustaining an irrational reality in an otherwise sane mind builds connection. Demonstrations of baseless belief define the evangelical community.
Everyone in our church had their story of “miraculous healing.” In the headline of those stories, people had been healed of everything from alcoholism to cancer. Below the lede, those stories were never examined.
No one was healed from something that could be verified. None of these “miracles” made the paper. Most healing stories involved the disappearance of a phantom pain, or a preliminary diagnosis that Jesus resolved before the CAT scan. We all knew these healings never extended to stuff like paraplegia.
Trying to heal Billy, making a spectacle of someone with a visible condition, threatens to crush everyone’s groove. What are we supposed to do when he doesn’t get up? He tried to get up once, it was bad. How do you know when to stop praying and send everyone back to their seats? Obviously, this put Billy in a very nasty spot. The assumption is that his faith, not any failure on the part of the healers, was responsible for this failure, an experience likely to scar him and his family for life.
In our hearts we all knew that Jesus only heals the illnesses in your head, or the illnesses of those friends of a friend of your cousin’s step-brother in Canada. We knew the church shouldn’t be tormenting that kid, not just because it was cruel, but because the spectacle threatened to shatter the delicate delusions critical to evangelical life.
I kept a lid on my unease until that Jim Bakker moment. When I realized that no place was safe, not even home, latent doubts bloomed.
At first, my questioning was about repairing my faith. I was told that the truth is paramount, the truth will set you free. So I went looking for the truth, a seemingly innocent pursuit. I had misunderstood “truth.” Truth was compliance, obedience, loyalty.
I had discussions about religion with friends at school. Christians from other traditions pointed out that Jesus had never actually claimed to be the son of God. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t include a resurrection story, an oversight so glaring that monks later tacked on several verses at the end to fix it. The Book of Matthew ends by acknowledging that several of Jesus’ closest followers never bought into the resurrection story (Matt 28:17). Luke and Matthew place Jesus’ birth at least a decade apart from each other, under completely different political regimes, in order to make different theological and political points.
People had been lying to me. The Bible was not some infallible work of history and facts, but an ancient and rather beautiful work crafted over centuries by innumerable authors to address things they cared about in the moment. The evidence was right in front of all of us all along. I’d been reading it but not seeing it, which was a lesson in itself.
The truth shall set you free, but first it will scare the shit out of you. As my religion crumbled I did not feel liberated. Exposure to these realities left me with feelings of fear and betrayal. The more I learned, the stronger the urge to make it all fit back together, to glue the shards of my faith in a way that no one could detect. The more I learned, the more isolated and threatened I felt. Hell loomed. More immediately, the threat of alienation hung over me.
Looking to the leaders in my church for help made things worse. Merely raising these questions about the Bible made me a suspect and a threat, a position utterly unfamiliar to me.
Ask a youth pastor why the Gospels differ in such obvious ways, why the Old Testament defines pi as 3, or why the Apostle Paul seems not to have known about the virgin birth. The fear in their eyes is unsettling. They had no answer for any of this beyond confident platitudes because in evangelical Christianity no one needs answers. Faith is enough. You’re just supposed to believe stuff. The more outlandish and unreasonable the belief, the more impressive the spiritual athlete. Questioning your beliefs is a sin. Asking questions transformed me from the golden boy touched by God, destined for the ministry, to a potential cancer in the body.
Every new question was a shadow demerit. Every evasive answer made doubts grow.
Again, as Jesus supposedly said, the truth shall set you free. It seemed like the smart thing to do was to go out “into the world” and learn what there was to learn. Truth is powerful. Truth is freedom. Truth will win out, so shouldn’t we invite our assumptions to be tested?
Instead of staying in our East Texas town, attending the non-threatening local school while living at home and learning some respectable trade, I wanted to go to college for real, like, in a dorm. With professors who had lived and studied somewhere else. In my teenage naivete, I thought this might be welcomed by my community.
My family had no money. I was graduating from a hard-luck high school with solid grades and a good SAT score. Mid-range regional private schools were offering serious money to have me. Real college was within reach.
When my pastor learned I wouldn’t be going to seminary or attending the local college, he stopped talking to me. When I decided to go college for real, my church community returned the favor and lost faith in me. They couldn’t have been more disappointed if I’d decided to become a porn star or a Democrat. My church community understood what I didn’t, that people who learned about the world outside almost never returned.
The truth will set you free. Good luck out there on your own.
No one tells you that the hardest part of losing your religion is that first season of freedom. You’re no longer struggling to get free because your community has written you off and moved on, but out in the big wide world you have nothing.
Beyond our East Texas evangelical bubble I discovered that I was an oddity. Innocuous, icebreaker topics like, “what’s the first concert you attended,” would have had me answering “Petra,” like some circus freak. Coming from a tough, majority-minority school into a college filled with rich white people ended up being a blessing.
I could pass off the unbridgeable gaps in my cultural background as class differences. It wasn’t wrong and was at least explainable. I looked poor. Anyone could see it by looking at my shoes or my car. My strangeness was chalked up to class, which was fine by me. I’d rather be the poor kid than the cult kid.
Surviving alienation meant building up as much money as possible as quickly as possible to avoid the inevitable gravity to drift back. No one wants to be the prodigal, but independence is expensive.
It was an ugly, bruising climb building enough resources to avoid returning to our little faith community, tail between my legs, after college. There were moments I thought it would fail. It was a close-run thing.
For years I longed for the comforts of a church community. With one notable exception, a remarkable, welcoming church in the Chicago suburbs, I generally found I was no more at home in a church than I was at a frat party. It was a lonely experience.
Still, I stuck with it. In retrospect the question is why? What propelled me relentlessly away from the cozy delusions of our evangelical community? It would be great to outline a formula for cult deprogramming based on my experience, but candidly, I don’t know why my experience was unique. Leaving home was certainly the largest factor. Almost none of my peers who remained in our hometown broke free of our faith. But what drove me to leave town while others stayed? Curiosity? Restlessness? Ambition? Stubbornness? Poor socialization? Who knows.
As difficult as this process may have been for me, imagine what that odyssey looks like for an LGBTQ person. Or picture the struggle faced by a young mother, seeking to establish a life for herself. Gaining freedom from her evangelical religion means leaving a husband, alienation from family, with limited education or employment options to fall back on. In that climate, obedience is survival.
Sometimes people believe what they have to believe to get by in life. When someone in an evangelical community spouts ideas that might undermine those core beliefs, others who share those doubts don’t rally to protect that person. More often than not, they swarm around to remind them of the cost of dissent. Preserving the power of a community that sustains you is far more important than some external notion of “truth” or “reality.” In that atmosphere it shouldn’t be surprising that evangelicals would fall in line behind a political figure who is the spitting image of their Antichrist.
To this day, everywhere I go I feel like a refugee from some unpleasantly exotic land. My upbringing in an evangelical cult marks me out as an alien, someone with formative experiences beyond relatability in the professional classes. Finding a degree of peace and success has meant learning what elements of myself to expose and which to keep hidden. Even in raising kids, you have to decide how much to tell them, how much of your past they should see. Maintaining some kind of “normal” life with an evangelical background means living in character. It can be exhausting.
What would it take to coax them away? Belief is the coin of the realm in evangelical communities. People who trained themselves to trust TV hucksters like Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson won’t be bothered by anything Donald Trump might do. Leaving the evangelical cult has invisible costs that people beyond its reach can never appreciate.
As exhausting as it seemed to maintain my belief in our manufactured evangelical reality, life after losing my religion may have been harder. People choose the comfortable path. Cult believers will fall on their swords before betraying their belief in their orange messiah, or they’ll run one through you. Whatever it takes to protect the faith.
Some will break loose and their courage should be appreciated, but the steep price of independent thought will keep white evangelicals in line. Leaving a cult is harder than you can imagine. Republicans won’t abandon Trump.