Last Sunday I was the guest teacher for a Bible study group made up of individuals and couples in their 40s and early 50s. As we talked about a biblical response to racism, a common question emerged from class members: How can I talk to my parents (or siblings or aunts or uncles) who have been consumed by the ideology of Trumpism?
In the same week, we learned of a friend with a family member who has become so bedeviled with the conspiracy theories of QAnon that the entire family relationship is fracturing and a marriage may not survive.
In response to the Jan. 6 riot at the United States Capitol, we now hear news reports of children and spouses reporting their own loved ones to the FBI for involvement in that seditious activity.
As the official hold of Trumpism as a governing system comes to a close today, we are left to grapple with a movement that shows no signs of dissolving, that has left untold damage in its wake and has made it impossible for even centrist pastors to preach straight from the Bible without being criticized.
As others have ably noted in previous BNG columns, calls for national unity cannot be answered until there is admission of the severe damage that has been done. Yet how do we get there when tens of millions of Americans — including a huge number of Christians — believe Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud and believe QAnon’s insane claims that Trump is working to overthrow a “deep state” cabal involved in sex trafficking of children? How do we get there when tens of millions of Americans cannot see or admit that Trump may be the most pernicious liar ever to hold public office — and that such a heap of lies has serious moral and mortal consequences?
“We’ve got to confront Trumpism — not the classic conservativism of the former Republican Party — as a cult.”
The closest answer I can summon is to take a page from evangelical Christianity’s own playbook and hold it up as a mirror. We’ve got to confront Trumpism — not the classic conservativism of the former Republican Party — as a cult.
And let me add that there are degrees of concern for family members and friends. Some are reliable Republican voters who held their nose and voted for their party’s candidate, while others have fully embraced all the ideology of the man. It is the latter group I am saying has been drawn into a cult.
Yes, I’m aware that nobody who joins a cult likes to be told they’ve joined a cult. So I don’t recommend starting a conversation with that stark pronouncement. However, understanding the cult-like effects of Trumpism and its association with QAnon could inform those of us who seek to rescue loved ones from the rabbit hole they’ve fallen down.
“Especially after the events of Jan. 6, we cannot pretend the core values espoused by Donald Trump are Christian, ethical or democratic. We must call the big lie what it is.”
Let me pause here and note that writing the preceding sentence likely would get many pastors booted out by their congregational critics because it makes a harsh and uncomfortable claim. It is the denial or avoidance of this very truth that has allowed the moral bankruptcy of Trumpism to fester unimpeded and to infect more and more people. Especially after the events of Jan. 6, we cannot pretend the core values espoused by Donald Trump are Christian, ethical or democratic. We must call the big lie what it is.
As a teenager growing up in a Southern Baptist church and expressing a call to vocational ministry, I was the recipient somewhere along the way of a 440-page tome (published in what appears to be 8-point type) to educate me early on about the dangers of cults. The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin is a classic evangelical treatise on the dangers to Christianity of cultic movements and how to evangelize those who have been sucked into them. The book addresses Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Mormonism, Spiritism, Zen Buddhism, Unity School of Christianity, Herbert W. Armstrong and the World Church of God and other groups deemed cultic by the author.
One of the definitions Martin offers of a cult is “a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s interpretation of the Bible.” And then he explains that such interpretations of the Bible usually are not biblical at all but claim to be biblical by redefining terms to their liking.
Martin explains: “Unless terms are defined when one is either speaking or reading cult theology, the semantic jungle which the cults have created will envelop him, making difficult, if not impossible, a proper contrast between the teachings of the cults and those of orthodox Christianity.”
Certainly, we see this in full bloom with Trumpism — articulated by a man who knows little to nothing of the Bible — and his Christian apologists, who have ignored the warnings of the Hebrew prophets and the ethical demands of Jesus himself and remade the gospel in their preferred political image.
Martin says cultism “plays a type of hypnotic music upon a semantic harp of terminological deception.” Which brings us back to the question of those children and siblings and spouses today who desperately want to know how to bring their loved ones out of the spell of Trumpism and back to reality.
The first step, Martin says, is to insist upon defining terms.
“On encountering a cultist then, always remember that you are dealing with a person who is familiar with Christian terminology and who has carefully redefined it to fit the system of thought he or she now embraces,” he advises.
“Just because someone in a cultic movement can quote the Bible doesn’t mean they believe the Bible is saying the same thing you do.”
Just because someone in a cultic movement can quote the Bible doesn’t mean they believe the Bible is saying the same thing you do, he adds.
This reminds me of a friend who last week reported trying to have a conversation with a parent about the facts of the election and the attack on the Capitol, to which the parent replied: “You have your sources, and I have mine.” While refusing to divulge what those sources might be.
Says Martin, writing in 1965: “The major cult systems … answer the objections of Christian theologians with the meaningless phrase, ‘You interpret it your way, I’ll interpret it in mine.’”
Those drawn to cults “are experts at lifting texts out of their respective contexts, without proper concern for the laws of language, or the established principles of biblical interpretation,” he explains.
Martin also warns that cultists tend to be overly dogmatic and close-minded, create their own belief system, are antagonistic not just to opposing ideas but to anyone who espouses those opposing ideas, and seek to isolate themselves from anyone who challenges their beliefs.
There’s the problem. But what is the solution?
Martin — and others like him I’ve heard speak on the subject of cults through the years — highlights one suggestion above all others: Love.
“A discerning Christian who gives every indication of being unprejudiced, reasonably learned and possessed of a genuine love for the welfare of the cultist … can have a devastating effect upon the conditioning apparatus of any cult system,” he proposes.
In other words, as much as a cultist might try to withdraw from conversation or isolate with only like-minded people, the way back home requires an open line of communication.
There’s one other factor shaping our troubles today that was unknown to Martin in 1965: The internet. Study after study has documented the power of false “news” and outright deception online to radicalize people. Studies also have documented the corrosive effect of watching Fox News for hours on end.
It is no wonder that in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook, the amount of disinformation circulating on the internet dropped by 73%. We can see clearly that one man and a few of his super-spreading amplifiers have been responsible for a majority of the online political deceptions of recent years.
“Christians of good will need to speak the truth plainly and begin bandaging our badly damaged relationships at church and at home.”
Now, Christians of good will need to speak the truth plainly and begin bandaging our badly damaged relationships at church and at home not by silence or withdrawal but by defining our terms clearly and teaching the actual truth of the Bible boldly.
So what of those conversations with parents and siblings and coworkers who have fallen hook, line and sinker for the lie of Trumpism and QAnon? Five ideas:
- Acknowledge that there is no magic bullet and that this is hard work that will take time. No one leaves a cult quickly.
- Keep a line of communication open. Even though the temptation on both sides is to isolate, healing requires a line of communication. Cult leaders of all kinds want to cut off their prey from anyone who would tell them a different story. Don’t let that happen.
- Press (kindly) for common definitions. If, for example, someone says they are “following the Bible,” ask them for specifics.
- Keep the focus on the issue at hand. This is no longer about Hillary’s emails or the perceived slights of the Obama administration. Nor is it about the perceived threats of a new Biden administration. Keep the focus on the support of Trumpism and/or QAnon.
- Continue to demonstrate love and compassion for the friend or family member you are trying to bring back to reality. Appeal to their humanity while demonstrating your own compassion. As Martin wrote in 1965, such love “can have a devastating effect upon the conditioning apparatus of any cult system.”
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.