The events in our nation this week have disturbed me. On Wednesday, like countless others, I was shaken by watching a seditious riot take over the Capitol. I use the word “sedition” because the actions of those involved meet the legal definition of the word. Sedition may indeed be a more accurate term than insurrection, and it carries twice the penalties — fines and up to 20 years imprisonment.
One friend described being utterly unsurprised after the last four years — thinking she was fine on Wednesday, and then noted her elevated heart rate and legs shaking on Thursday. The impact of this week is taking its toll on many, and we are a fractured and divided people. That, however, does not mean that both “sides” are on equal footing morally, factually or theologically.
I have seen many ministers denounce the conspiracies surrounding false allegations of election fraud. I have watched as pastors decried this week’s violence and called to account those leaders, including Donald Trump and many members in Congress, who egged on the violence.
As pastors, including myself, attempted to speak with conviction and moral clarity at a time of crisis, what emerged was a pattern of far right-wing ideologues vehemently defending their debunked alternate realities.
What ensued in many cases, and in several dozen interactions I had personally, was what G. Alex Sinha of Quinnipiac University Law School terms political gaslighting. Political gaslighting is when leaders and their followers, for political gain, resort to “trafficking in dubious or outright false information about matters of public significance” even when they know, or should reasonably know, that the information is likely to be incorrect.”
Often when stating objective truths, such as:
- That there is zero proof of widespread election fraud that may have changed the outcome of the presidential election;
- That Donald Trump is a pathological liar and a demagogue;
- That white supremacy and Christian nationalism were on full display in Wednesday’s riots;
… the most passionate Trump followers resort to gaslighting, just like Trump.
What does political gaslighting look like? In the last two days, I have been called an extremist for standing by fact-based reporting and not entertaining conspiracy theories. I have been called closed-minded for not weighing alt-right propaganda as equal to actual news sources and documentary evidence. I have been told I’m an awful pastor for speaking out against this week’s violence because I’m “siding with liberals.” When stating objective facts, I’ve been told “You’re full of yourself.”
“I have been called an extremist for standing by fact-based reporting and not entertaining conspiracy theories.”
But basing my opinions in reality is not extreme by any stretch. And refusing to entertain outright lies and untruth is not being closed-minded. And decrying white and Christian nationalism and a cult of personality is not partisan. And calmly stating facts is not arrogance.
Gaslighting of any sort — whether in an abusive marriage or in public discourse — is about making the other doubt reality, and doubting that their perspective is objective and true.
In this moment, if you are a leader (especially a pastor speaking out), don’t let others gaslight you or get into your head. Some people have unfriended me. I have blocked others who have no intention of dialogue and only aim to troll. It’s all a cost worth paying for a clear conscience.
Silence is not an option for me. It is complicity and moral cowardice.
So friends, take some time to breathe in the middle of all this craziness, and if you’re speaking out, or preaching on Sunday, know you’re not alone.
I know many pastors who serve diverse congregations, and no doubt have people in their churches who have bought into propaganda from alt-right “news” outlets. Multiple pastor friends of mine struggle with how to engage members wrapped up in the QAnon conspiracy, which verges on a cult.
“This is how propaganda works, when politicians use the power and mechanisms in their grasp to shape false narratives in order to control hearts and minds.”
Others simply have been victim to the gaslighting of Trump himself and now believe their reality is whatever he tells them. This is how propaganda works, when politicians use the power and mechanisms in their grasp to shape false narratives in order to control hearts and minds.
When Republican caucus members who (with Trump) egged on the rioters spreading debunked election fraud myths (even Wednesday night) suddenly decry the violence they fomented and claim they are for civil discourse, they are gaslighting America and people in your congregation.
In some ways, staying sane (and pastoral) in this moment may require recognizing that the people trying to gaslight you personally have fallen victim to it themselves. So whatever outrage or wild conspiracy people express when you stand for truth and biblical morality, know that you’re not alone, and that you’re not going insane.
Jonathan Davis is cofounder of the Healthy Churches Institute and founder of the Small-Town Churches Network, helping rural churches thrive in the midst of 21st century change. He provides coaching for individuals and organizations around leadership and vision issues and helps organizations dream about what it means to flourish in the new cultural paradigm.