During the days immediately after the election, most of which I spent doomscrolling through social media on my phone in a kind of trance, my childhood best friend sent me a clip. Her caption was simple: “When people ask me why I don’t go to church anymore.” I gave the wry chuckle of someone who knows a joke before it’s told, and since my friend and I share a background steeped in religious fundamentalism, in a way, I did.
I clicked the link for a laugh, and there stood televangelist Kenneth Copeland with his unnaturally dark hair, his wizened, waxy face, and his fervent eyes. “The media says Joe Biden’s the president!” he exclaims before he begins laughing like a washed-up comedian who’s decided the best way to get a laugh is to cue the audience with one of his own, which is an apt description, all things considered.
The clip dripped with the viral potential it would go on to fulfill in the coming days. A prominent man melting down in such a publicly awkward way was apparently the laugh so many people needed after several nail-biting days of election returns. But as I saw the familiar face twisted with delusional laughter, a chill came over me. I recognized the manic glitter in his eyes, and I couldn’t laugh.
I grew up in a home tinged with religious mania, and my Christian fundamentalist home-school family ran exclusively in circles where this mania was not only tolerated but encouraged. We attended a church where people barked like dogs “in the spirit.” Others, allegedly compelled by the Holy Ghost, ran at breakneck speed around the sanctuary, and some members, filled with apparent “supernatural” joy, laughed like Kenneth Copeland.
Not all of our worship crossed the border of the bizarre. Mostly we raised our hands in supplication and swayed to the rise and fall of a carefully orchestrated emotional experience like most Protestant praise services. There is something about a group of people connecting with their spirituality in unison that causes an electric response. The kind of response that one Sunday led to our entire congregation lining up, and, at the touch of a remarkably dynamic worship leader, falling to the floor like dominoes ― slain, as we were, in the spirit.
It’s an emotional high ― this rush of belonging ― a sense that you’re part of something bigger than yourself that nudges you out of a plane because everybody else is doing it. And I recognize it in Trump’s supporters, who disavow credible news sites and march in the streets to 'stop the steal.'
In his early 20s, my father was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army. I asked him recently how he talked himself into jumping out of planes. “Were you excited about it? Like ... did you want to or something?” I asked, trying to square my ponderous dad who spends most of his evening curled up with a Louis L’Amour novel with the kind of adrenaline junkie typically associated with skydiving.
“No,” he answered, pausing to think. “I was pretty scared every single time.”
“So, then how did you get yourself to jump? Did they push you or force you?”
“Well, no. I guess ... it’s hard to explain,” he replied. “You’re just all in a line, one after another. The guy in front of you jumps and the guy behind you is waiting, and so you just ... jump.”
It’s the closest thing I’ve heard to describe the feeling of being “slain in the spirit.” It’s not that I really believed I’d been overcome by a supernatural force. In fact, I remember lying on the carpeted floor of the sanctuary and worrying that a prowling deacon would notice me chewing my gum, but despite knowing that it wasn’t really God that knocked me to the ground, it had still felt involuntary.
I recognize it now ― as an adult who’s been drunk and stoned a time or two ― that hazy, out-of-body feeling. It’s an emotional high ― this rush of belonging ― a sense that you’re part of something bigger than yourself that nudges you out of a plane because everybody else is doing it. And I recognize it in President Donald Trump’s supporters, who disavow credible news sites and march in the streets to “stop the steal.” There’s a euphoria that comes from being part of a mindless drama.
We took it home from church, of course. We didn’t laugh in the spirit on Sunday and then go about our weekdays in the mundane order of the unwashed masses. These extreme behaviors that our circle of friends termed “charismatic” came with a particular set of beliefs that informed every choice our family made. The world was literally always about to end, angels and demons were haunting all of us, and the nonbelievers we rarely came into contact with were either our mission field or our battlefield, depending on the focus of our daily devotional.
You might interpret my story to this point as the eccentric childhood of someone who grew up in the space between regular Christians and snake handling fanatics, and I suppose you’d be right, but to label something “eccentric” implies a level of harmlessness that I can’t apply to my childhood. Because just like Trump and his supporters working to undermine our democracy illustrate, deluded fanaticism is always harmful, and my family was no exception.
I’ll never forget the day my mom hid my siblings and me in the attic because she saw a flash in the woods behind our house and thought we were being raided by agents of the shadow government. We spent hours in that hot, stuffy attic, wondering if our mom was alive or dead, wondering if we were going to be dragged from our home and executed for our faith.
On another occasion, my mom, frustrated by my little brother’s behavioral issues she believed were the result of demonic possession, sought help from a family psychologist who attended our dog-barking, spirit-slaying church. After a few quiet sessions of therapy and prayer in our living room, my mom and the psychologist realized that the issue must be confronted head on, and they scheduled an exorcism. Together they stood above the angry, tear-stained face of my 8-year-old brother huddled on our floor and summoned the spirits from him, rebuking them by name, and asserting their divine authority.
This ritual went on for over an hour. My mom told my dad about it when he got home, recounting the events of the afternoon like it had been an exciting sporting event. She told him things the demon had said to them (through the mouth of the little boy, of course), the commands they had responded with, and the palpable shift in the atmosphere when the demon eventually surrendered and fled.
I remember inwardly calling BS ― my mom, as you may have gathered, has a penchant for melodrama, and having witnessed the event for myself, I knew what I had seen was something I didn’t have a name for yet, but as an adult, I call “abuse.” I remember wondering if my dad believed her, and I remember being afraid because it didn’t matter: Mom had jumped, the psychologist was right behind, and we were all going out the plane door with them.
Having grown up surrounded by True Believers, I know firsthand that the danger comes from the origin of their beliefs. Their worldviews are not shaped by facts or research, but by the good feeling they derive from their sense of belonging and the rush of being right, even if no one outside their group agrees ― perhaps especially if no one outside their group agrees.
The collective emotional high I recognize in Trump’s most ardent supporters is the kind of mass hysteria we typically associate with the Salem witch trials, and, as history shows us, it never ends well. It’s a cult mentality populated by True Believers. Having grown up surrounded by True Believers, I know firsthand that the danger comes from the origin of their beliefs. Their worldviews are not shaped by facts or research, but by the good feeling they derive from their sense of belonging and the rush of being right, even if no one outside their group agrees ― perhaps especially if no one outside their group agrees.
This contrarian groupthink is why I feel less amused than afraid when I see thousands marching in the streets of D.C. in support of the current administration or Donald Trump refuting irrefutable facts from the Oval Office, or Kenneth Copeland maniacally laughing in the face of the president’s defeat. Not all Trump voters are MAGA-hat-wearing Trump devotees, but all MAGA-hat-wearing devotees are members of a radical group that gets an emotional high from their own perceived subversion, and like any great high, this kind of fervor can lead to an aggressively protected addiction.
Growing up, I saw my parents’ beliefs as the ocean, and the people in our life outside of our church group ― our extended family, old friends and neighbors ― as the tether that was keeping us moored to dry land. The thing is, the closer they felt to the other boats that sailed on the sea of their beliefs, the more they resented that tether, and the closer they came to cutting it so they could float away entirely. They never quite did. A job opportunity and a move took us away from that group of friends, and over the years my parents’ fanaticism faded into a more mainstream brand of Baptist.
But I remember the power of being part of something based entirely on the emotional experience of a couple of hundred people determined in their delusions, and when I watched the video of a televangelist laughing in the face of an inconvenient reality, I noticed the audience. For the briefest of moments, they are bewildered by his jarring laugh, and then they take their cue. It’s the same thing I’ve seen in audiences at so many Trump rallies over the last five years, and I’m convinced ― and terrified ― it will not disappear even if Trump finally leaves, or is removed from, office. In both that church and at Trump’s rallies, the crowd’s forced laughter gradually shifts to something real, not levity ― something more incendiary than that, something like religious fervor. And that, I’m afraid, is not a laughing matter.
Olivia Christensen is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in outlets including Parents magazine and Business Insider. She lives outside Kansas City with her husband and three children, and when she isn’t using her keyboard to share her opinions, she’s probably hiking.