I grew up in an off-grid Christian community. Here is what I know about American religious beliefs

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The only time I saw Brother Sam in person, he walked like a soldier as he preached, sweat streaming like tears from his temples and the Bible a heavy brick in his right hand.

It was 1978, I was five years old, and my family had traveled to Lubbock, Texas, for a Corps Convention, what we called the biannual gatherings of hundreds, sometimes thousands of members of the Corps, or Corps. of Christ, a vast network of charismatic communities created almost alone by Brother Sam.

My family lived on a Bodily Farm, a mostly off-grid outpost on the north shore of Lake Superior, where I grew up singing, clapping, screaming, and dancing in the aisles of the Tabernacle as shamelessly as King David. In our island community, practices led by the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues, visions, prophecies, laying on of hands and faith healing, altar calls, mass conversions, river baptisms and even deliverance from demons were as common as eating or sleeping or, for us children, playing with smooth stones in the icy stream at the edge of the woods. At the time, if you had asked me if the church scared me, I would have been confused by the question and would have said no. Looking back, I was scared all the time.

If this was a face-to-face conversation, you could stop me here, as many have. “So you grew up in a cult,” you might say, hoping to preface any further conversation with a caveat that my religious experience must have been particularly heartbreaking, an aberration of sane, mainstream American Christianity. After all, unlike The Body, most denominations and church networks do not require parishioners to sell their property and half of the tithe, if not all of their savings. Most pastors don’t push their congregations like Elder Sam did in the wilderness, and demand that they reduce their lives to the basics: simple clothes, ordinary food, no television, no vacations, no toys. . Perhaps more importantly, most people in 2021 don’t believe in a spiritual warfare reminiscent of the Dark Ages; they are not warned by their spiritual leaders that they are beset by demons and the devil every moment. If you are a Christian, you will probably want to put as much distance as possible between The Body and the church to which you belong. Otherwise you would need to be reassured that my experiences with religion are extraordinary – trick memories are made of.

But just a few years ago Franklin Graham, son of “America’s pastor,” Billy Graham, said that any criticism of former President Donald Trump was the work of demonic powers. The following year, one of the president’s closest evangelical counselors, Paula White, publicly ordered “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry.” Polls for the past few decades indicate that about half of all Americans continue to believe that the devil and demonic possession are real, and although some recent figures suggest that figure may be lower among Democrats, the percentage of Americans who believe in the Devil has increased from 55% in 1990 to 70% in 2007 – as of 2018, even Catholic exorcisms appear be on the rise. About half of all Americans believe that the Bible should influence American laws, and 68 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people. In other words, if you find yourself talking to an American Christian, chances are they were brought up with fear of making a mistake, choosing the wrong side, and believing that it might. have nightmarish results in this life and the next. . There is a good chance that fear is so deeply ingrained that it no longer registers as fear. Fear is simply the lens through which they see the world.

I had a friend in college who liked to call me Jonestown after hearing my story. But she had grown up in Kentucky like me after my family left community life, and the more I got to know her, the more I understood that her childhood preachers were virtually interchangeable with Brother Sam, that the only difference between her was church. and mine was devotion, the degree of commitment to doctrine. In my church we were asked to live our beliefs one step at a time, then another, then another, but it was the same beliefs my friend had. Long after my family had “left” The Body, whether we were holding a home church, attending body conventions, or attending regular services in Pentecostal, Baptist, and Methodist churches, I was 19 years old and I was in college before meeting a single person who challenged the doctrine. I was raised and have since had similar experiences in urban Virginia, rural New Hampshire, and suburban Indiana where I now live. To categorize American Christians into the imaginary phyla of sects and non-sects, dangerous, marginal and irregular churches and a secure and traditional religious majority is a terrible mistake and just as dangerous as extremism itself.

In fact, religious extremism has been, if not the then a national standard for the duration of my life. In my experience, it is enough to squeeze most Christians for a few minutes before encountering many “weird and sinister” beliefs that are said to be a marker of cults. This is why unlearning religious extremism in America is so difficult and often takes a lifetime – like, I imagine, trying to be sober in a brewery. If more than three-quarters of all American evangelicals believe that we are living in the end times described in the Bible, then it is not only likely but inevitable that some of these believers will take action and withdraw, along with their families, from materialistic corruption, Babylonian world. Likewise, if the Bible was written by the finger of God, as I was taught, then to question it – in fact, to question everything about the church and the leaders of the church, from the authenticity of the teachings of men like Brother Sam to the straightforward sincerity – leaning politicians are praised from the pulpit, could make a believer vulnerable to invisible “powers and principalities” which revolve above us like vultures, greedy for our destruction.

Samuel Drew Fife III was an ordinary man who wielded extraordinary power over his followers. His parents were blue collar workers from Florida and, like many WWII veterans, he returned home after an emotionally and spiritually ingrained battle, nourishing an existential void that must have made the task of building an ordinary life incredibly intimidating. Of course, only something as grand and incomprehensible as God could have matched the breadth of that void, propping up the shaken world in fervent black and white certainty. This was the experience of millions of people following the wars of the 20th century – it is the rock upon which Latter Rain and the charismatic churches that followed were built.

In 1957, at a Baptist seminary in New Orleans, Sam would learn to harness his own fear and present himself as a savior of souls in the spiritual battle he imagined raging around him, and demons were a part important of this education. In 1960, he submitted a doctoral thesis to Tulane University which described his personal anointing with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the “rain” of the late rain, and detailed his successful deliverance, according to him, from Jane Miller, a sick mother of six children, of her demons. Many mentally ill people, after hearing the tapes of Jane’s deliverance sessions, flocked to Elder Sam for healing. I grew up listening to these tapes and others like it, and finally, over a decade after Brother Sam died, when Jane Miller tried to deliver me from my own demons at a bodily convention in Chicago, I had the impression that he was present throughout the event. . After all, he had given birth to Jane, and she was delivering me.

In 1971, just as my father was returning from Vietnam, Billy Graham delivered a message to Dallas, Texas, titled “The Devil and the Demons,” and that same year Elder Sam began preaching about the end times that was already a staple of Billy. Crusades. The two men, and many, many other preachers like Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker, all technically outside the Corps, and Buddy Cobb, John Henson and Doug McClain, all inside the Bodies, saw the polluted, sick body, war-torn world as evidence that a Great Tribulation was fast approaching. All of them taught the very biblical concepts of demonology, loaded with duality, believer / non-believer, us / them. And almost all of them would fall out of favor, charged with many crimes ranging from fraud to solicitation to sexual misconduct to kidnapping, but trust me when I say these falls never mean an end but a beginning, a new wave. of pastors, rebranded, contemporaries, now fortified by social media, and just as eager to wield fear as a weapon in the endless crusade for power.

I might have grown up with the Jane Tapes, but millions of Americans have cut their teeth on similar messages from countless other pastors, mainstream and otherwise. Not all extreme forms of Christianity end with Kool-Aid cyanide in Guyana. The rapid growth and influence of QAnon is another potential outcome, proof that a legion of pastors have spent decades pushing faithful Americans into paranoia, conspiracy theories and ultimately the dismantling of a government that they claim. them, is on the wrong side. Yes between 15 and 20 percent of Americans believe the government is controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, and that an apocalyptic storm will soon sweep the evil elites and restore the “rightful rulers” to power, America’s pastors are why. The Body became The Move became the IMA, or International Ministerial Association: corporate, benign and dull as toast to the untrained eye, but still holding conventions in Lubbock and elsewhere, still raising a generation, at this time. even, to believe what I have believed for so long, to understand the world beyond the shelter of the church as hostile, malicious and frightening – a worldview that I still struggle with from time to time.

Even decades after my last bodily convention, when I started working as an emergency room nurse, whenever I was assigned a patient with hallucinations of demons or the devil, I had to exorcise myself from belief in them. . I often spent the hours of these shifts in a sort of prolonged adrenaline rush. I remember one patient in particular who attacked her husband with a chainsaw and saw demons in the corners of the locked hospital room where I was treating her. “Here it is!” she kept whispering, pointing behind me, her eyes registering a presence there, her expression dynamically changing from dazzling to terror and back to dazzling. I had to concentrate so as not to feel the presence too, slow down my breathing and tell myself, “She’s just sick, that’s all.” Just sick, like any other patient.

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