When Evangelical Trumpism Looks a Lot Like Mental Illness

It makes the absurdity of the movement much easier to forgive

Photo by Kyle Ryan on Unsplash

I was raised by an aunt clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia — a woman I owe my life to. After twenty years of being a hopeless bystander to the ravages of mental illness, words like “crazy,” “insane,” or “lunatic” that easily roll off the tongue in this baffling political climate ring a bit differently. They’re not just a passing mockery or a logical way to make sense of what’s defied logic for four years. Commentaries alluding to Trumpism as mental illness leave me…conflicted.

Political podcast host David Pakman described the viral video of Paula White’s prayer for Trump’s election victory as “indicative of severe, untreated, maybe even undiagnosed mental illness.” In a sermon following the election results, Kenneth Copeland directed his megachurch to — what’s described as maniacally — laugh at the media’s declaration of Biden’s win. Another video of pastor George Pearsons flipping a table to illustrate God flipping the election hints at an unhinged community.

On the one hand, it’s reckless. Equating Trumpsim to mental illness fuels the relentless stigma. On the other hand, I get it. Watching Evangelical Trumpism unfold post-election feels like time traveling back to my ten-year-old self. In some ways, I feel validated, like I won’t be alone in the trauma of having mental illness shape how I understood the world.

I said before I owe her my life. My aunt took me in when I was both unwanted and burdensome for my parents. She then gave me what I believed was a gift greater than a biological mother giving life: the gift of eternal life in Christianity. I clung to her approval. I did (and didn’t do) all things a good Christian girl should to make her proud. I trusted her, even when things got weird.

And there lies my dilemma. Religion, spirituality, and psychosis have a long-standing, dynamic relationship. They’re always flirting with each other, blurring the boundaries. I grew up believing my aunt’s psychotic episodes were just a manifestation of her faith. Strange cleansing rituals, voluntary homelessness, “preaching” outbursts in the subway were all part of God using her for great things. Her Muslim husband, hospital stays, doctors, and medicine were the devil trying to stop her.

I avidly defended her claim that she wasn’t sick and didn’t need medicine. It was easy to do when everything she did and believed was on par with the infamous televangelists on loop — the Jerry Falwells and Franklin Grahams and Pat Robertsons. They, too, declared the need to be used by God for his kingdom, engage in spiritual warfare (particularly against Islam), and sacrifice everything for God. Everything she believes is still on par with Evangelical Trumpism. So much so, she called homeland security to threaten Biden’s life.

So, yes. From my very isolated experience, Evangelical Trumpism looks a lot like mental illness. But, I found that to be a good thing. It makes the deception and manipulation of the movement easier to stomach. I already know the betrayal of defining myself by a toxic belief system. I already got knocked down by the wave of disillusionment. I already experienced the heartbreak of deception, resentment, and anger. I even know what it’s like not knowing where to place that anger, the Church, or a mentally ill caregiver because I could never quite settle on resenting someone that didn’t choose to be ill.

When I spoke to my sister two days post-election, I found that anger bubbling up again. She texted me that she was “in spiritual turmoil.” Our conversation that followed pointed to Trump as the culprit. He hijacked her once spiritual home, the place where her passionate love of God flourished and where she trusted the leader like a father. All of that withered away when sermons started with rally cries for Trump and regular prayer vigils and conferences for his re-election. The congregation clung to prophetic words from Evangelical influencers like Pat Robertson that declared a landslide victory for Trump.

In her story, I heard the same heartbreak I felt. Whereas mine was spurred on by mental illness, Trumpism was to thank for hers. She then asked the vital question:

“What happens when he loses?”

So here we are. Weeks since Joe Biden was announced 46th president-elect, days since the Electoral College made it official. Still no landslide victory insight. Still no apologies (except one via Instagram from Bethel pastor Kris Vallotton who later deleted the apology post).

Hearing all the things God would do but didn’t was a regular part of my childhood. But, the deception of millions of people in the name of God utterly pisses me off. For weeks following the election, I’ve been dying to take to my keyboard and call out these Evangelical prophets on their bullshit. I was ready to unleash my righteous indigenous. But since old habits die hard, I hesitated just in case God planned on proving me wrong, then striking me down for blasphemy or worse — “little faith.” (Because some believe it’s because of the Church's little faith that Trump lost.)

I’m glad I didn’t move forward with calling out God’s little flub (or lie) because I didn’t want to settle things in a place of resentment. Thankfully, a follow-up conversation with my sister put Evangelical Trumpism in a new light. She recounted how with her third pregnancy, she undoubtedly believed God was telling her, all signs were pointing to her having twins. Long story short, she didn’t have twins.

“Maybe it’s like that with these Trump supporters,” she said.

Her story wrang the bitterness out of me. When Evangelical Trumpism looks like mental illness, it’s easier for me to grasp reality as an experience. That’s the way writer Dan Pedersen poignantly describes it. For my aunt, God’s voices were very real to her, just like Pat Roberson and the countless pastors taking to Twitter to #stopthesteal. The reality is, who am I — who is anyone — to deny someone else's experience?

When Evangelical Trumpism looks like mental illness, it’s easier for me to grasp how anyone is susceptible to believe in something that seems out of touch with “reality.” I did for years with my aunt’s religious delusions. My sister did with her pregnancy. And it seems millions of people are with Trump. I can’t help but be a little empathetic.

When Evangelical Trumpism looks like mental illness, it’s easier to move past the heartbreak when one’s experience or reality subjects another to pain. I’ve had multiple conversations with my aunt to see if anywhere in her understood that her denial of her sickness left her three kids abandoned by their mother. It’s silly that I wanted an inkling of remorse from someone that believes there’s nothing wrong.

Evangelical Trumpism is no different. Will they ever recognize the pain they caused with their loyalty to a man who’s undermined the existence of so many marginalized groups? I doubt it, but when Evangelical Trumpism looks like mental illness, there’s no point in waiting to find out.

Learning to be human. Learning to love bigger.

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