In yesterday's post, we described some of the more...ah...unusual and disturbing public statements by John McCain's supporter and advisor John "Turn Iran Into A Glass Parking Lot For Jesus" Hagee.
Today's post is a little different. Instead of focusing on Hagee directly, we're going to focus on the sorts of stuff that are not in the public eye--namely, that Hagee runs a weekend "Jesus Camp" for grownups that was successfully infiltrated--and escaped from--by Matt Taibbi, reporter for Rolling Stone.
What Taibbi reports on is illuminating--and horrifying, if old news to us survivors. I also will give commentary on just how these tactics are used as a form of thought reform. Hopefully it gives you a better perspective on why this sort of stuff must be actively resisted politically by anyone.
Into the depths of a Hagee-run "Jesus Camp" for adults
As we went into with yesterday's post, a lot of John Hagee's statements have been pretty chunder-inducing in the philosophical and moral sense.
Thanks to Matt Taibbi--possibly one of the first persons to ever successfully infiltrate a neopente dominionist church for the specific purpose of investigation and expose--we know this crosses over into the literal sense, too...and we get, as a bonus, a glimpse into the horror of just what it feels like to be recruited into a "Bible-based" coercive religious group.
It honestly cannot be overstated just how dangerous Matt Taibbi's infiltration was. Hagee's church is known to promote highly coercive "cell churches" and is among the more extreme of "Joel's Army"/"Joshua Generation" churches; the consequences if Taibbi had been exposed before he was able to escape would have been disastrous.
That said--somehow Taibbi did manage to infiltrate, escape, and has written his own version of Bilbo Baggins' "There And Back Again" in the Rolling Stone article Jesus Made Me Puke--so named for an incident to be described in the article, itself a segment of a new book called "The Great Derangement" (which focuses on conspiracy-theory promoters, with a large section dedicated to the infiltration of Hagee's church). The article is probably one of the best exposes of the inner workings of these groups that I have seen--and hits sufficiently close to home that I have had to do readings in parts to avoid being "triggered" (I myself do have diagnosed PTSD as a result of growing up in the stuff we'll be discussing--and this and the next post should reveal just why people get PTSD after being in these groups).
Taibbi actually notes the legitimate fear of being "caught out"--something he experienced for a short time as an infiltrating reporter, but which walkaways live with for much of their lives--especially if their family members remain in neopente dominionist churches:
I felt nervous and unpleasantly certain that I was about to be found out. When Maria asked me why I'd come on the retreat, I bit my lip. When in Rome, I thought.
"Well," I said, "since the new year, I've just been feeling like God has been telling me that I need to get right spiritually. So here I am."
I paused, wincing inwardly. An outsider coming into this world will feel sure that the moment he coughs up one of those "God told me to put more English on my tee shot" lines, his dark game will be instantly visible to all, and he'll be made the target of one of those Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style point-and-screech mob scenes.
Among other things, for possibly the first time outside of writings by walkaways, Taibbi gives a glimpse of the very real "public" and "private" face that neopente dominionist groups give:
As Hagee tells it, only after Israel is involved in a final showdown involving a satanic army (in most interpretations, a force of Arabs led by Russians) will Christ reappear. On that happy day, Hagee and his True Believers will be whisked up to Heaven by God, while the rest of us nonbelievers are left behind on Earth to suck eggs and generally suffer various tortures.
So here I was, standing in the church parking lot, having responded to church advertisements hawking an "Encounter Weekend" — three solid days of sleep-away Christian fellowship that would teach me the "joy" of "knowing the truth" and "being set free." That had sounded harmless enough, but now that I was here and surrounded by all of these blanket-bearing people, I was nervous. When most Americans think of the Christian right, they think of scenes from television — great halls full of perfectly groomed people in pale suits and light-colored dresses, smiling and happy and full of the Holy Spirit, robotically singing hymns at the behest of some squeaky-clean pastor with a baritone voice and impossible hair. We don't get to see the utterly batshit world they live in, when the cameras are turned off and their pastors are not afraid of saying the really dumb stuff, for fear of it turning up on CNN. In American evangelical Christianity, in other words, there's a ready-for-prime-time stage act — toned down and lip-synced to match a set of PG lyrics that won't scare the advertisers — and then there's the real party backstage, where the spiritual hair really gets let down. I was about to go backstage, to personally take part in the indoctrination process for a major Southern evangelical church.
(Fortunately, there are some of us who aren't about to let the "dumb stuff" be unexposed.)
Speaking of uncovering stuff...how about that flyer? On the very same page where Hagee's church describes the use of cell groups (in an org known as "Government of 12"--a subtle reference to the ancient Israeli Parliament comprised of the heads of the twelve tribes; yes, in what is probably one of the most blatant mockeries of Judaism I have ever seen, they named the cell groups and the primary "shepherds" after the twelve traditional tribes of ancient Israel), there's actually a bit of info on these "Encounter Weekends"...mostly in regards to dates and a questionnaire, not so much as to what actually goes on there.
Some of those questions are rather unusual: "Are you a member of a cell group?" "Are you a cell group leader?" (This is showing part of the purpose is of course to recruit folks into cells.) "Have you attended a Ministry of Reconciliation Encounter in the past year?" (It's likely people who attend more than one are, ahem, especially targeted.) Some questions seem innocuous but aren't: "Are you currently seeing a counselor/therapist?" (Don't check "yes"; they'll try to perform an exorcism for the "spirit of psychiatry".) "Are you currently taking any prescription medications?" (As we'll detail in part 2, there was a massive "deliverance ministry" service at the end of the "Encounter Weekend"; it's likely that this and the previous four questions are being explicitly used to gather information as to what "demons" to "cast out".)
The first two religious questions (do you know Jesus, how long) are pretty standard for religious retreats, but the next two aren't: "If you were to die today do you know for sure where you would go?" "If you went to heaven and God said to you, "Why should I let you into my heaven?" What would you say to God?" (Am I the only one getting a distinct impression of Jehovah as Club Bouncer here, or worse yet, with a shotgun at the Pearly Gates?)
Taibbi's announcement hawking the "Encounter Weekend" was probably identical; needless to say, there isn't too much to allude to the madness (and the end-of-retreat vomitorium-for-Christ) he'd experience. The only hints hinting to the uninitiated of some of the decidedly more bizarre things noted in the second part (re "generational curses" and a mass "exorcism" that resulted in a neopentecostal chunderfest) are the questions "What physical/mental ailments do you have at this time?" and "What physical/mental ailments are generational in your family?"
This in itself is the first danger sign. Practically every known checklist of coercive groups lists deceptiveness or attempting to hide details of what is going on as a red flag; Robert J. Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform (portions of the Milieu Control axis), Steven Hassan's BITE Model (Behaviour Control axis, section 1; Information Control axis, sections 1 and 3), Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer's Six Conditions for Thought Reform (step 1, "Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time"), Isaac Bonewits' ABCDEF coerciveness test (the entire program fits under section 13, and keeping info from persons would count under section 2) all have sections denoting how this could be a Bad Thing.
Taibbi, fortunately, records what goes on. And Mr. Taibbi and I are about to take you down the rabbit hole to see how far down it goes.
In which we get a glimpse at Bible-Based Cult Recruitment 101...and the hell that walkaways live through every day of their lives
After they meet up at the church and go off to camp (by bus--probably to keep anyone from taking their own transportation) and listening to many a "testimony" on the way), Taibbi describes how neopentecostal dominionism--and Hagee's church in particular--crib from Scientology's concepts of early harms (including essentially past-life/past-heritage "sins of the fathers") apparently making folks into wimps and leaving them open for "oppression". After a rousing speech from a pastor who could pass for an Army drill sergeant (and in fact was in the Army, and who literally describes himself at one point as a "turbocharged, Army-trained enemy of Satan", up to and including a joke about how Satan had a wanted poster of him in Hell) which wraps up with a tale on how he felt neglected by his daddy--a real tearjerker of a story, per the article--the concept of "wounds" and "normals" is introduced in that apparently slights even as a child cause folks to "go away from God".
This is the beginning, here, of hardcore coercive-group indoctrination. The names used for the tactics will vary between researchers and exit counselors, but this qualifies under "loaded language". The specific use of "wounds" and "normals" (and specifically the use of "normal" as a semi-noun) is remarkably similar to how many coercive groups will redefine common language to mean something else in-group; Scientology is infamous for this, as are neopente dominionist "Bible-based" coercive religious groups. Robert J. Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform actually notes things that apply in two sections--"Loading the Language" and "Mystical Manipulation"; the BITE model refers to this as as "Thought Control" (section 2 in this axis) and "Emotional Control" (section 5 in this axis). In fact, recent research into the psychological mechanism of coercion indicates that the specific arousal of emotional high and lows is an integral part of recruitment.
In fact, the process--as we will see--is reminiscent of recruitment tactics used by the Moonies (who also tend to send people out on 3-day retreats in initial stages of recruitment).
After rounding folks up in sex-segregated groups to talk in circles about all the perceived slights that had been inflicted on them (such horrid slights, I might add, as being yelled at by their fathers while flying RC planes when they were palling around with their buddies) in a sort of neopentecostal Iron John get-together (and Taibbi gives a story about apparently being driven to drug abuse by his alcoholic clown father who used to use his shoes as paddles--and the amazing thing is that the group apparently bought this), they all had to write apology letters (and yes, this included Taibbi writing an apology to "My Daddy The Clown") for holding grudges--followed by letters to Jesus apologising for holding a grudge.
Of note, this little interlude would count in many tests of coerciveness of groups as being potentially unethical use of confession. Similar setups in cell-church groups have been used to vilify persons who attempt to leave, and even in group therapy this is sufficiently problematic that there are typically hard rules that "what goes on in group, stays in group, and does not go beyond these four walls". The BITE model explicitly refers to the unethical use of public confessions (Information Control axis, section 6 and Emotional Control axis, section 6 and Behaviour Control, section 4) as do Lifton (the entire "Confession" axis of "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform") and Bonewits (section 1, "Internal Control", of ABCDEF). In addition, a dedicated paper by Dr. Richard Ofshe has noted how forced confessions of this sort are used in coercive groups as a method of control.
In addition, this section could well count in the "emotional control" sections of multiple coerciveness checklists, including BITE, Lifton's, and Thaler Singer's.
The unethical use of confessions (and forced apologies to the Son of God) weren't the only potentially abusive things documented. Taibbi notes that not only was charismatic hyping going on, but that people were subjected to repetitive cycles of hymnals, specifically "shepherded" Bible-study, and preaching by Mr. Drill Sergeant For God (in a pattern remarkably similar to what I recently documented at Teen Challenge):
After each of these grueling exercises we would have lengthy, fifteen-to-twenty-minute sessions singing unbearably atonal Christian hymns. Then we would have teaching/Bible-study sessions led by Fortenberry on the theme of the moment (e.g., "Admit the Truth About Our Wounds") that lasted an hour or so. Then, after Fortenberry would waste at least half the session giving us the Marlboro Man highlights of his professional résumé ("I was the manager of the second-largest ranch in America, 825,000 acres. . . .") and bragging about his physical prowess ("If someone was to slug me, I could whip just about anyone here"), we would go back to the group session and confess some more. Then we would sing some more, receive more of Fortenberry's hairy lessons, and then the cycle would start all over again. There were almost no breaks or interruptions; it was a physically exhausting schedule of confession, catharsis, bad music and relentless, muscular instruction. The Saturday program began at 7:45 a.m. and did not end until ten at night; we went around the confess-sing-learn cycle five full times in one day.
As noted in my series re Teen Challenge, not even monasteries operated by the Roman Catholic Church are this intensive; this is, notably, very similar to coercive tactics within a number of coercive groups masquerading as self-help orgs.
Again, this is an area where almost every known checklist red-flags this: BITE Model (Behaviour Control axis, sections 1(c,d) and 2; Information Control axis, 2(d) and 4(a)); Thought Control axis, section 4); ABCDEF (sections 1, 2, 12); Lifton's (Milieu Control and portions of Mystical Manipulation and Demand for Purity axes); and Thaler Singer's ("Control the person's social and/or physical environment; especially control the person's time", "Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group's ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors", and "Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person's former social identity").
Taibbi has noted this similarity to "pop psychology"--and the combo of charisma, "sure cure" claims, and the repetitive regime turns out to be surprisingly effective in recruitment. Taibbi gives a glimpse as to the level of coercion. By day 3...well, let's just say it was fortunate that Taibbi got out, because he gives an absolutely chilling description of the mental state of people as they are recruited into the group--something I found particularly triggering, as the fight to avoid this still induces panic attacks in me to this day:
Here I have a confession to make. It's not something that's easy to explain, but here goes. After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship and praise — two days that for me meant an unending regimen of forced and fake responses — a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene — even if you're intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry — outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that "inner you" begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest — in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the "work" of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?
You may think you know the answer, but by my third day I began to notice how effortlessly my soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was going through his robotic motions of praise, and I was shocked. For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your "sinful" self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath. And besides, so long as you are going through all the motions, never breaking the facade, who are you really? It was an incomplete thought, but it was a scary one; it was the very first time I worried that the experience of entering this world might prove to be anything more than an unusually tiring assignment. I feared for my normal.
There's actually a formal description for this process in exit counseling circles. Exit counselors speak of "pre-cult" and "in-cult" personalities when discussing adult recruits to coercive groups--people do in part dissociate when in a coercive group, and in some particular cases (cell church groups, for instance), this has actually been measurable in studies. This is also why recovery from being raised in a coercive religious group is so hard for multigenerational walkaways (such as the "Lost Boys" of the FLDS group recently in the news)--generally there is no "before the cult" personality, and people must essentially resocialise and reraise themselves (and this particularity of recovery is only now becoming a subject of intensive workshops and research by exit counselors, now that it's understood that multigenerational walkaways from coercive groups are not as rare as previously thought).
This would also seem to back up the importance of emotional control in recruitment within coercive religious groups--part of the reason neopente dominionist groups (including the coercive ones) are so successful is because they do give quite a lot of emotional highs and lows.
At any rate, the author describes pretty well the process of how being recruited feels--and it was in fact this particular section that inspired the most terror in me, because I remember having to fight to "keep my normal"...for thirteen years after realising that things weren't entirely right there.
And tomorrow, we focus on the end result--a bizarre neopentecostal dominionist mass-"exorcism" that turned into a literal vomitorium.