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For Believers Who Left ‘High-Control’ Religion, Elections May Trigger Trauma

Por Kathryn Post
capitol storming election trauma
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (Photo: Flickr / Creative commons)

When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, for some, it wasn’t just a matter of political disappointment — it was spiritually shattering.

“It completely broke me,” said Tia Levings, author of the forthcoming “A Well-Trained Wife: My Escape from Christian Patriarchy.” “The evangelical embracing of a rapist is not something I will recover from.”

Raised in a Southern Baptist megachurch in Jacksonville, Florida, where religion and politics often dovetailed, Levings remembers her pastors, flanked by Christian and American flags, introducing Republican politicians as an orchestra blared “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

When her marriage ushered her into fundamentalist Christian Quiverfull churches, which typically reject family planning and promote large families, homeschooling and purity culture, the gap between faith and politics narrowed further. “Family values” and “moral leadership” were synonyms for Republican beliefs.

The breaking point, said Levings, was the election of Trump. “The Christians who raised me in purity culture were endorsing a candidate who was openly speaking of assault,” said Levings, who writes in her book that she suffered abuse and assault in her marriage and her Christian community. She felt Trump’s rise as “a primal betrayal.”

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levings election trauma
Tia Levings participates in the Me Too-driven Women’s March in 2017 in Jacksonville, Fla. (Courtesy photo)

For Americans of all political backgrounds, the mix of religion and politics in our political rhetoric can trigger trauma symptoms, ranging from panic attacks to chronic pain. As politicians wield religion in more obvious and extreme ways and religious leaders grow bolder in their political endorsements, experts say, those symptoms can spike as campaigning surges and voting day gets closer. 

“The experience of it is dysregulating,” said Levings, for whom the 2016 election was a disorienting and traumatizing event. “Our bodies recognize that we’re being activated and pushed into trauma responses and that the same abusive techniques are being used on us. Even if our brain wants to deny or shut off, we know when we’re being gaslighted, we know when we’re being manipulated.”

As more therapy clients talk about similar experiences with elections, mental health practitioners are meeting them with resources. Laura Anderson, a psychotherapist specializing in religious trauma, launched a minicourse in 2020 on election-related religious trauma with Brian Peck, a fellow religion trauma therapist. The response, Anderson said, was “unbelievable.”

laura anderson
Laura E. Anderson. (Photo by Danielle Shields Photography)

“People were just in desperation to say, ‘What is happening? I need some sort of support,’” she said.

Now, she’s launched a new version of the course, Religious Trauma and the Elections. The self-led format includes lectures on topics such as strategies for navigating religious trauma triggers and the intersection of religious trauma, race and politics.

Clinicians who specialize in religious trauma say the 2016 election changed the way many of their clients view religion. Abbi Nye, an advocate for church-abused Christians, points to the 2016 election as a moment when Christian voters and leaders bent their religious values to suit their political ones. Nye, who was raised in a high-control faith, said that betrayal was accompanied by communitywide denial, which brought her back to her childhood.

Nye said, referring to Trump, “When he would say or do the most outrageous things, and people would say, ‘This is great!’ I would feel like I was back in this gaslight place. What I grew up with was not OK. How does no one else see that this is not OK? … It messes with your sense of reality.”’

Since then, election time can bring panic attacks, the “uncontrollable urge to weep” or physical illness at seeing Trump signs around her neighborhood — reactions, she said, that “point to trauma, grief and pain.”

In 2013, Cait West left the Christian Patriarchy Movement, a loose network of congregations that shares many values of the Quiverfull movement. “Seeing Christian nationalism now come to play in the election brings up a lot of memories and it triggers some trauma responses in me,” she said. As a child, West was taught dominion theology, which believes Christianity should be the dominant force in American society.

Jan. 6, 2021, she said, was a hard day. “That’s what I was taught to believe in, and I was seeing it come to fruition,” said West, whose book “Rift: A Memoir of Breaking Away From Christian Patriarchy” is due out later this month. “It reminded me of all those leaders from my childhood, who taught me to fear, taught me to be afraid, and taught me that men would be in charge and women would have no voice.”

wilson women vote
In a Jan. 12, 2022 video titled “A Matter of Rank,” Douglas Wilson discusses his views on submission of women to men. (Video screengrab)

Though the concept of religious trauma is relatively new and understudied, said Dan Miller, a trauma therapist, religious scholar and host of the podcast “Straight White American Jesus,” those articulating their election experiences in terms of religious trauma are “part of a much larger-scale disillusionment with mainstream American religion.”

But those who suffer religious trauma aren’t simply questioning, or deconstructing, their faith, said Anderson. They are naming the physiological, psychological and social trauma symptoms — including autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and social isolation — triggered by politics.

Nor is it only those raised in high-control religion or those who dislike Trump who experience election trauma. The “black and white thinking” often present in political rhetoric, not to mention the inescapable nature of political campaigns during election season, can impact people of all and no faiths.

Miller said that those who identify as Christian nationalists may be experiencing a trauma response to economic uncertainty or losing privilege and said politicians create narratives that feed on that fear as a means of political mobilization. “I think trauma runs deeply through these election cycles,” he said, noting that not all responses to trauma are appropriate.

West said she believes that many evangelicals who vote for Trump “and for things that inhibit equality and human rights” do so “out of a dysregulated nervous system.” In her patriarchal Christian childhood, everything from sermons to her homeschool curriculum reinforced fear of the other, of the unfamiliar and of God’s wrath on America if the nation strayed from God’s law.

“I grew up just being afraid, and my body never felt safe,” said West. “So I think it’s connected because these are the ideas that are shaping our politics right now.”

But, she said, learning about religious trauma and having the language to describe it “can help you learn ways to move through that traumatic response and heal from it.”

Kathryn Post is a reporter for Religion News Service based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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7 Respuestas

  1. Oh right….”here we go again….”. Election season induced PTSD. Hey…..I think the field of mental health will have to add certain mental health residual effects caused by Trump trauma for the last oh.. 10 years or thereabouts in their upcoming revised DSM-V classification.

    Here’s what the Ruach HaKodesh of El Elohe Yisroel have taught me about this whole Ex-POTUS #45 drama:

    His win in 2016 was the LORD giving evangelicals “the king/saviour they wanted” by answering their prayers according to the “idols of their hearts”; which was a form of judgement to them. (pls read Ezekiel 14, 1 Sam 8 and really reflect thoroughly).

    And in the last few years, the LORD, has shown evangelicals the “manner of the king” they requested for; which has really exposed evangelicals ugly underbelly. But, will these rebellious children ever learn?

    If I may offer a bit of reassurance to some who may soon experience resurfacing of Trump trauma effect: he will lose spectacularly. The head of the snake will be cut off, and the object of evangelicals idolatry brought down and very low.

    “…..for when David cut off the head of Goliath, and the philistines saw that their champion was dead, they FLED. Hear you now, It is time for Israel to leave Egypt. LORD, the great & terrible One, make it happen this Passover season 2024. Amen.

    Shalom.

  2. It is my opinion that people bring trauma upon themselves by focusing on the secular aspects instead of focusing on the One True God of the earth.
    God created the earth and everything in it. He also is sovereign over it all.
    He raises up evil to being judgment on the disobedient.
    Follow after spirituality and not the world.

    1. “People bring trauma on themselves”?? the person being interviewed experienced sexual assault. You are blaming her. Where is your compassion?

      1. That was Of the Flesh, and Levieta is now completely Of the Spirit.
        So Spiritual she(?) has ceased to be human.

        “God lives in the Real World.” — Rich Buhler, Eighties talk-show host.

        God does, Levieta doesn’t.

  3. God has nothing to do with any election’s outcome. There is no sense praying about an election outcome because God has no favorite and someone is going to be proven wrong. He hasn’t raised up or torn down any kings or kingdoms in more than 2000 years. His only concern is HIS kingdom. “Seek first the kingdom of God…” If more Christians aligned their thinking and hearts with His, we’d have the right attitude and heart about politics, justice, and society. This time around, again, Christians who are not loyal to Party or Man will be confronted with the age-old lesser of evils choice.

  4. Wow, really? I get trauma seeing signs for Biden for another term! So are you advocating using humanistic based psycology instead of biblical counseling? Because the two are worlds apart. I know some try to mix clinical psycology with the Bible but they have very different foundations and world views. If someone is tramatized by someone because of what they did or said to them, the answer to that response is found in a faith based relationship with our Creator and Savior who went through unspeakable trauma to provide us with an eternal home in heaven.

  5. Well, if Christians are being “triggered” because of the events around them, they need to turn off the news, shut down social media and open their Bibles. God still sits on His throne and the Bible tells us that evil people are going to grow worse and worse. There are going to be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, etc., as God continues to work “all things out according to the counsel of His will.” The apostle Paul (and other apostles and followers of Jesus) and the early church faced martyrdom for being followers of Jesus. And yet Paul writes in Philippians on how to have joy through the challenges of life. If we are being triggered, we have lost the Story!

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