Best of 2021: I grew up in a Christian commune. Here's what I know about America's religious beliefs

Classifying American Christians into the imaginary phyla of cults and not-cults is a dangerous mistake

Published December 26, 2021 11:00AM (EST)

Holy Bible (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Krisanapong Detraphiphat)
Holy Bible (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Krisanapong Detraphiphat)

This essay was originally published in Salon on June 26, 2021. We're revisiting Salon's Best Life Stories of 2021 now through the end of the year. Read more Best of 2021 here.

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

It was 1978, I was five, and my family had traveled to Lubbock, Texas, for a Body Convention, which was what we called the semi-annual gatherings of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of members of The Body, or Body of Christ, an expansive network of charismatic communities created almost singlehandedly by Brother Sam. 

My family lived on a Body Farm, a mostly off-grid outpost on the northern shore of Lake Superior, where I grew up singing, clapping, hollering and dancing in the Tabernacle aisles as shamelessly as King David. In our insular community, Holy Spirit-led practices like speaking in tongues, visions, prophecies, laying on hands and faith healing, altar calls, mass conversions, river baptisms and even demon deliverance were as commonplace as eating or sleeping or, for us children, playing with smooth stones in the frigid stream at the edge of the woods. Back then, if you had asked me if church scared me, I would have been confused by the question, and I would have said no. In retrospect, I was scared all the time. 

RELATED: How extremist Christian theology is driving the right-wing assault on democracy

If this were a face-to-face conversation, you might 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 had to have been uniquely harrowing, an aberration of wholesome, mainstream American Christianity. After all, unlike The Body, most denominations and church networks don't ask parishioners to sell their possessions and tithe half, or even all of their savings. Most pastors don't nudge their congregations as Brother Sam did into the wilderness, and demand that they pare their lives down to the most ascetic essentials — plain clothes, plain food, no TV, no holidays, no toys. Perhaps most importantly, most people in 2021 don't believe in spiritual warfare reminiscent of the Dark Ages; they are not warned by their spiritual leaders that they are under assault by demons and the Devil at every turn. If you're a Christian, you'd probably want to put as much distance as possible between The Body and whatever church you belong to. If not, you'd need reassurance that my experiences with religion are extraordinary — the stuff memoirs are made of

But, only a couple years ago, Franklin Graham, son of "America's Pastor," Billy Graham, declared any criticism of former president Donald Trump to be the work of demonic powers. The following year, one of the president's closest evangelical advisors, Paula White, publicly commanded "all satanic pregnancies to miscarry." Polling in recent decades indicates that around half of all Americans continue to believe that the Devil and demonic possession are very real, and though some recent numbers suggest that figure may be lower among Democrats, the percentage of Americans who believe in the Devil rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007 — as of 2018, even Catholic exorcisms appear to be on the rise. Around half of all Americans believe the Bible should influence U.S. 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 have been reared in the fear of making a wrong move, of choosing the wrong side, and believe that doing so could have nightmarish results in this life and the next. Chances are that fear is so deeply ingrained that it no longer registers as fear. Fear is simply the lens through which they view the world.

I had a friend in college who liked to call me Jonestown after she heard my story. But she'd grown up in Kentucky like I did after my family left communal life, and the longer I knew her, the more I came to understand that the preachers of her childhood were virtually interchangeable with Brother Sam, that the only difference between her church and mine was devotion, the degree of commitment to doctrine. In my church, we were instructed to live out our beliefs one step at a time, then another, then another, but they were the same beliefs my friend had. Long after my family "left" The Body, whether we were holding home church, attending Body Conventions, or going to regular services in Pentecostal, Baptist and Methodist churches, I was 19 and in college before I encountered a single person who challenged the doctrine I was raised in, and I've since had similar experiences in urban Virginia, rural New Hampshire, and suburban Indiana where I now live. Classifying American Christians into the imaginary phyla of cults and not-cults, of dangerous, fringy, irregular churches and a safe, mainstream, religious majority is a terrible mistake and just as dangerous as extremism itself.    

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In fact, religious extremism has been if not the then a national norm for the duration of my lifetime. In my experience, you only need press most Christians for a few minutes before you encounter many of the "strange and sinister" beliefs that are supposed to be a marker of cults. This is why unlearning religious extremism in America is so difficult, and often takes a lifetime — akin, I imagine, trying to be sober in a brewery. If more than three quarters of all American evangelicals believe we are living in the End Times described in the Bible, then it is not only probable but inevitable that some of those believers will take action and remove themselves and their families from the corrupt, materialistic, Babylonian world. Likewise, if the Bible was written by the finger of God, as I was taught, then questioning it — in fact, questioning anything about the church and church leaders, from the authenticity of teachings by men like Brother Sam to the sincerity of whichever right-leaning politicians are being praised in the pulpit, might render a believer vulnerable to unseen "powers and principalities" that circle above us like vultures, eager for our destruction.

Samuel Drew Fife III was an ordinary man who wielded extraordinary power over his followers. His parents were blue collar Floridians, and like many veterans of the Second World War, he returned home to them from battle emotionally and spiritually cored, nursing an existential void that must have made the task of assembling an ordinary life for himself feel impossibly daunting. Understandably, only something as grand and incomprehensible as God could have matched the breadth of that void, shoring up the shaken world in fervent black-and-white certainty. Such was the experience of millions in the wake of the wars of the 20th century — this is the rock upon which Latter Rain and subsequent Charismatic churches were built.

In 1957, in a Baptist seminary in New Orleans, Sam would learn how to weaponize his own fear and cast himself as a savior of souls in the spiritual battle he imagined raging around him, and demons were an important part of this education. In 1960, he submitted a graduate thesis to Tulane University that described his personal anointing with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the "rain" of the Later Rain, and detailed his successful deliverance, as he saw it, of Jane Miller, a mentally ill mother of six, from her demons. Many people with mental illness, after hearing tapes of Jane's deliverance sessions, would flock to Brother Sam for healing. I grew up listening to those and other similar tapes, and eventually, more than a decade after Brother Sam's death, when Jane Miller tried to deliver me from my own demons at a Body Convention in Chicago, it felt like he was present throughout the ordeal. After all, he had delivered Jane, and she was delivering me. 

In 1971, just as my father was returning from Vietnam, Billy Graham delivered a message in Dallas, Texas, called "The Devil and Demons," and in the same year, Brother Sam began preaching the End Times that were already a staple of Billy's Crusades. Both men, and many, many other preachers like Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and Jim Bakker, all technically outside the Body, and Buddy Cobb, John Henson, and Doug McClain, all inside The Body, saw the polluted, diseased, war-torn world as proof that a Great Tribulation was fast approaching. All taught the very biblical duality-laden concepts of demonology, of believer/nonbeliever, of us/them. And nearly all would fall from grace, charged with numerous crimes from fraud to solicitation to sexual misconduct to kidnapping, though believe me when I say that those falls never mean an end but a beginning, a new flush of pastors, rebranded, contemporized, fortified now by social media, and every bit as eager to wield fear as a weapon in the endless crusade for power. 

Maybe I grew up with the Jane Tapes, but millions of Americans cut their teeth on similar messages from countless other pastors, mainstream or not. Not every extreme form of Christianity ends with cyanide Kool-Aid in Guyana. The rapid growth and clout of QAnon is another potential outcome, proof that a legion of pastors have spent decades nudging faithful Americans in the direction of paranoia, conspiracy theories and ultimately the dismantling of a government they insist is on the wrong side. If between 15 to 20 percent of Americans believe the government is controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, and that an apocalyptic storm will soon sweep away the evil elites and restore "rightful leaders" 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 up a generation, at this very moment, to believe what I believed for so long, to understand the world beyond the shelter of the church as hostile, malevolent and scary — a worldview I still wrestle with from time to time.

Even decades after my last Body Convention, when I began working as an ER nurse, every time I was assigned a patient with hallucinations of demons or The Devil, I had to exorcise myself of the belief in them. I often passed the hours of those shifts in a kind of extended adrenaline surge. I remember one patient in particular who had attacked her husband with a chainsaw and saw demons in the corners of the locked hospital room where I was caring for her. "There he is!" she kept whispering, pointing behind me, her eyes registering a presence there, her expression shifting dynamically from glare to terror and back to glare. I had to concentrate not to feel the presence, too, to slow my breathing and repeat to myself, "She's just sick, that's all. Just sick, like any other patient."  

Read more of Salon's Best of 2021 Life Stories.

By Shawna Kay Rodenberg

Shawna Kay Rodenberg is the author of "Kin: A Memoir," out now from Bloomsbury. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and her reviews and essays have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, and Elle. In 2016, Shawna was awarded the Jean Ritchie Fellowship, the largest monetary award given to an Appalachian writer, and in 2017 she was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award. A registered nurse, community college English instructor, mother of five, and grandmother of two, she lives on a hobby goat farm in southern Indiana.

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