Last summer, a neighbor with whom I’ve barely spoken in the four years that I’ve lived here told me quite bluntly: “I don’t talk to many of the people who live here, because they cuss and smoke, and I’m a Christian.”
I swear. I smoke (though I really want to quit). However, I also know that I’m a good person. I don’t try to attend churches anymore, because I never felt like I fit (and most queer people, like myself, don’t seem to be welcomed in many of the churches around me), but I know that God and I are good, my soul is in good hands, and, at the end of the day, God’s more concerned with how I treat other people — not how many times a four-letter word comes out of my mouth.
I don’t like the word “Christian” for myself anymore (which is something I’ve already discussed in this previous blog post), but, instead, I prefer to call myself a follower of Jesus. I believe. I have faith. I just don’t fit too well into any specific denominations of Christianity. The United Church of Christ is probably where I’d fit best, but we don’t have any of those actual churches close by, and I don’t think I need a physical church building to attend, anyway.
So, no. I’m not the best of “Christians,” but my neighbor’s words were a little hurtful. I don’t go to church, but I know the Word of God, and I have a relationship with my God and work daily to be a good person and put more of His Love out into the world.
In short, I know what Christianity is.
That said, I also know what Christianity isn’t.
A few years ago, my mom started following a man named “Pastor” Greg Locke. Not only does she follow him, but it seemed to get to a place where she was almost obsessed with the man and everything that he “preaches.” She constantly (almost every week) mentioned that she was going to watch his “sermons” online, and she talked all the time about visiting his “church” down in Tennessee whenever she’d go on road trips, which seemed to happen about every six weeks or so there for a while.
It’s hard for me to say this, but everything I’ve ever seen from this supposed “pastor” has been un-Christ-like, and his words and actions have led me to believe he more resembles a cult leader than an actual Christian preacher, with his church, both in the building and in his following from around the country, of course, serving as his cult.
Here are just a few of the tweets from his Twitter profile:
I’ve browsed through his entire profile, and, for being a “pastor,” he mentions the Gospel not one single time. Instead, his messages are all centered on one thing: Donald Trump.
From what he says, it’s easy to deduce that, instead of worshipping Jesus Christ, as Christians are called to do, he worships Trump, who could easily be described as our generation’s Golden Calf.
Not only does “Pastor” Greg Locke seem to worship Trump, but he actively works at excluding certain groups of people and further divides Americans, which is something I still struggle to entirely wrap my brain around. How can someone who calls themselves a “pastor” work so hard at picking and choosing who the “true Christians” are and spend all of their time judging and speaking ill of anyone who believes, lives, or thinks different from himself?
Over and over again, this man accuses anyone who doesn’t also worship Donald Trump of being “evil” or “wicked” or “satanic” or even “demons.”
I have expressed to my mom the hurt I feel from the words of this man that she follows so closely. Not only am I a liberal, not only do I despise Donald Trump and all of the hurtful, hateful things he has done, but I’m also queer, so this “pastor’s” words often seem to be directed at both me and people like me. (Also, as someone with an autoimmune disease, I am horrified by his refusal to accept COVID-19 as both real and serious.)
Her response? She told me she doesn’t owe me or anyone else an explanation for her beliefs.
I felt gutted.
Since at least Ronald Reagan, people on the right have seen themselves as having the moral high ground, and they’ve come to believe that the Republican Party is somehow the political party of God. So many believe that, unless you proclaim to be a Republican, you can’t be a Christian. The conflation of Christianity and Nationalism began to grow, and it only got worse as the years went by, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Suddenly, Christian churches started keeping flags in sanctuaries and held “patriotic” church services, essentially worshipping America right alongside Jesus Christ.
This belief still existed during the 2016 presidential campaign, when it seems that those on the right decided that those of us on the left were so evil and wicked that anything that came out of Donald Trump’s mouth (the Republican nominee) had to be the embodiment of Christianity itself. Democrats were demonized so thoroughly (thanks in part to opinionated figure heads on networks like Fox News) that Republicans felt they had permission to overlook all of the sins and shortcomings of Donald J. Trump and turn him into a Christ-like figure. Because Trump was the opposite of what the right believed was the definition of a Democrat (or socialist, communist, etc), which was (falsely) pure bad-ness and anti-Christ, Trump had to be considered pure goodness and pro-Christ. After all, he eventually came around to denouncing abortion, right? And isn’t that the hallmark signature of a true Christian?
When Trump was shown in this light, to be “good,” it suddenly meant that the hateful, hurtful things he said and the names he called people was also somehow “good.” It became acceptable to his supporters. They could not only look past it but embrace it themselves. They had permission.
So, why wouldn’t it make sense that a Trump sycophant like “Pastor” Greg Locke would imitate Trump’s speech and behaviors and label it not only as “good” but also “Christ-like”? Why wouldn’t he sell that to his fellow Trump followers?
My mom believes that calling people like me a “demon” and “evil” is now Christian behavior. Because, again, if you’re not a Republican, if you’re not a Trump supporter, you’re somehow against God.
Donald Trump knew that people of faith would fall in line behind him if he proclaimed to be the true Republican candidate. And they did.
From the moment Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency, he has worked tirelessly to create an alternative reality, in which, five years later, many of his followers have chosen to live their day-to-day lives. Once he claimed to be the Christian alternative to Hilary Clinton (who is still, to this day, labeled as evil and anti-Christian), evangelicals in particular seemed to have no problem suspending their previously held beliefs in order to adopt the new reality Trump was offering them. After all, how could a Republican candidate and the Republican party overall, God’s party, ever lead them astray?
People like “Pastor” Greg Locke is simply furthering Trump’s work by ushering forward the “truths” that must be accepted in order to justify living in this alternative reality, and he does so in a way that’s flexible enough to withstand to twists and turns those “truths” so frequently make. So often, the narrative has to be changed, in order to continue to seem plausible in the minds of those who have bought into this reality so entirely, but making those leaps has proven no issue for Republicans.
One of the biggest lies that Trump and “Pastor” Greg Locke has championed is the QAnon conspiracy theory, which, it seems, evangelicals were more than willing to lap up when placed in front of them.
The core beliefs of the QAnon conspiracy theory involves the idea that Democratic politicians and other “elites” around the country are Satan-worshipping, child trafficking, cannibalizing pedophiles. They believe that liberals and elites are abusing and trafficking children around the country and the rest of the world, that liberals and elites are literally eating these children for various reasons, and that Donald Trump is a type of savior that was sent by God to save these children and bring down the whole operation, which also involves throwing all of those involved (Hilary Clinton, George Soros, and even Tom Hanks, just to name a few) into prison for their horrific crimes.
In case you missed it, scroll back up to those screenshots from “Pastor” Greg Locke. Any of that seem familiar?
The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative group, released a study in February of 2021 that shows
… 29% of Republicans and 27% of white evangelicals — the most of any religious group — believe the widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theory is completely or mostly accurate. QAnon has infiltrated other faiths as well, with 15% of white mainline Protestants, 18% of white Catholics, 12% of non-Christians, 11% of Hispanic Catholics and 7% of Black Protestants saying they believe it.
Sadly, it’s not surprising that white evangelicals seems to be leading the charge when it comes to buying into the QAnon system of beliefs. It was always white evangelicals that Trump and “pastors” like Greg Locke were always speaking to — God’s chosen people, the ones for whom being a Republican has become synonymous with Christianity.
Apparently, as long as you call something “Christianity,” you can be as hateful and divisive as you want and feel justified in doing so, no matter who it might hurt — even if it’s your own children.
I feel like I have completely lost my mother to all of this, and it’s been a heartbreaking realization, but I also know I’m not the only person going through this right now. All over the country, families are dealing with loved ones who have bought into this other world that Donald Trump has been selling for the last five years. (Perhaps this has become his crowning achievement as a businessman.)
People so fervently believe the lies and falsehoods that they were willing to attack the United States Capitol Building on January 6th, all in the name of more blatant lies, including the one that Donald Trump actually won the presidency in a historic landslide and that Joe Biden was somehow “stealing” the victory away from Trump and the 74 million people that voted for him. Not only that, but many of those on Capitol Hill that day believed that they would find the children that they’ve been convinced Democrats and the “elites” of this country have been holding prisoner, in order to traffic, rape, and cannibalize them.
Those accusations on their own are horrifying, but it has recently come out that members of the mob that seized the Capitol that day had some truly dark plans: many of them chanted “hang Mike Pence” in the halls of the Capitol, a makeshift gallows had been placed out on the lawn, and many within the mob talked openly about wanting to execute members of Congress, some even lamenting the fact that they were unable to “put a bullet in” of Nancy Pelosi.
There were multiple different factions of the Trump alternative reality present on the day that the Capitol was attacked — evangelicals, white supremacists, QAnon followers, anti-Semites, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and others.
One of the attendees? None other than “Pastor” Greg Locke.
We can’t act like we didn’t see this stuff coming, either. For those who believed in the QAnon nonsense they had been feeding on for years, why would it be a stretch for them to believe that Trump actually won the election instead of Joe Biden, despite what the numbers say? For those who believed Trump was some kind of a savior, sent by God himself to bring down the whole child-trafficking, cannibalistic, pedophile ring, why wouldn’t the believe that God would also make sure Trump won re-election, to continue his important, Godly work? Why wouldn’t they believe that the only way Joe Biden could win would be if he somehow “stole” the election and that everyone on the outside of their little group was lying to them?
In order to get to these big, truly disturbing lies and a complete and total alternative reality, Trump and those working on his behalf had to spend years telling smaller, seemingly more trivial lies — they had to “groom” the very people who would eventually buy in whole hog to the fantasy they were selling. They had to make sure these people wouldn’t question anything they would continue telling them.
How many lies did we hear from the highest reaches of government and all the corners of influence?
Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in Kenya.
The biggest inauguration crowd in history.
We’re going to build a wall and Mexico will pay for it.
Windmills cause cancer.
COVID-19 is going to magically disappear one day.
Mexicans are rapists and criminals.
Millions are coming here illegally and stealing your jobs.
Trump is rich.
Hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19.
There are millions of “illegal votes,” including votes cast by dead people.
Mail-in voting is riddled with fraud.
Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election.
As president, Article II of the Constitution allows a president to do and get away with anything.
Water preservation efforts mean people have to flush toilets 10-15 times.
The Trump administration accomplished more than any other.
Trump was the best president for black people since Lincoln.
Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11.
The “Squad” consists of women not from America.
Doctors kill babies after birth.
Obama started family separation at the border.
Best economy in American history.
I could go on. And on. And on and on and on. But I won’t. I don’t have that much time on my hands.
This steady diet of lies for years on end is what made it possible for conspiracy theory groups like QAnon to even come into existence. Trump constantly blurred the lines between this reality and the one he hoped to create, and in that confusion, he gave his followers permission to believe whatever they wanted to believe — or, more accurately, whatever lie helped further their personal biases and beliefs.
All of this made it possible to ultimately sell “the big lie,” which would help Republicans maintain control of the White House — the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election by a landslide and that Joe Biden and the “elites” in Washington, D.C. were trying to “steal” the election that he had won fair and square.
This lie was repeated for months, through November and December of 2020, and then again on the day of the Capitol insurrection, January 6th, by Trump himself, as he addressed the crowd he had called to gather in the nation’s Capital. The date, January 6th, was significant, of course, because it was the designated day for Congress to certify the electoral college results, which determined that Joe Biden had been elected president. Trump had been telling his followers since the election to gather in D.C. on that day, and he urged them to “fight” to keep their country.
It makes me think of the final scene of 1984.
The state has finally captured Winston, and they’re telling him, repeatedly, that 2+2=5. For a while, Winston fights back, because his brain knows that, in reality, 2+2=4, but the gaslighting continues. If you make someone question their experienced reality long enough, if you push the alternate reality long enough, if you tell lie over and over again, relentlessly… you can finally convince someone that 2+2=5.
That’s what happened to Winston.
That’s what’s happened to my mom.
And that’s what’s happened to millions of Trump supporters.
How else could 74 million votes for Trump equal more than 81 million votes for Biden? How else could 74 million votes result in a “landslide victory” over an opponent who received 81 million votes?
In their minds, 2+2 finally equals 5.
The lies were told enough times. Big Brother won out over our shared reality.
To further embolden the Big Lie, hours after the Capitol came under attack, Trump released a short video for his followers, in which he not only called them “special” but also told him that he loved them. It didn’t matter that they had just committed an insurrection and tried to overthrow the government, because they did all of it on Trump’s behalf, and for that, Trump praised them.
With their dear leader calling them special, patriots, and telling them he loves them, why would any of his supporters feel the need to see the truth? Why would they feel any need to walk away from the Big Lie and all the conspiracy theories Trump both fanned and even created himself? In this alternate reality, Trump supporters could see themselves as heroes, and wouldn’t a person rather be a hero than admit that they had been duped?
Despite their beliefs, on January 20th, 2021, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.
According to multiple conspiracy theories and their believers, that inauguration was never supposed to happen. Trump was never supposed to leave the White House, and Biden was never supposed to become president.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Strangely, Trump’s group of hardcore supporters seemed to split into two factions: one group finally did start to realize that they had been lied to all this time and became disillusioned with the alternate reality in which they had been living for so long, but the other group did nothing but double-down on their fantastical system of beliefs.
It took me a long time to build up the courage to look at “Pastor” Greg Locke’s Twitter feed following the inauguration, but when I finally did, it was no surprise to see that he belonged to the group of followers that simply doubled-down on their conspiracy beliefs and on spreading their messaging, which still includes the Big Lie. It didn’t matter that Trump left and Biden was sworn in, because these people (especially ones of influence, like Greg Locke) have been moving the goal posts from day one (whenever their predictions turned out to be false). Instead of ever admitting they were wrong, they come up with some bogus explanation and change the narrative.
The ones who are sticking with Trump and their conspiracies are now trying to sell the idea that this is exactly what Trump had planned, and that he still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve, which he can pull at any moment.
Another popular belief (as peddled by “Pastor” Greg Locke) is that the people who attacked the Capitol on January 6th were actually “antifa” and Black Lives Matter activists — not Trump supporters — and that they did so in order to try to make Trump supporters look bad to the rest of America. Even the very people who were in that crowd are now making these incredible claims.
How much longer can we allow this to continue? How much longer can we watch our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors believe and live in this alternate reality before we have to make some real, difficult decisions? How much more violence will America endure at their hands before they are stopped?
The FBI has already named these Trump-supporting, conspiracy-theory-believing groups the country’s most dire threat. We’ve spent the last twenty years in America concerned about foreign terrorist attacks, but it now seems that we should have been more worried about domestic terrorism. People were being radicalized right here at home, right out in public, but we didn’t see it, or fully understand it, until it was too late.
How do we approach these issues?
I’ve been searching for months for an answer to this question, but nobody seems to have it.
While she believes in things that make no sense to the rest of us and lives in a world with alternative facts, my mom is a fairly stable human being. In other words, she’s not necessarily one to violently act out because of her beliefs, unless otherwise provoked. Others, however, pose a much more serious threat. Conspiracy theories are already dangerous, as we saw with the January 6th attack on the Capitol, but when people with serious mental issues get pulled in, the danger increases exponentially.
Sadly, we also know that there are many in America who struggle with myriad mental illnesses, many of whom are unable to access or afford the psychological or therapeutic help that they need.
I have a neighbor whom I’m fairly certain struggles with schizophrenia. I do my best to never judge her (because I have my own mental illnesses and struggles), but I also try to avoid her, because having a coherent, logical conversation with her is nearly impossible, and it can be inexplicably frustrating to try.
Unfortunately, I ran into her at our local grocery store about a week ago. I minded my own business, did my own shopping (while wearing an N95 mask, mind you), but I still fell victim to her incoherent ranting.
This neighbor made it to the checkout counter before I did, and from an aisle not far away, I stood and listened as she spoke to the elderly cashier. She randomly began to tell the cashier that she’s “fighting a war online” and “trying to save as many children” as she can, because “there are people in this world who drink the juice from children’s brains in order to get high” and ultimately “eat the children.” I heard the cashier gasp (whether or not it was sincere, I’m not sure) and ask, “who in the world would do such a thing?” My neighbor whispered back to her that it was Democratic politicians and actors from Hollywood.
Listening to my neighbor speak, I wasn’t surprised by the content of her words. What she regurgitated was the core belief of the QAnon conspiracy theory — that children are being trafficked, sexually abused, and even eaten by the “elite” in this country.
What did shake me to the core was the way in which she said these things. I could hear her voice quiver as she spoke, I could feel the sincerity of her beliefs, and I had zero doubt whatsoever that my neighbor believes these horrid things clear down to her bones. It was also clear to me (from this conversation I overheard, as well as the other things I have heard her say in the past) that these beliefs and subsequent emotions totally consume every waking hour of her life.
Before she left the store, I heard my neighbor telling the cashier about how her ex-husband had tried multiple times to have her admitted to a psychiatric ward, but she swore to the cashier that she wasn’t crazy — she just finally sees the truth.
This woman was already mentally unstable, and she came across these disgusting, horrifying conspiracy theories, and she bought into them one hundred percent. For her, and for many others, it wasn’t hard to suspend their previous beliefs and grip on reality in order to latch onto a new system of beliefs. If she truly is schizophrenic (as I suspect), then stepping into the world of QAnon, and the alternate reality created by Q and perpetuated by Donald Trump, probably took very little effort.
A few months ago, on Christmas day, a man blew up an RV in the middle of Nashville, Tennessee, and it was later discovered by detectives that this man had been severely mentally unstable and consumed by conspiracy theories. (One theory he believed involves “lizard people.”)
Who’s to say my mentally unstable neighbor who’s now living in such an alternate reality couldn’t do something similar?
I don’t know for sure that my mom believes in the child trafficking and cannibalism aspects theories peddled by QAnon, but I do know for certain that the man she calls her “pastor” frequently calls Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats and celebrities “pedophiles,” despite providing any evidence to back up his accusations.
The man my mom calls her “pastor,” the man my mom believes to be preaching Christian values and beliefs, also calls anyone who disagrees with him (Democrats, liberals, celebrities, anti-Trumpers, etc) things such as “demons,” “Satanists,” “evil,” “wicked,” “unAmerican,” and “unpatriotic.” He also says that these people (including myself, as I personally identify as a democratic socialist) hate God and are out to destroy all religion, as well as the United States.
This man my mom calls “pastor” also tells her, while pretending to be a man of God, that somehow 74 million votes is more than 81 million votes and that Donald Trump won the election by a landslide and is the true President of the United States. This man tells her that Joe Biden is a criminal and will be going to jail very soon. He tells her that people like us liberals and the “mainstream media” have stolen an election victory from not only Trump but also her and all 74 million of Trump voters.
This man tells my mom that the things that come out of his mouth — the anger, the name-calling, the bitterness, and the hatred — is the definition of “Christianity,” and is therefore “good.”
I’ve recently confronted my mom about these things, but it’s never gone well. As I stated earlier, one response I heard multiple times was that she “doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for her beliefs,” not even her own children. No amount of scripture can sway her. No reciting of Jesus Christ’s own words can make her reconsider her position. In her mind, whatever “Pastor” Greg Locke says is what’s truly Christ-like, and he doesn’t waste his time preaching the gospel — just attacks against those on the “other side” and partisan politics.
I write all of this to finally say: I don’t have the answers here. I don’t know how to fix this. And I think that’s why I needed to write this piece. This feeling of helplessness and overwhelming sadness is unbearable at times.
All I want to do is help bring my mom, a person that I love dearly, back to reality, but I have no idea how to do that. I have no idea how to help her see that 2+2 actually equals 4, and that her belief that 2+2=5 was a lie all along.
I’ve grown weary of the articles I’ve seen in the major news outlets about this nationwide phenomenon. There have been some good ones, including this one from David French about the conflation of Christianity and Nationalism, but the ones that go more in-depth about the people who have fallen victim to this unprecedented degree of fraud tend to grate on my nerves. I’ve seen multiple articles that try to point out the humanity of the people that believe the Big Lie and the conspiracy theories, which is fine, but they also seem to attempt to evoke feelings of sympathy or even pity for those believers, and that makes me angry.
I probably could feel sorry for these people, my mom included, because they were ultimately duped into believing these things, but the problem is this: despite those of us on the outside trying to show them that they’ve been duped, despite being shown the evidence, repeatedly, that what they believe isn’t true, they remain stubborn, and they continue to choose to believe the lies and live in their alternative reality. I could forgive them and sympathize with them for being duped initially, but when people like myself try so hard to bring them back to reality and show them the actual truth, the actual facts, and they choose to reject it and accuse us of being “out to get them” and a part of the “deep state”… at that point, any inclination I may have felt towards sympathy and/or pity totally dissipates.
Time and again, their theories have been proven false, but as I’ve said, they cling so tightly to that alternative reality they’ve chosen, that they simply move the goal posts one more time — they come up with explanations for why things unfolded differently than they had imagined, and they change the entire narrative in order to justify their deeply-held beliefs.
Do you know what this tells me? It tells me that any effort I — or any other person, for that matter — make is a waste of time.
That still leaves me with one major decision to make, though: do I stay in my mom’s life and be there to possibly someday welcome her back to reality, or do I draw a line in the sand and choose to walk away because of her choice to continuously reject the truth?
A part of me feels like, if I continue being in her life at a superficial level, and if she and I keep in touch but only ever discuss topics such as the weather, it feels like, in a way, I’m giving her permission to continue living in her own reality and with her own set of facts. At the same time, if I stay in her life and persistently push back on her alternative reality and facts, if I constantly try to bring her back, our relationship will consist of nothing but arguments and nonstop tension.
If I draw a line and say I can’t be in her life anymore, either because I can’t stand to watch her walk down this self-destructive path, or because I refuse to enable her choice to live in an alternative reality, then there’s nobody to push back on her and tell her that what she believes is wrong, harmful, and corrosive.
It’s a terrible catch-22, and I am exhausted from repeatedly considering my options.
I just want my mom back. I know there are millions of other people in this country who feel the same way right now — whether it’s their parent, grandparent, sibling, or best friend, I think we all just want our loved ones back.
Trump is gone, but I truly believe he wasn’t the one who created this problem — he only exacerbated it.
Nevertheless, I think there was a part of me that hoped once he was gone, his followers would come back to our shared reality, the conspiracy theories would fade away, and our relationships with the ones we love would return to some semblance of normalcy.
Perhaps I was naïve. I’m just terrified that my mom, and others like her, are too far gone to be saved.