Donald Trump supporters in Phoenix watch the president-elect give his victory speech early on Nov. 9, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Nancy Wiechec *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ESTHER-OPED, originally transmitted on Nov. 17, 2016.

How the 2016 election reminded me of growing up in a cult

(RNS) In the aftermath of this presidential election, I can’t help but see striking similarities between what happened inside the religious cult of my childhood and what played out for us in the political cult of personality.

Here was the larger-than-life leader drawing followers to himself despite the facts of his poor character, lack of experience and even despite the fact that media, pundits and pollsters claimed he wouldn’t -- couldn’t -- win.

But no amount of scolding, derision or facts from outsiders could sway his followers. Indeed, this perceived persecution by the “liberal media” only reinforced their worldview.

The same thing happened when I was growing up inside a religious cult.

The facts didn’t matter. What we believed mattered, and our beliefs were what made the facts the facts. Doctrinally, our beliefs closely mirrored present-day Southern Baptists, but practically speaking, the facts were whatever our leader said they were and no amount of scolding, derision or “facts” from outsiders could sway us. Indeed, we perceived such chiding as persecution and it only reinforced our worldview.

After all, we had God. And that fact trumped everything.

So, when Donald Trump won the election -- much to the consternation of many media types -- everyone scrambled to figure out just how this had happened. I know how this happened. It happened because this election wasn’t about facts. It was about a religious worldview.

Prominent evangelical leader Franklin Graham was quick to explain. “None of them understand the God factor,” he wrote on Facebook, referring to the “secular media.” And on Twitter: “I believe God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control #Godfactor.” According to Graham, the most important factor to a majority of American voters was God and when Christians went to the polls, “God showed up.”

Graham’s explanation isn’t the whole story. Yes, pollsters and prognosticators drastically underestimated Trump voters. However, it’s not because they didn’t understand how important the “God factor” was -- after all, it wasn’t too long ago that evangelical voters also lifted George W. Bush to victory. The reason the media didn’t understand the “God factor” was because they didn’t understand the “fact factor” -- which is to say, how little the facts mattered to white, evangelical voters.

The big names in media didn’t see a Trump victory coming because it just never occurred to them that the facts wouldn’t matter. They kept hammering away at The Facts and presenting The Facts and gawking with thinly disguised contempt at anyone who refused to see The Facts. Hillary didn’t get it either. Every time she told debate viewers to “check the facts,” she probably lost voters. For better or worse, this is the America we’re living in now.

In many ways, this election wasn’t even about Donald Trump. It was about which candidate confirmed and validated the religious worldview of white, evangelical Christians. Trump simply figured that out and then confirmed and validated this worldview until 81 percent of white, evangelical voters cast their ballot for him.

But what about Christians like me who didn’t vote for Trump?

Well, this past week has felt akin to betrayal. I admit to my own shock and sense of abandonment when I realized how many of my fellow Christians voted for him. I wondered how they could place their faith in someone whose life so blatantly disregards the way of Jesus. How could they elect a president who brags about grabbing women’s genitals?

But perhaps I am forgetting the lessons I learned inside the cult. I’m forgetting that this election wasn’t about whether Trump was an honest Christian of upstanding moral character. It was about -- in Franklin Graham’s words -- stopping the “godless, atheistic progressive agenda.”

Evangelicals were able to look past Trump’s poor character because there was a higher purpose to be accomplished. They were able to look past Trump (and even the extremist, alt-right groups that supported him) because they know all the Bible stories where God uses sinful men to do his will. King David: adulterer and murderer. The Apostle Paul: persecutor of the church. Comparatively speaking, I guess Donald Trump seems rather tame?

And let’s not forget that once you’re deeply ensconced in this religious worldview, there’s a heavy price to be paid for breaking rank. For many of these believers, the Republican vote is the Christian vote. So, once Donald Trump became the Republican candidate, a vote for Hillary was a vote against God’s anointed leader. No Christian wants to be guilty of that. No Christian wants to be cast outside the camp.

But for all the lessons I learned in a cult, perhaps the most important one was how quickly a leader can fall from grace. Even the greatest, most charismatic leader must reap what he sows. Even the slickest, trickiest leader will be found out by his sin. What happens when Trump fails to deliver on all his grandiose promises? Perhaps the spell will be broken. What happens when he continues to behave like, well, Trump? Perhaps he’ll be caught in his own Watergate.

The truth is that there’s not a whole lot of kindness going on inside the evangelical cult mentality. Hypervigilance, condemnation and fear rule the day. Honestly, it’s pretty exhausting always being on the lookout for the godless, atheistic agenda. You never know when it might pop out at you. You never know when another “nasty woman” might show up with facts.

Sure, it can feel rather lonely out here. But then I remember that Jesus was never part of the popular religious crowd either. Jesus is still out here with the refugees, the downtrodden and the brokenhearted.

God is still love. And if that’s a fact, then love is the “God factor” that trumps even Trump.

(Elizabeth Esther is the author of "Girl at The End of the World" and "Spiritual Sobriety." You can find her online at


  1. Esther’s article seems to be part of the “absolute pounding of white evangelicals who voted for Trump” that Dr. David Gushee spoke of in his Nov.18 essay. All you white evangelicals who voted for Trump, are just a bunch of closet cultists. That HAS to be the reason for your vote, right? Sheesh.

    By the way, how come we’re hearing all this stuff about “white evangelicals”, but never hear anything about “black evangelicals”? How come people like Esther write as if the only evangelicals in town are WHITE? Please take a look at the following:

    “You never hear about black evangelicals,” Anthea Butler, graduate chairwoman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a lecture last year (2015) at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

    “Watch the 2016 election,” she predicted. “When they talk about evangelicals again, they won’t go to Bible-believing black evangelicals. They’re going to talk to white people.”

    –Source:, Oct. 16, 2016, as quoted by reporter Alex Johnson.

  2. Really interesting article and (as a disappointed Christian who really didn’t want Trump to win) heartily agree with the end sentences. This analysis is spot-on: “The big names in media didn’t see a Trump victory coming because it just never occurred to them that the facts wouldn’t matter. They kept hammering away at The Facts and presenting The Facts and gawking with thinly disguised contempt at anyone who refused to see The Facts. Hillary didn’t get it either. Every time she told debate viewers to “check the facts,” she probably lost voters. For better or worse, this is the America we’re living in now.”

    The only thing I’d say is that I’m not sure that a complete disregard for facts over beliefs is a phenomenon unique to evangelicals. This ignoring of the facts is definitely a big factor in the election but I wonder if it’s also part of the ‘sticking it to the elite’ vibe we’re seeing much more of, rather than merely the ‘God factor’. Here in the UK, where we also had a campaign based on fear and hate, and a surprise Brexit vote at the end of it, we can see parallels. But the percentage of evangelicals is much, much smaller in the Uk and really didn’t make much of an impact on the Brexit vote (and the country was pretty divided, too.) Gove and Johnson misled people and made all kinds of outrageous promises about Brexit, but more than that, they tapped into people’s fears and beliefs. And people bought it – and some are now furious about the outcome. It was an election won on memes and slogans – and I think our fast-paced, instant-news, social media life probably has more to do than these surprise wins than anything else. In an economic downturn, nations tend to slide to the right.

    But there again, I’m an outsider looking in. In Britain, we generally don’t have preachers teaching on politics or telling people how to vote in churches. We also don’t have a single party who wants to repeal abortion laws. For what it’s worth, the articles I saw circulating about Clinton being the antichrist and Trump being Cyrus, God’s anointed, made me despair a little. Lots of Christians across the pond have been weeping, too, post-November. Praying for your great nation.

  3. Elizabeth: New International Version

    He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.

  4. Outstanding Ms. Esther. It is disorienting to realize that there is a large minority of citizens to whom the facts don’t matter. It’s left me wondering how to have a discussion if there is a group who simply makes stuff up?

    This is the bizarre result of 30 years or more of the Right working to distort and twist reality to fit their policies that benefit the rich. The advent of Fox Noise put the nail in the coffin of effective American discourse. It will require much time and effort to bring back reasonableness.

  5. because they aren’t the ones that voted for trump thus voting for a man who grabs woman’s genitals and has intercourse with 13 year old girls or has affairs.

  6. And how, exactly, do you know that none of us Black Evangelicals voted for Trump? Fact is, eight percent of Black Americans DID vote for Trump, while the 95 percent of blacks who voted for Obama dropped to 88 % for Hillary. No joke.

    So Trump got an unexpected 8 % of black voters, PLUS a not-yet-measured dollop of blacks who simply stayed home (at a critical time when Hillary desperately needed every single “Battle-ground” state plus every “Democratic” state.)

    We don’t yet know the exact number of Black Evangelical votes, because both Hillary and the media assumed we were all happily slaving like dogs on Hillary’s Plantation.

    But we DO know that the large black AME Church, the giant Church Of God In Christ, and others, sent Hillary an emergency letter (see the link), begging her to say something re-assuring to their generally Bible-believing black Christians, on topics like the Gay-Marriage-Mess, Abortion-On-Demand, Black-Poverty, and Religious-Freedom.

    “We know that you will not make the political mistake of taking 69,000 black churches in the US for granted,” the black leaders said. But Hillary did. You saw the results !!

  7. I find this article to be colored by the author’s particular worldview, though that can be said of most of us. I’m not quite sure what “facts” the author is referring to, beyond the ones relating to Mr. Trump’s admittedly disordered domestic life. I find her analysis of the “evangelical” community to be shallow and selective. Many influential Evangelical leaders in fact deplored the candidacy of the President-elect and indicated that they could not in good conscience endorse Mr. Trump. But that was decidedly not an implicit endorsement of Mrs. Clinton. I think all thinking and sincere Christians were faced with a very difficult choice for President, and many made the choice that was least objectionable to them. Mrs. Clinton’s ethical character was certainly a legitimate question, even though she has not been charged with, or convicted of, any crime. But her position on abortion, and her “evolving ” stance on gay marriage would reasonably be considered plausible factors for more conservative evangelicals. Certainly Mr. Trump has indicated that his position on the settled question of gay marriage, at least as far as the law is concerned, should trouble no one on the left. As to the question of journalistic integrity and objective reporting, I have a difficult time restraining my laughter, and I’m not singling out the Right or Left. The mainstream media was clearly in the tank for Mrs. Clinton, and Fox News seemed clearly to favor Mr. Trump. If I were an instructor grading Ms. Esther on her command of facts, formulation of argument, etc., I would give her a C-.

  8. Trump. Clinton.
    Excessive Google posts taken together confirm: Hillary is bi-sexual. Went with Bill to Orgy Island. Dishonest practices in Clinton Foundation. Obviously condoned Bill’s working with Colombian drug dealers while governor. Both cocaine users. Possibly condoned the alleged 90 people killed by Bill’s henchmen when they were going to rat on Bill. Benghazi. Iraq. ISIS. Poor record as Sec. of State. Email fiasco. Liar. Not bright, aging with physical problems. Had drunken meltdown, swore and threw things at her staff when told she’d lost the election. UGH.

    I voted for Trump. He’s done none of the above.

    Rethink your articles before publishing.

  9. There was a survey done by Pew, I think. It was on religion. When asked what would happen if a fact disproved one of their christian beliefs, 60% would ignore the fact. Religion appeals to our irrational side and cannot be easily changed by mere facts.

  10. As an American, I would not say Hillary lost *because* of evangelicals, in the sense that she never depended on evangelical votes, i.e. Obama won despite not gardening white evangelical voters. She lost for other reasons: not inspiring the liberal midwest voters to vote, sexist democrats who did not want a woman, not inspiring enough millennials.

    Yet that does not change the fact that its so disheartening that evangelicals voted for a sexist, racist bigot, or that they ignored all the facts: i.e. that Trump is the one who lies all the time. And if the evangelicals had their heart in the right place, and refused to vote Trump, she could have won.

  11. We have to remember that HRC won the popular vote, so more people actually voted for her, but the electoral system combined with the increased number of Congressional districts occupied by Republicans dictated Trump (or will in days.) We will reap what we have sown, I fear. We have two years to correct the House of Representatives, and the gerrymandering will take much legal work to undo. Wisconsin is a classic case.

  12. To ” correct ” the house in 2 yrs is of no consequence.
    Trump’s new alt-right SCOTUS will cause incalculable damage to my grandchildren for decades.

  13. Think, Ryan, before you post so many unsubstantiated claims and rumors. You can’t be serious about this nonsense.

  14. You’ve been hitting that cheap bottle of moonshine again – haven’t you….

Leave a Comment