Shame and fear of damnation

Thus we are reminded why intense religious cults are not benign.

Rebekah Powers was 11 when members of her faith group, the People of Praise, gathered around as she sat on a chair and laid their hands on her to pray. Powers’ sister had shown a gift for speaking in tongues, a defining trait of the followers of the small charismatic Christian community, and Rebekah was expected to do the same.

She couldn’t do it.

“I couldn’t get it, and I stayed there an hour and a half before they gave up and finally said, ‘You just have blockage. You need to just work on your sin and be more open,” she said.

There. That’s why. She was eleven. “Sin” is not real.

She left the group when she was 18, i.e. old enough that they couldn’t force her to stay.

It has taken decades of therapy and hard work to overcome the intense feelings of shame and fear of damnation that she said marked her childhood. The Christian faith group, based in South Bend, Indiana, dominated every aspect of her early life, she said.

There. That’s why. Those feelings are poison, and it’s evil (and if you like “sinful”) to force them on helpless children whose brains aren’t yet developed enough to resist adult indoctrination.

And one of the adherents of that nasty cult is the nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s such a profound, searching insult.

Democrats have already stated that neither Barrett’s Catholic faith nor her membership in the People of Praise – which has never publicly been discussed or disclosed, but has been examined in press reports – will be raised in their questioning of the nominee.

But it should be. It absolutely should be.

It should be but it won’t be because we have this squeamishness about questioning religions, plus we know Republicans will play the “they hate God!!!” card for all it’s worth.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader who is seeking to confirm Barrett before the end of October, has nevertheless said that media reports and some remarks by senators about a newly discovered public statement by Barrett in opposition to Roe v Wade, were “disgusting attacks” on faith. He said they risked a return to the “tropes of the 1960s”, when it was feared by some anti-Catholic bigots that John F Kennedy would act in the interest of the pope instead of the US.

Like that.

It’s not mere “bigotry” to worry about the role of Catholicism in a nominee’s thinking. Some people can rigidly separate their religion from their work, but others can’t. We shouldn’t just assume that everyone can and will, nor should we necessarily take their word for it that they will.

But Powers, who is one of a handful of former People of Praise members who contacted the Guardian to describe their difficult experience in the group (using her married name), and some religious scholars who have studied charismatic Christian communities, say Barrett’s membership in this specific religious community does raise legitimate questions. They want to examine how views that are integral to the group’s core beliefs – from its treatment of women to the separation of church and state – might influence her. They are also distinct from most mainstream Catholic faith.

Of course her membership raises questions, and so does the more common or garden membership in a religion. “Ordinary” Catholicism adamantly opposes abortion; we get to question that.

“We were Catholic, but the Catholicism was on the side. Our life, all of our friends, all of the randoms who were living in our household, were the [People of Praise] community. It was God,” she said. “The brainwashing and the groupthink, the female subjugation of being there to serve and listen to your spiritual head. It was so devaluing. To me, it instilled such problems.”

Thomas Csordas, an anthropology professor at the University of California San Diego who has studied the issues around communities like People of Praise, said it was wrong to focus attention on whether the group could be a considered a “cult” in the spirit of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. It was much more appropriate, he said, to examine what he called the “intentional community” of People of Praise and its nature of being “conservative, authoritarian, hierarchical, and patriarchal”.

Those qualities all march together. They’re bad qualities.

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University, said that even if senators declined to question Barrett about her faith, the issues deserved to be aired in other forums because groups like People of Praise, he said, does reject a secular view of separation between church and state.

“I don’t think we should put her Catholicism on trial, but the Catholic conservative legal movement is putting liberalism on trial. They want to change a certain understanding of the liberal order of individual rights, and that is coming from the religious worldview of Catholic groups,” he said.

The religious worldview which is also a political worldview. They’re far from apolitical. It’s Francoism updated.

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