I went to a haunted house event with some friends once, but only once because I was not invited back the next year. You see: this one girl and I were at opposite ends of the freaking-out spectrum, with her crying and me not reacting. It came time to go through the last haunted house – the scariest one because it was pitch black – and so she and a couple other people decided that they wanted to go with me because they thought I’d help them not pass out from fear. There was no way to navigate the house without either walking into walls or tracing the walls with your hands. I opted for the latter, and just as the first guy popped out of a door I got a splinter from the wall. My friends screamed and I said “ow” and the actor broke character and asked if I needed first aid. Suffice to say that the spell was pretty much broken for my friends from there.
Which is all to say that there is a time and plate to suspend your disbelief. Movies, magic shows, and haunted houses to name a few. But in almost every other circumstance, we are expected to think critically. Whether we’re in school or talking to our parents, we know that our instructor isn’t infallible. Even when we’re watching the news, which is supposed to tell us the truth about the world we live in, we know that we must be skeptical of its accuracy and its impartiality.
But there is an exception to this rule; a place where average everyday people entirely suspend their disbelief despite the weighty consequences of what they’re being told: Church.
That’s not to say that everyone who goes to Church does so uncritically, but in my experience there is a very large contingent of people who make no distinction between the Truth of their faith and the truth according to the leader of their church. The consequences of this can be truly dramatic. I’ve often told the story of the time I attended an evangelical service of more than 5000 people in which the congregation was told that aliens were real but that they were daemons who were responsible for everything from wet dreams to seizures and schizophrenia. The congregation was told that “coexist” bumper stickers were an Illuminati experience to destroy Christianity through moral relativism. And the congregation was told that “Jews were in the audience to spy” on them – they meant me and my friend. I don’t know how many people in the audience were incredulous of the preacher’s claims, but I have no doubt that the standing-room-only crowd was overwhelmingly convinced of his claims. And that they would have been equally convinced whether the subject matter was aliens or the Illuminati or politics as long as the words were being spoken from the pulpit.
And this is where the trouble starts: when what is being preached from the pulpit is not restricted to matters of faith. When the line between religion and politics is blurred, such that political truths can be taken on faith and those political beliefs take on the same apocalyptic and gnostic tone as their religion, people become prone to conspiracy thinking. And the suspension of disbeliefs bleeds into other aspects of their life: their media consumption, their opinions of data. Most dangerously of all, the political leaders reverenced by their religious leaders become elevated to the same level as God: omnipotent and omnibenevolent. And the only reason why that political leader might fail is because of failures in service to him, such that those who oppose him are a threat not only to him but to the perfect world he promises.
The Church provides a convenient foundation for the cult of personality around political leaders, but once that cult is formed it becomes its own faith – and all comers are welcome as long as they are willing to suspend their disbelief and accept their political leader as the ultimate and only arbiter of truth.
I don’t mean to disparage religion here, nor the people who adhere to religion. Personally, I believe that there is a truth larger than that which we can see. But I don’t subscribe to a gnosticism which would allow me to believe that this Truth can be known by the “correct” practice of religion or by the “correct” teachings of religious texts.
My goal here is only to explain how such gnostic beliefs as espoused by evangelists and baptists can allow them to so readily embrace a man who is so diametrically opposite to their espoused values and to accept such extreme versions of reality on faith alone. It is a training that many people have received from birth: to believe that there is a truth larger than that which can be seen, and that men in positions of authority will tell them that truth.