In the last week of Donald Trump’s presidency, I woke one morning suddenly aware that his qualities were the same ones I did not like about God when I was a child.
God was arrogant. The Ten Commandments warned, “I, the LORD thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. . . .”  With the clarity of a third grader, I thought God was unfair to punish children for their elders’ offenses.
My brain’s gatekeeper slammed the door against those rebellious thoughts, but my doubts persisted. As a child, I had wondered why an all-powerful God would create hell and require his own son’s blood to save people from such a terrifying place. The Bible’s explanations made no sense. But I loved and trusted people who fervently believed these doctrines. So I accepted them.
I heard messages in tongues and interpretation during charismatic praise services. A worshipper would call out: “God inhabits the praises of His people!” Gentle waves of glossolalia would sweep through the congregation, tears flowing freely over blissful faces, hands raised heavenward as we sang love songs to Jesus. Worship brought cathartic release.
Trump craved praise and delighted in mocking anyone who dared oppose him. His face would shift between a sneer and a self-satisfied smile as he rallied believers back and forth from hatred to adoration. This pattern reminded me of the psalmist who vowed to hate “with perfect hatred” those who do not love the LORD.
Trump’s threat to destroy North Korea with “fire and fury” like “this world has never seen before” resembled God’s imperious response when King David ordered a census to find men of fighting age. Miffed by this, God sent a pestilence that killed 70,000 Israelites. Even as a child, I saw nothing to admire in temper tantrums.
We no longer need psychotherapists to point out Trump’s personality disorders. Comedians have satirized his narcissism, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur. I had long forgotten how much this behavior resembled what I disliked about God when I was six or seven. I could not fathom why God ordered the Israelites to slay the babies and animals of people they had conquered. Why had God struck a man dead for trying to protect the Ark of the Covenant? God wanted people to fear him, much like Republicans in Congress trembled at Trump’s uncanny power over their constituents.
Therapists have identified the psychological effects of “Trump angst” on their patients, a constant uneasiness and dread. When I was a pastor, I saw similar signs of “God angst” in people worried about God’s capricious demands. Catholic priests use the word “scrupulosity” of parishioners who are terrified that something they do unwittingly might upset God. One woman, who for years had faithfully cooked fish on Fridays, phoned her priest to ask what kind of soup God wanted her to make. The clinical name for such a neurosis is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), often called the “doubting disease.” Sufferers find themselves automatically performing rituals to calm their unrelenting fears.
On January 6th, 2021, Trump’s last-ditch efforts to overturn the 2020 election failed spectacularly. Incited by the president, thousands of his frenzied white followers stormed through Congressional barricades, intent on securing his uninterrupted rule. Christians carried a fish banner and “Jesus Saves” signs. One man paraded a Confederate flag through the halls of Congress. A right-wing militia scurried up the stairs wearing fatigues. A QAnon priest, triumphant in his horns and war paint, pondered what to do next. Twitter and Facebook locked the Trump accounts, belatedly removing his incendiary posts.
Shortly before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20th, Air Force One evacuated Trump to his refuge at Mar-A-Lago. His people waited for a miracle. When it never came, some suffered a crisis of faith. Their hopes turned to dust.
About the same time, an acquaintance of ours announced that his self-published apocalyptic book had quickly sold out at Christmastime 2020. Its lurid full-color cover showed people writhing in medieval torture devices. The author’s website announced, “Reading this book might just save your life!” He warned of a comet that would soon bring three days of darkness, opening the gates of hell and releasing demons to roam the earth in search of souls. He proudly announced that his book was being translated for distribution throughout Poland.
My husband, Phil West, had taught a course on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalism, the three monotheistic religions that claim Abraham as their patriarch and focus on “the end times.” He had never expected this author, a devout Roman Catholic, to apply apocalyptic ideas as if they were literally happening in the 21st Century.
He sent the author his PowerPoint lecture of those eschatological frenzies that had led to pogroms in Europe and “the Great Disappointment” in the United States. He warned of the violence this book could provoke in Poland, where Donald Trump had helped President Andrzej Duda eke out a slender victory for his second term in July 2020. An opposition editor in Warsaw expressed dismay at “the destruction of the democratic system,” the growth of isolation, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism, “using the Catholic Church as a tool.”
My grandfather, Hubert Grant, the fundamentalist patriarch of our family, also clung to apocalyptic hopes. Born in London in 1880, his father had been an illiterate fishmonger and widower with a houseful of children who needed a mother. His new wife raised them but chafed at her husband’s alcoholism as he proudly hoisted his newest son onto the bar for his drinking buddies to admire.
With the older children grown, she finally left her husband’s coercive control, took her three children with her, and hired women in her laundry business. Young Hubert did office work before suffering a traumatic breakdown in his teens. In my grandfather’s papers, I found his handwritten note on a tract that he “was first healed (of a nervous breakdown) after reading this in England Sept. 21, 1901.” He and his mother preached on street corners with Methodists and the Salvation Army.
At the end of 1905, Hubert’s mother and sister sailed to America to join evangelicals at Zion City, Illinois. Hubert soon followed with his wife, who was pregnant with the first of their seven children. During his brief sojourn as secretary to the founder of Zion City, he heard testimonies about a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit that resembled the Biblical account. The second chapter of Acts describes the “Day of Pentecost,” fifty days after Jesus was crucified. As instructed by their Lord, the disciples tarried at Jerusalem in prayer, ready to be “endued with power from on high.” Suddenly a mighty wind filled the house, and flames appeared over their heads. They began praising God in languages they had never learned.
Jews had travelled from the far corners of the diaspora to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. They were shocked to hear homespun Galileans speaking their own languages. As crowds gathered, a fisherman named Peter preached about Joel’s apocalyptic prophecies describing the end times: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood . . . .”
That day, according to Acts 2, the apostles baptized three thousand converts, who “sold their possessions” and held all things in common, eating together, and caring for each other’s needs. Apocalyptic movements do not quibble against socialism when they are convinced that their days on earth will soon end.
Reading about Hubert’s life, I was struck by the fact that he did not appear to be biased against women or people of color as many white Christian fundamentalists are today. Hubert first experienced the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” under the preaching of a woman. He pursued it at an interracial church led by a Black pastor on Azusa Street in Los Angeles.
Scripture taught that disempowered people are uniquely qualified to display God’s supernatural power. The stuttering Moses could confront the mighty Pharaoh and lead Israelite slaves to freedom. A humble teenage maiden could sing a hymn of liberation and give birth to the Messiah. This message imbued me with confidence. If we invite God to work through us, I believed, all things are possible. That was an excellent part of growing up fundamentalist. Other parts were not so helpful.
My parents took my brother and me on a road trip in 1957 to visit Grandpa Grant at Window Rock, Arizona. His wife had died decades earlier. In his tiny trailer, we saw the typewriter and mimeograph machine where he pounded out meticulous newsletters, Bible studies for all ages, and “Songs in the Night” that he mailed to Christian workers and his far-flung family.
We sat at his table as he obsessed in his precise British accent over minutiae written by prophets thousands of years ago. His sense of urgency to save lost souls filled my eleven-year-old brain long after the table-top had been removed so I could sleep on the trailer’s couch beneath it. The terror of those end times broke fitfully into my sleep.
In 1965, Grandpa wrote to my father that he had found “a place of refuge (Prov. 14:26)” on the mountain in Jerome, Arizona, that “can easily be defended . . . . It is the spot revealed by God for us to hide away.” He warned of “the terrors of captivity (Deut. 28:64–68) for those who persist in staying where the Reds will over-run (Ezekiel 38:9–13 etc.) . . . .” Grandpa died of a heart attack three years later, still believing that the Bible’s ancient prophecies were the inerrant Word of God for our time.
In 1972, Phil and I took our two little boys to visit my parents in the house where I grew up. We sat in the dining room where they had cut their wedding cake thirty years before. A decade ago, I had fallen in love with Phil’s earnest intellect as he talked with my father at this table. Here, in this room, my cousin had told us about Barnard College, next door to Union Seminary, where Phil planned to study.
While our children played, Phil turned on the tape recorder and asked my parents to tell us the family histories. I was still confident that the Holy Spirit had supernaturally brought us together for God’s purpose that was unfolding in front of us. Forty years would pass before I learned about the work of the brain’s reticular activating system to focus, reinforce, and fulfill our deepest desires, whether or not we hold supernatural beliefs.
Dad told us how Grandpa Grant, son of an illiterate alcoholic, sought perfection, for scripture commands it: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” He became an exacting court stenographer, then private secretary to a governor and U.S. senator. He uprooted his wife and children many times as he joined various Christian movements. Dad had a loving way of reflecting on his father’s life:
“He had a hard time getting along with people. At first, he would be very enthusiastic, but all of a sudden, he would find points of difference, some doctrine or scripture where they did not see eye to eye. It bothered him. Instead of accepting a person and working to get a project done regardless of their differences, he would turn against them. I remember this happening with so many people. I would always try to overlook this eccentricity in him, because he had such a hard life.”
Fifty years later, I appreciate how short a single lifetime is, how slowly we evolve as each generation struggles with old traumas and new fears. I understand how my childhood fundamentalism sustained me but then became a hindrance that I needed to clamber over with help from Phil, my most trusted friend.
I empathize with the multitudes drawn into the vortex of Trump’s chaotic presidency. Christians who found apocalyptic ideas compelling were susceptible to Russian trolls and QAnon messages. Guided by algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms, they fell prey to clickbait that plunged them further down the rabbit hole of disinformation without corrective truths or critical thinking. I felt moved by the story of one mother who became so absorbed in pedophile conspiracy fears that she neglected her own children.
I, too, became absorbed in my work, confident that the Holy Spirit was assigning me enormous tasks. I neglected our children. Now I look at the photos Phil took of them growing up and wonder who they were and what we missed by not being closer.
I am grateful that Phil was the parent who raised them. Grateful that our sons never gave much credence to the “Jesus Festival” that we attended with youth from our churches in 1984. We were shocked by evangelists who praised President Reagan and preached the prosperity gospel to people seated on that Pennsylvania hillside. Reagan played to Christian fears of Armageddon and spent unprecedented billions on his “Strategic Defense Initiative.” His agriculture department entertained the idea that ketchup and relish could be considered vegetables for schools to feed poor children. I privately wondered if Ronald Wilson Reagan might indeed be the 666 that apocalyptic scriptures warned against.
Our children tolerated their parents, made us proud, and stopped going to church as soon as they left home. It took Phil and me two more decades to discover in 2009 that we no longer believed the supernatural doctrines we once proclaimed. Our faith is stronger than ever, not in ancient creeds, but in rigorous science, critical thinking, and the resilient power of love.
Exodus 20:5, KJV
Based on Psalm 22:3 KJV
As the psalmist promises the LORD in Psalm 139:20–22 KJV
2 Samuel 24:15
1 Samuel 15:3; Numbers 16:41–49
2 Samuel 6:1–7; 1 Chronicles 13:9–12
The International OCD Foundation provides insight for therapists and patients in the context of a supportive community.
Caranci, Paul F., Before the End of the Age: Signs of the ComingChastisement Pawtucket, RI: Stillwater River Publications, 2020
Gera, Vanessa and Monika Scislowska, “Polish president wins 2nd term after bitter campaign,” AP 13 July 2020
Simpson, A. B., “Himself” was republished in the “Words of Life: Tracts for the Times” series, № 974. Christian Workers Union, Framingham, MA, 20 July 1929
Luke 24:49 KJV
Acts 2:20 KJV, Joel 2:31
Acts 2:44–46 KJV
Grant, Hubert, handwritten letter to Philip J. Grant, “My dear Son,” 27 January 1965, p2
Matthew 5:48, KJV
Klepper, David, “Checked by reality, some QAnon conspiracy supporters want out,” AP, 29 Jan. 2021