Belief

Evangelical anti-vaxx 'rebel' reveals father ended up in ER after whole family contracts COVID-19

The evangelical right in our country is not populated by people promoting long-term thinking. While most Christians believe that vaccinations are miraculous ways in which science has been able to help humanity fend off disease and death, evangelicals continue to promote an end-of-times eschatological Judeo-Christian view of the world that has been wrong about the coming apocalypse for about 2,100 years now. Never fear, at some point they’ll get it right. Comedy is just tragedy plus timing and all of that.

Eric Metaxas is one of the Christian right-wingers who has been around peddling pretty abhorrent drivel pretending American Christians have been persecuted in our country for decades. His reading of American history includes the belief that the millions of Native Americans who died as a result of European war and disease were simply the trinkets of Christian deliverance in the New World. Unsurpringly, Metaxas has been an anti-vaxxer in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic—being anti-vaccine is where the money is made these days for libertarians and right-wingers. Guess who got COVID-19? I’ll give you four guesses.

If you said Eric Metaxas, his wife Susan, and both of his parents, ding ding ding! Metaxas spoke on his show after an absence. In the clip below, he explains that he’s been dealing with a lot of COVID-19 in his life.

ERIC METAXAS: I got COVID. Suzanne got COVID. I don't know if she gave it to me, or I gave it to her. But then she went to visit my parents and gave it to them. And my mother got it. And my father got it. And my current daughter—I won’t use her name on the air—let’s just say Hortense, went to nurse my parents.
So this has been the craziest time in the Metaxas family, folks. If you've been wondering where I've been, I have no idea where I've been. I've been in a perspiring haze for days and days and days. Obviously I'm mostly out of it. The fact that I can be functional and talk here for the first time in two weeks. But the fact that my parents were ill was very upsetting to me. My dad had to go to the emergency room, again, so it's been a really crazy time … and obviously when your dad’s 94 and he has COVID, and other health issues, it’s just been very stressful I have to say.

No idea what “current daughter” means in any context. Metaxas could simply be exhausted and historically he speaks in a strange way with phraseologies that even make me wonder. The Metaxas’ family revelations come after months of Metaxas giving his expert opinion on Steve Bannon’s show, where he explained that not taking a vaccine was a way to rebel against … something.

“The bottom line is, questions come up about the vaccine. People say, ‘I’m not going, this is experimental. I’ve watched this pandemic roll out and I’m not afraid of getting it, my kids are not afraid of getting it. This is not a big deal for us, I’m not going to put some experimental thing in my system, when we literally don’t know what could happen.’” Metaxas went on to juxtapose people afraid of the vaccine with “some other people” saying that “you must do it,” and that the “government is telling you you must do it.”

His convoluted point being that … take a breath … ”Americans need to understand that if the government, or everybody, is telling you you have to do something, we don’t have dissent, no dissent, you need to understand that’s not the American way, folks. And if only to be a rebel, you need to say, ‘I’m not going to do that.’” This isn’t the only time Metaxas spent trying to get some of that right-wing anti-vaxx traction.

A couple of days before Halloween, just over a month ago, Metaxas, who was probably trying to scare your children, gave one of those classic analogies to the Holocaust that is so bananas offensive that either someone is a rabid antisemite or they have very little brain function, or both. On right-wing clown Dave Rubin’s Rubin Report, he explained that the COVID-19 vaccine has opened his eyes to what he says has been happening every time he’s been put on shows for the past decade or so. Comparing anti-vaxxers’ “demonization” and “marginalization” to Jews under the Nazis, he reveals: “The vaccine idea, the idea that you can tell people, ‘Listen, yes this was made because of aborted fetuses; but you know, what if it was made with the bodies of Jews we murdered in the concentration camps who cares we're telling you, you need to get it whether you have an objection to murdering Jewish children, we don't care. We're going to tell you what to do.”

I hope he and his family recover at God’s pace.

Utah newspaper slams the state’s public assistance program for violating 'the First Amendment'

The United States in general has a weaker social safety net than major developed countries in Europe, but red states are especially bad — and that includes Utah, where public assistance for the poor is hard to come by. And the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board, in a scathing editorial published on December 3, not only slams Utah’s Republican-dominated government for its lack of public assistance, but also, for suggesting that those it rejects need to become Mormons.

“Utah’s rules for giving cash assistance to the poor are so Scrooge-like that almost nobody qualifies,” the Tribune’s editorial board explains. “As recently as 2019, Utah was providing cash assistance, beyond food stamps and Medicaid, to only about 3000 households, out of 30,000 families living below the poverty level. Applications for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — what Bill Clinton put in when he kept his promise to ‘end welfare as we know it’ — are rejected at the rate of 1300 a month in the state. So, state employees often accompany a rejected application with a suggestion that people seek out the leaders of the local ward of the (Latter Day Saints) Church in hopes of receiving aid from its undeniably large and often very generous welfare system.”

The Tribune’s editorial board continues, “By itself, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s legal, and it is very much in the American tradition of supplementing official forms of aid with help from various private and faith-based organizations, providing more help without adding to the taxpayers’ burdens. But two things make the unofficial link between our state and our state’s predominant church a problem. One of them is that it’s not altogether unofficial.”

According to the Tribune’s editorial board, “Once the vulnerable people are shunted over to the church, many of them are expected to accept proselytizing visits in their homes, to attend church services, even to be baptized in the faith, in order to qualify for food, cash or other assistance…. Once a church’s welfare system gets tied to the state’s federally funded welfare operation, in the way the LDS Church’s efforts are linked to Utah’s, it is not so independent anymore. It becomes a de facto arm of the state. That is an obvious violation of the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion in America.”

Utah makes welfare so hard to get, some feel they must join the LDS Church to get aid

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Near the start of the pandemic, in a gentrifying neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah, visitors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived at Danielle Bellamy’s doorstep. They were there to have her read out loud from the Book of Mormon, watch LDS videos and set a date to get baptized, all of which she says the church was requiring her to do in exchange for giving her food.

Bellamy, desperate for help, had tried applying for cash assistance from the state of Utah. But she’d been denied for not being low-income enough, an outcome that has become increasingly common ever since then-President Bill Clinton signed a law, 25 years ago, that he said would end “welfare as we know it.”

State employees then explicitly recommended to Bellamy that she ask for welfare from the church instead, she and her family members said in interviews.

Bellamy’s family was on the verge of homelessness. The rent on their apartment continued to rise — a result of Utah being the fastest-growing state in the nation, a trend driven in part by young, upper-middle-class people from California and elsewhere flocking to Salt Lake City’s snow-capped slopes to enjoy its outdoor activities, tech jobs and low taxes.

Worse, Bellamy suffers from a severe autoinflammatory disease and, barely able to stand, is regularly hospitalized for days at a time. Her younger daughter, Jaidyn, had to drop out of high school to care for her, helping her get up, lie down, bathe and change out the wound vacuums attached to her body.

Although maintaining a safety net for the poor is the government’s job, welfare in Utah has become so entangled with the state’s dominant religion that the agency in charge of public assistance here counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS Church toward the state’s own welfare spending, according to a memorandum of understanding between the church and the state obtained by ProPublica.

What that means is that over the past decade, the Utah State Legislature has been able to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law, a review of budget documents shows.

The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program is centered at a place calledWelfare Square, ensconced among warehouses on Salt Lake City’s west side. There, poor people — provided they obtain approval of their grocery list from a lay bishop, who oversees a congregation — can get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from the church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. (Bishops can also authorize temporary cash assistance for rent, car payments and the like; recipients often have to volunteer for the church to obtain the aid.)

Welfare Square was built in 1938 amid the Great Depression, anintentional repudiation by church leaders of government welfare as epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. We “take care of our own,” they famously said.

But Bellamy, a Black single mother, is not one of the church’s own — and, unlike the government, a church is often allowed to discriminate based on religion.

The bishop of her local congregation, called a ward, decided that as a precondition of receiving welfare, she would have to read, understand and embrace LDS scripture, Bellamy told ProPublica. Church representatives came by her apartment to decide what individual food items she did and did not need while pressuring her to attend Sunday services, she said.

A church spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak on the record for this story, said that Bellamy’s is just one experience, and there are likely thousands of people across Utah who would swear by the help they’ve received from the church and the guidance they’ve been given toward a more self-sufficient life. He said that because some bishops are more rigid about providing aid than others, some people may wind up in situations like Bellamy’s, but that most in the church default to compassion.

The spokesperson also said that conversations about welfare are between individuals (like Bellamy and others whose stories also appear in this article) and their bishop, and that the church would not break what it regards as a sacred confidentiality.

Bellamy cooperated at first with what was being asked of her. She felt she’d go along “if that’s what I needed to do for some type of goodness to come to my family,” she said, adding that she knew that many in her community had benefited greatly from church welfare and their LDS faith.

Yet she ultimately balked, especially at the thought of being baptized in front of strangers. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t believe in it. And it’s important what I believe in.”

For her refusal, she says, she and her family were denied welfare by the church, just as they had been by the state.

Utah After Welfare Reform

ProPublica is investigating the state of welfare across the Southwest, where the skyrocketing cost of living has made cash assistance for struggling families — an issue that has been brought to the fore again amid debate over President Joe Biden’s child tax credit — more desperately needed than ever.

What the 1996 welfare reform law did, in essence, was dramatically shrink the safety net for the poorest Americans while leaving what aid remained in the hands of individual states, issuing each a “block grant” of federal welfare funding and significant discretion over how to spend, or not spend, the cash.

Ever since, welfare has taken on each state’s personality.

There’s perhaps no better place to examine the past and future of public assistance than Utah, the only state with a private welfare system to rival the government’s. After all, the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served as a model for the welfare reform movement of the 1980s and ’90s, when it was spotlighted by then-President Ronald Reagan during a visit to LDS welfare facilities and in the writings of a young conservative named Tucker Carlson.

The first thing Utah did under the 1996 law was to become increasingly closefisted about helping poor people, creating a labyrinthine system of employment and self-improvement programs that applicants must partake in — including resume-writing seminars, screenings for drug use, counseling sessions and continual paperwork — as well as strict income limits they must not surpass. As of 2019, the state was providing direct assistance to about 3,000 families out of nearly 30,000 living in poverty, a precipitous decline from the mid-’90s, when Utah’s program served roughly 60% of these parents and children. (Utah denied welfare applications, on average, more than 1,300 times every month last year, including during the pandemic.)

A single mother of one here is eligible for $399 a month in state assistance, and only if she has a net income of $456 a month or less.

Utah doesn’t do more for those in need in part because a contingent of its lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latter-day Saints themselves, assume the church is handling the poverty issue; they also are loath to raise taxes to do the state’s share, a review of Utah’s legislative history demonstrates.

Thanks to “the LDS Church’s welfare system, literally millions, tens of millions and maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars are saved by the state,” former state Sen. Stuart Reid said in 2011, when the Legislature passed a resolution honoring church welfare on its 75th anniversary.

Indeed, Utah has been counting millions in church welfare work every year as part of the state’s own welfare budget, as a way of meeting the minimum level of effort the state is required to put into addressing poverty so it can collect on federal dollars from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. According to the memorandum of understanding between the church and the state, Utah takes credit for a percentage of the hours that church volunteers spend producing and packaging food and clothing for the poor at Welfare Square and similar facilities.

It also claims as state welfare a percentage of the church’s efforts to produce and ship out humanitarian aid in the wake of disasters — aid that may not even help Utahns.

Officials at Utah’s public assistance agency, which after welfare reform was named the Department of Workforce Services, said they do not know how long they’ve had this “third-party” understanding with the church. But they emphasized that it’s legal under the 1996 law and subsequent federal regulations, and that other states engage in the same practice. (That law was the first federal legislation to allow and encourage religious groups to be involved in the provision of government-funded social services, a policy championed by then-Sen. John Ashcroft and later by President George W. Bush.)

ProPublica found that the deal with the church was brokered in 2009 during the Great Recession, when Utah hired a for-profit company called Public Consulting Group Inc. to identify private organizations that could help the state spend less on welfare while still receiving full federal funding, according to Utah’s contract with PCG.

When the state denies help to low-income Utahns, state caseworkers sometimes, though not always, suggest that they seek welfare from the church instead, according to interviews with more than three dozen former caseworkers and applicants.

“You would explain to them, ‘Have you talked to an LDS bishop?’” said Robert Martinez, an eligibility worker for the Department of Workforce Services from 2013 to 2019.

Martinez said he always gave applicants other nongovernmental options to consider, and there was no coercion to go the religious route. Still, he emphasized to them, the church has a lot more money to offer than the minimal aid dispensed by the state. (In fact, the church appears to have more money than what is by most accounts the largest philanthropic organization in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Liz Carver, director of workforce development at the Department of Workforce Services and the lead TANF official at the agency, acknowledged in multiple interviews that caseworkers might in some instances propose church welfare to customers, which is what the department calls citizens who apply for public assistance.

But, she said, welfare caseworkers not just in Utah but nationwide refer applicants to a range of community organizations, faith-based or not, all the time. It’s part of a larger conversation with these individuals about what brought them to ask for help that day, she said, and about which needs the government can assist with under the federal regulations and which it can’t.

Utah, Carver noted, is one of the most charitable states in the nation, characterized by a strong ethic of neighbors helping neighbors, which makes the agency’s public-private offerings stronger.

Regarding the state’s fiscal arrangement with the church, Carver said, “We’d have to ask the state Legislature for more money if we couldn’t count this partnership” toward state welfare.

“I mean, we could be counting millions of hours of [church members’] volunteer time, bishops helping their communities, all that stuff,” she continued, suggesting that the current amount of church assistance that Utah is claiming as the state’s is minimal and necessary.

Christina Davis, communication director for the department, added in an emailed statement that the fact that caseworkers may refer Utahns to the church and other private groups is a separate and unrelated issue from the state’s budgetary agreement with the church welfare program.

She also stressed that tens of thousands of low-income households in Utah receive other forms of help from the state, including food stamps and Medicaid.

Finally, Davis pointed out that the number of poor people who are provided direct assistance has been significantly scaled back not just in Utah but across the country.

The problem with Utah’s dependence on church aid to pick up that slack, civil rights advocates say, is that although the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, once instructed his membership to clothe the naked and feed the hungry whether they arein this church, or in any other, or in no church at all,” the thousands of individual bishops who today run point for LDS welfare services may have different views.

Most are continually generous with aid. But some might feel justified in politely denying assistance to poor people who aren’t Latter-day Saints — or to LGBTQ people — even in some cases turning away struggling church members who haven’t been attending services or paying 10% of their income to the church in tithes.

“There’s this term in the church called ‘bishop roulette,’” said David Smurthwaite, a former bishop in Salt Lake City, referring to the differing choices about welfare that get made by each bishop in congregations across the state.

Smurthwaite said that church leadership did equip him with a slate of questions to ask low-income people who came to his office asking for help. But, he said, bishops are “not professional welfare providers, not professional therapists, yet we get put in the hot seat for these kinds of experiences.”

Bishops are called to their lay role on a temporary basis, typically for around five years. Unlike most clergy in other faiths, they often have day jobs. And like with anyone else, their politics can infuse their religion.

There’s also much less accountability than there would be for a government program. Welfare decisions by bishops are subject mainly to the broad tenets of the church’s “General Handbook,” usually with counsel from other church leaders but without oversight from the public.

“If a state’s premier social safety net is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, “what does that mean if you’re not one?”

Separation of Church and State

The very first words of the First Amendment are not about freedom of speech or the right to protest, but rather a warning against government establishment of religion.

That is why the state of Utah’s welfare-provision system being intertwined with the LDS Church is “troubling,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on the separation of church and state. “I can’t think of anything at all analogous,” he said, adding that if someone sues, it would be a “novel” case.

Laycock noted, though, that if Utah’s granting and denying of welfare applications isn’t itself religious in nature, it may not matter legally that the state then tells some applicants deemed ineligible about a private source of aid — even one, like the church, that may judge them based on religion.

Nathan S. Chapman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia, said a key question is whether Utah has “partnered” with the LDS Church to enough of an extent that the overall system for providing welfare in the state is “insufficiently religiously neutral” and thus denies vulnerable people “true private choice” as to whether to partake in religion so they can receive assistance.

But he also said the state could argue that it is not constitutionally obligated to provide welfare to citizens, and that there is a marketplace of private aid providers including not just the LDS Church but also others that are less publicized in Utah, like Catholic Community Services.

ProPublica interviewed more than two dozen low-income Salt Lake City-area residents about their experiences with Utah’s safety net. Almost all who weren’t active church members — and even many who were — felt that welfare in Utah is religiously prejudicial, at least in practical terms, because the state has left a vacuum of social services that’s filled by individual bishops and their potential biases.

Candice Simpkins, who grew up in the church, says she struggled to pay her bills and afford groceries after the birth of her daughter but knew from reading a state website that her income was slightly too high for her to qualify for public assistance. When she went to a bishop for help instead, she says, she was told that she wouldn’t be in her situation if she hadn’t had sex out of wedlock, and that she would have to start attending church services. (Feminist Mormons say that women especially are affected by the capriciousness of welfare in Utah. Bishops are all men, and some view both premarital sex and divorce, each of which can lead to precarious financial situations, as the fault of women, critics say.)

A close friend of Simpkins’, whom she called in tears after her interaction with the bishop, corroborated her description of what happened.

In another case, Jo Alexander, who is lesbian, says she was desperate for a hotel room during a period of homelessness. But she knew she couldn’t get public assistance from the state because she had received it around two decades ago as a young woman and therefore had exceeded her lifetime limit under another of the rules implemented under welfare reform. As a result, she went to a bishop.

Despite being raised as a member of the church, she was denied. She says it is known in the community that she is gay and she believes that was the reason for her rejection. (A friend confirmed her account, though there are no public records of these private conversations with bishops.)

And Miranda Twitchell, who is currently homeless, says the rules and procedures for obtaining state aid are so convoluted and seemingly endless that she had nowhere to turn except the church for immediate help when she needed food and a bed — and that’s when she decided to follow a piece of advice shared on the streets: “Get baptized, get help.”

Some low-income people in Salt Lake City say they have gotten baptized just to obtain welfare, even though they don’t believe in the ritual. Most who had done so were afraid to speak on the record for this story, believing the church would learn that their conversion stories were inauthentic and retaliate by not helping them in the future.

The LDS spokesperson defended the church’s approach to welfare in part by emphasizing that the church should not be confused with a government agency or considered a replacement for the government in the provision of public assistance. (Indeed, the LDS “General Handbook” clearly states that church members should turn to the government first for financial help, before going to their bishop.)

The church does look after its own membership, the spokesperson said, given that it is a religious institution. If a nonmember seeks help, there’s less of a preexisting relationship with that person, and a bishop may ask the individual to come to services to see firsthand what his or her needs are. There, relationships are established with church members, who then extend a hand of fellowship.

Finally, he said, one of the church’s larger goals is for people who are struggling financially to learn self-reliance and industriousness, not dependency. This may be one reason that some felt rejected when they asked for ongoing assistance.

Experts on charitable giving note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members arguably do more than any other religious community to help people in poverty. (In Utah, the churchhasgiven tens of millions to fight homelessness.)

Several active Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake City area said that when faced with financial hardship, they may actually have a better safety net than anyone in any state, because they can count on the church for help with food, clothes, furniture, rent, utilities, car payments and repairs, tanks of gas, medical bills, moving expenses, job searches and general life problems.

Benjamin Sessions, executive director of Circles Salt Lake, an anti-poverty community organization, said that a struggling family he works with recently called him in the middle of the night while huddling in their car with nowhere to go. Sessions called up a local LDS leader he knows personally, who simply said, “What do you need? Get me a list.”

Help from the church is “dramatic and it’s quick,” Sessions said. “If you ask me to choose between calling up someone at the state versus someone at the church, I would call the church 10 out of 10 times.”

Others say it is a strength of this country that there are so many religious groups, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, synagogues and mosques, that provide food and shelter to the poor.

“If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food, is it less than optimal? Sure,” the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner told The Atlantic. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”

Yet most other faith-based organizations do not make religious rites such as worship or baptism a prerequisite of basic survival help, the way that some LDS bishops do, experts on religious charity say.

Even some lifelong church members in the Salt Lake City area told ProPublica that they were denied welfare by the church for religious reasons.

Amberlyn Robinson, who had been such a loyal churchgoer that she says she missed services only twice that she can remember during her entire childhood, fell deep into medical debt as a young woman after having a miscarriage that was nearly as expensive as it was traumatizing. She looked at her family’s finances and decided that the only way to pay the bills would be to be less consistent about tithing 10% of their limited income from her then-husband’s two jobs in retail, even though she worried God would smite her as a consequence.

Her bishop then denied her financial assistance, citing her failure to pay tithes as one reason — which left Robinson baffled as to how an inability to afford tithing could show anything but her need, she says, and made her so resentful that she ultimately left the faith.

Danilyn Levorsen, who was also born and raised in the church, struggles with rent and bills as the cost of living in and around Salt Lake City surges.

Her husband, who has severe disabilities that add to the family’s expenses, is a fan of the supernatural. He volunteers at a haunted house, Halloween is his Christmas, and he has intense tattoos.

When he asked a bishop for help, Levorsen says, the bishop responded by criticizing his alternative lifestyle and dark clothing.

“I hear on the news all the time that the church is shipping food to other countries,” she said, adding that she completely understands and supports those efforts, given the poverty in the world.

“But this is supposed to be their golden city, here,” she said. “And this is how they do us?”

It’s the State’s Responsibility

The onus to provide a safety net for America’s poorest families and children — and equal access to such services under the law irrespective of religion, gender, race or class — ultimately falls on the government, not a church that has a right to choose whom to serve.

Joel Briscoe, a former bishop in Salt Lake City and now a Democratic state legislator, said that as a bishop he always had people coming to him after they had tried and failed to get help from the state, especially food stamps. He could only do his best to make up for public assistance being “ludicrous, the amounts are so small,” he said.

Utah’s stinginess with aid stems in part from its focus on putting welfare applicants to work — no matter how much work a family is already putting into just getting by.

In Bellamy’s case, a state employee told her daughter Jaidyn that the family could get assistance only if she stopped staying at home to care for her mom and instead got a job, the family said. (She now works at a child care center. Bellamy’s older daughter, Imani, works overnight shifts as a home health care aide.)

Bellamy noted that the state has helped her with food stamps; she has also had many neighbors from the LDS church show her great kindness throughout her life, she said.

While denying so many families direct assistance, Utah was, as of a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, leading the nation in aid that its government was supposed to be providing the poor but was instead outsourcing to a third-party nongovernmental organization.

States do not have to report the extent to which they engage in this accounting maneuver, but a 2016 follow-up GAO report found that 15 others do it. By that time, Georgia was the outlier among several states that aggressively count as their own spending the charitable activities of groups such as United Way, the YMCA, food banks and domestic violence shelters.

Scott Dzurka, former president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways, told the publication Bridge Michigan that his organization eventually decided to stop allowing its work to be counted by the state as welfare. “We looked long and hard at that,” he said, “and raised concerns that really our resources may in fact be working against what we were trying to do, which was to supplement state poverty efforts, not replace them.”

The LDS Church declined to comment on this issue.

For a brief period during Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration and Congress were both moving to prevent states from “gaming the system” by counting outside spending as their own. But Rep. Tom Price, who went on to briefly head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, helped kill the legislation that would have ended the practice.

Because states are largely allowed to count welfare dollars how they want, Utah has also been able to spread this money around among its lawmakers’ favored projects, many of which are aimed at preventing low-income people from having sex out of wedlock rather than providing them with direct aid. (This is despite mounting evidence that cash assistance — money — alleviates poverty — a lack of money — much more effectively than less direct interventions like parenting classes.)

Welfare funding in Utah goes to the Utah Marriage Commission, among many other similar initiatives. These include a 4-H program called Teen Spheres of Influence that state budget documents say makes teens “3.4 times more likely to delay sexual intercourse through high school,” as well as a relationship program called “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette.”

Davis, the Department of Workforce Services spokesperson, reiterated that all uses of TANF funds in Utah are consistent with federal regulations implemented under welfare reform, which explicitly pressed states to reduce pregnancies among the poor unless they are in married, two-parent households.

Still, Utah continues to evolve, diversifying, becoming less of an LDS state centered on traditional family life. One area south of Salt Lake City is now so jammed with tech companies that it has been rechristened the Silicon Slopes. Meanwhile, thousands of the region’s residents have become homeless over the past decade and are being pushed from one up-and-coming neighborhood to the next by the police and the health department.

Farther up the mountainside, past the lovely houses around the state Capitol, you’ll find their latest encampment set against a cliff above the blazing lights of the Marathon Oil refinery to the northwest. Most here say they were denied survival help by the state first and the church second, or vice versa. Many say their rejection by the church was due to their unkempt appearance, their refusal to attend church services they find hypocritical, or an assumption by bishops that they would spend financial assistance not on food, but on drugs.

Michelle Low grew up in the faith but says she had a dysfunctional home life and became addicted to drugs while still a child, and then became homeless. She is now trying not to ask the state for help because of the strict lifetime limit on receiving aid; she wants to be able to apply for it down the road if she needs to. (But she says she could use the aid to buy warm clothes and shoes and to pay her cousin rent so she’d have somewhere to live indoors.)

Instead, Low asked the church for assistance, despite the many moral and intellectual questions she has had since childhood about church doctrine. But a bishop she spoke with said he couldn’t help her unless she made the choice to live together with and marry her child’s father, she says.

The bishop said they could be married right there in his office.

To which Low said, “He isn’t the right guy for me, and also I don’t want to get married in an office.”

“See,” she says, “it’s always ‘We’ll help you if.’”

'Global empire of the US Christian right': Dark money fuels attacks on abortion rights worldwide

An investigation by the media outlet openDemocracy revealed Friday that the dark money groups masterminding the far-right assault on reproductive freedoms in the U.S. have also spent at least $28 million in recent years on efforts to roll back the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people worldwide.

The new analysis shows that prominent anti-abortion groups including the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Federalist Society, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family and Heartbeat International have "been involved in recent efforts to limit reproductive rights in Europe and Latin America."

The organizations form what openDemocracy describes as "the 'dark money' global empire of the U.S. Christian right," which is exporting its legal strategy, army of lawyers, and resources overseas to forestall and reverse international progress on abortion access.

ADF, a far-right Christian legal advocacy group with ties to Justice Amy Coney Barrett, has spent years laying the groundwork for the draconian Mississippi abortion ban at the heart of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a Supreme Court case that could imperil reproductive freedoms across the U.S.

But ADF's influence extends well beyond its home country. According to openDemocracy, the organization—whose global arm is called ADF International—spent $15.3 million between 2016 and 2019 on efforts to gut abortion rights overseas.

"The European offices of ACLJ and ADF have intervened in dozens of European court cases against sexual and reproductive rights," the outlet notes. "Last year, Poland's constitutional court voted to ban abortion in cases of fetal defects. [ACLJ] submitted arguments in favor of the new restrictions, condemned by the Council of Europe as a grave 'human rights violation.'"

"The European branch of ACLJ also intervened for the first time at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights," openDemocracy observes. "The government of El Salvador, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, was sued for the imprisonment and death of a woman who had experienced a miscarriage."

As for the Federalist Society—of which all six current right-wing Supreme Court justices are either current or former members—"Europe was the main destination of foreign spending," openDemocracy finds.

"Europeans are too naive in thinking that achievements in women's rights and sexual and reproductive health are irreversible," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, told the outlet. "The anti-choice movement does not only have a lot of money, they also have a plan and the determination. Europe should wake up, and it should wake up fast."

While under U.S. tax law the far-right groups have largely succeeded in keeping their funding sources hidden from the public, openDemocracy examined "financial information disclosed by grantmakers" showing that the National Christian Foundation (NCF) and Fidelity Charitable donated $93 million to the organizations between 2016 and 2020.

openDemocracy graphic

Feminist researcher Sonia Corrêa of Sexuality Policy Watch said openDemocracy's report "exposes once again the long-running organic connections between anti-abortion forces in the U.S. and Latin America."

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, similarly argued that the findings "further demonstrate the growing trend of religious extremists forging cross-border alliances to advance... pseudo-legal arguments and engaging in formal legal processes aiming to unstitch the fabric of human rights protection."

In an op-ed for the New York Times on Thursday, openDemocracy's Mary Fitzgerald argued that if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Mississippi's abortion ban and undercuts Roe v. Wade, the nation will "join of a small cadre of increasingly authoritarian countries that have become more restrictive on abortion in recent years."

Fitzgerald went on to cite specific examples:

Poland's constitutional tribunal ruled on a retrograde abortion ban last year which effectively banned abortion in all cases apart from rape, incest or threat of life or health to the mother, after the ruling Law and Justice party packed the court.
Hungary's Viktor Orban is ramping up its talk on "family values," and a 2016 United Nations report criticized the country for obstructing abortion access.
Vladimir Putin's Russia has just joined the misleadingly titled Geneva Consensus Declaration: a document co-sponsored by the United States under the Trump administration with repressive governments including Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Mr. Orban's Hungary, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's Egypt, and signed by dozens more of the world's most repressive regimes from Saudi Arabia to Uganda. (President Biden announced in January that the United States would withdraw.) The declaration's authors also claim that there is no international right to abortion.

"Later this month President Biden will host the Summit for Democracy, with a key focus on promoting human rights around the world," Fitzgerald noted. "But as U.S. courts continue to dismantle basic rights enjoyed in countless other modern democracies, the most pressing question must be: How can democracy do its job at home if only half the population is granted full human rights?"

Utah’s safety net is entangled with the LDS Church — so some get denied unless they practice Mormonism

This was first published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Near the start of the pandemic, in a gentrifying neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah, visitors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived at Danielle Bellamy’s doorstep. They were there to have her read out loud from the Book of Mormon, watch LDS videos and set a date to get baptized, all of which she says the church was requiring her to do in exchange for giving her food.

Bellamy, desperate for help, had tried applying for cash assistance from the state of Utah. But she’d been denied for not being low-income enough, an outcome that has become increasingly common ever since then-President Bill Clinton signed a law, 25 years ago, that he said would end “welfare as we know it.”

State employees then explicitly recommended to Bellamy that she ask for welfare from the church instead, she and her family members said in interviews.

Bellamy’s family was on the verge of homelessness. The rent on their apartment continued to rise — a result of Utah being the fastest-growing state in the nation, a trend driven in part by young, upper-middle-class people from California and elsewhere flocking to Salt Lake City’s snow-capped slopes to enjoy its outdoor activities, tech jobs and low taxes.

Worse, Bellamy suffers from a severe autoinflammatory disease and, barely able to stand, is regularly hospitalized for days at a time. Her younger daughter, Jaidyn, had to drop out of high school to care for her, helping her get up, lie down, bathe and change out the wound vacuums attached to her body.

Although maintaining a safety net for the poor is the government’s job, welfare in Utah has become so entangled with the state’s dominant religion that the agency in charge of public assistance here counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS Church toward the state’s own welfare spending, according to a memorandum of understanding between the church and the state obtained by ProPublica.

What that means is that over the past decade, the Utah State Legislature has been able to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law, a review of budget documents shows.

The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program is centered at a place called Welfare Square, ensconced among warehouses on Salt Lake City’s west side. There, poor people — provided they obtain approval of their grocery list from a lay bishop, who oversees a congregation — can get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from the church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. (Bishops can also authorize temporary cash assistance for rent, car payments and the like; recipients often have to volunteer for the church to obtain the aid.)

Welfare Square was built in 1938 amid the Great Depression, an intentional repudiation by church leaders of government welfare as epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. We “take care of our own,” they famously said.

But Bellamy, a Black single mother, is not one of the church’s own — and, unlike the government, a church is often allowed to discriminate based on religion.

The bishop of her local congregation, called a ward, decided that as a precondition of receiving welfare, she would have to read, understand and embrace LDS scripture, Bellamy told ProPublica. Church representatives came by her apartment to decide what individual food items she did and did not need while pressuring her to attend Sunday services, she said.

A church spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak on the record for this story, said that Bellamy’s is just one experience, and there are likely thousands of people across Utah who would swear by the help they’ve received from the church and the guidance they’ve been given toward a more self-sufficient life. He said that because some bishops are more rigid about providing aid than others, some people may wind up in situations like Bellamy’s, but that most in the church default to compassion.

The spokesperson also said that conversations about welfare are between individuals (like Bellamy and others whose stories also appear in this article) and their bishop, and that the church would not break what it regards as a sacred confidentiality.

Bellamy cooperated at first with what was being asked of her. She felt she’d go along “if that’s what I needed to do for some type of goodness to come to my family,” she said, adding that she knew that many in her community had benefited greatly from church welfare and their LDS faith.

Yet she ultimately balked, especially at the thought of being baptized in front of strangers. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t believe in it. And it’s important what I believe in.”

For her refusal, she says, she and her family were denied welfare by the church, just as they had been by the state.

Utah After Welfare Reform

ProPublica is investigating the state of welfare across the Southwest, where the skyrocketing cost of living has made cash assistance for struggling families — an issue that has been brought to the fore again amid debate over President Joe Biden’s child tax credit — more desperately needed than ever.

What the 1996 welfare reform law did, in essence, was dramatically shrink the safety net for the poorest Americans while leaving what aid remained in the hands of individual states, issuing each a “block grant” of federal welfare funding and significant discretion over how to spend, or not spend, the cash.

Ever since, welfare has taken on each state’s personality.

There’s perhaps no better place to examine the past and future of public assistance than Utah, the only state with a private welfare system to rival the government’s. After all, the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served as a model for the welfare reform movement of the 1980s and ’90s, when it was spotlighted by then-President Ronald Reagan during a visit to LDS welfare facilities and in the writings of a young conservative named Tucker Carlson.

The first thing Utah did under the 1996 law was to become increasingly closefisted about helping poor people, creating a labyrinthine system of employment and self-improvement programs that applicants must partake in — including resume-writing seminars, screenings for drug use, counseling sessions and continual paperwork — as well as strict income limits they must not surpass. As of 2019, the state was providing direct assistance to about 3,000 families out of nearly 30,000 living in poverty, a precipitous decline from the mid-’90s, when Utah’s program served roughly 60% of these parents and children. (Utah denied welfare applications, on average, more than 1,300 times every month last year, including during the pandemic.)

A single mother of one here is eligible for $399 a month in state assistance, and only if she has a net income of $456 a month or less.

Utah doesn’t do more for those in need in part because a contingent of its lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latter-day Saints themselves, assume the church is handling the poverty issue; they also are loath to raise taxes to do the state’s share, a review of Utah’s legislative history demonstrates.

Thanks to “the LDS Church’s welfare system, literally millions, tens of millions and maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars are saved by the state,” former state Sen. Stuart Reid said in 2011, when the Legislature passed a resolution honoring church welfare on its 75th anniversary.

Indeed, Utah has been counting millions in church welfare work every year as part of the state’s own welfare budget, as a way of meeting the minimum level of effort the state is required to put into addressing poverty so it can collect on federal dollars from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. According to the memorandum of understanding between the church and the state, Utah takes credit for a percentage of the hours that church volunteers spend producing and packaging food and clothing for the poor at Welfare Square and similar facilities.

It also claims as state welfare a percentage of the church’s efforts to produce and ship out humanitarian aid in the wake of disasters — aid that may not even help Utahns.

Officials at Utah’s public assistance agency, which after welfare reform was named the Department of Workforce Services, said they do not know how long they’ve had this “third-party” understanding with the church. But they emphasized that it’s legal under the 1996 law and subsequent federal regulations, and that other states engage in the same practice. (That law was the first federal legislation to allow and encourage religious groups to be involved in the provision of government-funded social services, a policy championed by then-Sen. John Ashcroft and later by President George W. Bush.)

ProPublica found that the deal with the church was brokered in 2009 during the Great Recession, when Utah hired a for-profit company called Public Consulting Group Inc. to identify private organizations that could help the state spend less on welfare while still receiving full federal funding, according to Utah’s contract with PCG.

When the state denies help to low-income Utahns, state caseworkers sometimes, though not always, suggest that they seek welfare from the church instead, according to interviews with more than three dozen former caseworkers and applicants.

“You would explain to them, ‘Have you talked to an LDS bishop?’” said Robert Martinez, an eligibility worker for the Department of Workforce Services from 2013 to 2019.

Martinez said he always gave applicants other nongovernmental options to consider, and there was no coercion to go the religious route. Still, he emphasized to them, the church has a lot more money to offer than the minimal aid dispensed by the state. (In fact, the church appears to have more money than what is by most accounts the largest philanthropic organization in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Liz Carver, director of workforce development at the Department of Workforce Services and the lead TANF official at the agency, acknowledged in multiple interviews that caseworkers might in some instances propose church welfare to customers, which is what the department calls citizens who apply for public assistance.

But, she said, welfare caseworkers not just in Utah but nationwide refer applicants to a range of community organizations, faith-based or not, all the time. It’s part of a larger conversation with these individuals about what brought them to ask for help that day, she said, and about which needs the government can assist with under the federal regulations and which it can’t.

Utah, Carver noted, is one of the most charitable states in the nation, characterized by a strong ethic of neighbors helping neighbors, which makes the agency’s public-private offerings stronger.

Regarding the state’s fiscal arrangement with the church, Carver said, “We’d have to ask the state Legislature for more money if we couldn’t count this partnership” toward state welfare.

“I mean, we could be counting millions of hours of [church members’] volunteer time, bishops helping their communities, all that stuff,” she continued, suggesting that the current amount of church assistance that Utah is claiming as the state’s is minimal and necessary.

Christina Davis, communication director for the department, added in an emailed statement that the fact that caseworkers may refer Utahns to the church and other private groups is a separate and unrelated issue from the state’s budgetary agreement with the church welfare program.

She also stressed that tens of thousands of low-income households in Utah receive other forms of help from the state, including food stamps and Medicaid.

Finally, Davis pointed out that the number of poor people who are provided direct assistance has been significantly scaled back not just in Utah but across the country.

The problem with Utah’s dependence on church aid to pick up that slack, civil rights advocates say, is that although the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, once instructed his membership to clothe the naked and feed the hungry whether they arein this church, or in any other, or in no church at all,” the thousands of individual bishops who today run point for LDS welfare services may have different views.

Most are continually generous with aid. But some might feel justified in politely denying assistance to poor people who aren’t Latter-day Saints — or to LGBTQ people — even in some cases turning away struggling church members who haven’t been attending services or paying 10% of their income to the church in tithes.

“There’s this term in the church called ‘bishop roulette,’” said David Smurthwaite, a former bishop in Salt Lake City, referring to the differing choices about welfare that get made by each bishop in congregations across the state.

Smurthwaite said that church leadership did equip him with a slate of questions to ask low-income people who came to his office asking for help. But, he said, bishops are “not professional welfare providers, not professional therapists, yet we get put in the hot seat for these kinds of experiences.”

Bishops are called to their lay role on a temporary basis, typically for around five years. Unlike most clergy in other faiths, they often have day jobs. And like with anyone else, their politics can infuse their religion.

There’s also much less accountability than there would be for a government program. Welfare decisions by bishops are subject mainly to the broad tenets of the church’s “General Handbook,” usually with counsel from other church leaders but without oversight from the public.

“If a state’s premier social safety net is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, “what does that mean if you’re not one?”

Separation of Church and State

The very first words of the First Amendment are not about freedom of speech or the right to protest, but rather a warning against government establishment of religion.

That is why the state of Utah’s welfare-provision system being intertwined with the LDS Church is “troubling,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on the separation of church and state. “I can’t think of anything at all analogous,” he said, adding that if someone sues, it would be a “novel” case.

Laycock noted, though, that if Utah’s granting and denying of welfare applications isn’t itself religious in nature, it may not matter legally that the state then tells some applicants deemed ineligible about a private source of aid — even one, like the church, that may judge them based on religion.

Nathan S. Chapman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia, said a key question is whether Utah has “partnered” with the LDS Church to enough of an extent that the overall system for providing welfare in the state is “insufficiently religiously neutral” and thus denies vulnerable people “true private choice” as to whether to partake in religion so they can receive assistance.

But he also said the state could argue that it is not constitutionally obligated to provide welfare to citizens, and that there is a marketplace of private aid providers including not just the LDS Church but also others that are less publicized in Utah, like Catholic Community Services.

ProPublica interviewed more than two dozen low-income Salt Lake City-area residents about their experiences with Utah’s safety net. Almost all who weren’t active church members — and even many who were — felt that welfare in Utah is religiously prejudicial, at least in practical terms, because the state has left a vacuum of social services that’s filled by individual bishops and their potential biases.

Candice Simpkins, who grew up in the church, says she struggled to pay her bills and afford groceries after the birth of her daughter but knew from reading a state website that her income was slightly too high for her to qualify for public assistance. When she went to a bishop for help instead, she says, she was told that she wouldn’t be in her situation if she hadn’t had sex out of wedlock, and that she would have to start attending church services. (Feminist Mormons say that women especially are affected by the capriciousness of welfare in Utah. Bishops are all men, and some view both premarital sex and divorce, each of which can lead to precarious financial situations, as the fault of women, critics say.)

A close friend of Simpkins’, whom she called in tears after her interaction with the bishop, corroborated her description of what happened.

In another case, Jo Alexander, who is lesbian, says she was desperate for a hotel room during a period of homelessness. But she knew she couldn’t get public assistance from the state because she had received it around two decades ago as a young woman and therefore had exceeded her lifetime limit under another of the rules implemented under welfare reform. As a result, she went to a bishop.

Despite being raised as a member of the church, she was denied. She says it is known in the community that she is gay and she believes that was the reason for her rejection. (A friend confirmed her account, though there are no public records of these private conversations with bishops.)

And Miranda Twitchell, who is currently homeless, says the rules and procedures for obtaining state aid are so convoluted and seemingly endless that she had nowhere to turn except the church for immediate help when she needed food and a bed — and that’s when she decided to follow a piece of advice shared on the streets: “Get baptized, get help.”

Some low-income people in Salt Lake City say they have gotten baptized just to obtain welfare, even though they don’t believe in the ritual. Most who had done so were afraid to speak on the record for this story, believing the church would learn that their conversion stories were inauthentic and retaliate by not helping them in the future.

The LDS spokesperson defended the church’s approach to welfare in part by emphasizing that the church should not be confused with a government agency or considered a replacement for the government in the provision of public assistance. (Indeed, the LDS “General Handbook” clearly states that church members should turn to the government first for financial help, before going to their bishop.)

The church does look after its own membership, the spokesperson said, given that it is a religious institution. If a nonmember seeks help, there’s less of a preexisting relationship with that person, and a bishop may ask the individual to come to services to see firsthand what his or her needs are. There, relationships are established with church members, who then extend a hand of fellowship.

Finally, he said, one of the church’s larger goals is for people who are struggling financially to learn self-reliance and industriousness, not dependency. This may be one reason that some felt rejected when they asked for ongoing assistance.

Experts on charitable giving note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members arguably do more than any other religious community to help people in poverty. (In Utah, the churchhasgiven tens of millions to fight homelessness.)

Several active Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake City area said that when faced with financial hardship, they may actually have a better safety net than anyone in any state, because they can count on the church for help with food, clothes, furniture, rent, utilities, car payments and repairs, tanks of gas, medical bills, moving expenses, job searches and general life problems.

Benjamin Sessions, executive director of Circles Salt Lake, an anti-poverty community organization, said that a struggling family he works with recently called him in the middle of the night while huddling in their car with nowhere to go. Sessions called up a local LDS leader he knows personally, who simply said, “What do you need? Get me a list.”

Help from the church is “dramatic and it’s quick,” Sessions said. “If you ask me to choose between calling up someone at the state versus someone at the church, I would call the church 10 out of 10 times.”

Others say it is a strength of this country that there are so many religious groups, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, synagogues and mosques, that provide food and shelter to the poor.

“If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food, is it less than optimal? Sure,” the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner told The Atlantic. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”

Yet most other faith-based organizations do not make religious rites such as worship or baptism a prerequisite of basic survival help, the way that some LDS bishops do, experts on religious charity say.

Even some lifelong church members in the Salt Lake City area told ProPublica that they were denied welfare by the church for religious reasons.

Amberlyn Robinson, who had been such a loyal churchgoer that she says she missed services only twice that she can remember during her entire childhood, fell deep into medical debt as a young woman after having a miscarriage that was nearly as expensive as it was traumatizing. She looked at her family’s finances and decided that the only way to pay the bills would be to be less consistent about tithing 10% of their limited income from her then-husband’s two jobs in retail, even though she worried God would smite her as a consequence.

Her bishop then denied her financial assistance, citing her failure to pay tithes as one reason — which left Robinson baffled as to how an inability to afford tithing could show anything but her need, she says, and made her so resentful that she ultimately left the faith.

Danilyn Levorsen, who was also born and raised in the church, struggles with rent and bills as the cost of living in and around Salt Lake City surges.

Her husband, who has severe disabilities that add to the family’s expenses, is a fan of the supernatural. He volunteers at a haunted house, Halloween is his Christmas, and he has intense tattoos.

When he asked a bishop for help, Levorsen says, the bishop responded by criticizing his alternative lifestyle and dark clothing.

“I hear on the news all the time that the church is shipping food to other countries,” she said, adding that she completely understands and supports those efforts, given the poverty in the world.

“But this is supposed to be their golden city, here,” she said. “And this is how they do us?”

It’s the State’s Responsibility

The onus to provide a safety net for America’s poorest families and children — and equal access to such services under the law irrespective of religion, gender, race or class — ultimately falls on the government, not a church that has a right to choose whom to serve.

Joel Briscoe, a former bishop in Salt Lake City and now a Democratic state legislator, said that as a bishop he always had people coming to him after they had tried and failed to get help from the state, especially food stamps. He could only do his best to make up for public assistance being “ludicrous, the amounts are so small,” he said.

Utah’s stinginess with aid stems in part from its focus on putting welfare applicants to work — no matter how much work a family is already putting into just getting by.

In Bellamy’s case, a state employee told her daughter Jaidyn that the family could get assistance only if she stopped staying at home to care for her mom and instead got a job, the family said. (She now works at a child care center. Bellamy’s older daughter, Imani, works overnight shifts as a home health care aide.)

Bellamy noted that the state has helped her with food stamps; she has also had many neighbors from the LDS church show her great kindness throughout her life, she said.

While denying so many families direct assistance, Utah was, as of a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, leading the nation in aid that its government was supposed to be providing the poor but was instead outsourcing to a third-party nongovernmental organization.

States do not have to report the extent to which they engage in this accounting maneuver, but a 2016 follow-up GAO report found that 15 others do it. By that time, Georgia was the outlier among several states that aggressively count as their own spending the charitable activities of groups such as United Way, the YMCA, food banks and domestic violence shelters.

Scott Dzurka, former president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways, told the publication Bridge Michigan that his organization eventually decided to stop allowing its work to be counted by the state as welfare. “We looked long and hard at that,” he said, “and raised concerns that really our resources may in fact be working against what we were trying to do, which was to supplement state poverty efforts, not replace them.”

The LDS Church declined to comment on this issue.

For a brief period during Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration and Congress were both moving to prevent states from “gaming the system” by counting outside spending as their own. But Rep. Tom Price, who went on to briefly head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, helped kill the legislation that would have ended the practice.

Because states are largely allowed to count welfare dollars how they want, Utah has also been able to spread this money around among its lawmakers’ favored projects, many of which are aimed at preventing low-income people from having sex out of wedlock rather than providing them with direct aid. (This is despite mounting evidence that cash assistance — money — alleviates poverty — a lack of money — much more effectively than less direct interventions like parenting classes.)

Welfare funding in Utah goes to the Utah Marriage Commission, among many other similar initiatives. These include a 4-H program called Teen Spheres of Influence that state budget documents say makes teens “3.4 times more likely to delay sexual intercourse through high school,” as well as a relationship program called “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette.”

Davis, the Department of Workforce Services spokesperson, reiterated that all uses of TANF funds in Utah are consistent with federal regulations implemented under welfare reform, which explicitly pressed states to reduce pregnancies among the poor unless they are in married, two-parent households.

Still, Utah continues to evolve, diversifying, becoming less of an LDS state centered on traditional family life. One area south of Salt Lake City is now so jammed with tech companies that it has been rechristened the Silicon Slopes. Meanwhile, thousands of the region’s residents have become homeless over the past decade and are being pushed from one up-and-coming neighborhood to the next by the police and the health department.

Farther up the mountainside, past the lovely houses around the state Capitol, you’ll find their latest encampment set against a cliff above the blazing lights of the Marathon Oil refinery to the northwest. Most here say they were denied survival help by the state first and the church second, or vice versa. Many say their rejection by the church was due to their unkempt appearance, their refusal to attend church services they find hypocritical, or an assumption by bishops that they would spend financial assistance not on food, but on drugs.

Michelle Low grew up in the faith but says she had a dysfunctional home life and became addicted to drugs while still a child, and then became homeless. She is now trying not to ask the state for help because of the strict lifetime limit on receiving aid; she wants to be able to apply for it down the road if she needs to. (But she says she could use the aid to buy warm clothes and shoes and to pay her cousin rent so she’d have somewhere to live indoors.)

Instead, Low asked the church for assistance, despite the many moral and intellectual questions she has had since childhood about church doctrine. But a bishop she spoke with said he couldn’t help her unless she made the choice to live together with and marry her child’s father, she says.

The bishop said they could be married right there in his office.

To which Low said, “He isn’t the right guy for me, and also I don’t want to get married in an office.”

“See,” she says, “it’s always ‘We’ll help you if.’”

The Supreme Court is primed to wade in on a new controversy about state funding for religious schools

by Charles J. Russo, University of Dayton

Since 1947, one topic in education has regularly come up at the Supreme Court more often than any other: disputes over religion.

That year, in Everson v. Board of Education, the justices upheld a New Jersey law allowing school boards to reimburse parents for transportation costs to and from schools, including religious ones. According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – an idea courts often interpreted as requiring “a wall of separation between church and state.” In Everson, however, the Supreme Court upheld the law as not violating the First Amendment because children, not their schools, were the primary beneficiaries.

This became known as the “child benefit test,” an evolving legal idea used to justify state aid to students who attend religious schools. In recent years, the court has expanded the boundaries of what aid is allowed. Will it push them further?

This question will be in the spotlight Dec. 8, 2021, when the court hears arguments in a case from Maine, Carson v. Makin. Carson has drawn intense interest from educators and religious-liberty advocates across the country – as illustrated by the large number of amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs filed by groups with interests in the outcome.

To the school choice movement – which advocates affording families more options beyond traditional public schools – Carson represents a chance for more parents to give their children an education in line with their religious beliefs. Opponents fear it could establish a precedent of requiring taxpayer dollars to fund religious teachings.

SCOTUS’ shift in thought

As a faculty member who focuses on education law, I have often written about the Supreme Court’s decisions about religion in schools. In the almost 75 years since Everson, the court’s thinking about aid to students who attend religious schools has evolved.

In 1993, justices heard Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, which centered on a student who was deaf. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the public school board provided him with an interpreter. When he enrolled in a Catholic high school, the justices ruled that the board still had to provide him with an interpreter because this was a discrete service that assisted him and no one else. Ever since, the court has allowed greater aid to students attending religious schools.

Two recent judgments have continued that trend. In 2017’s Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the court reasoned that states cannot deny religious people or religious institutions generally available public benefits simply because they are religious. Three years later, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court invalidated a provision in the state constitution barring “religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools.” This decision meant parents in Montana who enrolled their children in faith-based schools could participate in a state tuition tax credit program.

Mainers’ education

Maine’s Constitution mandates the creation of public schools. But many rural towns don’t have their own school system: In fact, of the 260 “school administrative units” in Maine, more than half lack a secondary school.

In areas without access to public schools, Maine allows students to attend other public or private schools at public expense, but not religious ones. The state requires approved schools to be nonsectarian, “in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Carson v. Makin arose when three sets of parents unsuccessfully filed suit on behalf of their children, arguing that the rule discriminated on the basis of religion. The federal trial court in Maine ruled in favor of the state, affirming that its “tuitioning” statute did not violate the rights of the parents or their children. On appeal, the First Circuit unanimously affirmed in favor of the state, rejecting all the parental claims.

A closer look

First, the First Circuit decided the requirement that schools be “nonsectarian” did not discriminate solely based on religion or punish the plaintiffs’ rights to exercise their religion.

This is because the rule has a “use-based” limitation – which may prove to be a crucial distinction. In other words, sectarian schools are denied funding not because of their religious identity, the First Circuit wrote, but because of “the religious use that they would make of it.”

It is “wholly legitimate” to restrict religion-based content, the court noted, because “there is no question that Maine may require its public schools to provide a secular educational curriculum rather than a sectarian one.”

[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]

The First Circuit also rejected the parental claims that Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement violated their rights to freedom of speech, because it was enacted to provide students with secular secondary educations and “does not commit to providing any open forum to encourage diverse views from private speakers.”

Quoting Eulitt v. Maine, another case about Maine’s tuitioning system, the court noted: “The fact that the state cannot interfere with a parent’s fundamental right to choose religious education for his or her child does not mean that the state must fund that choice.”

School-choice advocates had hoped that Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza would strengthen the Maine parents’ case, since they upheld the idea that the First Amendment requires the government to extend general benefits to religious institutions or individuals, so long as it is not discriminating against or in favor of particular religions. But the courts differentiated these cases, and mused that if parents wish to forgo the free secular education Maine offers in its public schools or “tuitioning” program, they are free to pay tuition in the religious schools of their choice.

Carson is unlikely to end disagreements over the limits of using taxpayer funds to assist students who attend religious schools. However, it will likely provide an indication of the Supreme Court’s position on the future of the child benefit test, as it seems to be softening on its attitude of maintaining a wall of separation between church and state when it comes to education and aid to students who attend religious schools.The Conversation

Charles J. Russo, Joseph Panzer Chair in Education in the School of Education and Health Sciences and Research Professor of Law, University of Dayton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The red flags of a religious cult — and what it's like to escape one

"I own me." This sentence, comprised of three short words, seems inarguable. But when attorney and author Faith Jones says them aloud, as she does in her 2019 TED Talk and in her new book, "Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult," they symbolize a lifetime of experience, learning and healing.

Jones was born into and raised within the powerful Children of God, later known as the Family, a religious group founded by her grandfather David Berg. She, like her parents and everyone else in their peripatetic community, was expected to be obedient and to distrust outsiders. It was, perhaps inevitably, a climate rife with abuse and exploitation. That Jones struck out on her own, attending Georgetown University and eventually becoming an attorney, is a testament to her internal strength and resolve. That she has since made it her mission to empower other women to similarly claim ownership of their lives is remarkable.

Salon spoke to Jones recently about her memoir, and her lessons in creating healthy boundaries and recovering from the unimaginable.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to start with this mantra of yours, this mission of yours, that you discuss in the book. What does it mean when you say, "I own me?"

"I own me" is recognizing that I have a property right in my body. My body is my sole property, which means like other property, nobody gets to tell me what to do with it. Without my express permission, nobody gets to access it. Nobody gets to enforce their will on me without my willing, free, unpressured permission. To me, that was such a revolutionary concept because I had grown up being told directly my whole life that my body was not my own. That it belonged to God, but really they meant it belonged to the group, and they got to tell me what to do with it. When I figured this out, that was the key for me to understand what had gone wrong in this group and in so many of these organizations, whether religious or family or governmental, where they try to take away our right of ownership in our body.

The way that you discuss the difference between what you were told but what your gut was telling you is something that not just people who grew up in cults can relate to. Being told that what you feel is not right. "Don't trust yourself, we're going to tell you what you feel." Talk to me about how you came to that understanding, and the people along the way who helped you trust yourself.

Learning to trust yourself is a continuing journey for all of us, especially for people who've experienced abuse and exploitation. That's one of the hardest lessons that we have to come to terms with, trusting ourselves. That is one of the reasons why this framework is so powerful because I believe it gives us the tools to understand and to trust that, if I'm feeling pressured, if I'm feeling a certain way, then I already know that's a red flag, that this is a violation. Something is happening here.

That's critical, because we're so used to being told that what we feel isn't true. So we try to keep trying to dismiss it instead of accepting it. One of the biggest issues we have is creating healthy boundaries when you've grown up without having boundaries, or when those boundaries have been violated. That's really what this framework is about — helping us who are recovering, but helping society in general, because these are the foundational principles of all society.

Later on in the book, you step back and look at your parents to get clarity on where they were coming from — because of what they brought to their parenting experience in this really, really strange environment. To see these patterns and where they come from, and to know that they don't come out of nowhere is important. How do you get to that place, though? Particularly for those who are survivors — to distinguish between understanding and distancing — because you've had to set those boundaries.

I've been on this journey of healing for many years, and there were certain things that were key turning points for me in that. One of the things that I read was Alice Miller. She's a psychologist, and she wrote a great book called "The Drama of The Gifted Child" and other work like that, where she looks at the effects of this type of abuse and where it comes from and how it persists generationally. Oftentimes abusers are people who have also been abused. That enabled me to take a step back and look at that, and say, "I can see where they're coming from, but I don't want to continue that pattern." That is the key responsibility of each of us, to step up and say, "Okay, I see what happened. I see my parents and the maybe abusive patterns that they had. It probably came from their parents and so on, but I am my own person and I get to step forward and say, it stops here. I get to work on the change in myself."

Writing this book, I spent hours interviewing my parents and other people to make sure my memories were accurate and details were correct. That was one of the interesting things I learned writing this book, just hearing more of the background stories to some of these things that happened. It gave me an even clearer understanding of things that I didn't really understand about them, their past experiences, what it was like for them in the moment they were going through. For instance, with my mother had basically left me for two months when I was a baby.

I was like, "How could you do that? How could anyone do that to their baby?" Understanding what had happened to her and how she had been threatened she could lose me if she didn't submit to this helped shift my mindset. Oftentimes, we're trapped in the narrative we know. Taking that time to explore it more can also bring us a kind of release because our reality is our story, the story we tell ourselves.

Your story is so unique, and yet, the scale was shocking to me. The number of people involved, the global scope of it, was huge.

Yes. Something like over 10,000 members, but thousands more moved in and out of the group over forty, fifty years. But it's much bigger than that. I talked to so many of my friends, men and women, who grew up in normal society and many, many have experienced child sexual abuse. Many have experienced some form of sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, control. So many have experienced abusive beatings from their fathers or father figures.

The cult didn't start this. The cult took things that existed in society and it created a microcosm and an isolation and a validation that allow people to take it more to an extreme. But this stuff exists throughout society, which is why I'm so passionate about saying these are the principles we need to get really clear on and understand. That's the only way we can kind of inoculate people against these type of cults and anywhere in society where we say, "Hey, are they trying to get you to give over your body, your free will? Are they using manipulation? Are they trying to get you to give over your creations and saying you don't own this? Are they violating these principles?" Red flag, right?

People involved in these cults at the higher levels, or involved in these power dynamics in abusive relationships as the antagonists, don't see themselves as villains. The question that a lot of people reflexively ask of the victims or of the survivors is, "Well, why did you stay?" without understanding the escalation. Without understanding, "This was also the person who was caring for me. This is also the person who I was dependent upon." That's a crucial element, whether it's a cult or a marriage or a job.

You said something really important. These people don't see themselves as that. In fact, they see themselves as very, very good. "I am this great, good person. I am this prophet. I am hearing from God." They have this vision of themselves. Most people in the world, they don't see themselves as bad or evil, even murderers and serial killers have this vision of somehow, "I'm doing this for a greater, a better, higher purpose." Which is why you need a standard and principles. Because when you can take it, you can say, "Hey, I'm hearing from God, and God tells me to do this thing." If it's a violation of one of these principles, you already know, I'm in the wrong boat right away.

What happened to my mother, for instance. She joined this group. It wasn't a sex cult when she joined. It was this biblical missionary group that was out to save the world. It demanded extreme sacrifice and loyalty from its followers. But the sex stuff came in quite a few years later. It was seeded in slowly into the indoctrination of the people by my grandfather. He didn't just change overnight. He presented all of these letters, preparing his followers' minds over a year to get them into a place, prepping them for this.

I interviewed cult survivor Daniel Barban Levin recently, and he said, "Nobody joins a cult. They join a group of friends." Nobody signs up for an abusive relationship either. Nobody says, "I'm going to start a relationship with this person because this seems like someone who will really, really hurt me."

So let's talk about those principles. Whether you are in a group or in a one-on-one relationship, there are some of these red flags that you need to be thinking about and have top of mind.

It's first stating, "I own my body. It's my sole property." Therefore I own what I create with it, whether it's my services or products or invention. And then once I create something — and this is a constitutional right — I have the right to contract. I have the right to make a deal to exchange.

I think one of the main things that gets violated is there are five elements of any good exchange or contract. One of the main elements of this is something called no undue pressure. Because what is blackmail? It's blackmail when you apply undue pressure to somebody. For instance, in the group, I was subjected to pressure to have to have sex with other members where I really didn't want to, but I was told that I had to for God, or to avoid punishment basically.

When you coerce somebody into doing something through either implicit or direct threats, that is not a free choice. That is not a free exchange. You violated one of those principles. In that particular case that could even be considered rape. And then the final element is the effect. What is the impact? How much responsibility do I bear for impact beyond my direct control? My grandfather, how much responsibility does he bear, not just for the children that he molested himself, but for espousing those ideas in such a way that other people did that as well.

So that principles, and the red flags are: They put it always in very noble terms, that your body is for service or instead of saying, "You own you. You get to choose. You have free choice, and as long as your choice is not violating other people's rights, that's fine." Nobody gets to tell you who you are and what you need to do. That is your choice.

There's another thing, how vulnerable you make yourself in this story and your realization that, "What happened to me, that's called rape." For a lot of people, when they have that dawning, it's not necessarily because someone has jumped out of a bush in a dark alley. It's well after the fact. It's so important for someone reading that to understand that's often what it's like.

I think that's true. I think people who experienced child abuse are the same, they don't realize it until much later what happened to them and what was taken from them. As to how I get through it, there's a few resilience techniques which really helped me to come through it in a different way, that I used without realizing what I was doing. But also I didn't just sit around. I went after healing and happiness like a bulldog.

I was like, "I'm not going to suffer. This is not what life is for. Life is to grow." So yeah, bad stuff happened to me and I'm going to figure out how to heal in myself. That's what I did. I talk about some of the most powerful techniques that I used to heal and to recover. I wrote a guide for women called, "I Own Me." Talking about those experiences, talking about this framework and how learning to see ourselves and our bodies in a different way, really helps. There are certain psychological techniques that I used. I was helped with therapy to do certain healing processes that really helped to clear out I think some of the residual trauma locks that were in there.

Even after recognizing what had happened to me, I did not think of myself as a victim. That wasn't the role I wanted. That wasn't the part I wanted to play. I could say, "This bad thing happened to me, but here I am taking control of my life. This is my life now." I wasn't going to live in that story. I didn't talk about it all the time. In a healing process, it's one thing to bring it up and go through it, which you need to do, to access it. Some people don't do the healing because they're too afraid to access it, but you don't have to keep living in that story. You get to write a new story. And that's what I decided.

Going back and writing this book was tough, because you don't only have to write your most painful experiences once. You go over them a hundred times because you edit them and then edit them again and then edit them again. Every time I was like, "Oh no, I do not want to read that chapter again." I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't that I had a bigger purpose in this. This is really just a vehicle to express what happens when we, as a society, as a group, as individuals don't have clarity on what are these fundamental principles of human integrity.

What's the phrase you used? "Twenty-three years of in indoctrination doesn't disappear in an instance." I love that line, because it's true. Tell me a little bit about what it looks like now that you're doing this work and you're living within your own identity now.

The thing is, I think we get to change identities. I've done it a number of times in my life. We get to write our own story and our identity. When I initially thought about writing the story, I had thought, "We just had such a crazy life, it would be kind of interesting to write the story." I was more thinking of it from a perspective of wanting to show people who didn't have much that they could still achieve and do well. I became a lawyer and I work for some of the top law firms, and I wanted them to show them that path didn't have to be their story.

But as I grew and developed and healed and learned, I created the framework and began this journey of writing this book. All of these stories that I didn't think I was going to tell or write, especially not in such detail, were really the story that needed to be told. Even now, it's daunting because I've always been a very private person. But I think if it can help people to reconcile some of their own experiences, then it's worth it to me.

At the end, you make it clear that the other members of your family have made different choices and gone on very different paths. There isn't just one story from an experience like this, you can go in so many different directions from it.

That was why I tried to really stick to my story and my experiences, because each person who goes through this is affected differently. Each person has their own journey, their own story. My own family members, fortunately are all in their own stages of recovery from this, but they have learned and grown. My parents have as well. My mother, when I taught her this framework, had a lot of really good conversations. It gave her a lot more clarity on what had happened to her in the family. what some of those practices were, clearly defining what was wrong with them. When you don't have that framework in your mind, it's going to be hard to define exactly what was wrong.

Until you have the language to really articulate your experience, it is very, very hard to identify it. That's what this book is about. It's a very personal story, but it is also a guide for other people who are looking at their experiences and going, what is the word for this? What is the language for it?

This is why I want to get these principles taught in schools and to young people and in colleges and to people who've experienced abuse, because it does give them the language to express themselves. To say, "No, this is not what I want." To have a conviction that they are right. And also to say, "Well, this happened to me and it was wrong because..." It gives us the language to communicate about these topics and even gives us the language between men and women to communicate about these topics in a way that men appreciate. It allows us to talk about it. I think that's very important, whether it's in the corporate environment, talking about sexual harassment, but also in our schools, to teach children these principles so that they have the words.

What do you hope now for this book? Where do you want to see this book go in terms of who's going to read it and who's going to learn from it?

I hope that each person who reads it, if there's somebody who suffered some kind of abuse like this, that it can give them strength and insight. And if they haven't, that it will give them insight into what other people go through and then understanding perhaps things that have happened to friends or relatives. I hope that this is a door and a gateway to helping us to have bigger conversations about this stuff, particularly things like child abuse.

I think women and sexual harassment, while this is not solved, it's been brought much more to the forefront of human consciousness. But still a lot of stuff about children and how they are treated as property is not really discussed I think in the way it could be. My own personal work I'm doing now is both to help people achieve emotional independence and freedom through understanding these principles and other types of techniques.

A big part of what I am teaching now as well is, how do we create economic stability and freedom? My mother left the group for a while when I was a child and we were basically homeless for some time. She couldn't support us. So often the reason that people stay in bad environments, relationships, controlling groups, is they don't have a way economically to care for themselves outside. You both need to have the emotional freedom and understanding of what is true, and then you need to have the economic tools to be able to take care of yourself. Those are the two pillars that I'm working on, helping to share with people who are coming out of experiences like this.

Religious Trauma Syndrome: Former Christian explains how organized religion can lead to mental health problems

At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia. When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister. “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said. “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.

But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia. I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”

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Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label? I asked her.

Let’s start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?

Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

READ: These 5 historical truths suggest Jesus Christ may have never existed

But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.

Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice?

Winell: I can give you many. One of the symptom clusters is around fear and anxiety. People indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity as small children sometimes have memories of being terrified by images of hell and apocalypse before their brains could begin to make sense of such ideas. Some survivors, who I prefer to call “reclaimers,” have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights. She said,

I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I’d walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life.

Or consider this comment, which refers to a film used by Evangelicals to warn about the horrors of the “end times” for nonbelievers.

I was taken to see the film “A Thief In The Night”. WOW. I am in shock to learn that many other people suffered the same traumas I lived with because of this film. A few days or weeks after the film viewing, I came into the house and mom wasn’t there. I stood there screaming in terror. When I stopped screaming, I began making my plan: Who my Christian neighbors were, who’s house to break into to get money and food. I was 12 yrs old and was preparing for Armageddon alone.

In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.) This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship, and there is a group organized to oppose their incursion into public schools. I’ve had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can’t manage to find any self-worth.

After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.
I’ve spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn’t have to punish me. It’s taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.

READ: When American debate about abortion was sane and why that changed

Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness. I’ll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the “will of God.” The words here don’t convey the depth of his despair.

I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can’t, you know, wake up in the morning, “What am I going to do today? Like I don’t even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I’m not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day.

Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well.

I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I’m losing my country. I’ve lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely.

Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.

My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found “my place in the universe.

Even for a person who was not so entrenched, leaving one’s religion can be a stressful and significant transition.

Many people seem to walk away from their religion easily, without really looking back. What is different about the clientele you work with?

Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.

Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?

Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.

In your mind, how is RTS different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Winell: RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma. This is crucial to understanding the condition and any kind of self-help or treatment. (More details about this can be found on my Journey Free website and discussed in my talk at the Texas Freethought Convention.)

Another difference is the social context, which is extremely different from other traumas or forms of abuse. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover. They don’t question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don’t send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling. If a provider doesn’t understand the source of the symptoms, he or she may send a client for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church. One reclaimer expressed her frustration this way:

Include physically-abusive parents who quote “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as literally as you can imagine and you have one fucked-up soul: an unloved, rejected, traumatized toddler in the body of an adult. I’m simply a broken spirit in an empty shell. But wait…That’s not enough!? There’s also the expectation by everyone in society that we victims should celebrate this with our perpetrators every Christmas and Easter!!

Just like disorders such as autism or bulimia, giving RTS a real name has important advantages. People who are suffering find that having a label for their experience helps them feel less alone and guilty. Some have written to me to express their relief:

There’s actually a name for it! I was brainwashed from birth and wasted 25 years of my life serving Him! I’ve since been out of my religion for several years now, but i cannot shake the haunting fear of hell and feel absolutely doomed. I’m now socially inept, unemployable, and the only way i can have sex is to pay for it.

Labeling RTS encourages professionals to study it more carefully, develop treatments, and offer training. Hopefully, we can even work on prevention.

What do you see as the difference between religion that causes trauma and religion that doesn’t?

Winell: Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.

Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals. They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule. More and more, nontheists are asking how they can create similar spiritual communities without the supernaturalism. An atheist congregation in London launched this year and has received over 200 inquiries from people wanting to replicate their model.

Some people say that terms like “recovery from religion” and “religious trauma syndrome” are just atheist attempts to pathologize religious belief.

Winell: Mental health professionals have enough to do without going out looking for new pathology. I never set out looking for a “niche topic,” and certainly not religious trauma syndrome. I originally wrote a paper for a conference of the American Psychological Association and thought that would be the end of it. Since then, I have tried to move on to other things several times, but this work has simply grown.

In my opinion, we are simply, as a culture, becoming aware of religious trauma. More and more people are leaving religion, as seen by polls showing that the “religiously unaffiliated” have increased in the last five years from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. It’s no wonder the internet is exploding with websites for former believers from all religions, providing forums for people to support each other. The huge population of people “leaving the fold” includes a subset at risk for RTS, and more people are talking about it and seeking help. For example, there are thousands of former Mormons, and I was asked to speak about RTS at an Exmormon Foundation conference. I facilitate an international support group online called Release and Reclaim which has monthly conference calls. An organization called Recovery from Religion, helps people start self-help meet-up groups

Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren’t noticing. People were suffering, thought they were alone, and blamed themselves. Professionals had no awareness or training. This is the situation of RTS today. Authoritarian religion is already pathological, and leaving a high-control group can be traumatic. People are already suffering. They need to be recognized and helped.

—- Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion. More information about Marlene Winell and resources for getting help with RTS may be found at Journey Free. Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

Biden has been welcomed by Pope Francis — but shunned by right-wing US Catholics: report

President Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, has been welcomed by Pope Francis. But reporter Kathryn Joyce, in an article published by Mother Jones on November 26, stresses that while Biden is on friendly terms with the Pope, some right-wing bishops in the United States remain openly hostile to him.

“Once Biden won, many right-wing Catholics shifted their focus and became players in various efforts to overturn the election results,” Joyce explains. “One Texas bishop, Joseph Strickland, refused to acknowledge Biden as the president-elect and addressed a December rally in Washington, D.C., that was widely seen as a precursor to the violence on January 6. Another bishop tweeted a call for all Christians to pray ‘in conjunction with the filing of election-related documents at the Supreme Court.’”

Joyce continues, “More esoterically, beginning in November, a Colorado priest in Denver led a months-long series of prayers to ‘bind’ evil spirits that were attempting to steal the election. And on January 6, another priest traveled from Nebraska to perform an exorcism on the U.S. Capitol after watching YouTube videos from a popular Catholic Right author who charged that a demonic spirit was trying to ‘dissolve’ the United States and remake it into something new.”

One of the major factors in this anti-Biden animosity among some Catholics is the abortion issue. Biden has made it clear that he opposes overturning Roe v. Wade. Nonetheless, Biden’s history on abortion could be described as “pro-choice but anti-abortion.” Biden, essentially, has echoed President Bill Clinton’s declaration that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

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Evangelical warns Christians have 'erected a graven image' of Trump and let it corrupt the faith

One of the things the Bible's New Testament warns against is idolatry, meaning that Christians are not supposed to worship fellow human beings and elevate them to the level of deities. While admiration is fine — one can admire, for example, the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Nelson Mandela — idolatry is off limits. But Never Trump conservative Matt Labash, in a SubStack article published on November 17, laments that fellow evangelicals have fallen into idolatry when it comes to former President Donald Trump.

Labash, known for writing for the Washington Examiner and the now-defunct Weekly Standard, argues that Trump worship has seriously "corrupted" the United States' evangelical movement. And he cites far-right evangelical John Hagee as a glaring example.

"What's disturbing…. about Hagee, is that he isn't some stand-alone aberration but rather, by now a familiar type: people who haven't just let politics influence their faith, but who have let politics supplant their faith," Labash writes. "When the two are in conflict, politics wins. See Pastor John MacArthur insisting that 'any real, true believer' had to vote for Trump, or Franklin Graham, the moral runt of Billy's litter, comparing House Republicans who voted for Trump's impeachment to Jesus' betrayer, Judas Iscariot."

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Countless evangelicals, Labash warns, have fallen so far down the MAGA rabbit hole that they are willing to accept the most ludicrous conspiracy theories as fact.

"Earlier this year," Labash explains, "a Survey Center on American Life poll showed 74% of White evangelical Republicans say that the claim of widespread fraud in the 2020 election is either mostly or completely accurate. A full three-quarters say (President Joe) Biden was not legitimately elected…. Sixty percent of them also believed that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was carried out by Antifa, which is, how to put it, bonkers. And I say that as someone who positively loathes Antifa, and who has stood in the middle of Antifa violence."

Labash adds, "More troubling still, 31% — almost a third — had gone fairly QAnon, believing 'Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that included prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites'…. My point is to say that too many people of faith have taken their eye off their deity, and erected a graven image — or an orange one — letting politics corrupt their faith, or at least letting the former take primacy over the latter."

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US Catholic bishops to vote on banning Biden from communion over his pro-choice views

Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church and, according to Catholics, God's infallible representative on earth, last month called President Joe Biden a "good Catholic" and warned he should not be banned from receiving Holy Communion.

The organization representing all American Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), will vote Wednesday on a document that would effectively act to ban President Biden from receiving Holy Communion, one of the most important sacraments to Catholics worldwide.

"In a leaked draft of the document before the conference, the bishops write 'there are some sins, however that do rupture the communion we share with God and the Church,'" ABC News reports.

"As the Church has consistently taught, a person who receives Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin not only does not receive the grace of the sacrament, he or she commits the sin of sacrilege by failing to show the reverence due to the Body and Blood of Christ," the document said.

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Only the second Catholic ever elected President, Biden is possibly the most faithful and religious man the White House has seen in modern times, as ABC News notes:

Biden, "who has said his 'personal' views were a 'private matter,' has openly professed his faith throughout his political career — diligently attending Sunday Mass, infusing speeches with scripture and wearing his late son Beau Biden's rosary beads."

Biden personally opposes abortion, but strongly believes in a woman's right to choose, and in protecting that right. The majority of U.S. Catholics say Biden should not be denied Holy Communion.

In June 60 House Democrats signed a statement opposing "the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of abortion."

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has not shied away from cultural issues like same-sex marriage, but their unprecedented attacks against President Biden literally began on Inauguration Day.

In a Jan. 20 letter "congratulating" Biden on becoming the nation's 46th president, Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the USCCB, wrote: "I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences."

That was the warning shot across the bow.

Happy Holidays!