An Age of Cultism & Extremism

We are living in some extraordinary and shocking times of cultural, political, and religious turbulence. At the time of writing this, a group of self proclaimed “patriotic” Americans, some with signs incorporating Trump, Jesus, and Confederacy together, stormed the capitol, resorted to violence, destroyed property, attacked the police, and broke the law. They essentially attempted an insurrection egged on by the rhetoric of various leaders, including the President himself. The irony doesn’t escape me that this happened under the banner of the party and president who claimed to be the party of “law and order” and “back the blue.” There was even a gallows built and erected, upon which some wanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence, since he had betrayed their cause.

While some condemned this, this is not an isolated situation. This was a long-time in coming and building up. And sadly, I don’t think it’s the end of this level of behavior. The only word or phrasing that I think comes close to what pastors and leaders will have to deal with is the reality of an age of cultism. In my opinion, I think a case can be made that cultic like behavior is manifesting and growing more and more. At the least, which I have written about in past articles, we see identity politics influencing more and more people on both the right and left. In this article, I will briefly share some of those cult-like characteristics. However, I want to focus more on some possible solutions going forward. My fear is that violence and division will only increase, not decrease, unless a different kind of radical change happens in our hearts, lives, and worldviews. Really, at the root of it all is that of idolatry. Our hope is being misplaced. The level of fear and anxiety is disproportionate to reality, driven by much misinformation and misguided in its focus. It is also all being amplified and fueled by many 24/7 news agencies and social media. However, we can’t just blame news agencies or social media platforms. This is what we want. This is what we crave. This is what we keep fueling. More and more narrow-minded platforms and outlets are being created which only serves to produce deeper and more extreme echo chambers for the “enlightened.”

Before I dive into some of the cult-like tendencies I am seeing gripping and consuming more and more people’s hearts, particularly when it comes to politics and seeping into every aspect of life and relationship, let me share something quite personal and embarrassing. Years ago, I was part of a group that began displaying what others at the time, and I would also now admit and label looking back as cult-like tendencies. While there may have been good intentions and an attempt to model something different, we became extreme in our views, rigid in our perspective, self-righteous in our attitude towards those on the “outside,” and more and more isolated from others. These are some of the tell-tale signs of cult-like behavior. There is an attitude dismissive of any other perspectives or nuance, a sense of righteousness and indignation continuously fed and projected, constant confirmation bias, a bent towards seeing conspiracy theories everywhere with everyone, and a sense of being superior in insight or special knowledge. There is also a grievance dynamic where everything is perceived as more proof of both targeted unfairness and justification of beliefs. Over time, and building up enough, these can develop into cult-like symptoms or signs.

Further, when you add in a “charismatic” leader or leaders, their ways, words, and influence escalate things to a whole other level and degree. Before you know it, you have a revolution on your hands, and things turn ugly, or as we are seeing recently and over the past year, violent. All of this is, of course, justified in the minds and hearts of the adherer’s, and there is very little you can do to reason with people in this place.

So, what can be done? What are some solutions and steps going forward, at the very least, to protect ourselves and speak into what is happening? I think many are becoming more perplexed, unsure, and frankly discouraged about what can be done or said, if anything. Almost everyone I talk to is experiencing sadness and grief of broken relationships with family and friends over these dynamics sweeping across this country, again on both the right and the left. It is dividing families, friendships, churches, communities, and our country in ways that I can see headed towards a civil war again if we don’t figure out how to tone down the rhetoric and navigate these days ahead. Here are six things I think we can focus positively on:

  • Humility: We are not always right. Others hold views and perspectives different than our own. There is more nuance in life than we often are willing to admit or see. Even if we are “right,” the way we carry ourselves matters as much as whatever we may be articulating or standing for. Walking in humility towards others, seeing others as people made in the image of God regardless of their views could help keep us from growing self-righteous and rigid in our worldviews or political opinions. Seeking to find common ground is also crucial in the pursuit of humility, especially towards one another. 
  • Humor: My pastor made an interesting comment to me recently that the first thing to be targeted and go under extremist views is often humor and comedians. Think about it. Everyone right now is angry all the time about something. Humor, though, has a way of diffusing heated situations and bringing some levity back into the conversation or relationship. Maintaining a child-likeness is the way of Jesus, not a constant outrage or carrying the world’s weight around on our shoulders. It will also keep us from going insane! 
  • Guarding our Heart: There is a reason Solomon says in Proverbs 4:23 that we should protect our hearts, or keep a vigilant watch over our hearts, above anything else. Take it from both the wisest man to ever walk the earth and the fact this is inspired Scripture breathed on by God himself! We must practice self-awareness and emotional intelligence. What is happening on the inside is far more important than anything happening on the outside. It is out of the heart that the mouth speaks, and every attitude and action occurs. Being aware of our own pride, anger, greed, selfishness, etc., and tending to our hearts in both weeding out evil and practicing soul care is critical in the age and times we live in. Recognizing that, as John Calvin once said, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory” is something that is an ongoing daily effort in this current fallen world. Today, we are keeping vigilant watch over everyone else’s “sins” but rarely allowing God to search our own hearts. Social media is the tool to call out and confess everyone else’s sins, verse confessing our own.
  • Discernment: This is a tougher one to explain. Those displaying cult-like symptoms will also speak much about the need for discernment and how they especially possess special knowledge. Any denial, fact-checking, or debunking is just further evidence of the blindness and deception others are under. The only thing I can say here is what John writes in 1 John 4:1, Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is not something limited to the first-century church or other countries somewhere else. This is true at all times in all cultures. There is a “spirit” behind all that people proclaim or communicate. The question is whether it is really the Holy Spirit or some other spirit seeking to influence our minds and captivate our hearts. So how can you tell? That would require a fuller blog article itself. Still, it involves keeping yourself in the Word of God and exploring the philosophy and beliefs behind the messenger. We need more critical thinking and discernment, not less. We are constantly bombarded with information overload from all angles full of bias, agenda’s, misinformation, and worldviews that underneath the surface are often unbiblical or leading to unbiblical places.
  • Refocus on the Gospel & Mission of Jesus: We seem to have lost faith in the power of the Gospel and focus on the mission of Jesus given to us for our time here on earth. There are many worthy causes by which we can flesh some of the calls and commands of Jesus out in our lives, but I think we have lost the big picture and our focus. Politics matters and has consequences, but it is secondary to being a citizen of Jesus and an ambassador of his, entrusted with the message of reconciliation to God (1 Corinthians 5). We are here to be followers of Jesus and make followers of Jesus, not a political party or candidate. The intensity and ever-lasting culture war battles and political battles need re-framed and put in place under the Gospel message. We are not here to proclaim American greatness; we are here to proclaim the glory and beauty of Jesus. We are not here to champion America First or Only. We are here to declare Jesus first and only. The church should be modeling the way of the kingdom and character of Jesus; not trying to force culture to conform or thinking political power is the pathway forward.
  • Prayer: At the end of the day, this is all a spiritual battle. The devil is clever, shrewd, cunning, and smart. He is not stupid and has been in the business of deceiving human beings, twisting God’s word, and misrepresenting God’s heart from the very beginning. We, too, are susceptible. We are not infallible. Bible knowledge alone is not enough. The demons know exactly who Jesus is, but they are still demons. And as Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). I also need to clarify this point on prayer because those involved in cults or cult-like behavior also often pray, sometimes more so than others! But their prayers tend to focus on a specific agenda, not submission and surrender to the will of God and working of God even if contrary to their desires, expectations, or intended purpose. Today, you will find prayer inspiring jihad, violence, extremism, and tribalism. But I am saying we need prayer born of a pure heart to be close to God, where we can pour out our hearts and concerns to God while trusting wholly in God. Not to fulfill our agenda’s or do what we deem best.

More things could be added to this list, but I think that is a good start for many of us grieved by what we see unfolding in our culture and country in these extreme and cultish days.