The Revival of Spiritual Gaslighting

Image: still from the 1944 film Gaslight

Author Tihomir Kukolja

When confronted with the simple truth that the Covid-19 pandemic is real and that vaccines save lives, some of my Christian friends are quick to question my spiritual sanity. On Facebook they tell me: “You should preach the gospel and not the vaccines.” Frequently I’ve been asked: “Do you trust in vaccines, or in God?” 

I’ve been called a stupid idiot, asked to repent, told that I am not doing God’s work, given Bible verses and other quotations meant to open my eyes – all that and more because I have dared encourage people to be vaccinated. I have had my share of sleepless nights wondering about my own sanity. I have been generously gaslighted. 

Just as gaslighting is understood to mean emotional manipulation that leads people to doubt what they know and believe, so in the days of the pandemic spiritual gaslighting is a pious tactic of putting other people down, mostly by social media trolling or spamming. It is exercised by people determined to control a conversation though meaningless spiritual statements, cliches, phrases, and pointed misplaced quotes. It is a damaging manifestation of arrogance informed by spiritual ignorance. 

Experts on spiritual gaslighting are everywhere. They can be found even among world leaders. The late Tanzanian President John Magufuli (1959-2021), one of Africa’s most outstanding anti-vaxxer presidents, died earlier this year. The official government accounts denied that Covid-19 was the reason for his death. He was a man proud of his faith who gaslighted his nation and the world only a few months prior to his death that Tanzania “had eradicated Covid-19 through three days of prayer.

The Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a Catholic loved by many evangelicals and Pentecostals, who disregarded the serious threat of the encroaching pandemic loved to gaslight his nation too. In the middle of the growing pandemic, while reported to have done nothing to stop it, he said: “We will call for a day of fasting by Brazilians so that Brazil can free itself from this evil as soon as possible.”

Dave Ramsey, an evangelical Christian and radio celebrity who has built a fortune teaching people how to get rid of their financial troubles allegedly did not want his 900 employees to act preventively against the pandemic. He was reported saying that not daring to work in the office because of Covid demonstrated “weakness of spirit”, and that “taking preventative measures were against the will of God.” A currently ongoing lawsuit against Dave Ramsey states that the employees who wore masks at work were “mocked and derided.” 

Spiritual gaslighting can be quite painful experience if you happen to be on the receiving end. It renders you helpless because no argument seems to ever change the views of the one doing it. Only a few days ago one person commented on social media in response to another article I wrote on a similar theme: “I can’t listen to you anymore. Vaccines are destroying our DNA. Are you forgetting that the Bible says that ‘we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that God will destroy anyone who destroys his temple?” When challenged by another commentator that vaccines do not alter DNA, she responded: “The Bible and the Bible alone is my authority.” Another person, known for her vocal support of conspiracy narratives, declared a moment later, “We Christians should be occupied by far more important themes at this time (than vaccines).” Discussing the pandemic with a spiritual anti-vaxxer is like grabbing fog with one’s bare hands.

However, the most subliminal spiritual gaslighting has come from the faithful middle, pastors included, and individuals who see themselves as the neutral group of “unifiers” and “reconcilers”. They love to say: “Do not let them divide us. Vaccinated or not, we are all one. Let everyone choose whether to be vaccinated or not. What we need is reconciliation.” I have heard it said also recently: “In our church community we are united, and we love each other. No one asks anyone if they are vaccinated or not.” 

It is true, we need love and unity. But at what cost? And what do we mean when we treat the current discourse as a conflict that needs reconciliation?

The problem with this “moderate” manner of spiritual gaslighting, reverently broadcast at the time when our ill-informed decisions may have dire consequences, is that they equate facts with lies, and truth with nonsense. Those unifiers remind me of a “neutral” military force placed between rebels and freedom fighters in a way that advances the rebels’ cause. In other words, it is misleading to treat the current discourse of arguments for or against vaccination as a matter of two sides in need of reconciliation. Facts do not have two sides that need to be reconciled. The facts of the pandemic call for clear action that collectively saves lives.

I am told that in one local church in Serbia, which seems to treasure this kind of unity above safety, a member of the congregation gave a public testimony during a recent church service – “My wife is in bed at home today, sick with Covid. But praise the Lord, I’ve managed to come to the church today and am glad to worship with you in person right now.” A few worshipers who took the threat of the Covid pandemic more seriously immediately moved a few pews further away from this brother who, had he been better informed about the potential consequences of his decision, would have stayed at home too.

At this time the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center is reporting over 5.5 million deaths caused by Coronavirus worldwide. How many more deaths are required for us to recognize that the calls to responsible living during a global pandemic are not calls to disunity, but to sanity? Instead, those who are piously gaslighting, who are misquoting the Bible, who are misappropriating their favorite quotes and encouraging public defiance are the factual creators of division, and often accomplices in creating the worst outcomes. I know of small church communities in Southeast Europe that have lost members to Covid thanks to the defiant attitude of highly pious virus spreaders, who have encouraged believers to ignore the pandemic, hugged each other indiscriminately, spoken face-to-face with one another without wearing masks, and even visited each other’s churches when advised to restrict their movements while declaring presumptuously: “We are not afraid of Covid. We believe in God!”

The chief mastermind of spiritual gaslighting, who knew how to twist Bible statements beyond recognition, was Satan himself. At the time of Jesus’ greatest physical exhaustion, he came cunningly to Jesus with “a solution”: “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Matthew 4:5. NIV 

It is not much different today.  Too many believers are encouraging other believers to jump presumptuously off the pandemic cliff, unprepared and unprotected, into the agony of uncertain outcomes, even unto their own deaths. They are creating a state of confusion and division among the faithful by advancing presumptuous and pious statements that the pandemic is not real, that vaccines are meant to kill us all, that our genes will be altered irreversibly, that our freedoms are being taken from us for good. They are telling the multitudes of confused, uncertain, and exhausted people: “Jump, you will be fine! God is with you!” They are misappropriating the Word of the Lord and His promises in the days of great peril, to their own peril.

But the story of spiritual gaslighting does not end here. The easily accessed Facebook pages of many pious gaslighters reveal a peculiar interest in the previously ignored means of social activism. Many Christian anti-vaxxers are now protesting in the US, Australian and European capitals against the “tyranny” of their governments. They believe they are a part of something big, and they want to be “on the right side of history”. But are they?

A case in point is the Australian populist Graham Hood, a retired commercial pilot, and proud Adventist believer who is anything but timid when it comes to sharing his faith. Each of his Facebook video messages, which by now have become almost a daily occurrence, is viewed, approvingly commented, liked and shared thousands of times. The contents of his inflammatory messages include everything from outrage at the Australian government wanting to “jab their children”, Q-Anon conspiracies, twisted theology, to literal calls to his followers to bring the current Australian government “to its knees.” His heart is set on a sacred mission of “getting our country back”, an Australian anti-vax take on “Making Australia Great Again!”

Hoody, referred to by his many followers as “our captain”, has become a hero and a champion to many Australian Adventist and non-Adventist anti-vaxxers alike. At the November “Millions March” against mandatory vaccination in Sydney, he was treated like a celebrity as he spoke to a large crowd.  In his address he blended his faith with a call to the protesters to stand up to the government. He compared their antigovernment movement to the boldness of the American WWII hero and pacifist combat medic Desmond Doss. “If they want to stick a needle into our children, they will have to come through us first”, he declared in the middle of his speech. 

Another case in point is professor of molecular biology Dr Tomislav Terzin, a Canadian of Serbian background, and loved by many “pro-choice” Christians across Southeast Europe. His video appearances would easily pick up thousands of viewings in the first couple of hours of their release. In a recent video interview titled “Don’t Let Them Divide Us” he invited “Christians, Jews and Muslims” to gather around the same God in “defiance and resistance to the prevailing godlessness”. “Let us be disobedient to this small group of people who want to herd us into their sheep pens”, said Dr Terzin as he affirmed a recent protest against Covid vaccination in the Croatian capital Zagreb.

The protest was organized mostly by far-right political groups and supported by right-wing Catholic groups who, at the rally, displayed banners featuring the image of the Virgin Mary – seemingly suggesting that the protest had her endorsement too. Dr. Terzin expressed hope that other cities and countries in Europe and the world would follow in the footsteps of the Croatian protesters.  He spoke approvingly of other protests at which people were seen publicly destroying what appeared to be Covid vaccination certificates in an “act of solidarity and unity with people who do not want to be vaccinated.” He also compared the restrictions aimed at controlling the coronavirus pandemic across Europe to the fascist persecution of the Jews in WWII.

The blanket of the holy resistance to vaccine mandates is spreading evenly over the entire Christian denominational spectrum. It is not only an Adventist problem. It is dividing Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal, and all evangelical communities, with potential to cause permanent damage to some of them. Wherever it sets its roots it comes in the company of endless supplies of Q-Anon conspiracy theories, twisted unorthodox theological variations and eschatological misinterpretations, with an abundance of prophetic miscalculations, and with expressed political allegiances to the far-right. In the US, for example, many white evangelicals are driven by the Republican urge to oppose everything that is supported and called for by Democrats. They are against vaccinations just because Democrats are calling the nation to be fully vaccinated. The reasons so many Christians across denominational lines are defiantly against vaccinations might differ slightly, but in their zeal to oppose all calls to responsible vaccination they are more than united. A new ecumenism has been born with defiant anti-vaccination drive and wild conspiracies at its heart.

Too many Christians, who until recently weren’t too concerned about human rights and the state of social righteousness, have suddenly become fierce “human rights” and “freedom of choice” activists and cheerleaders. The state of the poor, homeless, refugees, and concern about the spread of nationalism, racism, and ethnic injustice was far removed from their consciousness. Their usual response to any challenge to get involved in social healing of their countries would be met by another set of misreading mandates of the Bible. Until recently they loved to say: “We Christians are not meddling in politics.”

Now, in the middle of the pandemic, they are awake.  They want to save their countries and the world from the “tyranny of impending dictatorship”. In their views, calls to responsibly love our neighbors by getting vaccinated is pure tyrannical nonsense. They are a part of the global family of those who do not believe in any officially released scientific data about the pandemic. They hate ‘socially distancing’. They hate masks. They hate vaccines. They don’t want their governments to tell them what to do. And they maintain those views because, in their view, “the Bible tells them so.” 

On the other hand, many warriors against vaccine mandates and the reality of the pandemic do not hesitate to implement whatever mischief they know to dodge the vaccine mandates, or to speak untruthfully about their own, or their families’ encounters with the pandemic. 

I know of an instance in the US where church members placed their pastors under pressure to issue exemption letters or statements based on “religious or conscience objections” even though their church leaders had officially declared that there exists no conflict between the faith they professed and vaccination against Covid. When a pastor under pressure asked his superiors to help him handle the crisis, he was told: “Deal with it the best you know how.” They did not want to offend the conservative, antivax constituency of his local church. 

I have heard of several places where people are begging medical doctors to supply them with fake medical exemptions, or falsified vaccination certificates. An Australian medical doctor, an Adventist Christian (again), was investigated by police and recently had his medical registration suspended because he had reportedly issued hundreds of fraudulent vaccine exceptions. Most of his clients were said to be Christians too.

Others are vaccinated in secrecy, worried what their faithful friends might say if they knew they were vaccinated. In some instances, even when a family member succumbs to Covid, close family members would keep on denying the facts of his or her death. “He died from pneumonia”, they would say, or “We are not certain what caused her death.”

The widespread presence of pious and deceitful blindness is almost impossible to avoid. It is the veil of piety that makes it so deceitful. Almost every day another friend, who I’ve until recently believed to be a discerning person, surprises me with a message, or a statement. When on any given day I receive an invitation to watch yet another bizarre “truth telling and eye opening” video, on the same day I would receive another two, three or more messages requesting of me to watch the same conspiracy-driven latest revelation about the pandemic or vaccines. They are often introduced with a warning that suggests urgency, “Watch it before the Satanists have taken it off the Internet.”

Two or three months ago I thought we were talking about a tiny vocal but aggressive minority. Now I believe that some church communities have been almost entirely taken over by the sway of fanaticism, driven by anti-vaccination conspiracies, twisted eschatological narratives, and right-wing political ideologies. The ambiguous official church statements, that seem to aim at not offending anyone, only complicate the matter further. Those that speak with clarity, like the recent official video message released by the Adventist leadership in Germany, are met by a multitude of scornful comments, even warnings that such clear invitation to vaccination may cause a denominational split. “5000 fewer (members)”, one comment attached to the video shared on Facebook stated. I sincerely fear for the survival of some religious communities beyond the pandemic. What will be left of them when the pandemic and dust of anti-vax insanity settles? 

The spectrum of insanity does not end with spiritual gaslighting about Covid vaccinations. Yet, at this point we may say that the pious gaslighting is at its peak, to such an extent that we can speak of the phenomenon of transforming a part of Christian community into a new cult, or a new sect. While the guardians of the church administrations are frantically protecting the status quo, the wolves are destroying and irreversibly scattering the herd. To them this pandemic came in very handy. In the words of a friend, this pandemic has pushed to the surface all the theological and ideological garbage that until recently has been hidden below the surface. We are far from the end of the tunnel, and the pious antivaxxers are having a revival.

Meanwhile, many of our friends, and people we know, are continuing to be infected with the coronavirus. They are struggling to survive. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters are sending us their heartbreaking prayer requests. I have stopped counting how many people I know have died since the beginning of the pandemic.  Some have died unnecessarily. 

At the same time spiritual gaslighters and minimizers are continuing to double down into conspiracies and denial, always ready to deliver another spiritual cliche, or misquoted statement, or another misplaced accusation that the whole mess is to be blamed on us who are lovingly asking people to take this pandemic seriously and love our neighbors by sharing in the acts of collective accountability towards each other, of which the most crucial one at this moment is to be vaccinated.

The facts of the pandemic cannot be altered or spiritualized away. They do not have two sides that need to be reconciled. The facts proven by the millions of people vaccinated so far declare that those imperfect vaccines actually save lives. The tragedy of it all is that when large groups of Christians spread deceitful information, they are not only contributing to the unnecessary prolongation of the crisis. They are helping more people to die too. 

Moreover, their denials of facts are becoming even more cynical when wrapped in holy gaslighting. Robert K. Vischer, professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, warned recently: “When the world sees Christians as gullible, naive and unwilling to do the hard work of critically evaluating information, we lose credibility on everything — including our assertions about the historical veracity of the gospel.”

This article was also published by Spectrum on December 28, 2021.

About Tihomir Kukolja

Tihomir Kukolja, born in Pozega, Croatia. Studied, lived and worked in Yugoslavia, Croatia, United Kingdom, Australia and the US. Educated in theology, communications, and radio journalism. Worked as a church pastor, media professional, radio producer and presenter, journalist, religious liberty activist, and reconciliation and leadership development activist. Lives in Houston TX, USA. Until recently served as the Executive Director, Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation (Forum), and Director of Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative. Loves photography, blogging and social media.
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