An Open Letter to Sarah Palin about Her Fundamentalist Christian Beliefs

Before you is a letter from someone I know and respect whose work is all about helping fundamentalist Christians who have chosen to leave their abusive and delusional religions do so in a safe and psychologically sound way. As the author of this letter has written, “Marlene Winell is a Bay Area psychologist who specializes in recovery from fundamentalist religion. She is author of Leaving the Fold:  A guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion. She is the daughter of Assemblies of God missionaries. A longer article about Sarah Palin’s religion is on Dr. Winell’s website:  http://www.marlenewinell.net.”

Please feel free to leave any comments at the bottom of this letter and reproduce the letter in its entirety elsewhere on the internet (so long as you provide Dr. Winell as the author). If you would like to read an interview that I once conducted with Dr. Winell, please click HERE.

An open letter to Sarah Palin, from Marlene Winell, Ph.D.

Dear Sarah,

As a former fundamentalist, I’d like to call you on what you are doing.

This is not about disrespecting your private beliefs.  But you have a huge conflict of interest here by running for office and you can’t have it both ways (see Jesus’ words in John 2:15).

You have not been honest about the most important thing about you:  the fact that you are a born-again, literal Bible-believing, fundamentalist Christian.   Voters need to know you are not merely a “Christian” – a follower of Christ’s teachings.

Most people who have never been entrenched in the subculture of fundamentalist Christianity may not understand what this really means, but I do. Like you, I was raised in the Assemblies of God and I was a zealous part of the Jesus Movement.  Like you, my life was consumed with seeking God’s will for my life and awaiting the imminent return of Jesus.  It’s clear to me that you want to do the Lord’s will; you’ve said and done things like a true believer would. You are on a mission from God. If that is not true, then I challenge you to deny it.

Former fundamentalists like me know that your worldview is so encompassing, authoritarian, and powerful that it defines who you think you are, the way you view the world, history, other people, the future, and your place in the world.  It defines you far more than hockey mom, wife, woman, hunter, governor, or VP candidate.

You believe that every bit of the Bible is God’s perfect word.  You have a supernatural view of reality where Satan is a real entity and where good and evil beings are engaged in “spiritual warfare” (Ephesians 6:12).   Like Queen Esther, you believe that God has “called” and “anointed” you to lead America.  This is why you have accepted blessing for office through the “laying on of hands” and prayer to protect you from witchcraft.

So what does this mean for governing?  What could Americans expect with you at the helm?

You cannot affirm basic human decency or capability, because according to your dogma, we are sinful, weak, and dependant on God. And so, your decisions would not be based on expert advice or even your own reasoning, but on your gut-level, intuitive interpretation of God’s will.

This would allow you to do anything and claim you were led by God.

Your thinking necessarily is black or white.  People and policies are either good or bad.  After all, Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30).  Under your leadership, diplomacy and cultural nuance would be less important than not blinking.  In a spiritual war, you don’t negotiate with the devil.

Regarding social policy, as a believer in individual salvation, you would emphasize individual morality and responsibility, not a community approach with structural solutions.  You would be judgmental and controlling of personal choices regarding sex, reproduction, and library books instead of addressing global warming, torture, poverty, and war.  Your belief in eternal hell-fire, your deference to a literal Bible despite its cruelties and vengeful god, and your indoctrination to disbelieve your own compassionate instincts, are likely to leave you numb at your moral core.  You might recall the verse, “If a man will not work he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).  However, faith-based initiatives would be okay because they would use caring to evangelize.

How about science?  As it has in your governorship, your interpretation of the Bible would trump scientific scholarship and findings.  You would deny the human role in global warming because God is in control.  More importantly, you would not make the environment a priority because you do not expect the earth to last.

International affairs?  Since your subculture has identified the establishment of Israel in 1948 as the beginning of the end, you would see war, epidemics, climate change, and natural disasters, all as hopeful signs of Jesus’ return.  You would be a staunch supporter of Israel and deeply suspicious of countries like Russia identified with the antichrist in the end times literature.  (You have publicly said that you expect Jesus to return in your lifetime and that it guides you every day.)

The Christian fundamentalism that has shaped your thinking teaches that working for peace is unbiblical and wrong because peace is not humanly possible without the return of Jesus (1 Thess. 5:2,3).  Conflict, even outright war is inevitable, for Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword (Matt: 10:34-37).  Like millions of fundamentalist Christians, you may actually find joy in global crises because these things portend His return (Luke 21:28).

But all of this certainty and fantasy in today’s complex world is dangerous, Sarah.  There was a time when all of humanity thought the world was flat.  Today, the stakes for such massive error are much higher.

So we want to know, Sarah, Warrior Princess for God —  How dare you presume to take responsibility for our country and our planet when you, in your own mind, do not consider this home?   I mean home for the long haul, not just until your rescue arrives from space.  How dare you look forward to Christ’s return, leaving your public office empty like a scene from the movie, Left Behind?

What if you are completely wrong and you wreak havoc instead with your policies?  If you deny global warming, brand people and countries “evil,” support war, and neglect global issues, you can create the apocalypse you are expecting.  And as it gets worse and worse, and you look up for redemption, you just may not see it.  What then?  In that moment, you and all who have shared your delusion may have the most horrifying realization imaginable.   And it will be too late.  Too late to avoid destruction and too late to apologize to all the people who tried to turn the tide and needed you on board.

And you, John McCain, how dare you endanger all of us for the sake of your politics?  How dare you choose a partner who is all symbol and no substance, preying on the fears of millions of Americans?   Shame on both of you.

Leave this beautiful, fragile earth to us, the unbelievers in your fantasy.  It’s the only heaven we have and you have no right to make it a hell.

Sincerely,
Marlene

Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
October 21, 2008

Press Release – October 21, 2008
Contact:  mwinell@gmail.com

If you would like to read an interview that I once conducted with Dr. Winell, please click HERE.

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Interview with Psychologist and Author, Marlene Winell, about Recovering from Religion

Today we’re going to speak with Marlene Winell, psychologist, author and educator. Marlene has spent her life trying to help people recover from lives that have been torn asunder by religion and religious indoctrination. She has made it her mission to help people feel better about themselves, and their choices and to begin living their lives again.

Marlene runs retreats, one of which is actually happening this weekend. You can read about her and her work on her website by clicking HERE. If you or anyone you know could benefit from speaking with her, please don’t hesitate to contact her. For now, please enjoy this interview with her about her book, work and experiences helping people recover from religion.

What got you interested in the work you do?

I find people fascinating and it is very rewarding to be of help. I come from a missionary background so it is natural to be in a helping profession, but this is very different because I assist people in developing their own resources from within, not an external source.

Please tell me about your book, Leaving the Fold.

My book is Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. It’s the only self-help book for recovering from harmful, restrictive religion. My own story is one chapter. The first half names and describes the important issues in recovery, along with many examples from my interviewees and clients. The second half is about concrete steps for recovery with exercises to do.

How about a word about your retreats?

“Release and Reclaim” retreats are small group experiences where we spend a weekend together telling our stories, getting support, and doing healing activities together. It’s a powerful experience because you are with real people who understand. Past participants have described it as a big turning point in their recovery.

Who are they designed for?

People who have decided to leave their religion and need some help and support.

How often do you have them?

For the last 3 years, it’s been twice a year, but I’d like to do more, particularly in other areas of the country.   I could use some help organizing them.

What do you hope to accomplish at the retreats?

“Release and Reclaim” refers to letting go of old, toxic beliefs and systems and then reclaiming one’s life and one’s self. The biggest area of healing is overcoming the fear that has been conditioned at a deep level.  People then learn to trust themselves again and reconstruct their lives based on their own inner wisdom instead of external authority.

What kinds of techniques do you use to accomplish these goals?

We use discussion, writing, guided imagery, art, movement, and group exercises such as psychodrama. It’s a combination of both intellectual and emotional methods.

What kinds of religions are people when they come to you?

Mostly Bible-based groups – Christian fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-Day-Adventists. . . but also Eastern religious cults. The key is an authoritarian mindset.

What are their largest issues with their religions?

They have grown to realize that their religion has it wrong – intellectually, emotionally, morally, socially – and that it is possible to give it up and move on, despite the fear. Many have been hurt in some way.

Are they generally still embedded in their religions when they come to you or have they already left their religion and are now lost and in need of guidance?

They have already left but they haven’t worked through all the issues and some are afraid of letting go entirely. The phobia indoctrination is very powerful, which is why the group dynamic is also so helpful. I have a beginning retreat and more advanced retreats. At the first one, people are often pretty terrified; they need to tell their story and get support for their new insights about what was wrong. Later on, the groups are helpful for people reconstructing their lives with confidence and self-love. We also have participants who have been out of their religion for quite a while but have deep-seated “left-overs” they want to address.

What are your personal thoughts about religion?

I think people do need to have a framework of values and beliefs to use in approaching life, but it does not have to be a religion.  An organized religion with rigid dogma is not good because it robs the individual of the responsibility (and the privilege) of critical thinking and forming one’s own conclusions.

Despite the difficulties you see that people experience with religion, do you believe that religion has certain benefits or a certain value? If so, what are those/is that?

A group which provides community and a place for shared values that serve human needs in a tolerant, inclusive manner can be a good thing. Churches that emphasize the more humanitarian teachings of Jesus rather than his death on the cross provide better guidelines for how to actually live. But belonging to any group should always be done responsibly, i.e., never give away your right to think and feel for yourself.

What do you do for people after the weekend retreat is over to help them maintain what they’ve learned?

We have a confidential online support group with monthly conference calls. People also make friends at the retreats and stay in touch on their own.

Do people ever lapse back into old religious patterns or is this generally a turning point in their lives?

We have never had anyone return to their same religion. Some have retained a personal spirituality or belief in God but on their own terms, which I encourage. I have an article about this.

The retreat is most definitely a turning point for many people. I have followed up with past participants, many of whom have told me this. One man who traveled here from New York had been isolating himself in his apartment, overwhelmed with guilt and fear, never venturing out except to go to work. He was terrified when he arrived at the retreat and very quiet at first, afraid to tell his story. Then with the warmth and acceptance of the group, he shared and participated. On the last day, he gave everybody big hugs, and left smiling. About two months later, I spoke with him and he said the burden of his abusive religious past had lifted thanks to the retreat. He had new friends, was going out, and was also back into playing music he loved. Returning to his religion was simply not an option and he felt free for the first time.

A woman who came to the retreat was leading an outwardly successful life with career and family but had secret fears about the “Rapture” that would shake her up despite being irrational. The retreat helped her let go and even laugh about the idea for the first time. Two years later, we talked and she said the retreat was a turning point for her – she had had no more anxiety attacks.

What do you think is most important about the work you do?

I provide a safe, therapeutic place where it is okay to question religion first of all. In terms of healing and growth, my approach is to empower people, and I think I have found good ways of doing that!

What advice would you give to people who are struggling with their religions but who are unable to attend your retreats or work with you?

Don’t be afraid. Read everything you can. Trust yourself for a change and don’t believe the self-serving lines you have heard from your religious group about how sinful and dangerous it is to question. Get support of some kind. On-line forums can be good – stay away from the ones where religious people try to shame you. Take baby steps into the larger world and find out what’s going on and how other people are approaching life. Try new things in small ways and learn to enjoy life here and now. Congratulate yourself often for your courage.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Working with me may not be as hard as it seems. I talk with people on the phone a lot, and it works well.  We can make the cost affordable. The retreats also have affordable options, so don’t rule it out. The investment is worth it considering the time, effort, and money it can take to get therapy, or the loss of living fully if you don’t get better. I’m open to traveling if someone wants to organize a retreat in their area too.

That was wonderful, Marlene! Thank you.

If you’d like to read past interviews with ex-cult members, please click HERE and HERE. If you have any questions for Marlene, please feel free to ask them in the comments or contact her directly with more personal matters.

In the News: Left Behind….Mentally Speaking, that is

It is no new observation on my part to point out http://www.youvebeenleftbehind.com, a site that promises to send out emails to the loved ones of those who disappear at the Rapture for believing properly in Jesus (for more on this go to http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/06/service-lets-yo.html). Of course, this service will cost you a nominal fee. Now, I’m guessing that those taken at the Rapture don’t just want to brag that they played the whole Jesus-card properly; they want their friends and family to take note and take this opportunity to repent and become good believing Christians so that when Jesus really comes they can bounce before things get ugly.

Okay, I classify all of this under the giant rubric of belief – and it’s totally acceptable. Who would I be to knock faith, to disagree with it or to challenge it. It’s faith: inherently, none of those things really work with faith anyway. What I do disagree with, though, are a few other things about the whole predicted Rapture/Apocalypse/Jesus’ return extravaganza. Let’s start with an example: the year 2000, what people thought was the Millennium (though it was really 2001).

People said that Jesus was coming back, that the world was going to end, and the lesser believers amongst them freaked out about the technological Y2K possibilities. What did I do at this time? I offered to take bets – as many bets as I could. You had a prediction, I said, I will bet you absolutely anything that your prediction won’t materialize. I wasn’t asking people to renounce their religions if I was right and nothing happened; I was just asking for, say, ten dollars. If someone challenged that, if he were right he could not collect (presuming of course that he would be gone or busy attending to Jesus since he would have been here), I reassured him that my eternity in Hell would be ample enough punishment (though if the Rapture ever happened I’d be one of the first on board to a life with Jesus).

So what am I driving at here because it’s not mocking Christians or mocking Jesus? In fact, I love Jesus. He’s probably my favorite historical character  (tied, perhaps, with Buddha and Louis XVI). Jesus was amazing – you don’t have to believe in his divinity to know that. So, what I’m getting at is prophecy, and in particular, when prophecy fails. In fact, there’s a fascinating book called When Prophecy Fails (available now through Amazon.com by visiting http://www.thezenofsouthpark.com). It is about a modern group whose leaders make predictions that obviously prove false – they thought the group would be rescued by UFOs. The inevitability of all prophecy of this nature (end of the world) failing is obvious, but the question becomes, just like after the year 2000, what do people do when they’re proven wrong, as the passing of the predicted date obviously shows them to have been? Well, they make excuses and keep on believing. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that this book details through a case study, and Christian predictions about the Apocalypse and Jesus’ coming are the quintessential example.

People have been predicting Jesus’ second coming from the moment he ‘left.’ And guess what – they’ve always been wrong. Always. And I’ll take any bet about it. This brings me to the point of prophecy. The prophecies that predicted Jesus’ return were speaking in the immediate sense. They never expected people to reinterpret what they said to make the time longer and longer. Every reinterpretation confirms who wrong these predictions were. So what is prophecy in the Bible?

Prophecy, in the Bible, is meant for a specific time and place, and that time and place is the prophet’s time and place. When Isaiah spoke to the people about being bad and on the edge of destruction (or about wonderful futures) he did it to persuade them to change their behavior and bring a new, better situation about – or be punished. Prophets had a message for their own age. Peoples’ attempts for centuries to reinterpret those predictions for their own times are foolish and misguided. They were messages to other people. Of course, the lessons can still be valuable (i.e. be a good person) and transcend time and place – that’s what’s made them continually applicable – but that doesn’t mean that the prophetic prediction was really talking about now – it was a threat to the people back then.

I look at the messages of South Park in a similar way. Though they will resonate as true for generations to come, they are messages for the people of our time, exhorting us to change our ways, think differently or behave differently – just like those biblical prophets delivered. To call Trey and Matt prophets would be ridiculous, but I am drawing a comparison between who their message was for and what can be done with it. It is for us now, to change our ways, but it can be used later as a means of saying, South Park said the Vatican would be destroyed if priests didn’t stop molesting children (last night’s episode – 608, Red Hot Catholic Love) and I’m still waiting for it to happen. They didn’t say it would be destroyed – they just created a wild scenario to demonstrate how important change right now is. Prophecy worked the same way. If you’d like to read more on this check out my essay under Bonus Material at http://www.thezenofsouthpark.com.

In short, when someone tells you that the world is ending and Jesus is coming, ask what they’ll give you if they’re wrong – maybe they’ll sing a different tune or at least you can get a free meal out of it.

Do you think that the Rapture is coming? When? Do you believe in prophecy or think I’m an idiot for what I’ve said? Tell me why – I’d love to hear and know what you think and why.

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