Keep Sweet, Pray & Obey: How Fundamentalism Forces Obedience & Leads To Spiritual Abuse

Lissa Rankin, MD
8 min readMar 16


I was raised to be a good little Christian girl. Independent thinking or rebellion of any kind were suppressed from as early on as I could remember. The rules were clear, and disobedience was punishable not only by a lifetime of blistered flesh in the torture of eternal hellfire (an idea terrifying to a young little thing); disobedience also meant the withdrawal of Mom’s gushy approval, which I was addicted to, as a substitute for the unconditional love that was not on the menu.

Like the documentary about Mormon fundamentalism that I just watched, the way to be a good Christian girl was to keep sweet, pray, and obey, obedience being far more valuable a quality than critical thinking, free will, or resistance to anything that felt like oppression. Obedience, I was told, was what made me moral. Nobody ever explained to me that morality and obedience have nothing to do with each other, that obedience means doing what you’re told, whether or not you believe it’s moral, while morality means doing what’s right, whether or not someone else wants you to obey their immoral instructions.

My mother and my church were actively homophobic and anti-Semitic, and any Indigenous person who held tight to their animism and refused to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior was relegated to the hell realms along with the gays and the Jews. None of this sounded moral to my young ears and naive heart, but I was threatened with being left on the streets if I disobeyed my mother.. So I secretly disobeyed and outwardly towed the line, knowing in my heart that my mother’s and the church’s morals were questionable at best, flatly immoral at worst.

Part of the confusion around morality revolved around sex. If you wanted to obey the church’s and my mother’s so called morals (aka coercive control), sex was out of the question until you were married. I was sent to church sex camp at 12, before I’d even had my period, with the intention to terrify me about my body and all its urges and to indoctrinate me into the idea that hell would be my fate if I so much as imagined letting a boy touch me “down there,” much less have actual sex before my wedding night. We were made to watch The Graduate, as a cautionary tale. We were coerced into wearing promise rings, to prove our allegiance to the path of celibacy, even though I thought the whole thing was a crock of shit (a curse word I would have had my mouth washed out with liquid soap if I’d said it out loud.)

Unlike some people I know, my mother did not need to beat me into submission. My will was much easier to break than my sister’s was, but even with my sister, neither parent ever resorted to violence with their children. So I was spared some of the torture others I know endured under the oppressive teachings of fundamentalism. (Did you know that researchers concluded that the Germans who hid Jews instead of complying with the Nazi agenda had a much higher rate of not having been victims of corporal punishment compared to those who did not hide Jews?)

I did not keep my promise ring promise. I had sex with my fiancé in college, before our wedding- and I didn’t even feel bad about it, although I hid it from my mother, who nevertheless suspected as much. But that wasn’t my strongest rebellion. The real loss of my mother’s gushy approval came when I was a third year OB/GYN resident at Northwestern, when I did my first abortion. My mother told me she could never love an abortionist and assured me I that would guarantee my fate in eternal hellfire. By that point, I was fed up with her judgment, her idea that she had a right to control me, her threats to disown me and never speak to me again if I disobeyed her, and her abusive attempt to get me to do what she wanted by threatening the worst imaginable torture in my cursed afterlife.

On her death bed, my mother begged me to pray for my own soul. She said she couldn’t die until she knew I had begged for forgiveness for the sin of having murdered little babies. I told her to go to hell and then instantly regretted saying so to a dying woman, so I backpedaled and promised to pray for my soul and beg for mercy so she could die in peace.

I thought it would be better, but my brief foray into New Age spirituality wasn’t much less oppressive. It was sneakier in the way it tried to oppress my thinking, my behavior, and the way I treated other people. Instead of the threat of hell, if I didn’t keep sweet, meditate, and obey, I would miss the space ship of the benevolent aliens coming to get me from the Pleaides in case our rescue mission for Planet Earth failed, and I’d be stuck being tortured with an apocalyptic ending here in Planet Earth (sound familiar?)

Instead of outright “Jews are going to hell” anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic New Agers in the pandemic trended towards a pastel Q paranoia about Jewish pedophiles drinking the blood of innocent children and promoted the egregious false equivalency of public health guidelines to the Nazi Holocaust, comparing keeping anti-vaxxers out of public gathering places with vaccine mandates to rounding them up and killing them in concentration camps.

Instead of the outright racism and white supremacy displayed by many radicalized fundamentalists, New Agers oppress BIPOC and other marginalized groups with law of attraction and prosperity gospel teachings that suggest that the privileged are just getting rewarded for their more powerfully positive thoughts with their manifestation superpowers, while those who lack such privilege must have brought it upon themselves with their “low vibes” or all that bad karma from past lives they must be expiating, grateful as they are for their marginalized and oppressed status, since their soul chose their trauma to help them earn a better reincarnation next time around. (Again, sound familiar?)

New Agers gaslight marginalized and oppressed groups with victim blaming and “Get out of your victim story” or “Don’t fight with reality” teachings, but they try to cover up their racism and other oppressive belief systems with virtue signaling Black Lives Matter memes, so it’s harder to detect than the outright white supremacy of many fundamentalist religious people.

Although it’s couched in “love and light,” New Agers tone police the protests of the oppressed with “Stop polarizing and unify” or “Just accept reality and question your thoughts” or “We are all One,” revealing a thinly veiled anger phobia, conflict avoidance, and fear of confronting oppressive people or oppressive systems that lock in privilege and power, silence dissent, and maintain the status quo. Instead of getting hands dirty with sacred activism, New Agers prefer to use “non-dual” language, spiritualizing their “both-sides-are-good-and-right-isms,” the way Trump said there were fine people on both sides of the Charlottesville white supremacist march.

Instead of threatening hell, New Agers threaten that you will manifest all kinds of horrible things if you sully your mind with anything but positive thinking, which means you have to deny reality altogether and take on delusions of a Great Awakening during times like 2020. If you follow that line of thinking, that also means that you have to blame anyone who suffers in a senseless tragedy for their death or their misfortune or their financial devastation or even their sickness, since positive thinking is supposed to manifest good fortune, and negative thinking is supposed to create hell on earth.

Keeping sweet in fundamentalism means radical obedience and the breaking of your will. In the New Age, keeping sweet means “Good vibes only” and toxic positivity- or bad things will happen to you and you will manifest your rape with your fear of being raped, or you’ll manifest your cancer with your fear of cancer.

Whether you’re keeping sweet for fear of losing the approval of your oppressors, you’re keeping sweet to avoid getting beaten, you’re keeping sweet to avoid a fiery hell, or you’re keeping sweet so you don’t manifest bad weather, bad karma, or bad health outcomes, you’re not being yourself if you’re working that hard to keep sweet. And you’ll certainly be judging those like me who have given up trying to keep sweet because we’ve been oppressed too long and resistance is the only way we know to show our love and care, for our own freedom and for the liberation of those still oppressed.

My partner Jeff Rediger and I both are tired of keeping sweet, praying, and obeying for too long. We’re both, in our own ways, standing up to the powers that be to leverage our relative power and privilege to speak out for those who are still under the thumb of coercively controlling fundamentalists or New Agers- because that kind of control is a major threat to mental and physical health in anyone who is controlled by spiritual abuse.

If you’re one of the people who have been victimized by spiritual abuse, by a parent or a cultic religion or a narcissistic New Ager or an abusive pastor or priest or shaman or therapist or self help author, recovery and deprogramming from the indoctrination is long and slow, but it is possible. There is hope and joy and freedom on the other side of these kinds of oppressive belief systems and oppressive relationships and communities.

It starts by becoming curious about your own thoughts, not in QAnon kind of “Question everything” paranoia, but in a sincere self inquiry about how it’s possible that what you’ve been fed to believe could be a crock of shit meant to control you, keep you sweet and obedient, financially exploit you, or take advantage of you in countless horrific ways.

That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in sacred mysteries or holy listening to my higher Self or some sort of purpose and divine plan for our lives. I’m not one of those dogmatic scientist skeptics who mocks all things mystical with the contempt of intellectual certainty that all we are is dead matter in a dead universe.

So what’s in the middle? Is there a baby in all this fundamentalist religion or New Age bathwater? These are the questions we’ll be asking in a new online course based on a new book I’ve just written. The class is called Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 2.0 and the book is called LOVE BIGGER: An Exploration of Spirituality Without Spiritual Bypassing. We start March 7 and welcome you to join us if you’re curious like others are. I’ll post the link in the comments below.

What are your thoughts about fundamentalism, the New Age, obedience, and oppression?

Join us for Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 2.0

Originally published at



Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.