INTRODUCTION to BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark by Christophe Difo, J.D. and Sean Prophet
Christian Fundamentalism and Patriarchy vs. Freedom, Justice and Equality
Published October 2021 - BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark by Coral Anika Theill
"Among some members of Native American communities Ms. Coral Anika Theill is said to be a “good medicine woman.” Having gotten to know Coral over the last year - having heard her story, having witnessed the conviction with which she tells it, having experienced her story’s capacity to inspire, having felt the healing warmth Coral exudes despite the crushing trauma her story entails - there is no doubt in our minds that those tribal members and elders are correct.
Our relationship with Coral began in September of 2020, just days after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. It had become clear that Amy Coney Barrett would be then President Donald J. Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ginsberg on the bench. Coral was working fervently to derail Barrett’s confirmation, expressing publicly and passionately, the harrowing story of her time in People of Praise, and sounding the alarm that Barrett had been a prominent member of the same organization.
People of Praise is a network of Christian fundamentalist communities whose worldview conforms strictly to the “covenant” philosophy as dictated by the Bible in general, and the Nicene Creed in particular. It operates 22 branches across the United States and Canada, as well as in the Caribbean. The group was founded in 1971 and it is headquartered in South Bend, Indiana. The People of Praise’s estimated 1,700 members are mostly Catholic, though the group does admit believers from other Christian sects.
Submission to patriarchal power characterizes and pervades every aspect of a People of Praise member’s life. At the organizational level, People of Praise is led by an all-male board of eleven governors the chairman of which is the overall coordinator. On the level of the family unit, women and children submit themselves completely to their “spiritual head,” which is the man of the household in which they live. In the most granular and fundamental sense, the organization is built around individuals’ - both men and women’s - absolute, unquestioned submission to authority.
Coral’s experiences at the hands of her tormentors, including members of the People of Praise, are heinous enough to disturb even the most seasoned social worker. The atrocities include serial rape, kidnapping, domestic assault, involuntary servitude, ritual humiliation, denial of medical care, financial exploitation, social ostracism, psychological torture, and disinheritance. For Coral, all of that immeasurable suffering pales in comparison to the agony she has endured as a result of her court-mandated separation and emotional alienation from her eight children. There is no language sufficient to express the extent of the physical and psychological suffering Coral has endured in the name of religion. The only thing that’s more shocking than Coral’s experience is that she survived it.
We were drawn to Coral's story with both fascination and outrage. Christophe Difo is an employment lawyer, writer, and editor, and Sean Prophet is a small business owner and television editor. We are committed to secularism and social justice, in significant part, due to the religious fundamentalism we experienced in a new-age religious organization called the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), also known as The Summit Lighthouse. Following the years of personal growth required to move on from the CUT experience, we emerged deeply committed to confronting the injustice that religious fundamentalism inevitably brings to whomever it touches. We are likewise advocates for public policy and philosophies of life calculated to maximize individual human flourishing.
CUT’s doctrines have reverberated through both our lives in countless ways. Still, our experience pales in comparison to the visceral torture Coral suffered at the hands of the twin beasts of theocracy and patriarchy. We were grateful and humbled when she accepted our invitation to appear as a guest on our show, The Radical Secular Podcast. We found her to be unbroken, unbowed, and unapologetic. She shared her story with courage and conviction and each grotesque new revelation pushed our jaws ever-closer to the floor. We launched The Radical Secular Podcast in part to explore and expose the sorts of destructive hierarchies which animate Coral’s story. Our conversations with Coral have hardened our resolve to sound the alarm about creeping theocracy, and they have reminded us to count our comparative blessings.
The frightening implications of Christian fundamentalism’s infiltration of the highest court in the land motivated Coral to publish this new edition of her memoir. Every person who begins reading this defiant chronicle of Coral’s experience under the lash of Christian fundamentalism will emerge deeply concerned for the future of justice, equality, and freedom, including religious freedom, under the United States Constitution.
Unearned Hierarchy is the Root Coral’s Suffering
We are adamant that freedom of conscience, including freedom of religion, be sacrosanct in a free society. We also agree with the drafters of the United States Constitution in their conviction that secular government is the best way to ensure religious freedom for all members of society. We have found that at the core of the tension between church and state is a struggle between equality and accountability under the law on one hand, and unearned hierarchy and privilege on the other.
The United States Constitution, as originally written, is a blueprint for an unjust hierarchy: a society that privileges White, wealthy, heteronormative men. Sometimes explicitly, but always at least implicitly, America’s founding documents excluded from its promises women, enslaved people, and indigenous people. The 14th, 16th, and 20th Amendments, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, marked substantial progress along the United States path toward living up to the promises of its creed. However, the chasm that remains in American society between the status of White men versus the status of everyone else is increasingly difficult to ignore.
Why? How is it that a nation founded on explicit, unprecedented guarantees of justice began reneging on those promises immediately after articulating them? How did “liberty and justice for all” so quickly metastasize into a social hierarchy that privileges wealthy, White, Christian, heteronormative men?
Our search for answers to these perplexing questions reveals that representative democracy is an aberration in the annals of human history. Healthy social democracies, which guarantee equal justice to all citizens, are rare even in the 21st century, and were practically non-existent in the tens of thousands of years that preceded it. Sharing power and sharing resources with individuals outside of one's tribe is deeply unnatural for human beings, and as such, systems which feature such rarely realized ideals are perishable. Those of us who advocate freedom, and justice, and equality must remain vigilant in our defense of civilization against the barbarism to which human beings so rapidly revert in the absence of robust systems of accountability. We share Coral’s deep commitment to that critical work.
The American Christian Power Apparatus
There are perhaps no more dangerous and pervasive examples of human barbarism than those expressed in service of theocracy and its inevitable corollary, patriarchy. We do not presume that American religious communities are monolithic in their vision of what constitutes a just society. There certainly are religious organizations in the United States and elsewhere which preach genuine tolerance, which support universal justice, and which perform good works in their communities. Those congregations, such as the Unitarian Universalists, eschew patriarchy, discrimination, and dogma in favor of open-hearted community and open-minded search for meaning. We do not refer to those organizations here.
When we talk about theocracy and patriarchy in the United States, we refer to fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity as well as to conservative Catholicism. Our shorthand for this ubiquitous system of oppression is, The American Christian Power Apparatus (ACPA). To be clear, the ACPA is not necessarily a cabal of sinister Christian elders handing down deliberately oppressive edicts from behind tented fingers in dimly lit church conference rooms. We are not talking about comic-book villains. The ACPA concept is shorthand for a decentralized, amorphous system, perpetuated often unwittingly by well-meaning people, which results in pervasive and systematic oppression, especially of women and girls. (Fundamentalist Jewish and Muslim communities are no less problematic in principle. However, since there are far fewer such organizations in the United States than there are fundamentalist Christian churches, we focus here on the latter.)
The ACPA concept might seem unduly dramatic or sinister to some. Indeed, many people regard theocracy, secularism, and even patriarchy as abstract ideas, detached from their day-to-day lives. Court battles over whether churches may engage in particular political activities, whether public monies may fund private religious schools, whether same-sex couples may adopt children, whether one’s sincerely-held religious beliefs are tantamount to a license to discriminate, and whether the state may force a woman to remain pregnant against her will, can seem far away to those of us whose lives are not directly impacted by individual judicial verdicts.
Still, every weekend, from hundreds of thousands of pulpits across The United States, agents of the ACPA, draped in frocks of supernatural authority, reinforce a conservative moral and ethical worldview in the minds of tens of millions of Americans. It’s a hierarchy which celebrates male superiority and “headship,” disdains women’s’ independence, aspires to quash women’s’ bodily autonomy under the pretense of “protecting unborn life,” and proffers charitable half-measures to deflect attention from its countless abuses of power even as it extracts resources from the very communities it ostensibly serves. It is an astonishing system of religious privilege that is woven tightly into the fabric of American life, both in law and in culture.
It is no longer possible for good-faith observers to dismiss this travesty of justice and equality as alarmist hand wringing. The American conservative movement’s 40-plus-year-long lurch to the political right has drawn brazen theocracy and patriarchy back into the political mainstream. The popularity among Christians of the Trump movement’s anti-democracy, pro-theocracy brand of White, Christian nationalism has laid bare the inordinately powerful and privileged position religious institutions occupy in American society, as well as their outright contempt for democratic institutions. During the Trump years, right-wing actors, even as they donned mantles of piety, demonstrated a galling lack of accountability and bad faith, as well as callous disdain for vulnerable members of society. That disgraceful circus revealed the American Christian movement for precisely what it is: a relentless drive to impose conservative social and moral hierarchies upon individuals, while slowing America’s progress toward pluralistic humanism.
Coral’s Honesty Challenges Us to Reflect
Coral has suffered under the ACPA’s moral hierarchy in a manner so intimate and so cruel as to be nearly unfathomable. Her soul-baring story pierces the darkness of that theocracy, and illuminates the desperate place where millions of women and girls suffer every day, in conditions that can only be described as slavery. Coral’s testimony gives those victims a voice. Her triumph and escape gives them hope.
The story you are about to read challenges each of us, especially those of us whose day-to-day lives are not obviously impacted by patriarchy and theocracy, to examine the role we play, perhaps unintentionally, in perpetuating the system of Christian privilege that inheres in patriarchy and theocracy. “American Christianity isn’t a faith or religion,” Coral confided to us in an interview, “it’s a crime syndicate.” “The Polk County Sheriffs were chasing me like I was an escaped slave. Society accepts this,” she continued. “Society accepts what they did to me. I tell every woman who buys my book and likes my story, and who is still a Christian, I can’t help you. [You] are a part of it. [You] are helping the Patriarchy. [You] women are my oppressors.”
The roots of Christian privilege in the United States, as well as the horrors of Coral’s story, are grounded firmly in the patriarchal construct that is the Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh. Most people have difficulty giving up the hope that some kind of benevolent force governs the universe. Many well-meaning, moderate Christians assure themselves, moreover, that “real” Christians are uninterested in theocracy or patriarchy. For them, faith entails a personal relationship with God which may even obviate the need for formal religious ceremonies, including church services. Their spiritual life transcends the gendered imperfections of church organizations, they believe, because God is above all human corruption. Or, in an adaptation of the “bad apples” theory, moderate religious folks may assuage themselves that religion is mostly a force for good, and that abusive patriarchs are the exception rather than the rule.
Though we are both atheists, we do not claim to have answers to unanswerable questions and we therefore do not deny the possibility that some kind of divine, omnipotent being might exist. And we do not here disparage the “personal relationship” believers experience with the gods of their understanding.
Still, such charitable interpretations of the Judeo-Christian God are the exception, not the rule, among American Christians, and certainly within the ACPA system. The God spoken of from pulpits on Saturdays and Sundays, who is described in the pages of the Christian Bible, and whose voice admonishes daily in the minds of the faithful, is decidedly male. So much so that a Christian is likely hard pressed to conjure a mental image of a female supreme being, and might even be offended by the concept. The Virgin Mary is a beloved Christian icon, certainly. But Mary is not God. Mary is subservient to God and even to her son, Jesus, as is her entire lineage, and all women, from Eve in Genesis to the “Woman of the Apocalypse” in Revelation. These Christian doctrines are structurally oppressive to women because they instill in believers a ready acceptance of male-dominated hierarchy and female submission.
Coral’s Courage Inspires Us to Act
Coral’s story is a stark warning to all of us, like the beam from a lighthouse, piercing the fog of society's ignorance and indifference. The ACPA, especially as manifest in the sorts of small towns and insular religious communities that formed the settings for Coral’s ordeal, is a system of oppression deeply hostile to women’s equality and women’s independence. It is indeed hostile to the very ideas of equality and independence. Coral’s story illustrates, in heart-wrenching detail, the ubiquity of that system. Her words articulate the parameters of the physical, psychological, and financial prison that system constructs around the women it ensnares. It is a testament of just how far into the pits of depravity men are prepared to descend to enforce their dominion over women. And, it is a grisly description of what happens to women, like Coral, who summon the courage and daring to fight back.
The ACPA’s system of aggressive subjugation does not end at the threshold of Christian men’s homes. Expansionism and conquest - evangelism - is at the core of the ACPA’s identity. It’s not enough that American law and culture, under cover of “religious freedom,” sanctions men’s tyrannical, and frequently violent, dominion over their households. The ACPA is committed to converting all men into street-level enforcers of White, Christian, male, heteronormative hegemony.
The ACPA’s survival depends on street-level enforcers because its premise is to compel human beings to exist in a fundamentally unnatural state. No one willingly embraces second class citizenship. No one asks to be subjugated. So, like other oppressive systems, patriarchy and theocracy succeed only where a privileged few wield social and political power over the disenfranchised many. The ACPA is therefore intrinsically incompatible with socio-political systems premised on democracy, pluralism, and evidence-based public policy. It rejects all of the hallmarks of a just society that is committed to universal human flourishing.
Coral’s story is also, therefore, a call to action for anyone whose ethical and moral outlook is rooted in humanistic progress. The Republican party in the United States, at least since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has been engaged in a concerted, reactionary reassertion in American society of White, Christian, heteronormative, male dominance. The Right responded to the explosive democratization of information in the late 20th and early 21st centuries with increasingly flagrant temper tantrums, beginning with AM talk radio in 1987 following the repeal of the FCC’s fairness doctrine. The outbursts grew more intense following the 1994 Republican sweep of the House, Senate, and Gubernatorial midterm elections. The launch of Fox News in 1996 granted a megaphone to this growing spasm of reactionary grievance, which reached full flower during the George W. Bush years. President Barack Obama’s two terms in office were a direct affront to the traditional social hierarchy the ACPA stands for, and they supercharged conservatives’ reactionary movement, yet again, by presenting the highest-possible-profile target on which to focus its long-festering racial animus.
Conservatives’ furious backlash to the demands of the diverse American plurality for an equal seat at the table of power, mirrors Coral’s abusers’ violent reaction to her drive for freedom and autonomy. Everyone who reads this memoir, and who, like Coral, is committed to universal human flourishing, will draw strength and inspiration from her courage, persistence, and strength of character. She reminds us that we each have a role to play in standing up for justice, and that it is up to each of us to determine what that role is. And to act.
Coral told us in an interview that she once lived next to a polygamist community involved in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She secretly shared an earlier edition of her memoir with the women in the community. After reading it, the women wept. The husbands eventually found the book, confiscated it, and forbade the wives from speaking to Coral again. Coral and her memoir were “banned” by their Mormon bishop.
That extreme reaction is indicative of the power this book holds to chip away at the patriarchal religious structure that pervades American society. Coral reminds us that our voices matter. She empowers us to “speak the truth, even if our voice shakes.”
"During my marriage I was required to be a "helpmeet" in a world like the one from Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "The Handmaid’s Tale. My abusive husband and the PEOPLE OF PRAISE COMMUNITY leaders used coercive control, isolation and intimidation tactics and to strip me of my personhood, safety and freedoms as a United States citizen. I have lived under a state address protection program from my abusive ex-husband, Marty Warner, Independence, Oregon since 1999." - Coral Anika Theill, BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark
A startling memoir of one woman escaping an abusive marriage and oppressive religious cults [PEOPLE OF PRAISE] and trying to find "justice" in a failed system. Anyone concerned with issues of abuse and injustice in America should read this book.
Coral Anika Theill
aka Kathryn Y. (Hall) Warner
Author, Advocate, Speaker & Military Reporter
Handmaid Survivor & former member of U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Amy Coney Barrett's PEOPLE OF PRAISE CULT
D.V., Rape & Ritual Abuse Victim/Survivor
Erased/Alienated Mother of 8
Memoir: BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark
Contributing Writer for Leatherneck Magazine,
"Short Rations for Marines" & “RECLAMATION: A Survivor's Anthology”
BONSHEÁ – Yaqui Indian – meaning ‘out of the darkness into the light’