July 8, 2010
Modern Exorcism: Trading Autonomy for Demonology
— Joseph Laycock
Last month, a feature in the online magazine Details told the story of Kevin Robinson, a gay teenager from Connecticut. Brought up in a Pentecostal household, Kevin first came out to his family when he was sixteen. His mother, refusing to accept homosexuality as a natural sexual orientation, convinced Kevin to undergo a series of exorcisms to expunge the demons that church members believed were causing his homosexual desire. After the tenth exorcism – which was particularly brutal and degrading – Kevin and his mother finally came to accept his sexual orientation. Now twenty, Kevin still expresses difficulty reconciling his faith with his gay identity.
Numerous modern “deliverance ministries” perform rituals to cast demons out of homosexuals. Last June, a shocking youtube video of such an exorcism by Manifested Glory Ministries attracted national news. In the video, charismatic prophetess Patricia McKinney discerns that a teenager has “a homosexual demon.” What ensues is a frantic twenty-minute ordeal during which the teen writhes on the floor in a near seizure. Church members eventually induce vomiting by squeezing the boy’s abdomen. Vomiting, interpreted as evil leaving the body, has become the sine qua non in the cultural “script” of modern exorcism – a practice that is, needless to say, highly controversial. Even Christian ministries who preach that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and a sin have censured these exorcisms, arguing that they are dangerous. And the majority of gays who undergo these rites are minors, leading some to suggest that this is a form of child abuse.
But exorcism is actually on the rise and may be more common in America than ever before. In 2008 the Pew Research Center found that seventy percent of respondents believe that demons are active in the world. Similar findings have been reported by Gallup and the Baylor Religion Survey. However, this resurgence of demonology raises serious questions about where demonic influence ends and individual autonomy begins.
As evidenced in the Gospels, the casting out of demons was an important feature of the early church. In fact, pagans sometimes sought out Christians from whom they could receive exorcisms. By the early modern period, Catholic Europe had a rich culture of local exorcists. The Ritual Romanum, written in 1614 under Pope Paul V, consolidated popular forms of exorcism into a formal rite. This brought exorcism under the direct control of the church hierarchy and in the modern era the rite increasingly became a relic. However, in the 1970s, there was a resurgence of exorcism and quasi-exorcism among evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics. These modern practices, often called “deliverance ministries” rather than exorcism, usually occur outside of ecclesiastic authority.
Modern deliverance ministries espouse a form of demonology entirely different from that found in ancient times. Until the twentieth century, the quintessential case of possession was the Gerasenes demoniac, with an alternate personality, a total lack of socialization, and supernatural abilities. But the demons cast out by deliverance ministries are rarely alternate personalities like The Exorcist’s Pazuzu. Instead, they are usually aspects of the person’s normal personality that are deemed demonic. McKinney explained, “You have the alcohol spirit. You have the crack cocaine spirit. You have the adulterous spirit. Everything carries a spirit.” David Frankfurter describes demonology as “the mapping of misfortune onto the environment.” Any trait or behavior including homosexuality, eating disorders, and infidelity can now be attributed to demons rather than natural proclivities or rational choice. Indeed, this seems to be the most appealing aspect of deliverance ministries: When all behavior is ascribed to the influence of demons, there is no one who cannot be exonerated.
Pigs in the Parlor (1973), a seminal text for the movement, offers an elaborate taxonomy of possessing demons. Here, demons of homosexuality appear as part of a larger family of demons responsible for sexual impurity. Other families include the demons of rebellion (where resides “the demon of self-will”) and the demons of false religion (including the demons of Islam, Buddhism, and other world religions). While researching his book American Exorcism, Michael Cuneo encountered women whose husbands had diagnosed them as having “a demon of willfulness.” He was even diagnosed as harboring demons himself. Within this system, humans seem to lose all autonomy; instead, individuality is entirely the product of the various demons possessing us.
Ministries that exorcise gay teens are quick to argue that the teens come to them. Modern demonology effectively allows individuals to alienate any part of themselves that they are uncomfortable with. This is no doubt appealing to a variety of people who are conflicted over their desires – whether they are gay teens, guilt-ridden adulterers, or people who cheat on their diets. But “outsourcing” our inner struggles to exorcists comes with a cost. By forfeiting responsibility for our behavior, we also forfeit our right to define ourselves as individuals, and we become vulnerable to the abuse doled out by Kevin’s last exorcist. Perhaps this exchange, in which both responsibility and autonomy are forfeited, is the true “deal with the devil.”
Matt Mcalester, “Deliverance: The True Story of a Gay Exorcism,” Details.com, June 2010. Available online at: < http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201006/gay-exorcism>
Michael Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (Broadway Books, 2001).
David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton University Press, 2006).
Pew Research Center, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: June 2008 (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008).
Joseph Laycock is is a PhD student in religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires (Praeger Publishers, 2009).