When evangelical Americans began talking about Donald Trump as God’s chosen president, the religious phrasing around his leadership – miracles, destiny, calling – triggered something in the memories of Lynette Wallworth, the Emmy-winning Australian virtual reality film-maker. As a young woman, she had been drawn into a Pentecostal community and came to hold “extreme beliefs” about God’s will. She became a “prophetess”; fellow members would come to her with questions to hear her “give prophecy” from literal and earnest biblical interpretations.
“My burgeoning identity as a 17-year-old got fused to a belief system,” says Wallworth. Now 61, she is about to premiere her live one-woman show, How to Live (After You Die), at Sydney Opera House and then Melbourne’s Rising festival, in which she recounts her four years with the cult. The group’s core beliefs were patriarchal: men were the “natural leaders” and women should never lead men. Music and films that lacked holiness were frowned upon, while clothing, too, was circumscribed: “God preferred us [females] to wear skirts and petticoats.”
During an artist residency in Los Angeles in 2019, Wallworth, whose recent virtual reality films have documented the spiritual practices of the Indigenous Martu people in Western Australia and the Yawanawá in Brazil, began reading up how the Trump campaign had given White House access to an evangelical advisory board; that Trump had his own spiritual adviser, Paula White. Some had compared Trump to King Cyrus, a liberating Old Testament figure.
This “community of believers” proved politically useful to Trump, says Wallworth, but “in their own way they were using him” to pursue a “long-term agenda [around] culture, behaviour and what is permissible”. This included the appointment of conservative judges to the US supreme court during his term, such as Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, despite accusations of sexual assault against the latter.
Returning to Australia around the federal election in May that same year, Wallworth was struck by the victory speech of Scott Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian. “When he stood up on that night and said, ‘I’ve always believed in miracles’, I thought, OK, I get it – all of those people of a belief system understand what he’s saying to them right now … Morrison was saying, thank you to everyone who voted for me – but God put me here.”
By 2050, it is predicted that one in 10 people will be Pentecostal, with evangelicals becoming an “increasingly powerful political lobby”. With How to Live (After You Die), Wallworth aims to “point to the incredibly rigid rabbit hole evangelicalism can lead you into, coupled with social media which algorithmically will funnel you into people who hold the same belief system”. Her other aim is to stop teenagers doing what she did.
“It’s hard to talk about, because I know God is a consolation to many people,” she says. “But I hate the idea that a 17-year-old tomorrow could get trapped into this kind of thinking, where they could turn themselves inside out to become something they’re not in order to belong, or be made to feel wrong.”
Wallworth grew up near Hurstville in south-west Sydney, one of four children in a Catholic family with social justice values. Wallworth suffered grand mal seizures, the cause of which was never diagnosed. One day, at age 11, she had to be resuscitated after a seizure at her grandparents’ house. Afterwards she recalled seeing lights and “a sensation of not being in my body but being myself”, an experience that “made me always inclined to be searching”.
She attended a Catholic secondary girls school taught by the “radical” order of Ursuline nuns: feminist activists who Wallworth says were “devoted to training us to become leaders”. But one day after finishing high school, and before she took up her place at art school, Wallworth answered a knock at the door to a lone person with a warm invitation to a new ecumenical youth group at a local church.
It turned out to be a Pentecostal offshoot of a group that had begun in LA. Wallworth was 17, still working out her identity, and being offered an “intensified sense of belonging” gave her life purpose: “I was zealous, which suited my mindset. And yet, that’s why it was terrible for me.”
For the next four years, Wallworth would have only one friend outside of her Pentecostal community. In that time she attended only one social event at her art school, and was forever rushing off to pray.
Today, her long black hair falling across a woollen striped Issey Miyake poncho, wearing red heels, gold bands and an emerald ring, Wallworth cuts a charismatic figure, but unmistakeable sadness flashes on her face when she recalls how little she allowed herself to enjoy art school.
“I didn’t make a move without reading the Bible,” she says. “Some people had mental health issues. Our solution to everything was just praying.”
Decades later, Wallworth attended a Hillsong Church (which is not connected to the Pentecostal community she took part in) in order to research modern evangelicalism. “There were a lot of people who were in their late teens and early 20s, who were overwhelmed with emotion and feeling about being part of that group and chosen by God,” she says. “I thought, ‘If this little person standing behind me is gay, what is that going to mean for him?’
“You have to conform. I know that Brian Houston [who resigned from the megachurch in March over sexual misconduct allegations], when he was leading it, would say ‘we accept everyone’. But what is the behaviour you have to conform to? That is a different thing to ‘our acceptance of you’. What do you jettison?”
Wallworth says people must ask political leaders about their belief systems, whatever the denomination. “We have to be unafraid to dig into the deeper layers of that belief system, so that we understand if someone is resistant to, for example, making change around the climate crisis, where is that coming from?” she says.
She brings up the moment when the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, talking about climate change, held his phone up to the heavens and said, “There is a higher authority that is beyond our comprehension, right up there in the sky.”
“What does that mean? It means I don’t have to be responsible, and I can in some way relax,” she says. “Look at [Brazil president Jair] Bolsonaro, look at [Philippines president Rodrigo] Duterte. Let’s look at where evangelical or Pentecostal Christians are really supporting certain governments, and let’s look at their climate change policies, and their understanding of whether the world has been created entirely for human beings to use as their endless resource.”
In her show, Wallworth chooses not to name the Pentecostal group she was in, which has since dissolved and devolved into other groups. After four years there, Wallworth left it all behind with help from an unlikely source: nuns. An encounter with one particular nun would prove a “touchstone” moment for Wallworth, helping her to “untangle” her mind by “reminding me of myself”: a young woman who had an “extreme” streak, but who also valued her own autonomy.
“She helped me remember the person who existed before I starting asking every day, ‘What does God want of me?’”