Dehumanizing Christians Part 1 – A Critique of Right Wing Authoritarianism

This blog is the first in a 4-part series based on my latest book entitled Dehumanizing Christians: Cultural Competition in a Multicultural World. Despite the title, the book is an analysis of a theory called right-wing authoritarianism (I wanted right-wing authoritarianism in the subtitle but the publisher said no). It is one of the theories used to argue that religious individuals are more prejudiced than non-religious individuals. Examining attitudes towards conservative Christians helps me assess whether this theory is limited to religious and political conservatives. Today I will lay out the theory a bit and my initial test of it. Then in the remaining blog entries, I will look at demographic predictors of Christian dehumanization, test to see if other features of authoritarianism are relevant in the dehumanization of Christians and explore an alternative to right-wing authoritarianism which I contend better explains out-group animosity. For the next three Mondays I will provide another entry to this series.

You may have heard of either right-wing authoritarianism or just plain authoritarianism. Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) is conceptualized as a psychological reaction to the perception of threat. In response to that threat, certain individuals submit to authoritarian control to meet their security needs. There are three dimensions to this reaction: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression and conventionalism. Authoritarian submission is the degree to which individuals are willing to submit to perceived established and legitimate societal authority. Authoritarian aggression is the degree of aggression directed at groups targeted to be punished by legitimate authorities. Conventionalism is the degree to which social conventions are endorsed by societal authorities. The fear emerging from RWA allows authorities to take away the civil and human rights of unconventional out-group members.

Robert Altemeyer, a psychology professor, outlined a series of dysfunctions linked to his extensive study of RWA, including being more punitive, more likely to make incorrect inferences, more hostile towards feminists, more fearful of a dangerous world, being hypocrites, more likely to inflame intergroup conflict, avoid learning about their personal feelings, being self-righteous, less supportive of liberty and being mean-spirited. It sounds like people with RWA are a curse on our society. Scholars argue that these are the individuals who support oppressive dictatorships. In fact, dictators need such individuals to help them remove the rights of people seen as deviant. Individuals high in RWA are conceptualized as aggressive individuals submitting to tyrannical leaders as long as those leaders support conventional norms and punish society’s deviants.

Research on those with RWA generally asserts that religious and political conservatives have this vice. In fact, Altermeyer claimed that he searched for “left-wing” authoritarians but was unable to find a single one. The acceptance of religious and political conservatism as the foundation of RWA has crossed from academia to public discourse. This was illustrated in the book Conservatives without Conscience by John Dean. Dean drew off the scholarly work in RWA to explain why conservative extremists were taking over the Republican Party. He argues that these extremists exhibit authoritarianism that produces intolerance, obedience and governmental interference in our lives. Looking at RWA is not merely looking at an academic theory discussed by only a few scholars. It is the exploration of an idea that has entered the political discussions of non-academics as well.

Despite the claims of Altemeyer, there is debate as to whether authoritarianism is limited only to political and religious conservatives. There is no shortage of leaders who endorse “progressive” movements that led to the establishment of oppressive authorities (i.e. Stalin, Mao). Is it really possible that only political and religious conservatives are vulnerable to the lure of using authority figures to take away the rights of their enemies? Some critics of RWA contend that we define authoritarianism in such a way to confine it to religious and political conservatives. For example the dimension of conventionalism is one where progressive images (i.e. free-thinkers, feminists) are set up as deviants to be controlled. These “deviants” are the natural out-groups of religious and political conservatives and so we should not be surprised that they, and not progressives, want to restrain them. If we look at the restraining of these particular groups as a measure of authoritarianism then conservatives are set up to be the ones most likely to be authoritarians.

A problem with this argument is that some scholars have attempted to test some of the ideas of RWA with out-groups that may anger progressives. Groups like the KKK have been used to see if possible left-wing authoritarianism may exist, but such efforts have largely failed. But I am not fully convinced. First, I question the wording of questions used to search for left-wing authoritarianism. I do not believe that they are contextualized for how progressives would approach the possibility of using authority figures to punished stigmatized out-groups. Second, I question the “progressive” out-groups that have been used. I mean come on, it is not just liberals who hate the Klan. With a proper contextualized question and the right out-group, can we find evidence that progressives are willing to misuse authorities just as conservatives? Will this evidence indicate that those progressives exhibit many of the dysfunctions noted among those with RWA? Answering these questions became the focus of my book.

My previous work quickly helped me to find an appropriate out-group for progressives. Work on cultural progressive activists and atheists plainly showed that conservative Christians are the group that many political and religious progressives fear and may want to control. In fact, my work on bias in academia clearly showed that conservative Protestants, even more than political conservatives, are more likely to face potential discrimination than individuals from other social groups.
The qualitative nature of the data on cultural progressive activists provided me with a way to contextualize the right questions for my analysis. That data allowed me to see exactly how those who hate conservative Christians express that hatred. Thus, I am in a position to create a questionnaire that accurately represents how anti-Christian animosity can be expressed. Using a rubric of dehumanization I developed from the work of Nick Haslem, I was able to construct an index based on those comments. Given the limited space of the blog, I will not reproduce that index here, but it is readily available in my book.

Of course merely because individuals express anti-Christian animosity does not mean that they want to use authority figures to punish conservative Christians or take away their rights. I needed measures of authoritarianism to see if those who did not like conservative Christians were just as likely to take away the rights of those Christians as those with RWA were to take away the rights of feminists, atheists, GLBT etc. This can quite simply be done asking individuals whether they support the taking away of the rights of individuals under certain scenarios.

This sets up a basic test of whether the notion of authoritarianism is largely limited to religious and political conservatives. I sent the survey out to a diverse, but nonrandom, sample collected through Amazon Mechanical Turk. I wanted to see if those high in RWA are also likely to hate conservative Christians by testing my index against a similar length RWA index. I found that the indexes were negatively correlated (r = -.636). This is important since some RWA theorists argue that authoritarians want to use authorities against all groups – including conservative groups. I had to make sure that the same people who are authoritarians are not the same ones who hated conservative Christians.

In my survey I constructed six scenarios and asked the respondents if the scenario is an example of an abuse of power. Three of the scenarios were the type we would expect those high in traditional RWA would not accept as an abuse of power and three of the scenarios are the type in which we would expect those who do not like conservative Christians would not accept as an abuse of power. For example a scenario that we would traditionally think that a person high in RWA would not see as an abuse of power is:

Imagine that radical Muslims are able to launch a successful terrorist attack in the city of Los Angeles by blowing up several city buses. The death toll of such an attack is approximately 200 individuals. Due to the success of this attack federal government officials gather about 1,000 Muslims and place them in a makeshift camp. The officials in charge contend that they need to do this since these are the most suspicious individuals and as such need closer scrutiny. However after three months many individuals become concerned that the government has abused it power. How serious would you say the abuse of government power is in this situation?

On the other hand, the following scenario is useful to assess whether those who do not like conservative Christians want to take away their rights.

A woman puts up an advertisement for a roommate in her local church. In the advertisement she states that the person who rooms with her has to be a Christian. The local housing authority hears about the request and instructs her to alter the advertisement so that she is open to roommates of any faith. She argues that she wants to live with someone with a similar religious lifestyle so they may be compatible with each other, and there will be less stress in her living situation. The housing authority argues that the advertisement as currently worded illegally discriminates against people who are non-Christians. How serious would you say the abuse of government power is in this situation?

Individuals may quibble whether these are good examples of taking away the rights of other individuals. They may state that there are legitimate reasons for rounding up Muslims or forcing a Christian woman to take in a non-Christian roommate. Indeed there are always reasons given for why we should use authority figures to intrude on others. At times those reasons can justify a loss of rights. The key is not whether these are fair measures but rather how eager individuals are to use authority figures in certain situations and does that eagerness vary according to who is the potential victim in the scenarios.

Not surprisingly I found that those who scored high in RWA are less likely to see the scenarios of traditional targets of authoritarianism of abuses of power. However, they were more likely to see scenarios where conservative Christians are the victims as abuses of power. This contradicts the assertions of several supporters of RWA theory that those higher in RWA are willing to use authoritarianism against all social groups. In my sample those scoring high in RWA are not willing to use authority figures against conservative Christians.

It should not come as a surprise that respondents unwilling to see the scenarios involving Christians as situations of power abuse are those scoring high in my index measuring dehumanizing attitudes towards Christians. They were significantly less likely to support abuse against the traditional victims of authoritarianism, but were less sensitive to possible abuses against conservative Christians. Remember that these individuals are distinct from those high in traditional RWA. Thus I have found individuals who score low in RWA but indicate a willingness to use authority figures against those considered out-group members – simply different out-group members than those high in RWA.

At this point I now have evidence that the traditional way we understand RWA is incorrect. Authoritarianism does not seem to be a malady that only strikes certain types of individuals. Those who do not score high in RWA can still exhibit evidence of authoritarianism. However in my first survey I did not ask about the social and demographic characteristics of my respondents. Thus, I cannot be sure whether those who scored high in Christian dehumanization are politically and religiously different from those scoring high in RWA. Furthermore, I also do not know if those exhibiting authoritarianism also exhibit some of the other elements of RWA such as illogical thinking and vindictiveness. In my next blog, I will begin to look at the social and demographic characteristics of those scoring high in my Christian dehumanization scale.

  • Phil

    Interesting research. I look forward to reading more in your future posts.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    Those looking for an introduction on Altemeyer’s work can find his
    popular audience book on-line.

    Scholars argue that these are the individuals who support oppressive dictatorships.

    In particular, in a replication of Milgram’s (in)famous “Obedience” experiment, the high-RWA types were those who tended to continue longer. Contrariwise, the correlation wasn’t quite to the epic level of some RWA correlations.

    First, I question the wording of questions used to search for left-wing authoritarianism. I do not believe that they are contextualized for how progressives would approach the possibility of using authority figures to punished stigmatized out-groups.

    I suspect you’re confusing the political sense of “left” and “right” with the psychological sense that Altemeyer intends — which confusion he specifically warns against. Trivially, the high-RWA post-Soviet communists show that distinction.

    I’ll also suggest that you look at the work of Duckitt et alia on RWA versus SDO. Both are prejudiced against the dissident; however, high-RWA tend prejudiced against groups considered dangerous (regarded with fear), while high-SDO tend prejudiced against groups that are derrogated (regarded with contempt).

    It thus sounds to me like what your “index measuring dehumanizing attitudes towards Christians” might be detecting is high-SDO reactions. As such, and presuming you used a US sample, I will guess (in advance of your post) that the social and demographic characteristics of those high on your CDH scale tend disproportionately male, white, and above-median income and education.

    The key is not whether these are fair measures but rather how eager individuals are to use authority figures in certain situations and does that eagerness vary according to who is the potential victim in the scenarios.

    I’d further suggest that eagerness is dependent on the degree of force that authority is being called on to deploy. (It seems a lot more people would be willing to slap someone over a social deviation than have them taken out and shot — Florida news aside.) Having to advertise for a possibly religiously incompatible roommate seems a far lesser use of coercion than being rounded up and put into a camp; but might be more comparable to (say) a Muslim cab driver having to drive passengers who have bottles of alcohol. This might be possible to measure more directly, however, by asking half the sample about a Christian seeking a roommate of the same faith, and half the sample about a Muslim seeking a roommate of the same faith.

    I’m doubtful that makes much difference to your general analysis, however.

    • georgeyancey

      Altermeyer argues that his work does not conform to traditional measures of left and right but the way he constructs his scales it is clearly the case that “progressive” groups are set up as the out-groups. Thus it is not surprising that he consistently finds that conservatives are authoritarians. Likewise, his measures for assessing progressives are not very good and do not use the right target groups. That is why I have found what I found with a better target group – conservative Christians.
      You may be on to something with SDO. I had not quite thought of it in that way. I still question the conceptualization of authoritarianism and in my last blog of this series I will offer a different perspective on that.
      You are correct in that the degree of force matters. We can come back to this after my third blog when I look at punitivness. In the end I do not believe that the willingness to use authorities to take away the rights of others really difference between conservatives and progressives. But the authorities who are used and how they are used does differ.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        More exactly, his scale is set up so that those inclined as traditionalists will be “authoritarians”. However, an Altemeyer-ian high-RWA raised as a communist “none”, or a C&E Christian might well consider the fundamentalist Christians to be the non-traditional. I suspect this ties to the word “norm”, which has a both statistically descriptive and a morally prescriptive sense, and how most people anchor their view of the world from their own experience.

        I am all but certain that (leaving out DSM-grade cases at either extreme) the differences in willingness are largely quantitative rather than qualitative, and the merely cosmetic difference of from whence or to whom authority gets attributed. On the other hand, I strongly suspect quantitatively pronounced differences in the extent of authority that they attribute — perhaps this is part of the how?

        Nohow, Henrich’s work on dominance versus prestige leads me to suspect the sociology might benefit from hard scrutiny of the philosophical question: what is “authority”?

        • georgeyancey

          Do you have a citation for Henrich’s work? That may be useful for me to look into as I consider my findings and possible future work in this area.

          • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

            Try these; I think it was (DOI: 10.1037/a0030398) that caught my attention first, leading me to (DOI: 10.1177/1754073910377242) and (PII: S1090-5138(00)00071-4).

            Peripherally, Google Scholar also turns up a highly cited essay on authority by Friedman.

  • Thursday1

    What about Jon Haidt’s work where religious people (and conservatives) are more likely to score higher on the moral foundations of respect for authoriity and ingroup loyalty?

    One should note that Haidt cites work that seems to show that ingroup loyalty is more about ingroup love than outgroup hate. This also seems to go well with some of what Altemeyer found while playing a game: that your average person who scored higher on RWA was much more likely to focus inward on the problems of their own group rather than attacking and lording it over other groups. (However, their groups were vulnerable to being taken over by pyschopaths, and “double-highs.”)

    • georgeyancey

      I think in future blogs that I show that the type of authorities progressives use differ from the ones conservatives use. I will wait until I come out with those blogs before discussing that further but this makes me suspect about previous measures of respect for authorities. It highly depends on which authorities one uses for the measures.

  • Thursday1

    You might also want to consider that while the three conservative “binding” foundations that Haidt found tend to go together, they aren’t perfectly correlated either. You can just have a high “respect for authority” score.

  • tsgIII

    Firmly here in a rejection of authority mode. A command to me seems like a only a word. I have memories of conflict with authorities that only seem funny in hindsight.

  • Julie Pearson

    You are equating political “left” and “right” with authoritarianism. Fascists, Maoists, and other totalitarian regimes, however identified as “progressive,” are conspicuously authoritarian.


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