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.

Don’t Accept that Apology!!

A few weeks ago Martin Bashir made an apology. He needed to make an apology. He implied that Sarah Palin deserved to have someone defecate in her mouth and urinate into her eyes. No matter how you feel politically about Governor Palin such a statement on a national program, even by a pundit, is not acceptable.
It was a good apology. Although no one can know what is in his heart, it seems like he was sincerely aggrieved at his actions. You can see this apology in this link. Note something else in this link. Note that the apology is not accepted by Robert Laurie who is a conservative columnist. In fact, as I listen to a variety of individuals talk about this situation there are a lot of people who will not accept his apology. Governor Palin herself does not seem eager to accept it either as she insists on Bashir being punished. That what Bashir did was wrong is very clear. But the fact that his apology is not accepted, especially by someone who prides herself on her Christian faith, is even more troubling to me.
Lest one thinks that I am only picking on conservatives I must say that I first noticed the unwillingness of others to accept apologies among progressives. Apologies of Paula Dean and Rush Limbaugh are not accepted by progressives any more than conservatives accept the apologies of Bashir. We seem to live in a society where we dare not mess up because we will not be allowed to apologize for our mistakes.
I am not suggesting that we accept an apology if the person does not seem sincere. The persona apologizing should name exactly what they did wrong and offer an apology for it. Nor am I arguing that there should not be consequences for the perpetrator’s actions even if there is an apology. If MSNBC decides to fire Bashir even with the apology I contend that they are in their ethical and moral rights to do so. Finally, we should expect the offending behavior to stop. If Bashir is talking next week about how Ann Coulter needs to be raped then all bets are off on accepting his apology. The Christian concept of an apology is called repentance. The way I was taught repentance is not merely that we are emotionally distraught at what we have done but are resolved to not do it again. That is the sort of attitude we should look for in an apology.
But when we see true repentance on the part of the person who wronged us, is it not healthier to accept apologies than to reject them? If you wish to live a life in bitterness then by all means reject apologies. Enjoy that bitterness and the depression that will come along with it. But a healthier path is to accept the apologies of others so that we can move beyond the offence we feel. Forgiveness allows us to live a life of wholeness rather than live in our rage and anger. Any psychologist who does not help a person work towards forgiving instead of living in bitterness is not one that I would recommend for anyone.
Given the advantages of accepting apologies, it is fair to ask why relatively few people accept the apology of a public figure, especially one that has taken strong political or religious stances. Here I tend to accept the wisdom found in conflict theory. Conflict between different social groups helps shape what occurs in our society. In this case there is an advantage in rejecting the apologies of those we disagree with (but of course to accept the apologies of those who support our political, social and religious ideas). Such rejection makes it easier for us to stigmatize them and makes them lesser spokespeople for their causes. From the perspective of pushing our point of view, when people we disagree with apologize, we are better off not accepting the apology and let them wallow in their sin.
Yes, we can punish them. But we also punish ourselves. We hold on to the offence and live anger at that person. That anger punishes us as it becomes the source of our depression and feelings of victimization. But we keep our ideological opponent stigmatized and controlled. We are able to warn others of his/her ideological position to be very careful in how they speak and what they say. We have gained an advantage in social discourse but have done so at the costs of our own personal and psychological health. I fear that too often in our society we trade our own psychological health to gain social advantage over those we oppose.
It is important to fully consider the benefits and costs of refusing to accept the apologies of others. There truly is an advantage in social dialogue when we reject the apologies of others. We are fools not to realize that fact. But this advantage comes at a cost of our own happiness. If we think our cause is worth sacrificing our health and happiness then by all means we should refuse to accept the apology of anyone who disagrees with our social, political and religious beliefs. Is there a social or political cause that is so precious to me that I will sacrifice my psychological health, and spiritual well-being, for? None of them are worth that great a price. So as for me, refusing to accept the apologies of others because I disagree with their social, political or religious perspectives is too high of a price to pay.

Muslim Fundamentalists and Married Bachelors

Did you know that the last time I saw a Muslim fundamentalist that he was a married bachelor? That is because both Muslim fundamentalists and married bachelors are logical impossibilities. By definition if you are married then you cannot be a bachelor. Also a Muslim cannot be a fundamentalist. But while we do not hear people talk about married bachelors, because everyone recognizes that they are logical impossibilities, we consistently hear talk about Muslim fundamentalists. In my academic dreams we would hear individuals talk about Muslim fundamentalists as much as we hear them talk about married bachelors. (Okay, so I do not have big dreams).
To understand why Muslim fundamentalist is a logical impossibility we have to understand what the term fundamentalist means. Fundamentalism comes from a series of essays, edited by A. C. Dixon, in books written in the early 20th century called The Fundamentals. The major purpose of these books was to create the boundaries between what the authors perceived as true Christianity and other religious beliefs in society. The tenets in these writings (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, resurrection of Christ) are rooted in Protestant beliefs. Thus, to be a fundamentalist, one has to adhere to Protestant beliefs. This makes Islamic fundamentalism impossible since Muslims by definition do not have the same exact religious beliefs as Protestants. For that matter there are not Jewish fundamentalists, Mormon fundamentalists, or atheist fundamentalists either.
That I listen to non-academics misuse the term fundamentalist is not surprising. Often individuals are sloppy with their use of language. Most people do not understand the history of the concept and so it would be surprising if they did not sometimes misuse this term. But when I hear scholars of religion talk about Muslim fundamentalists, I want to tear my hair out (or would if I had hair). Such individuals should know better. It was especially frustrating for me to send in a book manuscript where I discuss the proper use of fundamentalist and a reviewer state that while I was technically correct I should just accept the common layperson use of the word. Is not part of the job of academics to correct misconceptions out in the public? Evidently not according to this reviewer.
It is useful to ask why this term has been corrupted. I can only speculate about why this corruption has occurred, but I would be naïve to not consider that certain social interests are invested in having fundamentalist misused in this particular way. It is clear that the term “fundamentalist” is being used to replace the term “extremist”. While a Muslim fundamentalist is a myth, a Muslim extremist is not. Thus individuals use the term fundamentalist when what they really mean is extremist. So the misuse of the term fundamentalist can be seen as a critique of conservative Christianity. The term fundamentalist implies that conservative Christians are at the extremes of society. Thus, talking about Muslim fundamentalists becomes a useful way to stigmatize conservative Christians.
In a society where there is evidence of a culture war and conservative Christians are on one side of that culture war, promoting the perception of them as being the same as Muslim extremists is purposeful for those who oppose conservative Christians. Linking conservative Christians to images of angry Muslims, some of who may be terrorists, provides legitimization to oppose those Christians. This is not to say that everyone who misuses the term fundamentalist intends on marginalizing conservative Christians; however, it is clear that the implications of that misuse is supportive of the idea that conservative Christians should be kept at the periphery of society. It is an idea I found among cultural progressives when conducting research on them for my book.
The way we use terms does not occur by accident. It generally occurs to reflect the social ideas of those who use the terms. If we conceptualize a culture war between cultural progressive activists and conservative religious supporters, then it makes sense that progressive activists accept interpretations of fundamentalism supporting notions that those conservative religious supporters should be marginalized. Since Christianity is the major religion in the United States, comments aimed at Christians, as opposed to those of other religions, should be especially relevant to cultural progressive activists.
As a scholar I would like to see the term fundamentalist used in a proper manner. Using words accurately is vital to communicating academic knowledge. So I will consistently encourage individuals, and especially my students, to use “Muslim extremist” instead of “Muslim fundamentalist”. But I am realistic about the chances of changing the patterns of how we speak about fundamentalism. I am also realistic that the current way this misuse serves certain social interests in ways that an accurate understanding of the term fails to do. I am tilting at windmills. But if I am going to call myself a scholar of religion, then I have to be honest about addressing such mistakes no matter who’s interest is at stake.

Now that is False Equivalency!!

When I discuss the reality that conservative Christians have certain disadvantages in our society I am sometimes accused of false equivalency. Yet at no point have I argued that the disadvantage of Christians is exactly the same as the disadvantage of non-Christians. To conduct a fair comparison of the Christian’s and non-Christian’s place in our society, we have to take seriously the fact that Christianity is at times an advantage and at other times a disadvantage in our society. I accept both facts in the above sentence while those arguing against me often only accept the former. In reality, the advantage of Christians in our society is tied to the lower numbers of individuals with animosity towards them than towards atheists. The conservative Christian disadvantage is that those with that animosity tend to come from a racially, educationally, economically powerful social position.

However, this week I came across an example of false equivalency that perfectly illustrates what this logical fallacy looks like. Here is a link to a video of Bill Maher’s show in which he dialogs with Michael Moore and Al Sharpton (warning: language – after all it is the Bill Maher show). It is about eight minutes long and if you do not want to invest that much time in watching it, I will quickly summarize it. Maher argues that Islamic terrorism is a special problem that has to be addressed while Moore and Sharpton basically argue that Christians are just as violent as the Muslim terrorists. Yeah, that is false equivalency and it is not even close.

It is silly to make overarching accusations about Muslims and violence, but it is clear that contemporary Christianity is not the violent threat that Islamic terrorism has presented to us. To make such an observation is not Islamophobia, but an acknowledgement of reality. One can make an argument that historically Christianity has been as violent as Islam. I would not agree with that argument but it is a logical assertion that can be adequately defended. There is no real logical argument that contemporary Christians are as violent as Muslim terrorists. Some will point to some isolated incidents where Christians engaged in violence. However, Christians who commit mass murder do so detached from overt support from their religious community; whereas, it is clear that many of the Islamic terrorists engage in their violence with the support of certain segments in their religious tradition. To argue that isolated Christian violence is the same as organized Islamic violence, which Moore and Sharpton appear to be doing, is a great example of false equivalency.

Here is another great example. When the subject of violence against women came up, Sharpton points out that many women get raped in our “Christian” counties. Those rapes are horrible, but when we find the rapist, we him in jail. In some Islamic countries women are not just raped but are treated as second class citizens in ways that are unthinkable in a contemporary Christian country. In those Christian countries women do not have to wear coverings, can go to school, and are allowed to drive. Equating the fact that we have not rid ourselves of rape to the gender based abuses that occur in some Islamic nations is a great example of false equivalency.

The problem is that while the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, there are certain sub-groups of Muslims who are terrorists and openly attempting to kill us. (Moore states that Christians want to kill non-Christians as well. He provides no evidence for this assertion but even if true, then where are the sub-groups of Christians engaging in terrorism today? Equating what people theoretically want to do with what others are actually doing is another great example of false equivalency.) What is the worst Christian group in the United States? My vote goes to the Westboro Baptist Church. They are despicable. But they are not violent nor is there any evidence that they are terrorists. I dearly would love for them to go away but comparing their rude, insensitive, but nonviolent protests is simply not the same thing as attempting to blow up those one disagrees with as we know certain Muslim terrorists do.

I would like to have a society whereby people are not punished socially, economically, or educationally for their religious belief or non-belief. But such a society requires a level of respect for those who differ from us, a respect that I often fail to see. I would welcome an honest discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of Christians and non-Christians in society. To have that discussion, individuals have to be open that religious out-group members sometimes suffer in ways that they do not suffer. I have personally observed the advantages of not being a Christian in academic circles and have done the systematic research documenting some of those advantages. But I also recognize advantages I have as a Christian in other areas of our society. Putting myself in the mind of the other allows me to be open to a more nuanced interpretation than some of my Christian brothers and sisters who only see Christians as a persecuted class. Likewise, I have dialoged with non-Christians who only see their disadvantages and are loath to acknowledged disadvantages conservative Christians sometimes operate under. Such individuals attempt to use the charges of false equivalency to argue that such disadvantages are unimportant before we can even get to the discussion of the nature of these disadvantages. But real false equivalency is stating things are alike when there is plenty of evidence that they are quite different. The discrimination Christians may face in our society is different than the type of discrimination those of other faiths may face, but it is not imaginary and pointing out that fact is not false equivalency. In reality, pointing out that fact allows us to seriously respect the disadvantage both Christians and non-Christians have in our society and helps us to comprehend sophisticated ways religion factors into how social stratification can operate in the United States.