Is Evangelicalism Uniquely Vindictive, More Than Other, Secular Ideological Dispositions?

So I had Martin Bashir on in the background one day last week and was struck to hear Nick Broomfield (whose  new documentary Sarah Palin: You Betcha! I highlighted a couple weeks ago) directly and solely blame Sarah Palin’s vindictiveness on her religion. Outside of a handful of scathing New Atheists I don’t think I have heard anyone on a mainstream media outlet so bluntly and unqualifiedly imply that evangelicalism leads so directly to a bad character.

The interview with Broomfield is led by a clip of an interview with retired Baptist minister and author of Pastor, I Am Gay, Howard Bess.

Here is some background on Bess from a profile just weeks after Palin was nominated for vice president in 2008:

A retired American Baptist minister who pastors a small congregation in nearby Palmer, Wasilla’s twin town in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley, Bess has been tangling with Palin and her fellow evangelical activists ever since she was a Wasilla City Council member in the 1990s. Recently, Bess again found himself in the spotlight with Palin, when it was reported that his 1995 book, “Pastor, I Am Gay,” was among those Palin tried to have removed from the Wasilla Public Library when she was mayor.

“She scares me,” said Bess. “She’s Jerry Falwell with a pretty face.

“At this point, people in this country don’t grasp what this person is all about. The key to understanding Sarah Palin is understanding her radical theology.”


Bess’ first run-in with Palin’s religious forces came when he decided to write his book, “Pastor, I Am Gay.” The book was the result of a theological journey that began in the 1970s when Bess was asked for guidance by a closeted homosexual in his Santa Barbara congregation. After deep reflection on the subject, Bess came to the conclusion that “gay people were not sick, nor they were special sinners.”

In his book, Bess suggests that gays have a divine mission. “Look back at the life of our Lord Jesus. He was misunderstood, deserted, unjustly accused, and cruelly killed. Yet we all confess that it was the will of God, for by his wounds we are healed … Could it be that the homosexual, obedient to the will of God, might be the church’s modern day healer-messiah?”

When it was published in 1995, Bess’ book caused an immediate storm in the Mat-Su Valley, an evangelical stronghold dotted with storefront churches. Conservative ministers targeted the book, and the only bookstore in the valley that dared to stock it — Shalom Christian Books and Gifts – soon dropped it after the owner was barraged with angry phone calls. The Frontiersman, the local newspaper that ran a column by Bess for seven years, fired him and ran a vicious cartoon that suggested even drooling child molesters would be welcomed by Bess’ church.

And after she became mayor of Wasilla, according to Bess, Sarah Palin tried to get rid of his book from the local library. Palin now denies that she wanted to censor library books, but Bess insists that his book was on a “hit list” targeted by Palin. “I’m as certain of that as I am that I’m sitting here. This is a small town, we all know each other. People in city government have confirmed to me what Sarah was trying to do.”

In Broomfield’s new documentary, Howard Bess is quoted (in the clip used on Martin Bashir’s show) as saying:

Sarah must have an enemy. There’s not a cooperative bone in her body. There’s never any compromise. She lives in a black and white world, and there’s one thing you do with someone who is wrong, who opposes you, and that is you do them in, you get rid of them, you kill ‘em off. Nice lady…

In his interview with Bashir, Broomfield paints a picture of a person terrible to those closest to her and then specifically blames her evangelicalism for her vindictiveness in the sorts of unqualified terms I can’t remember hearing on TV outside of, say, Bill Maher or other explicitly New Atheist figures:

Broomfield: I think that people find it hard to believe that we couldn’t have found more positive people in Wasilla to say nice things about Sarah Palin. I tried extremely hard, I talked to her old school friends, I talked to her Republican colleagues, and they were all incredibly damning of her. And it was almost like the people who were closest to her were most condemning of all.


Bashir: Joe McGuiness says, in his characterization of Sarah Palin, at best she’s a hypocrite and at worst she’s a vindictive hypocrite.

Broomfield: She’s an evangelical Christian and I think that’s the most dangerous thing about Sarah Palin. And I think we see it also with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.

Bashir: But that’s to be unfair. Many evangelical Christians are not vindictive or hypocritical/vindictive.

Broomfield: Well, I think it’s “the God and the Devil”, “the good and the bad”, and she does need an enemy, as Howard Bess says. And I think that when you bring religion into politics, which is what all three of them do. You have a very, very big problem.

Bashir: So I again, I bring up the question, how would you sum up her character?

Broomfield: Vindictive. And I think the vindictiveness comes from actually being an evangelical. I think there’s that “black and white”, it’s antithetical to being in a democracy. It’s not about debate and consensus politics, it’s about one way. And it’s Sarah Palin’s way.

Bashir: “My way or the highway.”

Broomfield: Exactly.

See the entire interview here.

Is Broomfield being fair here to evangelicals here when blaming Palin’s vindictiveness on her evangelicalism? Or is he saying that only politicized evangelicalism takes this form? And then would he be right or is that still unfair? What if he had said that a politician’s character flaws were the direct outflow of her atheism? How would you feel about that if you are an atheist? Do you think the substantive intellectual content of evangelicalism or evangelical politics makes it more fair to blame someone’s character flaws on their religious/political beliefs?

Does having a dualistic, “absolute good vs. absolute evil” theology inherently make it so that any politics derived therefrom is bound to be closed off from good faith engagement with perceived enemies? Or is this really a uniquely theological problem? Could secular right and left wing politics alike be accused of such dualism even though they have make no theological references? Does ideological thinking itself lead to dualistic habits of thought or is there something about evangelicalism and other explicitly dualistic theologies which in particular make them uniquely anti-democratic and demonizing towards enemies? Are Broomfield’s and Bess’s treatments of Palin themselves hypocritically vindictive?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • raven

    The three sacraments of fundie xianity are hate, lies, and hypocrisy.

    The hate is important, critical. They use it for ingroup outgroup identification and as a motivating tactic.

    Nothing new about using hate as an organizational force. It’s been done for centuries and millennia. Hate works or they wouldn’t use it. It’s just pure tribalism.

    I figured all that out on my own by watching. So have most people. As a theory, it has great explanatory power.

    HL Mencken:

    Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity of Christ was founded upon love.

    Mencken noted it a century ago. Bishop JS Spong figured it out and was horrified and mentions it often in his books.

    As to whether Palin hates because she is a fundie or a fundie because she hates, who knows? It doesn’t matter as the result is the same. She is a hate filled fundie moron.

    PS She also has that hypocrisy sacrament down. Palin has two grandchildren, both conceived out of wedlock. How’s that abstinence only sex ed. working for you, Sarah?

  • raven

    Is Evangelicalism Uniquely Vindictive, More Than Other, Secular Ideological Dispositions?

    Well yes.

    Thanks to the fundies, US xianity is redefining itself as a social problem.

    It’s also slowly dying. Hate just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. According to the National Council of Churches, 1.5 million people dropped off the church roles last year.

    It worked for me. I was a xian for nearly 5 decades and the fundies were the ones who appalled me enough to get out of the religion.

  • sfbevster

    Isn’t this the Manichean heresy that the early church actually outlawed? Absolute evil outside of God can’t exist because all is of God. The alternative leads to the whole God loves me and shits on you thing that evangelicals love.

  • movablebooklady

    But, but, all black/white thinking leads to hate, lies, and hypocrisy. We tend to think it’s only xian fundies because they’re in our faces (in the US) but there are examples all over the world. And all such thinking is based on fear, especially of “the other” (tribalism, as someone pointed out above).

    So, is it just something that’s hardwired in humanity? Something that takes the form of religion of various types? I tend to think it is, which makes me despair of any substantive change.

  • DaveH

    Uniquely Vindictive?

    No. As has been pointed out, tribalism in all its forms is the same issue. The dividing issue can be religion, ethnicity (e.g. Rwanda, for an extreme example, though wealth was also an issue), language, ideology, social status, nationalism, etc., etc.

    More Than Other, Secular Ideological Dispositions?

    Yes and no. Many examples have religion as a primary or secondary issue (e.g. Northern Ireland), but the polarization of politics can be independent of religious undertones, such as modern day Zimbabwe, or even Russia. That being said, it seems that evangelicalism is a handy shortcut to the extreme end, mainly because of the strong ingroup/outgroup mentality (the outsiders are sinners, agents of the devil, out to stop our divine mission, etc.).

    In the case of politicians like Sarah Palin, understanding that mentality is crucial, and in her case (and many others it seems), that mentality has its roots in evangelicalism.

  • raven

    We tend to think it’s only xian fundies because they’re in our faces (in the US) but there are examples all over the world.

    You are making the mistake of the false dichotomy.

    It’s not, “We perfect, them bad”.

    No one is perfect. But some groups are way worse than others. It’s degree not kind and there is a huge latitude in degree of malevolence.

    And sure, there are examples all over the world. I tried for a long time to tell the difference between fundie xians and fundie Moslems. There isn’t any.

    But those other groups aren’t really our main problem. I live here, not there and the fundie xians are the largest group being dragged along behind our society while trying to destroy it.

    This is BTW, widely recognized. Two of the most despised groups in our society according to NYT/CNN/CBS polls are fundie xians and the Tea Party. Hate works but it has its problems. The people your group hates are likely to hate you back.

  • movablebooklady

    Raven, sorry I didn’t make myself clear. I wasn’t trying to say we’re perfect, they’re bad, only that black/white thinkers are everywhere.

    • steve

      if one understands religious belief requires a degree of authoritarianism, eg. God tells the beliver they are absolutely right to believe in him then their self perception is of their absolute right to instruct others which is essentially evangelism that mode of thinking is specifically politically right wing So this fixed mind set enables the behaviour described and of course becomes self fufiling and embedded in their disposition and interactive style.

  • King of New Hampshire

    What if he had said that a politician’s character flaws were the direct outflow of her atheism? How would you feel about that if you are an atheist?

    What the..? But I… Hey now. This isn’t about us. What you on about, sucka?

    I would have to answer the title in the affirmative. It’s not that the people themselves are vindictive, but the theology is. Their god is, after all, a vengeful god. But more than that, Evangelicals are so tied to their strict theology that it has to be right. If an atheist, or a Jew, or a Catholic, can be a better person than an Evangelical, then they are wrong by their own rules.

    And it’s not that they’re being pig-headed and childish. They are so wound up in this idea that they believe their family’s very souls depend on them having made the proper decisions. To sway from the path is to risk eternity in hell.

    Let me frame it this way. You and your immediate family are on a swing, dangling over a fiery pit of lava. There are other swings, several of them, with other families. You are asked a true or false question. After answering, all the families that answered the opposite of your answer fall into the lava. Soon, you care less and less about the threat to your family, as if you’re still alive, the only reinforcement you are getting for any action is the punishment of others. You’ve been put in a situation with consequences so dire, all you can do is giggle with orgasmic relief at the suffering of others, because it’s not you and yours. And so long as you remain in this position, no argument that you might want to consider those horrific screams from below as other humans, or your competitors as equally deserving of life, will sway your thoughts. You want the family with five cute children to burn so you and your sister can live, and you think it’s because you are better (in this case, at answering pointless questions, in the case of religion, at kissing divine ass).

    So yes, any theology that posits hell as such an integral part of a divine plan and allows for such little lee-way from commands as Evangelicals do will necessarily cause a vindictive streak. They need you to be wrong so they can be right. And what’s more, because they are driven to such extraordinary heights of guilt for the tiniest mistakes or pleasures, they need you to be not just wrong but evil beyond comprehension. And they need to be assured of your evil nature by seeing bad things happen to you. They orgasmically giggle at Haiti and Japan not because they hate the people (they don’t think of them as people), but because it wasn’t them. God visited his vengeance on others and left what had to be the good.

    Evangelism is a fundamentalist position, and as with all fundamentalist positions, it is unforgiving and black-&-white by nature. So if any atheist has such a rigid adherence to some non-divine view of specified morality, she would be equally dangerous. Because Gnu Atheists are so anti-dogma, I think we can safely assume we are in a better position. We thrive on these blogs because we love to be challenged in our thought. We orgasmically giggle at the thought we could be wrong about anything, or better, everyone probably is wrong about everything.