How the Fear of Death Strengthens Christian Nationalism (and Leads to More Crime)

In a time where Donald Trump is riding high on a wave of Christian nationalism, it’s fair to ask where that sort of mentality can take us. What happens when you think the U.S. is a “Christian nation” and conservative, Bible-based policies are the best way to go?

Elicka Peterson Sparks, an associate professor of criminology at Appalachian State University, believes that it’s not a coincidence that the most religious parts of the country are also where we see the highest levels of violence. After all, when “sinners” are worthy of biblical punishment and tolerance is treated as a dirty word, it’s no wonder interpersonal relationship are so screwed up.

She writes about this in her new book The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime (Prometheus Books, 2016):

Devil You Know_cover

In the excerpt below, Peterson Sparks discusses how the fear of death lends itself to this sort of Christian nationalism:

Christian nationalism also promulgates violence through its role as an insulator from the fear of death. This aspect of Christian nationalism is a key raison d’être in accounting for the violence inherent in this belief system. As I touched on in chapters one and three, the idea here is that people use certain things — and here we are focusing on religion and nationalism — to protect themselves from distressing thoughts about their own demise. This phenomenon, known as terror management, is largely unconscious but very powerful. Managing fear of death through Christian nationalism is achieved through two mechanisms:

1. Believing in the Christian doctrine of eternal life.

One of the greatest benefits of Christianity is insulation from the fear of death, and the founders of the religion knew what they were selling — and what a hot commodity it would be. Human beings are supposed to be unique among animals in our ability to comprehend that we eventually die, and this creates an existential crisis. Most people adopt a defense against this knowledge, and believing that you are going to heaven is a particularly effective one. In this manner, one can avoid the crisis altogether, since one believes that they do not die at all, but rather go to live in a perfect place with God.

1 Corinthians 2:9 presents heaven as something so wonderful that humans cannot even fathom it, while Hebrews 13:14 reminds the faithful that there are no lasting cities on earth, and that they are to seek only the city that is to come after death. The bottom line is that in God’s house of many rooms there is a means to cheat death and have eternal life, which is not a bad prize for believing in God while you are living on earth. This pay before you play doctrine is great, unless you have built your life around it and somebody starts punching holes in your conception of salvation; at which point, Christians tend to react aggressively. People can challenge this belief system in a number of ways, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Coming into close contact with competing doctrines can do it, especially where they boast differences with respect to achieving salvation. It is disconcerting for an adherent of any religion to come face-to-face with people who believe in a different path to eternal life as strongly as they believe in theirs. It presents a specter that calls beliefs into question if they allow themselves to consider the fact that there are many paths, and that theirs might not be the right one. Given the discomfort this would cause, most believers choose to reject and discredit the competing belief system — and its adherents — with vigor. Interdenominational feuding appears less petty when viewed through this lens, and makes far more sense; in the minds of those involved, it is their very survival that is at stake.

Similarly, nonbelievers can challenge this belief system. They might question adherents about their faith, either to challenge it or from an honest desire to understand it better. Sometimes just getting to know and like a nonbeliever can cause believers to question that they must go to hell according to the Bible. If the person is moral and admired by the Christian, it can be difficult to reconcile caring for this good person with the notion that the person is destined to burn in hell for eternity. If the believer allows this awareness to seep in — especially repeatedly — it starts to undermine the foundation of their faith. The same process can occur with Christian nationalists getting to know LGBT people personally — or others destined for hell vis-à-vis some personal characteristic or belief.

The best insulation against this erosion is to avoid the situation altogether. If you segregate yourself from people who challenge your faith, it is easier to maintain it. Nonbelievers are exempt from automatic scorn until they willfully reject God in the wake of evangelical efforts, at which point they become a threat to terror management through theology.

Conservatives are especially likely to see the world as a threatening place, at any rate, and their response to perceived threats is especially likely to be aggressive. Cultural conservatism, fear of death, and a need for structure have been found to be significant predictors of dogmatic aggression. This is evident in conservative support for war, an opposition to immigration reform, the contention that marriage equality is a threat to “traditional” marriage, a belief that openly gay soldiers would disrupt the military, the economic belief that regulating corporations will cause them to leave the United States or go out of business, the fear that LGBT people will molest children, the argument that helping the poor will result in abuse of the system and dependence, and the general, prolonged anxiety that the country is going to hell in a hand basket. When you view the world this way, the best defense might just be a good offense, and that is the strategy preferred by Christian nationalists.

A great example of this is the response to the attacks on 9/11, which was predictably aggressive on the part of patriotic Americans. Overall, a large body of research supports the idea that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they react aggressively toward people who are different — and particularly those of other, competing, faiths.

2. Feeling a part of a larger, more permanent entity that will continue to exist after you die.

Aside from serving as what is believed to be a literal protection from death, belonging to a Christian nationalist group or church can provide a sense of belonging to an enduring entity that provides a sense of vicarious immortality. As humans, attaching ourselves to something greater, which will continue on long after we die, lends a kind of continuation of ourselves as a part of the larger institution. As humans, we feel less alone in that context, and subconsciously, that soothes the existential angst of being a limited time offer.

The same sort of mechanism is at play when we write books, plays, or symphonies that will exist after we are gone. Any endeavor — from designing a building to fighting a war — serves to connect us to something that will outlast us on the mortal coil, and the more permanent that contribution, the better. Universities play upon this feeling to increase financial support for the institution, harnessing fear of mortality to attract named donors for buildings and other projects. Similarly, wealthy donors often honor a deceased relative through named buildings, memorials, and even plantings and benches. Less wealthy donors can be memorialized on bricks. Headstones serve this purpose, as well, and when people go this route they tend to purchase as permanent and substantial a monument as they can afford, as this is another way in which we can mark our existence. A traditional funeral, particularly involving embalmment, is an act of mortality defiance in and of itself. The idea that it continues to matter what our bodies look like, or that they not decay, speaks as directly as possible to the denial of death.

The phenomenon of attaching ourselves to lasting institutions encompasses both the Christian church and the United States as a country. Researchers Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg first proposed the terror management theory in 1986 and have done much to advance our understanding of the mechanisms of death denial through their subsequent work.

Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Greenberg predicted that a threat such as 9/11 would result in aggression that was not terribly rational, and they were right: We immediately went to war with the wrong people and for all the wrong reasons, we saw a spike in violence against people perceived to be Muslim, and many manufacturers sold out of American flags as people scrambled to reassert American spirit and dominance. Almost overnight, it became practically forbidden to voice dissent that, by any stretch, might be construed as anti-American. The Dixie Chicks, as the most obvious example, were pilloried for lead singer Natalie Maines’s rather mild comment at a concert in England that she was ashamed that then-President George W. Bush was from Texas — and that was after it was clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Unfortunately for them, their fan base was right wing. If you are too young to remember, country music radio stations banned their music and held CD-burning parties. Some of the hatred directed toward them even included death threats. It does not make a lot of sense unless you look at it in the context of terror management. From that perspective it is still ugly and inexcusable but clearly the product of fear.

The Dixie Chicks were by far not the only victims of this phenomenon, with support for American aggression so strident that those in opposition were understandably afraid to speak up. Patriotism gripped the nation, and any suggestion that our country was anything but great ruined careers or garnered threats or actual violence.

Research on this real-world event revealed a number of important findings that advanced understanding about terror management. One finding was that even subliminal exposure to the images and stimuli related to 9/11 brought thoughts of mortality closer to the surface in individuals. Then president George W. Bush had more than the Supreme Court fallback going for him in his second run for the White House — he had mortality salience on his side.

When people are prompted to consider their own demise, they cling to people who seem to exude strength, charisma, and resolve. Charisma might not be a word that springs readily to mind when describing George W. Bush, but remember the alternative. Next to John Kerry, Bush looked positively lifelike. Unable to run on intellect, he ran on a sort of folksy charm, instead, and managed to come across as decisive and warm to some, which has great appeal to voters in a state of fear. Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Ernest Becker had it right when he wrote:

It is fear that makes people so willing to follow brash, strong-looking demagogues with tight jaws and loud voices: those who focus their measured words and their sharpened eyes in the intensity of hate, and so seem the most capable of cleansing the world of the vague, the weak, the uncertain, the evil. Ah, to give oneself over to their direction — what calm, what relief.

There might not be a better description for John Kerry as a candidate than vague, weak, and uncertain compared to George W. Bush, who famously said that he did not “do nuance.” While another president might have appeared indecisive in the wake of an attack due to uncertainty over targeting the offenders, Bush jumped right into vengeance mode and never looked back. That was comforting to people who were reeling from the threat to our country as a reminder of their own inevitable demise. And who is most susceptible to this fear-induced reaction than people for whom patriotism is a hedge against mortality? Religion and country are two very powerful means by which people soothe their fear of death. When people are prompted to think about their death, they react violently against those who threaten these comforting symbols of permanence.

When people have unconsciously engaged these defense mechanisms against fear of death, they will resort to violence and aggression to defend mechanisms of death denial against anything perceived as a threat to it. Attaching ourselves to a cultural entity perceived as eternal shields us from feeling the bite of our eventual physical deaths, so it is not terribly surprising that this is the case. The reaction people have to such threats is automatic and powerful, and serves as another means by which Christian nationalism increases violent crime.

The Devil You Know is now available online and in bookstores.

Reprinted from The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime by Elicka Peterson Sparks (Prometheus Books, 2016) with permission from the publisher.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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