After discussing the limits of the survey research and data supplied by the Barna Group, let’s turn to the merits of it, and what such research can tell us.
Barna surveys may not always help to tell us about how behavior actually corresponds to attitudes or perceptions, but they can be quite helpful in telling us how widespread particular attitudes or perceptions actually are.
For example, a friend of mine dislikes Brussels sprouts and says, “No one likes Brussels sprouts.” That’s quite a sweeping claim, but to what extent is it true? A survey is a useful way of finding out. We can measure what percentage of people share my friend’s dislike,* and thereby see whether her opinion is broadly representative or if she is an outlier — whether she is an exception to the norm or an accurate reflection of the majority view. It might be even better to find measurements of actual behavior — sales and consumption figures, for example, but a survey can still be a valuable tool for putting her comments in context.
Here’s a more concrete example relating to an actual bit of recent research reported by the Barna Group. Libby Anne recently highlighted a comment on her blog that seems to epitomize what many of us have observed as a widespread, delusional sense of persecution on the part of many members of America’s privileged religious majority. The comment provides a remarkable specimen of what I call the “persecuted hegemon” — a person enjoying the rewards of cultural dominance while simultaneously insisting that they are aggrieved and suffering an injustice at the hands of people who are, in fact, marginalized minorities.
Here’s that comment:
As a matter of fact, it is [Christians’] rights that are being limited and we are becoming the minority in this nation. In many countries to even hint at being a Christian is the same as signing a death warrant. In our country they have taken away our right to pray in school, in some states we cannot even have private Bible study groups in our homes because it constitutes an illegal gathering, our organizations are being required to make the “abortion pill” a covered product on our insurance or be fined an absurd amount of money, our Christian doctors are being forced to consider if they even want to be doctors anymore or not because of a mandate that they must perform abortions……..and gay people are saying they don’t have rights?
As Libby Anne correctly notes, none of this person’s complaints correspond with reality. The examples of her perceived persecution are all imaginary and false. All of them.
Most of these false examples are, in fact, perversions and inversions of the actual facts of the matter. The comment is contradicted by the daily lived experience of the commenter.
This is delusional, and the delusion is doubly cruel. It is cruel, foremost, to the people who are actually marginalized and disenfranchised — who are being denied full and equal participation in society because they do not conform to the majority beliefs that this commenter insists must be mandatory for everyone else, and who are then, on top of that, being scapegoated and blamed as the supposed cause of the non-existent “persecution” being suffered by the privileged majority.
But it is also cruel to the commenter herself, fabricating a causeless source of misery and aggrievement, unnecessarily introducing stress where no such stress actually exists.
Now, both Libby Anne and I regard this comment as broadly representative of an attitude that we both see as widespread throughout the white evangelical subculture in America. But is that true? It’s possible, after all, that we’re simply cherry-picking data to support our thesis. Perhaps this one comment is not representative of anything other than the views of this lone commenter.
We can certainly demonstrate that this commenter is not unique. Scroll back through the archives of Libby Anne’s blog, or of this one, and you’ll see we both can provide dozens more examples of evangelical Christians exhibiting the same delusional persecution complex. But all of those examples put together still don’t prove that we’ve done anything more than identified what might still be only a small fringe sub-set of deluded white evangelicals. It may be that all of the anecdotes and examples we’ve collected and reported over the years are still just cherry-picked data selected only because they support our thesis of a broader evangelical persecution complex.
Another indicator of support for that thesis comes from the public statements of prominent white evangelical leaders. A single blog comment may reflect nothing more than the opinions of a lone commenter, but if the sentiments it expresses are repeated by a host of prominent white evangelicals in leadership positions, that would seem to indicate that such sentiments are more widely held.
That’s one thing that can be gleaned from a recent post at Homebrewed Christianity titled “On Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Society,” which cites several such prominent evangelical luminaries echoing the persecution complex described by Libby Anne’s commenter.
Christian at Homebrewed Theology mentions the “Manhattan Declaration,” a 2009 manifesto embodying this same persecution complex which was endorsed by a who’s who of white evangelical leaders. And then he points to a recent column by three of those Manhattan declarers, Robert George, Timothy George and Eric “Call Me Dietrich” Metaxas, in which they lament the supposed persecution of the Christian majority:
They say there are numerous examples, and then pick three:
1. The brouhaha over Louie Giglio and the Inaguration.
2. The contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
3. The demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
Of these three, exactly none are “religious freedom” issues.
They are, without exception, religious primacy issues.
None of these impact, in any measurable way, the ability of the Conservative Christian community to practice their faith openly and without fear of persecution in the United States.
In a pluralistic society, there’s a general rule. Your right to swing your fist ends at the other guy’s nose. That means, in a pluralistic society, for the health of the society, there’s a give and take. It’s the essence of the social contract that we live under when we decide to become a society.
When people like the authors above, or the creators of the Manhattan Declaration, complain that, not faith, but that their particular embodiment of faith isn’t given supremacy above all others and cries of “persecution” are heard, it is rightfully interpreted as an innate hatred of the rest of society and disdain for the social contract we all live under.
There’s a name for people who believe they, and their beliefs, should always be kowtowed to no matter what …
… they’re called sociopaths.
Well, yes. But it’s one thing to say that Metaxas and the Georges and the commenter at Libby Anne’s blog are delusional sociopaths who hate the rest of society — that much is obvious. It’s quite another thing to demonstrate that this hate-fueled delusion is more widely present within the broader white evangelical subculture.
And that’s where the latest survey from the Barna Group comes in. Because that survey provides what all those anecdotal examples cannot provide: Quantifiable proof that a majority of white evangelical Americans are hate-fueled sociopaths making themselves and others miserable with a perverse and delusional persecution complex.
Barna doesn’t quite put it as strongly as that, but the implication is identical. A majority of white evangelicals “want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,” said David Kinnamon, president of the Barna Group.
“Dominate.” Or, as Christian said, it’s not about religious liberty, it’s about religious primacy.
The findings of a poll published Wednesday (Jan. 23), reveal a “double standard” among a significant portion of evangelicals on the question of religious liberty, said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a California think tank that studies American religion and culture.
While these Christians are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, “they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,” said Kinnamon.
“They cannot have it both ways,” he said. “This does not mean putting Judeo-Christian values aside, but it will require a renegotiation of those values in the public square as America increasingly becomes a multi-faith nation.”
Barna’s survey also found white evangelicals enthusiastically eager to lay blame to others for their perceived “persecution.” Nearly three-fourths of white evangelicals, “72 percent … agreed that gays and lesbians were the group ‘most active in trying to remove Christian values from the country.'”
Again, that’s a direct inversion and deliberate perversion of the daily, felt, known and experienced reality for those very same evangelicals. They cannot be unaware that evangelicals are the group most active in trying to remove LGBT people from the country. In a sense, I suppose, this survey response is an expression of that same desire to rid society of all such unwanted people — a way of restating the emphatic belief that their presence and very existence is a threat to the majority’s “values.”
That survey finding cannot be explained other than, in Christian’s words again, as evidence of “an innate hatred of the rest of society and disdain for the social contract we all live under.”
And it’s not just the attitude of a few outliers nut-picked from comment sections or of a few of the more outrageous pseudo-intellectual posers like Metaxas or the Georges. This delusional sociopathy is the majority view.
An old professor of mine used to say that social science sometimes amounted only to “the statistical approximation of the known,” and this survey may seem like that to many of us who have long observed what it quantifies. But that quantification also serves as evidence, as proof, of what we have been saying.
A great many white evangelicals have a delusional persecution complex. That delusion is an expression of a desire to dominate others and to scapegoat any others who refuse to be dominated.
Thanks to Barna’s survey, we know that’s not just a theory or just an argument, it’s a fact.
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* I suspect those who agree with her are thinking mainly of boiled Brussels sprouts, which is unfair. Nothing is very appealing if you insist on cooking all the flavor out of it.
Brussels sprouts should be broiled — cut in half, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper or lemon, then cooked in an oven, not boiled on a stove. Just saying.