Do white evangelicals have a delusional persecution complex? Barna says yes, and provides quantifiable proof

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 a picture of Anne Hutchinson being expelled by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Or, for white evangelicals, this is a picture of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony being cruelly persecuted by the wicked Anne Hutchinson.

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.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* 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.

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  • Matri

    In other news, water is wet.

    We’ve known for quite an incredible amount of time about this persecuted hegemon delusion. Far too long.

    But now we have actual proof of it.

  • This is something else Altemeyer observed: authoritarians have horrendous double-standards.  Since so many of their ideas and beliefs are assimilated and held independently  there is no space in their minds in which these ideas come into conflict, a result of being brought up with a “This is true, don’t question it, just accept it” kind of outlook.  Being surrounded by other people who continue to affirm and back up those ideas just calcifies them, allows them to flourish instead of settling together and mixing into a coherent whole.  

    No wonder that they can believe in this persecuted hegemon thing.  They are told that America is a Christian nation.  They accept that.  They are told that Christians are a persecuted faith under attack from all sides.  They accept that too.  They see no conflict because those ideas do not exist on the same continuum in their minds, they never meet, never collide, never produce the cognitive dissonance that would motivate them to re-examine those beliefs.  

    Why do they do it this way?  Because it is easy.  Accepting ideas without thinking about them takes a lot less effort than trying to make everything fit together.  And the more their ideas calcify, the harder it gets to break out of that rut.  

  • cyllan

    Now I want Brussel sprouts — which are delicious.

  • a way of restating the emphatic belief that their presence and very existence is a threat to the majority’s “values.”

    Well, right. Exactly this.

    And in that sense, I completely agree with them. That is, anyone whose values are inconsistent with my ability to marry someone I love, have sex with someone I’m attracted to, talk about someone I’m dating, etc., solely because of the person’s gender is entirely correct that I am actively trying to remove their values from a position of power in my country.

    Because their values, to quote a wise man, are hurting America.

    As to whether those wrong values are Christian values or not, I’m not qualified to judge, but I certainly encourage Christians to reject them.

  • Dawn

    Regarding brussels sprouts:

    Apparently there is some chemical in brussels sprouts which is either completely tasteless, or extremely bitter, depending on whether you have a particular gene or not.

    I’d always heard people describe brussels sprouts as “bitter” and revolting, and thought they were crazy. To me, brussels sprouts taste positively sweet. So some of the widespread disagreement on the edibility of brussels sprouts seems to stem from genetics, for which the poor embittered folks can’t be faulted!

  • MaryKaye

    I am really uncomfortable with the use of the technical term “sociopath” for “person whose behavior I find lacking in empathy and compassion.”  It seems to be extremely unlikely that the complainant on Libby Ann’s blog is in fact a sociopath; in any case diagnosis of mental illness based on a blog comment is not a good thing to be doing.

  • Slow Learner

    I get exactly that with cucumber – many people claim they taste of nothing, but to me they have a highly distinctive (and highly unpleasant) flavour which I can detect in the midst of strong flavours and spices.

  • Guest

    You know what else is good with brussel sprouts… bacon. Cut in half, sauteed with bacon and onions and a little olive oil… yum.

  • Darakou

    But Brussels sprouts really do taste foul! Your broiling is just a way to try and hide that.

    But seriously, I remember telling my sister that here in Australia, the population is 60% Christian, according to census data, I  think in response to her claiming Christians as a minority. Her response was dispute the claim to Christianity made by people who self identify  as such without regularly attending church. In hindsight, I should have pointed out that maybe the Catholics can definitively say if someone’s out of the tribe, but we Protestants can’t just overturn anyone’s claim to Christianity. I remember I took the line of questioning why would millions of people would write “Christian” on their census forms if they weren’t Christian?

  • Guest

    I also have a problem with calling these people sociopaths. I can see that as a group entity they have a group sociopathic tendency, but don’t all groups to one degree or another? That is one of the problems with corporations as “people”… they have no empathy and are purely driven by the profit motive. But the people in the corporation may be very caring in other ways.
    As Libby Anne said (and someone else… there was a video on YouTube on why it’s important to call out *racism* but not call people *racist*), using epithets only closes minds.

  • patter

    Mmmmmm….Brussels sprouts.

    Funny though…I find Franklin Graham bitter and revolting.

  • I would probably have called the behavior narcissistic, but I’m not exactly enthused about it as a descriptor. The total self-absorption in one’s own worldview that narcissism connotes is a rather valid description of the way these persecuted hegemons believe, I think.

  • Hth

     I agree, and worse than that, it makes it sound as if something relatively random has afflicted these people: an illness, or a genetic abnormality of some sort.  Some people are just born sociopaths, and that is what it is; all you can do is try to work out how best to support them in order to become contributing members of society in spite of a natural disadvantage.

    These people aren’t just born arrogant, vicious hypocrites.  They’re carefully cultivated, like hateful little bonsai trees, kept small through restriction, binding, and precision mutilations.   None of their disadvantages (in the realm of moral decency, at least) are natural or inevitable.

  • P J Evans

    yum, Brussels sprouts. Steamed, with butter and pepper.  (I’m not a super-taster, so they don’t bother me.)

  • Hexep

    We don’t got Brussels sprouts over here.

    People who have been taught how to hate, however…

  • I remember I took the line of questioning why would millions of people
    would write “Christian” on their census forms if they weren’t Christian?

    1) Because the more Catholics there are in the neighbourhood, the more likely the neighbourhood is to end up with a Catholic school – which tend to be good schools.
    2) Because writing “Christian” on the forms is what you do.

    I know many people who have never attended church (except for funerals, etc) and have no plans to attend one – but they still have a church they’ll write down on their census forms.

    I know many people who write down “Catholic” because they were baptised as one, even though they haven’t set foot in a Catholic church since confirmation.

    I know many people who are atheists, and have been for decades, and only started writing “atheist” in the last census.

  • I remember my mother suddenly discovering that almost no vegies should be boiled for very long – and start either boiling things for under 20 seconds, or cooking them in a totally different way.

    Her cooking suddenly became much tastier…

  • Brussel Sprouts taste incredibly bitter to me. It’s only the last few years I’ve even been able to stomach them with effort and I still refuse to have them if given a choice. I love all the other Brassicas however.

  • stardreamer42

     They’re carefully cultivated, like hateful little bonsai trees, kept
    small through restriction, binding, and precision mutilations.

    QFT. Rodgers & Hammerstein made the same point (though not quite as eloquently as this!) 60 years ago in their song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”.

  • stardreamer42

    May I just mention here that the term “Judeo-Christian” has no meaningful definition; it decodes as “Christians, but we’ll throw a sop to the Jews to keep them quiet”. Many of the people who throw it around say other things which are appallingly anti-Semitic. 

  •  To each his or her own. Personally, I cannot think of a word better than “sociopath” for someone who is lacking in empathy and compassion. Except maybe “horrible.”

  • It’s perversely amusing to me that we are now debating whether it is ethically proper to refer to a group of people obviously lacking in empathy or compassion as “sociopaths” or not when they, if shown our discussions and asked for an opinion, would probably not hesitate to shriek “EVVILLLL! PURE SATAN-WORSHIPING EVILLLL!”

  • MikeJ

     I love brussels sprouts, hate the soapy evil of cilantro.  Apparently, some poor souls are born without the ability to tell that cilantro tastes like liquid dish soap.

  • MikeJ

     I love brussels sprouts, hate the soapy evil of cilantro.  Apparently, some poor souls are born without the ability to tell that cilantro tastes like liquid dish soap.

  • Water_Bear

    But the problem is that the term is factually incorrect; “sociopaths” (people with Psychopathy / APD) are an actual demographic group, roughly 1% of the population, with a diagnosable psychiatric condition. Psychopaths are also highly unlike most Fundies; they have little to no fear response, are virtually immune to punishment or therapy, and are largely incapable of sustained effort.

    Until they make a “Douchebag” entry in the DSM we’re going to have to accept that people can just be entitled dicks without actually having a heritable personality disorder.

  • anonymous




  • LL

    Certainly worth pointing out yet again (with proof!) how oblivious these people are. But it doesn’t surprise me. 

    I also don’t think they count as true sociopaths. Sadly, I think that would be unfair to actual sociopaths. Sociopaths (supposedly) can’t feel empathy (they can recognize it, they just don’t feel it themselves). I think these people can feel empathy, just not for everybody. Calling them sociopaths gives them an excuse they really don’t deserve. They’re not incapable of seeing the truth, they just refuse to acknowledge it. They’re worse than sociopaths. Most of them know better, but it serves their interests not to admit it.

    I am willing to acknowledge I could be wrong about this, but … (shrug). My two bits. 

  • Ymfon

     That would explain a lot.

  • …in some states we cannot even have private Bible study groups in our homes because it constitutes an illegal gathering…

    Wow…they really do think the world is already Atheistopia, don’t they?

    /Ruby, lover of roasted Brussels sprouts and cilantro, though probably not together

  • ReverendRef

     Apparently there is some chemical in brussels sprouts which is either
    completely tasteless, or extremely bitter, depending on whether you have
    a particular gene or not.

    Brussels sprouts are indeed bitter.  That’s the way God made them.  To claim that there’s a “genetic” disposition toward sweetness, when it is clearly a person’s choice to like them really just shows how far you’ve turned against the fact that God created them to be bitter.

    Oh . . . wait . . .

  • Josefthehook

    No one said sociopaths were people “lacking in empathy and compassion”

    He said:
    “There’s a name for people who believe they, and their beliefs, should always be kowtowed to no matter what …
    … they’re called sociopaths.”

    Sociopaths think the world should always bend over backwards for them, without regard for anyone else’s feelings, rights, or safety.
    Which is exactly what DOMA and the AHCA mandate controversy was. An attempt to get America to bend over backwards for homophobic Evangelicals, without regard for the feelings, rights, or safety of gays, women and their children. Its sociopathic by the definition used.

  • I can’t believe that I’m going to say this.

    But the proper way to serve brussel sprouts is steamed. And drenched in butter.

    (Though really I’d prefer a nice cheese sauce, but my wife thinks I’m too free-handed with the cheese.)

  • cjmr

    Looking at the survey categories, WTF are ‘Notional Christians’?


    No one said sociopaths were people “lacking in empathy and compassion”

    Someone did.  They wrote this little book, the DSM-IV. It’s the canonical source for the definition of what “sociopathy” is.

    “people who believe they, and their beliefs, should always be kowtowed to no matter what” isn’t what the term means

  • Bah, you beat me to that joke.

  • Launcifer

    English, probably.

    Seriously, though, I imagine it’s meant to be people who were perhaps raised without being force-fed the hardline crap during childhood and go to church for weddings, funerals and (occasionally) Christmas.

  • AnonymousSam

    What a thing to walk in on! So, um. While there are narcissistic sociopaths, narcissism is not a defining trait of sociopathy by standard definitions.

    I think it best if I leave it at that.

  • Whole milk is completely undrinkable after about three days. I know it, one of my brothers knows it, and the rest of you just want us to suffer in the name of “not wasting money”.

  • Josefthehook

     First off, Sociopathy isn’t a recognized diagnosis. It doesnt appear anywhere in the new DSM.

    Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is described by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (DSM-IV-TR), as an Axis II personality disorder
    characterized by “…a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and
    violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early
    adolescence and continues into adulthood.”[1]

    No mention of a lack of empathy or compassion. Those are the words some commenter used, and you’re throwing in with. You can feel empathy and ignore it. You can feel compassion to some but not to others. And while they are general red flag qualities of “bad” people, they have nothing to do with being a “sociopath”. “Sociopathy” has to do with violating the rights of others freely, no matter the cause or reason or associated feelings.

    Or exactly what i said before…

  • Lunch Meat

    Sam, I just want to say that you are one of the most gracious and thoughtful people I know online.

  • Rae

    Absolutely. I can’t count how many evangelicals I’ve heard say “You can’t pray in school any more!” However, I was in high school within the last decade – well after the “people can’t pray in school” trope started – and me and my friends prayed in school. Hell, we could’ve stood on a cafeteria table and prayed at the top of our lungs if we wanted to, and the faculty would’ve just told us that we weren’t allowed to stand on tables.

    A similar example on a more local level would’ve been the Nativity Scene Debacle in Santa Monica, which Libby Anne also mentioned on her blog – while the signs the atheist group put up were indeed confrontational, when the Christians and atheists both were entered into a lottery to dole out the spaces, the Christians cried “discrimination”, and when the city council or whoever decided that it was too big of a mess to bother and said that nobody would get the spaces, once again the Christians claimed that they were being “discriminated against” even though in both cases they were receiving the exact same treatment as the atheist group!

  • P J Evans

     Look at it from the other side: some people were born with the ability to like cilantro. (For some purposes, anyway.)


  • P J Evans

    Whole milk is completely undrinkable after about three days.

    What’s whole milk? /s
    (I have dry skim milk in my fridge, for the times I actually need milk. I stopped using it for non-cooking purposes several years ago, when I stopped wanting cereal for breakfast. And it had been low-fat milk since childhood.)

  • Brussel sprouts are best pickled.  You’re welcome.

  • Kiba

    I love brussels sprouts, hate the soapy evil of cilantro.  Apparently, some poor souls are born without the ability to tell that cilantro tastes like liquid dish soap.

    I completely agree! 


    (Though really I’d prefer a nice cheese sauce, but my wife thinks I’m too free-handed with the cheese.)

    No such thing as too free-handed with the cheese sauce. (Unless, of course, you’re lactose intolerant.)

  • mud man

    delusional sociopaths who hate the rest of society

    No doubt there’s a persecution complex and these people need to get out more, but it’s a leap to universally attribute that to hate. And they are very far from “failure to conform to social norms” (DSM-IV) within their own society. Is “poorly informed” the same as “delusional”?? Rhetorical exageration is really not helpful, in fact it’s the problem you are trying to address.

    Brussels sprouts: It also improves them vastly if you raise them yourself and don’t harvest them until after a few good freezes … makes them very markedly sweeter. Commercial farmers can’t do it like that. 

  • Christine

     Brussel sprouts, unlike cilantro, are a taste you can cultivate with or without the genetic marker. Especially if they’re braised and served with lemon juice.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Same. I met with a group of Christians in the front office every day for three of my four high school years to pray. I stopped going my Senior year because the hypocrisy of going through the motions while my doubts worked themselves out was starting to eat at me, not because it became illegal.

    What these people are whining about when they say “school prayer is illegal” is that they can’t force everyone to pray to their god. 

  • Otrame

    Here’s the thing.  As an atheist, I see this not as fundamentally religious, nor, at its core, pathological.  The idea that Christians are being persecuted is political. A group of people, in the pursuit of power, have chosen to tell the lies listed in the commenter from LA’s blog.  They do so not out of any belief that it is true, but because it furthers their cause–power.  

    The problem then becomes, why do so many people fall for such obvious nonsense? 
    In part, the problem is the need to remain within the tribe (though I think “tribal” is so over-used that I have started flinching every time I see it).  

    In part because, as Orwell noted, if you tell a lie long enough and often enough, and make sure people are isolated from those telling the truth, you can get people who believe war is peace and slavery is freedom.  

    But most importantly, because it is politics couched in religious terms, using phrasing that is very similar to the phrases that encourage belief in the supernatural, where there is not and cannot be any evidence, so evidence is not important.  Those who spend most of their time interacting within a sphere where such phrasing is rampant feel no need for evidence. They simply believe.

    I do not think that the commenter and most of those that answered that survey saying that they are persecuted are sociopaths.  First, because, as was mentioned upthread, sociopath is not a term meaning “idiotic asshole who is wrong about something”.  It has a very specific and clinical meaning.  Secondly, because in most aspects of their daily lives these people are perfectly capable of detecting bullshit.  But they have been trained since they were wearing diapers to set aside critical thinking when dealing with anything to do with religion.  And they apply these standards to the matter in question because the professional liars very deliberately use language that tells them to turn off their bullshit detectors. 

    And finally, I think that  what they believe is not, in most cases, delusional.  Delusions are generated internally.  These lies were engineered and deliberately foisted on people with defective bullshit detectors.