Hi and welcome back! A couple of years ago, many of us were shocked by a truly grotesque crime: Chris Watts, a seemingly devoted family man, had annihilated his entire family. The authorities almost immediately caught him, however, obtaining a quick confession. Nowadays, he rots in prison. But he thinks he’s found a way to return to society. Today, let me show you how Chris Watts is leveraging his understanding of evangelicals to seek freedom — through the magic of virtue signaling.
(Note: It goes without saying that nobody blames Shann’ann Watts for anything that happened to her or her children. Chris Watts bears full responsibility for his crimes. His behavior is nobody’s fault but his own. Any influences mentioned in this post are speculatively offered as context, not as justification. My entire sympathies are with his victims.)
I suppose I should have realized Chris Watts wouldn’t just shut up, do his time, and eventually die behind bars.
Indeed, he popped back up in a video that came out on October 18. In it, Chris Watts chats from his new home behind bars with two other people. The call was recorded, as I gather almost all of them are these days, and someone got their hands on that recording and released it to the world.
(That video’s creator used this video clip, which seems to have initially presented the conversation back in August. I’ll be directly linking it below.)
Now, I didn’t write any posts about the Watts murders when they occurred, though the topic often cropped up in comments around that time. At the time, I didn’t feel I could add anything to that conversation that was both relevant to our interests and substantive. But a few days ago, I listened to that audio conversation and my eyes just about popped out of my head in surprise.
This guy, I thought to myself, is virtue-signaling to get his new pals to help him. And it’s working. Holy cow, they don’t even realize what he’s doing.
Virtue signaling is tribalistic behavior. Members of a tribe often demonstrate their affiliation to each other — through methods like the use of jargon, anecdotes from their shared history, tribe-approved opinions, tribe-approved clothing and ornamentation, you name it. This behavior doesn’t accomplish much on its own, but it’s not supposed to. The virtue signaler wants to announce their membership in good standing with the tribe, reinforce their acceptance by the tribe, and procure support if needed.
And virtue signaling is exactly what Chris Watts was doing all through this recorded call.
Raised by Evangelicalism.
Chris Watts always struck me as a typical white evangelical man. His antiquated worldview, his behavior, and most especially his speech patterns mark him indelibly. However, before the murders neither Chris Watts nor his wife Shan’ann really acted overly religious. They buzzed through life with Christianity as a background note. I’ve no doubt they’d have said they were Christians if asked, but little they actually said or did reflected fervent belief.
In fact, the real religious people in the family connection were Chris Watts’ parents. In the discovery documents gathered during the investigation, authorities learned that Chris Watts grew up in a very typical evangelical deep-South family.
On page 581 of the case’s discovery documents (p. 4 or so in that link’s PDF file), we learn that Chris Watts’ parents attended “First Baptist Church” with him and his sister.
The parents operated as a typical evangelical couple. Chris’ father ruled the family and administered discipline (shouting rather than hitting). In her own interview with media, his mother insisted that Chris Watts was “the perfect teenager” who “did not even rebel.” She also criticized Shan’ann up one side and down the other, clearly seeing Shan’ann as a bad influence on her son.
It’s such sparse information, but it was enough: pieces slotted right into the picture forming in my mind. I could almost taste the environment that spawned this guy.
The Fruits of the Spirit, Indeed.
In light of his early life, Chris Watts’ life choices began to make a lot of sense: marrying the outspoken and not-too-religious Shann’ann, moving very far away from his controlling parents to a comparatively-more-secular area, living way above his means while also living in denial about his true financial situation, and not fussing overmuch with religion after that.
Even his constant blowup fights with Shan’ann (reported by at least two people), his evasiveness and dishonesty around sensitive topics, and his eventual affair makes a great deal of sense from the context of a very repressed, evangelical-raised Southern guy hemmed in by toxic masculinity and honor culture. Y’all, I encountered thousands of guys just like Chris Watts in the Deep South. Dated a few, even. My own dad was a lot like that.
In fact, I’ve actually got distant family from the area Chris Watts hails from. The older ones are like carbon copies of Watts’ folks. (My mother hated those relatives, by the way. You know it had to take a lot to get my sweet, placid, easygoing mom that het up.)
From what my mom told me and from what I gathered in my mercifully-brief interactions with those relatives, that whole area is about as toxic as any community can get. Indeed, that part of the country seems like an overblown, distilled example of Southern white evangelicalism. If I could only choose one word to describe that mindset, it’d be authoritarian. Now imagine someone drained the tribe’s essence, bottled it, and gave it to Little Chris Watts to drink every day.
Kids raised in authoritarian systems often learn some truly dreadful lessons. Chris Watts internalized those lessons in the worst possible ways, it seems, and then he never sorted himself out once he reached adulthood and escaped that environment. Little wonder he magically (re-)converted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ after his imprisonment.
And now, he thinks he can leverage that affiliation to regain his freedom.
The Context Here.
Chris Watts thinks he’s found a way to challenge his conviction on constitutional grounds: the Brady rule. He thinks that the authorities manipulated him in a number of ways to obtain a quick confession, and that their manipulation amounts to unconstitutional coercion. The Brady rule addresses that coercion.
This rule comes with a time limit, however. He’s coming up quickly on that limit. If he’s going to file a challenge, he must do it soon. The problem is, he doesn’t have a lawyer and isn’t sure how to begin the process.
Enter Chris Watts’ new pen-pal girlfriend. The girlfriend, whose name appears to be Anna, recently set up a three-way phone call between her, Chris, and an older gentleman.
This third person sounds for all the world like a retirement-age Southern Baptist preacher, but he’s apparently some sort of private investigator. (I mean, it’s not impossible for him to be both, but that’s how the presenter describes him.)
Almost immediately in that conversation, Watts begins to virtue signal as hard as he can.
“God Directed Me.”
For reference, here’s the source that video uses (and for help with the garbled bits, I turned to this transcript):
Almost immediately, at 1:15 into his chat with this private investigator, Watts begins sliding Christianese into his conversation:
I mean, I’ve never dealt with the law before, [garbled]. I’m winging it in the law library as I am. And you know, God directed me through little things, like through the poisonous tree [reference], The Brady Law [reference], and different cases that, you know, they pop out of nowhere, but I know if God put them in front of me, and I see all these things that relate to my case.
And y’all, that is the statement that landed this guy on our schedule today.
Self-Awareness: Absent, Presumed Missing.
Self-Importance: OFF THE CHARTS.
Evangelicals love to imagine that their god coyly drops them hints about his wishes — and even arranges their paths so they’ll be sure to encounter those hints. Of course, he doesn’t directly tell them what they need to know. Instead, he arranges odd coincidences that they take as signs and portents: hints they must notice, interpret correctly, and heed. So yes, they’re using divination.
One common form of divination involves evangelicals closing their eyes and letting their Bibles fall open to a seemingly-random page. Then, they set their index finger down on the page. They open their eyes to see where their finger landed. The verse thus “chosen” will be a super-special message from Jesus himself. My tribe did that all the time, and I hear evangelicals talking about using this technique even today. One Christian site calls this divination technique “Bible Roulette,” and claims that it allows Christians’ imaginary friend to “choose” the church sign message he wants them to display.
Similarly, any information that “pops out of nowhere” can be taken by evangelicals as their god hot-beef-injecting it right into their brains.
Chris Watts makes use of both divination systems here.
“The poisonous tree” refers to a legal metaphor, “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” It means that if a source of information is tainted, then whatever information the source provides is also tainted. But to an evangelical, “poisonous tree” would very obviously refer to the tree from the Creation myth. Similarly, the word “fruit” is meaningful to them in a number of ways.
By phrasing his quest for freedom in these terms, Watts clearly hopes to establish his freedom as a divine mandate.
(One of these days, we’ll talk about magic techniques from Renaissance Italy. Sure, today’s evangelicals can’t match their sheer inventiveness, but the ideas are quite similar.)
The Divine Plan That Can’t Possibly Be “Rotting in Prison Forever.”
Evangelicals — especially evangelical men — also love to talk about their god’s divine plan for their lives. They all assume it will be something grand and enjoyable. I’ve yet to hear any overwhelming number of evangelical men declare that their god’s big plan for them involves opening a quick-lube shop in Waxahachie, Texas.
In Chris Watts’ case, obviously — obviously — his god’s plan does not involve him sitting in a prison cell for the rest of his life. No, of course not! Not such a grand specimen of Jesus-osity as this! Never! Watts has much bigger and better things ahead of him. As he tells his new pal:
I just, I’m gonna tell you something, I just wanna get out of here. [<— probably the most honest thing he says in the whole conversation — CC] I know that God has a plan for me and it’s not—it’s to be in prison right now, but not major. Cause he brought me here for a reason, but he obviously wants me to do something on the outside, and I know I can’t just sit here and just wait.
Now, Watts doesn’t reveal how he knows that his god plans for him to get out of prison and go do something else. Nor does he speculate about what his post-prison life might involve. But he just knows these things.
(Yes, it’s incredibly creepy that he goes here, considering what it means for the family he killed. Nobody will ever accuse evangelicals of thinking through any of their blathering.)
Really, Watts layers a bunch of catchphrases and manipulation techniques into this entire conversation. And since evangelicals aren’t allowed to question personal revelation, ever, much less reject it, this schemer hits pay dirt with his mark.
In his turn, the private investigator responds completely in kind. (Let’s call him “Dick” since he’s a private investigator. No, no other reason really. Ahem.)
Dick assures Watts that he can totally talk to some lawyers for advice. It sounds like Watts won’t be hiring these lawyers, only asking for advice. (Later, Watts will insist that his god will magically teach him all the lawyerin’ he needs to know, but he still wants a bit of guidance.)
And then, Dick launches into the most bizarre sermonette I’ve heard in quite some time. Every few moments, I had to remind myself that Dick is eagerly preaching here at a guy serving life in prison for murdering his entire family. And y’all, Dick gets into this message.
Mainly, Dick wants Watts to keep up his spirits and not lose hope that he can get out of prison and back to freedom. It’s just the way he exhorts Watts that catches my eye in the worst way. He tells Watts:
So the key in all this is you gotta be strong. You gotta be physically strong, you gotta be mentally strong. And you got to understand that you know what, you’re the underdog… but underdogs can win.
Evangelicals see themselves simultaneously as the winning team and the eternal underdogs, so Dick can reasonably expect to gain Watts’ buy-in with this. And he does, in the form of Watts’ terse “yep” in reply.
Watts endures this sermon with barely-concealed impatience, because he’s got yet another manipulation card to play.
And it is a doozy, y’all.
Chris Watts = Queen Esther. Who’d’a Thunk?
As soon as Dick stops yapping, Watts launches into his own sermon right back at Dick. He describes a Bible reading he did earlier that day:
Just like in my Devotional today it was Esther it was that door of hope, and yeah. The Lord was speaking to Esther and she was saying to the Lord I’ve led you to the wilderness, but I will plant in that wilderness vineyards and you’ll go through the valley and quarrel with the valley of trouble, I’ll put a door of hope. Even though you’re in the wilderness and he’s gonna put nightmares in that wilderness and put you in the valley of trouble, there will be a door of hope in that trouble.
Here, Watts couldn’t be stating more plainly what he wants from Dick:
Help me gain my freedom, because our god himself is behind this cause and there is no question at all of his approval of my plan. My god is literally going to open the door to my prison cell himself.
Naturally, Dick agrees wholeheartedly:
That’s great. Well, I’m proud of you. Good job. Keep that up, keep your nose in that book, too.
It’s so gross that he advises this, because “that book” might have quite a lot to do with exactly how Watts got into trouble in the first place. But Watts dutifully promises that he will do as commanded.
Evangelicals Make the WORST Analogies.
Later on, Dick compares Watts to “the little guy” fighting “the big Roman soldier” in “the old biblical days.”
The metaphor is very garbled and even Dick admits it’s “a terrible analogy.” It is. However, Watts doesn’t reject it. Of course not! He won’t do anything to jeopardize Dick’s buy-in and goodwill.
At the end of the call, Watts leans hard one more time on overtly-religious imagery just to make sure Dick’s entirely in his pocket:
[. . .] but I know that, you know, God can lead me on how to write this thing up to get it back. And I just thank you for helping me and just going through that discovery. I mean, you don’t have to do it but you’re doing it. I just believe that God can lift liberation on your heart and it’s really gonna [unintelligible] so you know what to do.
Dick replies, “Good. And we’re with ya.”
Y’all, this had to be the easiest con Chris Watts has ever pulled.
I’m showing you all of this because it’s such blatant — but very typical — emotional manipulation in evangelicalism.
When you encounter Christians, especially authoritarian ones, expressing themselves like this, watch out. They do it because they know their case is weak, so they borrow authority from their imaginary friend. They think it gives them a big boost in credibility. And often, that’s exactly what it does.
I say imaginary friend because scare-quotes “Jesus” sure didn’t stop Watts from annihilating his family, nor protect Watts’ beautiful little girls and wife from him. He also didn’t magically convert Watts well before he hurt anybody. But golly, he totally wants Watts out of prison and soon for Big Important Reasons!
What Chris Watts did in this conversation is the equivalent of a sketchy business putting Jesus fish all over their signage. And it worked to achieve his goals for the short term, though hopefully his challenge won’t succeed. Dude is right where he belongs, and I sure hope he stays there for good.
NEXT UP: Halloween Week begins — with a blast from our recent past who’s making the rounds again. See you then!
Please Support What I Do!
Also please check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview!
If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips.
You can also support this blog at no extra cost to yourself by beginning your Amazon shopping trips with my affiliate link — and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media!
This blog exists because of readers’ support, and I appreciate every single bit of it. Thank you. <3
(Last note: Mr. Captain should be well-accustomed by now to me asking questions like “Hot beef injections mean [redacted], right?” while I’m writing. But somehow, he always seems surprised.)