Evangelical Christianity, the GOP, Morality and Cognitive Dissonance

Evangelical Christianity, the GOP, Morality and Cognitive Dissonance September 28, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance:

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort.

This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.

I am very interested in the connection between evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. The video below is well worth a watch, especially if you like your Canadian “aboots”. The host introduces the topic before usefully passing to an expert to discuss what “evangelicals” actually are and then returning to discuss the historical relationship.

There is certainly an odd disconnect that seems to happen with distinct regularity between evangelicals and the GOP in the context of social morality. For the group who has previously campaigned against “satanic” music, homosexuality, sexual dalliances and whatnot to turn a very obvious blind eye to Trump and other politicians’ immoral behaviour is nothing but rank hypocrisy. That’s the reactive side fo things; then we have the actual activity of those involved, such as the resignation of Jerry Falwell Jr over rather dubious sexual behaviour, Swaggart, Haggard, Bakker, Dollar, Hovind, Long, Lamb and so on. Ah, the Moral Majority:

The Moral Majority was a prominent American political organization associated with the Christian right and Republican Party. It was founded in 1979 by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell Sr. and associates, and dissolved in the late 1980s. It played a key role in the mobilization of conservative Christians as a political force and particularly in Republican presidential victories throughout the 1980s.

In a general sense, the term refers to “the majority of people, regarded as favoring firm moral standards”, according to Oxford Dictionaries.[1]

Reagan has a lot to answer for.

As I discussed the other day, the power of the white evangelicals is waning and we have a new bloc, the active secular voting bloc that is supplanting those previously powerful evangelicals. See “Democrats Ignoring Young Nonreligious Voters“.

As I have so often discussed, this is all about moral consequentialism (you know, the secular moral value system they otherwise thoroughly denigrate). They will forego moral evaluation and reacting against Trump (or whoever) and his pussy-grabbing, almost thirty counts of allegations of sexual assault, three marriages (with murkiness surrounding a rape allegation from an ex-wife), paying off porn stars, lack of religion and utter ignorance of the Bible, holding five different positions on abortion, protectionist (i.e., non-(libertarian)liberal) stance and so on, in order to vote for Trump/the GOP. The consequence they desire is whatever their main single issue (or perhaps two or three) might be: guns and the 2nd Amendment, immigration, religion and its power in society, abortion or what have you.

Two professors at the University of Notre Dame, David Campbell and Geoffrey Layman, have recently analysed data from two surveys to determine what (conservative) white evangelicals believe about how a politician’s personal behaviour affects their ability to govern.

As Americans United report:

Historically, the evangelical view has been that if a political leader is guilty of a personal moral failing, he’s no longer fit to lead the nation. That’s why so many of them demanded that President Bill Clinton either resign or be removed from office after revelations that he had a sexual relationship with a White House intern.

A recently as 2011, evangelicals were sticking with this line. A poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service found that 60 percent of white evangelicals agreed with the statement that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life [cannot] behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”

But in October 2016, following the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of Donald Trump boasting about how easy it is to sexually assault women when you are rich and famous, the number of white evangelicals who agreed with the statement above plummeted to 20 percent.

Campbell and Layman wondered if the figure has rebounded since the fall of 2016, so they took a hard look at some data that came out from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) after the 2018 midterm elections. They found that the number of white evangelicals who are willing to hold a politician accountable for personal failings is continuing to drop. It’s now at 16.5 percent.

Huffington Post religion writer Carol Kuruvilla called evangelicals’ shift on this issue “stunning.”

Here’s where things get really interesting: Kuruvilla wrote that Campbell and Layman wanted to know if the results would change “if respondents were primed to think about either Bill Clinton or Donald Trump.”

Indeed they do. Campbell and Layman noted that the CCES randomly gave respondents one of three versions of the same question concerning politicians’ personal morality. One was generic, one mentioned Trump by name and one mentioned Clinton.

Wrote Kuruvilla, “The professors found that white evangelicals were more likely than other religious groups to have different responses based on the politician they had in mind. Only 6% of white evangelicals primed to think about Trump said that elected officials who behave immorally in private won’t act ethically in professional life. But 27% of those primed to think about Clinton said the same.”

Speaking of conservative evangelicals, Campbell said, “They have put politics first.”

There is something to be said for not wanting a leader running your country who is so obviously dishonest, having clocked up over 20,000 lies: what are the chances that you are being lied to? What’s fascinating is the speed of change of behaviour amongst white evangelicals pointing to a causal influence from Donald Trump. This is from HuffPost’s report on the study:

But in October 2016, right after The Washington Post published an “Access Hollywood” recording of Trump making lewd comments about sexual assault, the number of white evangelicals who weren’t willing to give politicians a pass for immoral behavior dropped to 20%. On the other hand, 72% of the religious group claimed an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically in their professional life, according to a PRRI and Brookings Institution poll conducted at the time.

Campbell and Layman used 2018 post-midterm election data from the CCES, a nationally representative study, to see how white evangelicals felt about the question today. Their research was previously reported in The Washington Post. 

“Our motivation was to see if anything had changed since 2016, since that poll was done in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape,” Campbell told HuffPost. “It might have been the case that, as time passes, opinion would shift back to what we saw in 2011.”

But that’s not what happened. In fact, the CCES found that white evangelicals were even less likely in late 2018 to connect politicians’ private and public lives in this way. Only 16.5% said they believed privately immoral behavior translates to unethical professional conduct.

A graph shows how concern about politicians’ personal morality has changed over the years. David Campbell said that the survey’s sample size was too small for Asian evangelicals or Latino evangelicals, as well as for non-Christian groups, such as Muslims and Jews.

Altogether, there has been a stunning 42-percentage-point swing in white evangelicals’ opinions on this issue since 2011. Other religious groups experienced some shifts, but nothing quite as dramatic, Campbell said. Religiously unaffiliated Americans showed a 5-percentage-point change in the opposite direction, with more saying that private immorality translates to unethical public behavior.

This is a pretty remarkable swing, it has to be said, and one that observers like myself could see happening in real-time. I do wonder whether the swing was necessitated by power and need. When there is no immediate need to give a socially moral opinion X due to the opposition being in charge and allowing one to hold the default stance, things are easy. But once your guy needs your support and has a route into power, and once cognitive dissonance takes hold, your opinion has to shift in order to achieve your goal (Trump getting voted in or staying in with your support). In other words, the core beliefs and behaviour of these evangelicals haven’t really changed, but the context has changed forcing them to openly adopt a supposedly new position out of sheer necessity: cognitive dissonance.

Public statements on positions of social morality are easily given: one can always claim, say, to be against affairs and sex outside of marriage in the abstract. But when the politician you’ve voted in then displays that behaviour, one either has to admit one’s vote was wrong and give up on some core desire (anti-abortion legislation) with it, or one harmonises the position of said politician by claiming private sexual immorality simply doesn’t affect public political behaviour and policy-making. Thus, your vote was A-okay.

There seems to be a gross lack of honesty and we observe this daily with the rather pathetic harmonisations of Trump supporters on these discussion threads on the blog, here. They seem to harmonise things enough that they can sleep at night; we just read their comments and laugh (in a sad, what has the world come to? sort of way). What we don’t get is this:

“Yes, I fully agree that Trump is a moral reprobate, he lacks religion, he makes gaffe after gaffe, he is mentally deteriorating and can barely get through a rally in a coherent manner without countless verbal meltdowns, his foreign policy… his own staff…. his pick of top….end up indicted… etc. etc. etc. BUT he is the only chance for the GOP to stay in control right now allowing for me to continue carrying around my AR-15 to do the local shopping, and this is more important to me then all that other pretty egregious stuff.”

If we had that kind of honesty, I would actually have so much more respect. There is rationality there, a moral calculation. I might vehemently disagree, but we can parse this back to its axiomatic foundations and argue from there.

But when I just read pathetic excuses derived from the psychology of cognitive dissonance, there is no argument to be had because the interlocuter is fooling themselves first. If they aren’t being honest with themselves, then they are actually incapable of being honest in argument with others.

The lesson – for all of us – is to be honest with ourselves so that we can then engage in more useful and honest argument with others. Our own picks are never universally perfect (heck, Biden would be way down my list of perfect candidates), and we should be able to pick and choose what we like in both people and institutions or parties. Perhaps, one day, we can emulate Switzerland in some way by voting on policy rather than party so we don’t feel that when we vote for a single person or party that we necessarily have to take all of their baggage, ideas, behaviours or policies in one package and thus feel the need to be beholden to cognitive dissonance in trying to justify a sexual deviance because we really rate their foreign policies.


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