17 Psychology and the American Religious Right

After writing my last blog post, I was reminded of some writing I have recently done which sets out the thinking of an American political commentator called George Lakoff.  The relevance of George Lakoff, and indeed my piece about him, to this blog is that he attempts to account for the  chasm of thinking that exists in the States between the conservative Right and the progressive Left.  At the risk of over-simplifying American politics, we see conservatives largely siding with the Republican party and the progressives voting with the Democrats.  The interest of this divide in American politics for this blog is in that conservative Republicans will attract the vast majority of ‘Bible believing’ Christians.  Thus to understand the political Right is to have some insight into the so-called Religious Right with their concerns for issues of personal morality.  We in Britain have not escaped the influence of American conservative religious thinking in our churches, even if the political landscape in the two countries is quite different.

George Lakoff is an academic with a particular interest in linguistics.  The main concern of the two books that I studied was in the way that political rhetoric or language is used and abused in the course of debate.  Particular words are introduced into a debate between political opponents but it sometimes becomes apparent during the course of the debate that the word has been defined to suit the purposes of the conservative argument.  For example in a discussion about same-sex  relationships, the word ‘marriage’ is brought in.  The progressive wants to use the word to describe a legally recognised relationship between two responsible adult people whether or not of the opposite sex.  The conservative may well argue that the word ‘marriage’ cannot be used for same-sex relationships.  Marriage can apply only to a relationship of people of opposite sex.  There is obviously a debate to be had over the meaning of the word marriage, but it is presented in the argument as a self-evident claim which is beyond contradiction.  It is rather similar to the technique of a conservative Christian to clinch a discussion by bringing forward the argument, ‘the Bible says’.   The person trying to oppose the conservative position then has find a counter argument from Scripture and the discussion descends into an unhelpful exchange of texts.  Those of us who are not conservative Christian do not find this activity of bolstering up arguments from quoting scripture something we are very good at.   It is also hard to see much value in this kind of discussion.  The Bible is not known for a perfectly consistent point of view.

To return to George Lakoff and his writing, we find that he has an intriguing observation to make to help us understand what makes the Republican right voter tick from a psychological point of view.  He hypothesises that the difference between conservative and progressive voter may lie in their experience of family life as they grew up.  His argument is that the conservative voter supporting the Republican party may well have been brought up in a traditional family where the father was firmly in control.  The bringing up of the children was seen to be a matter of maintaining firm paternal discipline with the fear that unless discipline was maintained the children would descend into chaos and be unable to make their way in the world.  Such ideas are reflected in many books on child-rearing favoured by conservative Christians.  They also echo a traditional belief among such Christians that the natural state of existence, particularly for children, is one of dominated by original sin and chaotic living.

The political and social implications of such an experience of the past are extensive.  Conservatives will believe that there will always be an authoritarian solution to the world’s problems, whether discussing personal morality, social issues or the problems of the wider world.  Poverty, for example, will be understood as the result of fecklessness or lack of discipline.  The poor have only themselves to blame, whether you are talking about the ghetto inhabitants of America’s inner cities or the poor in countries overseas.  This attitude might explain the incomprehensible Republican opposition to health care reform.  If you resist the improvements to social care of the poor, you are, so the thinking goes, helping them to find self-improvement through their own unaided effort.

In contrast to this authoritarian experience of family life, the progressive politically minded  Democrat may well have experienced life in a family where cooperation, mutual respect and trust take central stage.  If that is the internalised memory of how things worked in early life, then there will be a profoundly different understanding and expectation of how political ideas are put into practice.  Without spelling it all out, Lakoff locates a liberal hopeful political attitude among those who have had the good fortune to have been brought up in a liberal family.  In summary conservatives and liberals, whether political or religious, have been created, not by ideology or intellect but by the emotional environment of their early family life.

I offer these arguments without much detail as I have had to shorten and simplify quite complex ideas.  The position of Lakoff is presented as quickly as possible because it seems to help us to have some fresh insight into a variety of issues that might otherwise baffle us.  When we try to talk to conservative (fundamentalist) Christians, why do we feel that they cannot and will not shift on any point?  What is it about the conservative Christian that behaves in an irrationally prickly way over issues of sexual morality?  Is the issue of gay sex such a big deal or does it reflect a shame laden experience taught in early life? These and other issues are topical at present in the Anglican Church as conservatives constantly throw into the arena of debate their obsessional fixation on matters of sex.  Most of us on the more liberal wing want to move away from this area of life to pursue wider issues, such as justice or poverty.

What do others think?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “17 Psychology and the American Religious Right

  1. Yeah. Obsession with sex due to someone slapping your hand and saying “That’s dirty”. We all take our hang ups with us. My experience of conservative Christianity suggests on the whole a limited education, even if not a limited intelligence. Though that can happen. It’s like Conservatism of any sort, really. If your reading age is low, you’re limited to reading the Sun. So it forms your life model. If you read the Good News Bible, you’re going to have a limited understanding. If you read the Authorised Version, you probably don’t understand it so likewise. You are also constrained by what your leader tells you. All very sweeping statements. I hope I can be permitted the innaccuracies of painting with a large brush.

  2. I think I can contribute a little to this discussion. Firstly, I think my former educational disempowerment is more of a help than a hindrance in relation to this discussion. At first this may sound absurd but please hold on and I’l try to explain. When I was a convinced evangelical I would say ‘The Bible says’ and at that point any discussion would end! It did not occur to me that anything in the bible needed to be defended. God said, so that was it. But now I shadow box with ghosts of that past. It is here that I can Identify with the spiritual schizophrenia that so many American right wing evangelicals experience when they start to think, (If ever they do).The Lesbian Gay issue appears very straight forward if you are schooled on inerrancy. However, when you start to allow visions of lesbian and gay people walking hand in hand into Hitler’s gas chambers things get difficult.
    Similarly when the ‘Bible says’ that it is ok to kill your enemies babies by ‘dashing them against a stone’ Psalm 137 verse 9. You must either ignore one verse and embrace the other or, just not think?
    People in the wheelchair of that mentality I think are to be pitied.

    The last question that for me sometimes raises a fatal objection to belief is quite simply; how can a loving God allow such confusion in his name, let alone the obscene rivers of blood and agony in the way that ‘The church’ has carried out wars within its ranks. How I wish I could ‘Paint with a large brush’ (Very well said English Athena)

    Chris Pitts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.