Much has been written about evangelicalism and the scandalous or otherwise state of the evangelical mind from historical and theological perspectives.1 Psychologists too are interested in states of mind and their consequences for individuals. For psychologists, states of mind comprise beliefs (including styles of holding beliefs), emotions, and body sensations.2 One well-researched consequence of evangelical beliefs and belief styles is prejudice, problematic today in both anti-gay and anti-Muslim sentiment. This article examines prejudice as a potential outcome of evangelical states of mind, formed within the context of Christian churches, from the 1950s to the present.
A seminal issue for psychologists in the 1950s was how a Fascist dictator could persuade many Christians to collude in genocide of Jewish people. This issue is a stark example of both racial and religious prejudice of Christians broadly, not specifically evangelicals. It motivated research by Theodore Adorno3 and followers, generating more than 2,000 studies from 1950 to 1990 of the authoritarian personality as a key antecedent of prejudice.4 The situation is more complex than a causal relationship between an identifiable personality type and global prejudice, especially by evangelical Christians. This article examines the empirical psychological literature with due acknowledgment that the positivist framework of such research has its own limiting assumptions and methods. There is very little interdisciplinary research, with a particular lack of psychological research that includes theology as a genuine partner. We must move beyond beliefs, belief styles, and personality to consider the whole person in relation to a web of church relationships if we are to develop a satisfactory account of the making and unmaking of prejudice among evangelicals.
Psychological Research on Prejudice
Psychologists distinguish between stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, although prejudice also covers all three concepts. Stereotyping is attributing qualities to people based on their perceived membership of social groups; prejudice is prejudging people based on stereotyping, and discrimination is rejection or exclusion based on prejudice.5 Prejudice can be further classified according to its motivation: as affirming oneself or one’s in-group, expressing hostility or hatred, or as a response to a perceived threat. Religious identifications have been linked to all three kinds of prejudice motivations.6
Evangelical Beliefs and Prejudice
Evangelical beliefs are broadly consistent with the beliefs of orthodox Christianity as expressed through the historic creeds.7 They also include the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; redemption through the death of Jesus Christ; personal conversion; and the importance of converting others through witnessing to the gospel.8 Tim Larsen and Daniel Treier define an evangelical as an “orthodox Protestant … who has a pre-eminent place for the Bible in his or her Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice.”9 A psychological measure of evangelical beliefs is the Christian Orthodoxy (CO) Scale,10 measuring the degree of assent to core Christian beliefs reflected in the Nicene Creed. Early work suggested CO directly contributed to prejudice toward atheists and nonbelievers.11 However, subsequent studies pointed to a more complex relationship between the content of evangelical beliefs, styles of holding beliefs, and different types of prejudice.
Evangelical Belief Styles and Prejudice
According to Gordon Allport, Christians display a mature, intrinsic orientation to faith when they hold their beliefs in a committed and questing manner.12 Subsequent studies generally supported the relationship between an intrinsic orientation and reduced racial prejudice13 but not reduced prejudice toward lesbians and gay men.14 The findings suggest people with committed, internalized faith are selectively unprejudiced; they are likely to show some prejudice to people who violate important contemporary religious values such as those around sexuality. Questing is described as “an approach that involves honestly facing existential questions in all their complexity, while at the same time resisting clear-cut, pat answers.”15 A meta-analysis of studies of relationships between questing and prejudice found questing is either unrelated to prejudice or associated with low general and sexual prejudice.16
In contrast, religious fundamentalism (RF) is a closed style of holding religious beliefs, associated with high prejudice and lower religious maturity.17 This definition of RF as a belief style contrasts with historical understandings of fundamentalism as holding to the so-called fundamentals of the Protestant faith.18 RF as a belief style is strongly associated with negative attitudes toward homosexuals, racial prejudice, and religious ethnocentrism.19
Although RF is associated with prejudice against blacks, communists, women, and homosexuals, it is most strongly associated with homosexual prejudice.20 In Australia high RF is associated more strongly with prejudice against gay men and lesbians than against Muslims.21 People high in RF exhibit both general and morally based prejudice to homosexuals.22 Further, homosexual prejudice is higher where people are both high on RF and closed-mindedness,23 suggesting RF is a means of maintaining religious beliefs in the face of value violations.
Beliefs, Belief Styles, Personality, and Prejudice
The importance of considering beliefs and the RF belief style together is high lighted by a study that found both higher RF and CO were associated with higher homosexual prejudice, although the relationship between CO and prejudice was not as strong as the relationship between RF and prejudice.24 However, the role of personality, and particularly the authoritarian personality, must not be overlooked. Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) is understood psychologically to be a personality style characterized by authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism.25 There is a strong direct relationship between RWA and both racial and homosexual prejudice.26 Yet RWA is also strongly associated with RF, suggesting that RF is a religious manifestation of RWA.27 So it is important to clarify the effects of religious beliefs, styles, and personality together on prejudice. From inclusive studies, RWA is associated with explicit and implicit homosexual and racial prejudice; RF is associated with explicit homosexual prejudice; and CO is associated with tolerance toward homosexuals.28
Integrative Psychological Theory and Prejudice
To integrate research findings, there have been attempts to consider the underpinnings of the relationship between RF, RWA, CO, and prejudice. One approach has been to consider RF as “ideological authoritarianism” rather than a belief style.29 The core of RF is given as a thought structure in which a sacred text specifies absolute truths that govern the individual’s worldview. Other peripheral beliefs are accepted or rejected according to whether they maintain that worldview. Buttressing the claim of the sacredness of the religious text, and the absolute truths, is the principle of intratextuality: “the text itself determines how it ought to be read.”30 The authority demanding submission is the sacred text. For Christian fundamentalists, the Bible claims it is the Word of God (that is, a sacred text) and so it is read as specifying absolute truths (that is, revealed by God). The locus of interpretation is the individual reader; no other texts or inputs are required to establish absolute truths. These truths are then authoritative for the Christian’s life; they comprise an ideologically authoritative meaning system. In turn, this meaning system provides a sense of coherence, purpose, control, and value.
From this perspective of ideological authoritarianism, individuals who exhibit RF are not a priori more prejudiced than others, but may respond with prejudice when core beliefs and values are threatened. For example, in a simulation study using a scale of intratextuality to measure fundamentalism, those high in RF discriminated against a Christian evolutionist in favor of a creationist.31 When discussing ideological authoritarianism, it is important to note that RF is not a religious manifestation of a more general personality style, but rather a world view based upon the authority of a sacred text to give and guide interpretation of propositional truth. If evangelicals hold to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and seek to apply absolute beliefs to all areas of life, they will be religious fundamentalists and are likely to be prejudiced.
Integrative Psychological Theory and Theological Perspectives
The perspective of ideological authoritarianism provides an explanatory structure for prejudiced fundamentalist thinking and an alternative structure of non-fundamentalist thought marked by permeable relationships between peripheral beliefs and authoritative (not sacred) texts, relative (not absolute) truths, and interpretation via the principle of intertextuality (no text is self-interpreting).32 However, the resulting bifurcation based on worldview, authority, and interpretation is similar to the categories of fundamentalism and liberalism that theologian philosopher Nancey Murphy attempted to reconcile from philosophical and theological perspectives.33 Such work raises possibilities for changing a stance of ideological authoritarianism.
With respect to authority, ideological authoritarians view Scriptures as a rulebook and the only reference book for life. Murphy echoes these claims in her depiction of fundamentalists (categorized together with conservative evangelicals) as upholding the verbal inspiration and complete inerrancy of Scripture in order that Scripture provides an indubitable foundation for doctrine.34 Although Murphy is talking about theologians rather than individual believers, her comments equally apply to individuals seeking propositional knowledge from a sacred text in order to maintain a coherent and certain meaning system.
British evangelical theologian N. T. Wright also depicts the taken-for-granted view of biblical authority among evangelicals as including an unwarranted confidence that the Bible provides correct answers to specific questions of living so that behavior can be controlled.35 Note that other potential sources of authority, such as tradition (either formulated as doctrinal statements or practices of a Christian church) or experience (whether personal feelings or revelation attributed to the Holy Spirit), are not considered within the framework of ideological authoritarianism. Such sources of authority invite investigation for an alternative epistemology and representational structure.
Regarding questions of interpretation, the primary locus of interpretation by ideological authoritarians is the individual using Scripture, yet Hood and colleagues do not deny the social and historical context of each individual.36 The point is, once the fundamentalist worldview is adopted, all other beliefs and attitudes are interpreted in the light of that worldview alone. There is no place for absorbing beliefs, attitudes, or values from any competing plausibility structure. Specific peripheral beliefs and associated values will be derived from absolute beliefs through private understandings of Scripture in light of consensus from those who share the same worldview.
Nonetheless, if Scripture alone guides its own interpretation, then tradition and experience are not permitted to usurp Scripture’s role. In contrast, Murphy proposes that biblical interpretation is a practice or activity carried out within a Christian tradition, an activity in which interpretation and application coalesce.37 Interpretation is not given immediately by the text to an individual but is contingent upon communal practice.38 Application is then made to concrete situations and necessarily involves contemporary experience. Thus Scripture, tradition, and experience are all required for the practice of interpretation.
Integrative Theory, Theology and Decreasing Prejudice
Approaches to reducing prejudice by considering total worldview, biblical authority, and biblical interpretation will now be considered. The total worldview of ideological authoritarians is governed by absolute truths (known through a reader’s interrogation of the sacred text) that determine peripheral beliefs and consequent action. Although absolute truths are not subject to modification, peripheral beliefs may be altered through changing their relation to absolute truths, by experience, or by interactions with other peripheral beliefs.39
So it may be possible to change prejudice against homosexual people by worldview modification as follows. Core beliefs held absolutely include the following: homosexuality is sin; God hates sin. Peripheral beliefs include Christians must separate from sin; I must not befriend a homosexual. Alternative peripheral beliefs (without changing core beliefs) include realization that the apostle Peter ate with Cornelius without being “contaminated”; I can be friendly to a homosexual without being “contaminated.” The change of peripheral beliefs can occur through information leading to new peripheral beliefs (for example, reading the book of Acts), deliberations that contrast old and new peripheral beliefs (understanding issues of “contamination” and “separation from sin” through further intratextual dialogue) and through experience of unproblematic encounters with homosexuals.
The direct relationship between Scripture and authority over Christian beliefs is taken for granted by evangelicals who are ideological authoritarians. However, it may be possible to shift from a propositional authority structure to authority that recognizes more nuanced narrative. N. T. Wright points out that the Bible’s claim that all authority is in God, invested in Christ, and given by the Holy Spirit to the church for its work.40 The authority that is invested in Scripture is the authority of narrative, of God’s people telling their stories so that Christians through the ages can do God’s work. In this process, asserts Wright, individuals will be formed and reformed by the Spirit through Scripture.41 Here Wright introduces a counter to the authority of propositions identified in the Bible by suggesting authority resides in Spirit-applied narrative.
If people are to be remade in ways that decrease the strength or targets of fundamentalism, then they must learn to read scriptural narrative as (at least) equally authoritative as biblical propositions. For Wright, this narrative reading involves entering into the story so that the readers and their world (including their “God view”) can be changed by the experience of entering.42 The parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of a narrative that directly challenges racial prejudice. If a Christian were to enter the narrative imaginatively and in an attitude of openness to the Spirit, the Christian might find that some absolutist beliefs about specific migrants are weakened. Repeated experiences of open engagement with narratives of Christ’s interactions with diverse, marginalized people might further weaken absolutist beliefs and change related prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior.
If biblical interpretation is to be extended beyond the closed system of intra textuality, then more radical revisions of thought structures are required. Drawing from E. O. Quine, Murphy presents a holistic understanding of knowledge as a hermeneutical web rather than a hierarchical system.43 In a web of knowledge, beliefs are supported by their links to neighboring beliefs as well as by linkages within the web as a whole. The kinds of support for the web of beliefs include doctrinal claims, experiences of a particular tradition and a wealth of historically based assumptions. The result of such interpretation is not certainty, but neither is it complete relativism because the interpretation is sifted for reasonableness within its own tradition.44
Although not advocated as a counter to prejudice, Murphy’s account of non-propositional Bible reading could be used as a method for shifting from the stance of an external knower seeking certainty to an internal participant. Instead of using Scripture to construct an objectively real world, Murphy suggests allowing Scripture to interpret life by dwelling in the broad sweep and details of its stories, symbols, and syntax so these can become internalized and govern one’s thinking and imagination.45 As applied to prejudice, the non-propositional reading could include the kinds of narrative encounters described above, together with pondering the symbols and language of alienation and restoration. The goal is not an intellectual understanding of prejudice but rather a holistic understanding of “exclusion and embrace.”46
Functions of Integrative Theory and Reduction of Prejudice
Functionally, ideological authoritarianism is any personal meaning system providing a unifying worldview, personal coherence, and a sense of significance.47 Prejudice is arguably a consequence of any inclusive, unifying, and purpose generating meaning system. It is not the product of particular beliefs, religious or otherwise. Nonetheless, if ideological authoritarianism fulfills stated psychological functions, it raises the question of whether alternative means of fulfilling such functions can be proposed—alternatives that are less likely to engender strong prejudice.
One alternative might include relational theology as a unifying worldview and relationships within Christian churches as a source of personal coherence and significance. Stanley Grenz proposes an evangelical theology that maintains the primacy of Scripture and includes tradition and cultural awareness: it is a relational theology (a theology of community) based in the Trinitarian nature of Christianity.48 The approach of Grenz is community building and affirms eschatological community in which the proclamation of salvation is for all people (including those whose values are not evangelical). Such an emphasis counters an individualistic referent of textual interpretations and encourages greater inclusiveness.
Christian churches can become a source of secure personal and spiritual attachment relationships that support internal coherence and significance. Attachment is a relational bond in which a person seeks closeness to another for safety, comfort, and security in situations of threat and heightened emotion.49 For Christian believers, God functions as an ideal attachment figure: always present, powerful, and nurturing.50 Christian mentors and friends also function as attachment figures.51 Supportive church communities encourage caring, secure attachment relationships with other members and God.
With community support, internal coherence is maintained because secure attachment overcomes the fragmenting effects of emotional dysregulation.52 In addition, secure attachment reduces the repeated use of dysfunctional, rigid ways of coping (such as derived from emotionally-based, rigid applications of selective absolute truths). Dysregulated emotion and rigid coping indicate maladaptive ways of understanding oneself and relating to others, rather than healthy, integrated modes.53 Further, secure attachment to God provides the emotional stability supporting the kinds of theological exploration associated with an open, questing stance.54 In turn, the questing style allows for holding many religious beliefs as conditional, rather than absolute, truths.55 In this way, secure spiritual attachment underpins a belief style of low prejudice and provides an alternative pathway to internal coherence.
Secure attachments derived through supportive Christian churches also allow for significance because they engender self-representations as worthy of love and nurture.56 Significance arises and is maintained within relationships where attachment needs are met and particularly in situations of existential threat when God provides a sense of ultimate security.57 In more theological terms, a secure attachment to God also allows for greater identification with Christ through the Holy Spirit and thereby a stronger sense of self-worth through one’s transformed personhood in Christ.58 Where there are supportive Christian churches and secure spiritual attachment, the evangelical Christian is less likely to need a strong version of ideological authoritarianism to meet needs for internal coherence and significance.
All humans are likely to be prejudiced to some degree against those who violate their values. Evangelical Christians are likely to be prejudiced to some degree against those who violate biblical standards and particularly against homosexual people. The roots of such prejudice among evangelicals are currently understood by positivist psychologists to be beliefs (absolute truths that emerge through the process of intratextuality) that govern all peripheral beliefs and subsequent actions. This model of ideological authoritarianism raises issues of scriptural authority and interpretation on which theologians have much to contribute. Christian churches can form less prejudiced hearts and minds by emphasizing theologies that nuance truth claims and by supporting secure attachment bonds that provide alternative sources of internal coherence and significance.
Cite this article
- See, for example, Harriet A. Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
- Suzanne Oosterwijk et al., “States of Mind: Emotions, Body Feelings, and Thoughts Share Distributed Neural Networks,” Neuroimage 62 (2012): 2110–2128.
- 3Theodore Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950).
- Jos Meloen, “The F Scale as a Predictor of Fascism: An Overview of 40 Years of Authoritarian Research,” in Strength and Weakness: The Authoritarian Personality Today, eds. William F. Stone, Gerda Lederer, and Richard Christie (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1993), 47–69.
- Carrie Doehring, “An Applied Integrative Approach to Exploring How Religion and Spirituality Contribute to or Counteract Prejudice and Discrimination,” in APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, ed. Kenneth I. Pargament (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2013), 2:389–404.
- Ibid., 391–393.
- Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 340.
- Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 121–122; Grenz, Renewing the Center, 166.
- Tim Larsen and Daniel Treier, The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1.
- J. Timothy Fullerton and Bruce Hunsberger, “A Unidimensional Measure of Christian Orthodoxy,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21 (1982): 317–326.
- Lynne M. Jackson and Bruce Hunsberger, “An Intergroup Perspective on Religion and Prejudice,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38 (1999): 509.
- Gordon Allport, “The Religious Context of Prejudice,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5 (1966): 447–457.
- See, for example, review by C. Daniel Batson, Patricia Schoenrade, and W. Larry Ventis, Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 302–310.
- Gregory M. Herek, “Religious Orientation and Prejudice: A Comparison of Racial and Sexual Attitudes,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 13 (1987): 34–44; Gary K. Leak and Laura L. Finken, “The Relationship between the Constructs of Religiousness and Prejudice: A Structural Equation Model Analysis,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21 (2011): 43–62.
- Batson, Religion and the Individual, 166.
- Daniel F. McCleary et al., “Meta-Analysis of Correlational Relationships between Perspectives of Truth in Religion and Major Psychological Constructs,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 3 (2011): 163–180.
- Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, “Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Prejudice,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2 (1992): 113–133.
- W. Paul Williamson and Ralph W. Hood Jr., “Religious Fundamentalism and Perceived Threat: A Report from an Experimental Study,” Mental Health, Religion, & Culture 17 (2014): 520–528.
- Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, “Fundamentalism and Authoritarianism,” in Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, eds. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park (New York: Guilford, 2005), 378–393; Deborah L. Hall, David C. Matz, and Wendy Wood, “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14 (2010): 126–139.
- McCleary et al., “Meta-Analysis of Correlational Relationships.”
- Wesley James, Brian Griffiths, and Anne Pedersen, “The ‘Making and Unmaking’ of Prejudice against Australian Muslims and Gay Men and Lesbians: The Role of Religious Development and Fundamentalism,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21 (2011): 212–227.
- Aubyn S. Fulton, Richard L. Gorsuch, and Elizabeth A. Maynard, “Religious Orientation, Antihomosexual Sentiment, and Fundamentalism among Christians,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38 (1999): 14–22.
- Mark J. Brandt and Christine Reyna, “The Role of Prejudice and the Need for Closure in Religious Fundamentalism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36 (2010): 715–725.
- Leak and Finken, “Relationship between the Constructs,” 43–62.
- Bob Altemeyer, Right-Wing Authoritarianism (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1981).
- Brian Laythe et al., “Religious Fundamentalism as a Predictor of Prejudice: A Two-Component Model,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41(2002): 623–635; Eunike Jonathan, “The Influence of Religious Fundamentalism, Right-Wing Authoritarianism, and Christian Orthodoxy on Explicit and Implicit Measures of Attitudes toward Homosexuals,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 18 (2008): 316–329.
- Altemeyer and Hunsberger, “Fundamentalism and Authoritarianism,” 390.
- Laythe et al., “Religious Fundamentalism as a Predictor”; Jonathan, “Influence of Religious Fundamentalism.”
- Ralph W. Hood Jr., Peter C. Hill, and W. Paul Williamson, The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism (New York: Guilford, 2005).
- Ibid., 22.
- Williamson and Hood, “Religious Fundamentalism and Perceived Threat.”
- Hood, Hill, and Williamson, Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, 27.
- Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1996).
- Ibid., 16–17, italics in original.
- N. T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7–32.
- Hood, Hill, and Williamson, Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, 186.
- Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, 131.
- Ibid., 105.
- Hood, Hill, and Williamson, Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, 24.
- Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”
- Ibid., 32.
- Ibid., 31.
- Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, 94.
- Ibid., 109.
- Ibid., 131 (citing George Lindbeck).
- Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).
- Hood, Hill, and Williamson, Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, 34.
- Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).
- John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, vol. 5, Attachment (New York: Basic Books, 1969).
- Maureen Miner et al., “Spiritual Attachment in Islam and Christianity,” Mental Health, Religion and Culture 17 (2014): 79–93.
- Arnoud Arntz and Gitta Jacob, Schema Therapy in Practice: An Introductory Guide to the Schema Mode Approach (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
- Richard Beck, “God as a Secure Base: Attachment to God and Theological Exploration,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 34 (2006): 125–132.
- McCleary et al., “Meta-Analysis of Correlational Relationships.”
- Maureen Miner, “Back to the Basics in Attachment to God: Revisiting Theory in Light of Theology,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 35 (2007): 112–122.
- Lee A. Kirkpatrick, “An Attachment-Theory Approach to the Psychology of Religion,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2 (1992): 3–28.
- Philip A. Rolnick, Person, Grace, and God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 256.