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How the Fundamentalist Mind Compels Conservative Christians to Force Their Beliefs on You

Good people are willing to subvert the U.S. Constitution and even violate human decency in their quest for converts.

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Many evangelicals wear their religion on T-shirts and around their necks and on car bumpers and eye-blacks. They hand out tracts on college campuses and stage revival meetings on military bases. They use weddings and funerals to preach come-to-Jesus sermons. In their resolve to spread the good news that Jesus saves, some also do things that are more morally dubious.

In Tucson, nice young couples cultivate relationships with lonely college students without disclosing that they are paid to engage in “ friendship missions.” In Seattle, volunteers woo first- and second-graders to afterschool  Good News Clubs that the children are incapable of distinguishing from school-sponsored activities. In Muslim countries,  Christian missionaries skirt laws that ban proselytizing by pretending to be mere aid workers, putting genuinely secular aid workers at risk. In the U.S. military, soldiers bully other soldiers into prayer meetings or the  Passion of the Christ and then send  bizarrely profane emails to people who try to stop them.

Perhaps the most devastating consequence of evangelical zeal in recent decades has been millions of unnecessary deaths in Africa. Many evangelicals saw the HIV epidemic as an opportunity.

“AIDS has created an evangelism opportunity for the body of Christ unlike any in history,”  said Ken Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse. Another group that pursued HIV dollars has  its mission built right into its name: Community Health Evangelism. Christian ideology ultimately  redirected billions of U. S. aid dollars away from science-based results-oriented interventions such as contraceptive access and safe-sex education and into programs that espoused traditional Christian values: monogamy, evangelism, and compassionate after-the-fact care for the sick. 

I spent over 20 years of my life as an evangelical Christian, and during that time these behaviors seemed benign, even laudable to me. Today, as a psychologist who creates  resources for former fundamentalists, I find them disturbing. Even so, I am sympathetic to the moral conundrum fundamentalism can cause for genuinely decent people. After I watched the documentary  Jesus Camp, a friend commented, “Wasn’t that horrifying?” I had to confess that it seemed kind of, well, normal -- and that I could relate to the woman running the camp.

To explain why Christians will sometimes violate their own commitment to compassion or truth in the search for converts, it helps to consider the psychology of fundamentalist religion.

Religion has a set of superpowers—ways it shapes or controls human thinking and behavior. Chief among these is the fact that religions take charge of our moral reasoning and  emotions, giving divine sanction to some behaviors and forbidding others. Because there are many kinds of “good,” all of us make moral decisions by weighing values against each other. For example, most parents place a value on not hurting their children and yet get them immunized because long-term health trumps short-term pain. Religion can alter the way we stack those competing values, adding emotional weight to some, removing it from others.   

The relationship between religion and morality is complicated. Religion claims credit for our  moral instincts. It channels them via specific prescriptions and prohibitions. It offers  explanations for why some things feel right and others feel so wrong and why we find the wrong ones tempting. It engages us in stories and rituals that bring moral questions to the fore in day-to-day life. It embeds us in a community that encourages moral conformity and increases altruism toward insiders. It creates the sense that someone is always  watching over our shoulder.

When religious edicts align with the quest for love and truth, religion’s power can encourage us to be more compassionate, kind, humble or act with integrity. But religions also assert moral obligations that have little to do with love or truth, harm or wellbeing. Consider, for example, sacramental rituals, pilgrimages, circumcision, veiling, vows of silence or rituals of  purity. Some demands of piety have little human or planetary cost. But other times, divine edict compels adherents to do harm in the service of a higher cause that to outsiders simply doesn’t exist. The Aztec and Inca practice of human sacrifice to appease gods was one of these. To outsiders it was a horrifying moral violation; to insiders more analogous to a community vaccination; the young men and women who were sacrificed gave their lives for a greater good—the wellbeing of the whole society.

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