Sociologists and psychologists have long studied the social and psychological needs, personality styles, and ramifications of conservatives and fundamentalists. Numerous empirical studies link conservatism and fundamentalism to an authoritarian personality style, and in turn, to many other unfavorable characteristics. This is visible not only in Islamic fundamentalist societies where Muslim states wield oft unreasonable and oppressive authority over human thought, behavior, and being, but in conservative or fundamentalist Catholic and Christian homes and churches in America.
When a recent analysis by scholars John T. Jost, et al. was published in Psychological Bulletin, a publication of the American Psychological Association on the findings of several decades of studies, conservative political columnist George Will attempted in mid-August, rather unsuccessfully, to counter the well-substantiated findings in a sarcastic rebuttal.
Sorry George, despite your understandably desirous effort, the facts remain: conservatives do score higher in authoritarianism and ultimately, prejudice, punitiveness, rigidity, dogmatism, ethnocentrism, sexual repression, and tendencies of both submissiveness to authority figures and aggressiveness toward the subjugated. So the study of these correlations is justifiable if the rest of us desire to understand you and your cohorts and, more importantly, to alleviate the very real problems that result.
As early as 1946, an investigation by Eugene Hartley, found when college students evaluated 35 groups of nationalities (even some that didn’t really exist), those who detested one group held similar feelings toward others. This is hardly surprising today given the vast studies that have since supported this reality. For example, two 1985 studies (Bierly and Wiegel & Howes) revealed that persons that were prejudice against African-Americans, women, gays, the elderly, or ethnic minorities, tended to be prejudice toward many or all of those groups.
Fundamentalists and conservatives, typically authoritarian, were, and perhaps continue to be, dominated by a spouse, parent, government, church or priest. In turn, the dominated commands authority over others. This fact is established by sociological and psychological theory and goes something like this: an authoritarian government or church unreasonably dominates its constituents or congregation; out of anger, resentment, and need for empowerment, the males (white, in our case) categorize and exclude certain groups, such as women and other races, who the white males unleash their anger upon and reign power over; the subjugated women and other races must in turn release their frustrations and empower themselves by punitively subjugating those even lower in status-often children; and the cycle continues.
A perfect example of this is seen in the new film The Magdalene Sisters, which has been hailed by those moderate and liberal Catholics who acknowledge and want to correct previous and prevent future wrongdoings. As could be expected it is also highly criticized by fundamentalist Catholics who continue to wield authority over others and desire such dirty secrets, and those it continues to subjugate, to remain under lock and key.
The Magdalene Sisters exposes church-run laundries that imprisoned and physically, sexually, and emotionally abused approximately 30,000 Irish women-a scene not much different from the reprehensible treatment of women by Islamic fundamentalists. The Catholic girl’s crimes? According to Andy Seiler in USA Today, “Fathers could condemn their daughters to the laundries as virtual slaves if they flirted, had a baby out of wedlock or were raped.” Director Peter Mullan explains that the film “points the finger at people within the Catholic Church who abused their authority.”
The central issue is authoritarianism-an unbending, unrealistic, punitive form of control that requires blind obedience by others.
The problem for authoritarians that remains, however, is that there will always be some, and hopefully most, who will rebel. Here enters religion, or more specifically, fundamentalism. To reign such power, a forceful tool is required to keep subjects from uprising lest the control-seekers themselves risk losing their source of empowerment. What better tool than an omnipotent, omniscient, punitive, sexist, racist, sexually oppressive, judgmental, and manipulative God that requires complete obedience to his, as opposed to man’s, laws.
Kimberly Blaker is editor and coauthor of The Fundamentals of Extremism: the Christian Right in America. Visit http://www.NewBostonBooks.com for details. Send your comments to Kimberly Blaker: [email protected] (c) 2003, Kimberly Blaker