Evangelical purity and symbolic threats

During the course of my continuing research in social psychology in dialogue with a theology of multi-faith engagement, I found a colleague who suggested I take a look at integrated threat theory, also known as intergroup threat theory (ITT). An exposition of this theory can be found as a chapter by Walter Stephan, Oscar Ybarra, and Kimberly Rios Morrison in the Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination, edited by Todd Nelson. ITT can be very helpful as another dimension in understanding negative or defensive evangelical postures toward those in other religious traditions.

Human beings are very tribal, and we tend to form close bonds with those in our tribe, and the corollary is that we then view those in other tribes as problematic. It's often us vs. them, our tribe vs. your tribe, our team vs. your team. As Stephan, Ybarra, and Morrison state it in regards to the theory, "In the context of intergroup threat theory, an intergroup threat is experienced when members of one group perceive that another group is in a position to cause them harm." It should be noted that ITT "is a social psychological theory in that it is primarily concerned with perceptions of threat." As originally set forth, ITT was understood to manifest itself in two different types of perceived threat. The first is realistic threats, "which refer to the physical welfare or resources of the ingroup," and the second is "symbolic threats, which refer to the ingroup's system of meaning."

In my reflection on evangelical reactions to members of different religious groups, symbolic threats seem to be the primary form of concern. This is due to the evangelical emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy and worldview concerns. Previously I've written on evangelicals and the purity of mind, and how for Christians in a test study, even thinking about the teachings of another religious group resulted in feelings of disgust. This can also be connected to perceptions of threat, specifically symbolic threat. In years past I noted this phenomenon in evangelical "counter-cult apologetics" ministry, those individuals and organizations who write and speak on the "cults" or new religious movements. Although there are a great number of new religions, the counter-cult has tended to focus on only a handful. In an analysis of counter-cult literature by Keith Tolbert in ARC Cult Literature Index, 1987, Module 4 (1988), his findings show that Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses received the most scrutiny, and that "the amount of disproportionate interested paid to them may very well be surprising." These two groups, combined with the "New Age," made up 82.79% of the focus of counter-cult literature. He goes on: "It is also interesting to note that not one article on Islam or Judaism appeared in all of this literature in 1987. In fact, they become conspicuous by their absence." We might wonder why such a small number of religious groups received such great attention by evangelical apologists. Tolbert wondered as well, and he concluded that this high concentration on few religious categories was "the perceived danger of these groups."

Not much has changed for evangelicals in early 2018, with the clear exception of Islam. And this is where we need to consider another aspect of ITT. In a paper exploring Islamophobia, Fatih Uenal suggests that there is another form of threat that needs to be recognized, that of terroristic threat. These are "imminent yet not predictable threat[s] posed by terrorist attacks to the physical safety" of individuals. 

Given the national trauma of 9/11, and its exacerbation through ongoing terrorist acts by ISIS, Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations around the globe, it is clear that terroristic threat is a part of 21st century life. (Whether the extent of the perception of this fear is justified in light of the likelihood of being a victim of such an attack is another matter.) It also likely contributes another dimension to evangelical fears and negative perceptions of Muslims as revealed in various surveys. This can also be seen as a causal factor in the differing ways evangelicals have written about Islam pre- and post-9/11. In an interesting piece by Richard Cimino, titled "New Boundaries -- Evangelicals and Islam After 9/11," he documents a changing "pattern of anti-Islamic polemics that is found in much of the literature of evangelicals and charismatic Christians in the period after September 11." Prior to 9/11 evangelical discussed Islam in the context of missions and evangelism, but after there was "the dual emphasis on Islam's inherently violent nature" and "that Muslims worship a false god distinctly different than the God of Christianity and Judaism." Interesting, Cimino also connects this to evangelical "concerns about the threat of syncretism," which brings us back to evangelicals and the purity of the doctrinal mind.  

With ITT in mind, and the ways in which evangelicals have conceived of and depicted members of various religious groups, most recently Muslims, it is clear that both symbolic and terroristic threats are in play. Stephan, Ybarra and Morrison discuss some of the consequences that intergroup threat can have on ingroup members, and we should consider them in relation to evangelicalism. They state that "threats from outgroups may lead to more negative reactions to defectors or deviants within the ingroup," and this can be seen in the way evangelicals label some evangelicals in multi-faith engagement, especially those who interact positively with Muslims. In addition, they state that there is "a greater policing of intergroup boundaries." On the effects of symbolic threats, they state that these "would seem to be more likely than realistic threats to lead to dehumanization, delegitimation, moral exclusion of the ougtroup, and reduced empathy for the outgroup." Not surprisingly, they also state that "In the context of immigration policy, symbolic threats would be expected to be linked to a preference for the assimilation of outgroups." 

I have found integrated threat theory very helpful and interesting. Combined with other insights of social psychology, I think ITT serves as a useful tool to help evangelicals understand their tribe's reactions to religious outgroups.

John Morehead