Why are so many conservative evangelicals in Alabama still supporting Roy Moore? For that matter, why have so many evangelicals around the country spent the past two years embracing Donald Trump?
I just took part in a compelling conversation on this subject at the Faith Angle Forum, founded by the late Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and came away with one core explanation: the siege mentality. In fact, I’d say the siege mentality explains most of the dysfunctional group behavior these days, on left and right.
You see the siege mentality not just among evangelical Christians but also among the campus social justice warriors and the gun lobbyists, in North Korea and Iran, and in the populist movements across Europe.
The siege mentality starts with a sense of collective victimhood. It’s not just that our group has opponents. The whole “culture” or the whole world is irredeemably hostile.
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From this flows a deep sense of pessimism. Things are bad now. Our enemies are growing stronger. And things are about to get worse. The world our children inherit will be horrific. The siege mentality floats on apocalyptic fear.
The odd thing is that the siege mentality feels kind of good to the people who grab on to it. It gives its proponents a straightforward way to interpret the world – the noble us versus the powerful them. It gives them a clear sense of group membership and a clear social identity. It offers a ready explanation for the bad things that happen in life.
Most of all, it gives people a narrative to express their own superiority: We may be losing, but at least we are the holy remnant. We have the innocence of victimhood. We are martyrs in a spiteful world.
Leaders, even sports coaches, try to whip up the siege mentality, because it makes their job easier. After all, this mentality encourages people to conform and follow orders. Resentment can be a great motivator. It’s us against the world!
The siege mentality also excuses the leader’s bad behavior. When our very existence is on the line we can’t be worrying about things like humility, sexual morality, honesty and basic decency. In times of war all is permissible. Even molesting teenagers can be overlooked because our group’s survival is at stake.
In the end, though, the siege mentality ends up being self-destructive. Groups smitten with the siege mentality filter out discordant facts and become more extreme versions of themselves, leading to further marginalization. They take mainstream loathing as a badge of honor and wind up taking pleasure in their most unattractive instincts.
The siege mentality ends up displacing whatever creed the group started with. Evangelical Christians, for example, had a humane model for leadership – servant leadership – but, feeling besieged, they swapped it for Donald Trump, for gladiator pagan leadership.
Why is this mindset so prevalent now? Well, it’s partially because the country is divided and many groups feel under assault. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 64 percent of Americans believe that their group has been losing most of the time.
But that’s not the main reason the siege mentality is so prevalent. It’s because we’re in a historic transitional moment and the very foundations of society are now open to question.
In the 1960s the civil rights leaders suffered injustice and oppression. But they had a basic faith in the foundations of society. They wanted a place at the table.
Today people are more likely to think the table itself stinks, or there is no common table. Today Christians are more likely to argue that the liberal order itself is intolerant toward faith. Social justice warriors are prone to argue that America is racist and oppressive in its very bones. The evil is inherent in the basic structure.
How should one respond to the siege mentality, to the Alabamians now rallying around Roy Moore? Well, it’s right to be disgusted, and it feels good to be contemptuous. But contempt only breeds contempt. Contempt for the conservatives in Alabama will just justify their siege mentality and make the social disorder that flows from it worse.
The fact is, the siege mentality arises from overgeneralization: They are all out to get us. It shouldn’t be met with a counter-overgeneralization: Those people are all sick.
It should be met with confident pluralism. We have a shared moral culture, and some things are beyond the boundaries, like tolerating sexual harassment. But within the boundaries of our liberal polity, we’re going to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
Suppose America’s leaders had gone to conservative evangelicals a decade ago and said: Look, we understand that changing attitudes about gay marriage put you in a tough position. We’re not going to stop doing what we think is right, but we’re going to try to work out some accommodation with you on religious liberty so you can feel at home here and practice your faith.
That might have felt more like a conversation than a siege. That might have spared us the populist revolts that brought us Roy Moore, and Donald Trump, and the repugnant habits of mind that now excuse them.