Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Bible Belt Paradox

I had an epiphany the other night.

I was lying in bed, wondering why the most religiously devout parts of the US (call them Red States, call them Bible Belt, call them Heartland, it matters not) are statistically the places with the highest rates of divorce, domestic violence, murder, child endangerment, kidnapping, serial killers, corporate malfeasance, you name it. They got it. When I worked in the movie-of-the-week (MOW) business oh-so-briefly in the early ‘90’s (because I frankly did not have the stomach for ambulance-chasing the latest woman-in-jeopardy story), we covered the South like a rug, but especially two states that were the most notorious for the most egregious acts against fellow humans: Texas and Florida. Therefore, every self-respecting MOW producer kept track of the local newspapers out of Texas and Florida, especially Northern Florida. They were the homes of Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos and Gerard John Schaefer (aka the Killer Cop/the Florida Sex Beast). The Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And later, Enron and world-class vote stealing. (And let’s not forget our present administration and the Bush family’s Texas and Florida dynasties. But I digress…)

What puzzled me was that these same areas of the country were the most Bible thumping, most devout, most God-fearing parts of the country as well. How could so many people who believed that God would strike them dead if they did wrong, do wrong?

Then I thought about all my recent reading in neuroscience and psychology for my novel and my own background in marketing. One of the concepts that is often discussed in both psychology and marketing and has now been confirmed with fMRI technology in brain scans, is how a negated statement is often ignored and instead embraced as its positive. For instance, if there was a picture of you in the newspaper, accompanied by the headline, “Terrorist Suspect found Not Guilty,” the average person would see you and remember, “Terrorist… Guilty.” The “Not” disappears. Even if intellectually they remembered that you were found not guilty, they would still file you in their brains as a terrorist and reference you as such thereafter. Especially if the previous headlines had accused you of terrorism, because like your mother always said, first impressions last.

We use the principle in child rearing all the time. You don’t tell a child “Don’t run across the street!” because you know they’re only hearing “Run Across the Street!” Instead, you say “Stay with Me!” or “Hold My Hand!”

The Republicans are masters at this. They make positive statements all the time, like “We found Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq” that force their critics to tell the truth and negate them, replying, “There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.” But all the public remembers is the war we’re fighting is about Weapons of Mass Destruction. They don’t hear the ‘No’ in the negated, but truthful statement. To the public, the Democrats are simply repeating what the Republicans have been saying the entire time.

And then it hit me. The Ten Commandments is a To-Do-List.

Whoever wrote Exodus clearly didn’t have a degree in Cognitive Psychology. And if God really carved those tablets from the rocks of Mount Sinai, then he needs to take Psych 101. Or Marketing 101. He’s just not getting his message across.

Because the devout have been paying, and paying, and paying for those little negated statements ever since.

They don’t hear, “Thou shalt not kill.” They hear, “Thou shalt… kill.” They don’t hear, “Thou shalt not steal.” They hear, “Thou shalt… steal.” They don’t hear, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Instead, they hadn’t even thought about coveting their neighbor’s wife, but then they think about it for the first time because the Ten Commandments tell them so and they take a good, long look at her and think, “Hey, my neighbor’s wife is HOT!” And before they know it, they’ve broken TWO commandments -- coveting and adultery.

Think about it.

If I’m wrong, do you have a better explanation for what shall hitherto be known as The Bible Belt Paradox?


Anonymous jjk said...

You have an interesting hypothesis, but I don't think it's as simple as a mental block on the word "not" that appears in the ten commandments. I think the issue at heart is more one of repression.

For whatever reason, many evangelical Christians feel an overwhelming urge to repress whatever it is about themselves that makes them feel ashamed. There isn't much of a desire to explore these aspects of their personality, and like you mention in the case of coveting your neighbor's wife, people can just stew on these things and never get past them.

Being openly God-fearing and socially conservative is one thing. But a portion of those types of people are trying to project an image of themselves they know to be false. It only takes a very small number of these types of people to give a whole geographic area a bad reputation when the wheels finally do come off, so to speak.

January 14, 2007 11:26 PM

Anonymous Josh said...

Maybe you have the cause-effect relationship around the wrong way. Maybe it is the act of sinning that causes people to turn to Jesus for forgiveness. So where people sin the most, they will turn to Jesus the most.

Or, we could both be right, and it is a vicious circle.

January 13, 2008 7:06 PM

Blogger Marisa said...

After spending several years in the Midwest, I think you're absolutely right. And not only are the 10Cs a laundry list, but the Bible as a whole, full of blood, gore, adultery and sin of all kind, only gives people more ideas. Here's an interesting article to back up your point, entitled "Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side'":

February 20, 2008 7:03 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I concur, yet, remember the banality of evil. The stupidity of evil. The simplicity of evil.

Stupidity and evil go hand in hand.
Stupidity and religion go hand in hand.

Religiosity correlates, is evidence of, low intelligence, and stupidity is fertile ground, even a necessary precondition, for evil deeds; you don't need to be smart to be evil. but you may indeed need to be stupid to be capable of evil.

Poor impulse control and behavior dictated by the genes (seeking to maximize short-term pleasure, no consequences considered) is linked to low intelligence.

September 24, 2008 4:11 AM

Anonymous Neil said...

I've been living in the midwest for over a decade, close to St Louis (not TX or FL, but one of the "Crime Capitols" of the midwest). I have come to the conclusion that for some, their religious affiliation is a way out of despicable behavior. They can do whatever their evil hearts desire, because the Bible tells us we're born into sin; therefore, we're just following our evil nature.

Since "Jesus died for our sins" and most Baptists seem to believe you cannot do anything to earn your salvation (because Jesus did it all), therefore, there is nothing you can do to lose it either. Thus, there is no implicit obligation for one to be responsible for one's actions, since we are all prone to do whatever our urges lead us to do. At least that is the twisted thought process...

February 25, 2009 10:17 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd have to go with JLK, especially after reading Blumenthal's book "Republican Gomorrah". I strongly suggest you read it, it's a real eye opener. Blumenthal cites Erich Fromm's writings, especially "Escape from Freedom", about the sado-masochistic mindset of people who get involved in things like dominionist Christianity. I would also suggest "For Your Own Good" by Alice Miller -- her best writing. Let's just say that "Bible BELT" can be taken literally and quite frequently is. Jay

January 30, 2010 2:24 AM


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