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?