- “How White Evangelicals Think,” a new book by local psychologist Dave Verhaagen, aims to provide a new framework for understanding current religious and political phenomena.
- Verhaagen said historians and sociologists have much to say about the rise of Christian nationalism, for example, but believes the field of psychology “has been strangely absent.”
- Verhaagen discusses the idea of collective narcissism and how he sees this playing out in majority white evangelical Christian spaces.
As Christian nationalism grows in popularity while causing others to become disillusioned with their once-cherished faith, scholars have sought to help the public understand what is going on.
Popular books like “Taking America Back for God” and “Jesus and John Wayne” provide key research on the alignment between Christian spaces and right-wing politics.
“Historians and sociologists have had the best things to say so far,” said Dave Verhaagen, a Nashville psychologist who co-founded a major counseling center and is an adjunct at Vanderbilt University. “But there haven’t been strong voices in psychology talking about what we see in evangelism.”
Verhaagen’s new book “How White Evangelicals Think: The Psychology of White Conservative Christians” aims to fill that gap. The project offers a psychology-based framework for understanding current religious and political phenomena, grounding it in a diagnosis of “collective narcissism”.
He has authored eight previous books in a more professional capacity, but “How White Evangelicals Think” grew out of Verhaagen’s personal experiences and observations. In a Q&A, Verhaagen shared some of his backstory and what he means when he says, “Christian nationalism is the justification for collective narcissism.”
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tennessean: What makes this book unique in the literature on Christian nationalism and why did you accept it?
Dave Verhaagen: I am a psychologist who has been in this subculture. And I don’t just have an opinion to offer, but I can really be a good consumer of psychological research. I started asking questions like, why do evangelicals seem so susceptible to conspiracy theories? Why do evangelicals rank highly on warmth toward racial minorities, but score high on measures of racist attitudes? … On this subject, psychology has been strangely absent. I couldn’t find anything myself. I realized that I will have to do the heavy lifting.
So where has this got you?
I came across this idea of collective narcissism. Collective narcissism has three components: First, someone who is part of a group perceives the group as special. Second, they consider those who are not part of the group to be unspecial and they feel disrespected by this. So the third part is that they feel justified in being hostile towards those who are not part of the group.
This has been a phenomenon studied in different countries around the world about nationalists, for example. One of the first studies looked at what was called football (or soccer) hooliganism. It’s the idea of ”we’re special and you disrespect us, so we’re hostile towards you”.
In predominantly white and conservative evangelical Christian spaces, do you see examples where this does not apply? Or that people see beyond this type of groupthink?
I think it’s rare to find because the nature of collective narcissism begins to tighten the “in” group more and more. If you’re part of a group that you perceive as special and unique and something happens, you’re either going to experience it as an explosion, or, if it’s very important to you to keep seeing the group that way the dissonance doesn’t allow you to bend a lot.
Although your book does not deal only with Christian nationalism, you devote a place to the phenomenon. Talk a little more about your understanding of Christian nationalism and the role of collective narcissism in these spaces.
My premise is that Christian nationalism is an expression of collective narcissism. In other words, collective narcissism alone is ugly. It’s not something anyone would own on their own. But if you can get some intellectual or theological cover for it, then it’s justified.
If you can say, “God chose our country to be special, and there are people inside and outside the country who want to destroy it. We are right to be hostile to these people. Collective narcissism is the cover of this kind of movement and is the engine that propels it.
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @liamsadams.