When I drive through the Central Valley on I-5 or Highway 99, there’s a stretch of freeway where I can’t get clear reception from either the Sacramento or the Fresno NPR stations. In fact, on my way back from Fresno this weekend, the clearest signal I could get on the dial was a conservative talk radio station. So I tuned in – just out of curiosity. (This isn’t the first time my curiosity has led me to conservative talk radio stations. Regular readers of The Active Voice probably know this.) This particular station was airing an interview with Chelsen Vicari, a young millennial who was talking about her new book, Distortion: How the New Christian Left Is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith. Her argument, in a nutshell, is that Christianity is being hijacked by leftist apologists and homosexual sympathizers, and that Christians need to reclaim their faith and take back the Gospel. Here are some examples of what Vicari had to say:
On the issue of the “evangelical left”: When I say “the evangelical left,” I’m really talking about those within the church who are pushing a political, leftist agenda cloaked in Christianity. And when I say “cloaked in Christianity,” I mean using the Bible and twisting it to justify a leftist political agenda that actually goes against what Scripture talks about in many ways, for example, marriage, and life, and liberty.
On the issue of homosexuality: It is arguably the biggest, most hostile issue millennial Christians are faced with. Whenever we talk about same-sex relationships, we are either labeled as bigoted or uncompassionate, or we’re dismissed if we hold a view of marriage that is between one man and one woman.
On challenging the evangelical left: I absolutely believe that we can have revival, not just in the evangelical community but the church at large. But to do that, it’s going to start within our homes. It’s going to start by teaching our children exactly what Scripture says and how to defend it. Oftentimes the millennials are willing to compromise because, honestly, they don’t know enough about their faith to speak up about it.
So I’m listening to this, and the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I wasn’t at all surprised by Vicari’s beliefs – listening to conservative talk radio is an exercise in redundancy. No, the thing that was getting me weirded out was that her arguments sound exactly the same as what you’d hear from an LGBTQ social justice activist. Except just a little different. Consider what Vicari was essentially saying in her interview:
1. People are taking our Scripture and twisting it around to satisfy a political agenda. (Just like people who fight for social justice argue that the religious right twists the Bible to fit their beliefs.)
2. If we “come out” as Christian, we face intense discrimination, especially if we state our true beliefs about marriage, homosexuality, and abortion. (Coming out and discrimination? Those terms have their roots in the LGBTQ community.)
3. If things are going to change, we have to stand up for what we believe in, and teach our children how to do the same. (We are a community of experts when it comes to teaching our LGBTQ children – or children growing up in LGBTQ families – to accept themselves unconditionally and to stand up for who they are.)
You listen to this stuff long enough, and you almost start to believe it.
This is an old manipulative tactic. A defense mechanism, really, if you want to use psychological language. Melanie Klein, a neo-Freudian whose work dates back to the early 1900s through the 1940s, described a complicated phenomenon called “projective identification.” Here’s how it works: First, a person (Person #1) engages in projection, which is the unconscious act of attributing a negative, distressing part of ourselves onto someone else (Person #2). In other words, we see in other people what we can’t see in ourselves. But then, it goes a step further – Person #1 manages to manipulate the situation so Person #2 actually feels what’s been projected onto them. They’re stuck holding the bag of feelings that wasn’t even theirs in the first place.
Here’s how Vicari does this in her book (and in her interview). Instead of seeing how she and other evangelicals are twisting the Bible for their own purposes, she attributes this behavior to the “evangelical left.” Instead of acknowledging how the religious right has engaged in systematic institutionalized oppression, she turns it around and frames the religious right as the oppressed and the “evangelical left” as the oppressors. And instead of making amends and practicing restitution, Vicari says that true evangelicals need to stand up and fight back against this appropriation of the Bible.
Crazy stuff. But believable, if you listen to it long enough. And that’s why projective identification is such a powerfully effective defense mechanism. You can get rid of your shadow self, throw it onto another person, and make that person believe that the shadow self was theirs all along. It’s ironic, really, that Vicari chose the word “distortion” for her title. While her readers may begin to believe that liberals, leftists, and social justice activists are distorting the truth, the truth is that Vicari is the one who’s the master distortionist.
For those of you who are college students taking an introductory psychology class (or thinking about taking it in the future), I have some advice for you. When you get to the Freudian stuff, listen up – even if you think he and his followers were complete whack jobs, snorting cocaine and talking about sex all day. (There’s some truth to that.) It will give you powerful tools to understand the dynamics of the oppressor. What I just described above is a perfect example.