I seldom have an original idea, but from time to time I read things that prompt me to write a blog post nonetheless. Recently I read an article in The Washington Post that explored how the members of a Southern Baptist church in Luverne, Alabama reconciled their religious beliefs with the words and deeds of President Trump, who enjoys their overwhelming political support. The matter came to a bit of a head when their pastor, who was delivering a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments got to #7, which states simply “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Even his strongest supporters recognize that President Trump is a serial adulterer who often represents fictions as if they were true. While some evangelicals have criticized President Trump openly and some have even left the church, the vast majority have found ways to accommodate the president’s actions with their beliefs. Some do so through plain ignorance, such as those who voiced the opinion that the country needs President Trump because President Obama was a Muslim who carried the Koran with him everywhere. The article also contains a litany of rationalizations (of the type illustrated in the “Jack & Rationalizations” video in our “In It to Win” series). And it contains a number of the mechanisms of moral disengagement that Albert Bandura has categorized.
One congregant admitted that she did not agree with many of the President’s actions, but concluded: “We are not to judge.”
Predictably, liberal readers of the newspaper savaged the congregants’ ignorance, rationalizations and excuses. A common refrain was along the lines of: “You didn’t have any trouble judging Obama. Why do you not judge Trump?” This brought to my mind the days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal when Democrats were on the other side, commonly arguing that sexual wrongdoing was “private” and therefore utterly irrelevant to any evaluation of Clinton’s discharging of his public responsibilities as President. And they defended his untruths (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”) just as vigorously as Trump’s supporters are now defending. President Clinton’s supporters were arguably just as willing to look the other way when their leader acted immorally as are the Baptists of Luverne, Alabama.
To contrast both sides’ reactions to indiscretions by leaders from the other side is to see the in-group/out-group phenomenon in action. The same morning I read the Washington Post article, I finished reading A Natural History of Human Morality by Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Tomasello’s account of the theory on the evolution of morality is very interesting and stresses how evolutionary forces made the in-group/out-group distinctions that we draw not only inevitable but also extremely powerful.
Tomasello theorizes that as groups of early humans competed for resources, cultural conformity and in-group similarity became very useful for survival. A member’s effectiveness in showing loyalty to the group to prove he or she could be counted on in intergroup conflicts was a key to prospering inside each group’s culture. Tomasello writes:
[H]umans’ group-minded interdependence thus served to spread human sympathy and helping to all in the group, best characterized as a sense of loyalty to the group. As a consequence, there emerged in modern humans a distinctive in-group/out-group psychology. In-group favoritism accompanied by outgroup prejudice is one of the best-documented phenomena in all of contemporary social psychology and it emerges in young children during the late preschool and especially during the school-age period. This in-group bias is evident in many different domains of activity, but most important for current purposes is morality (emphasis added and citations deleted).
Dungan and colleagues recently described how in-group/out-group prejudices produce exactly what we see in the Washington Post article and its commenters: “When group concerns are made salient, people align their personal views with group consensus. Moral hypocrisy has also been shown to extend to an individual’s in-group–people rationalize and justify immoral deeds committed by people in their group.”
Politics in our country has become tribal. Republicans no longer seem to believe in the things they very recently believed in (deficit reduction, free trade, anti-communism, etc.). Rather, they believe in their leader, Donald Trump, wherever he takes them. Democrats now seem to believe primarily in just one thing: they are opposed to ANYTHING that the leader of the opposite tribe (President Trump) says or does.
To me, it seems that the in-group/out-group phenomenon is poisoning our country’s discourse and endangering our democracy. I feel that we must all try to be more open-minded, more receptive to evaluating objectively the ideas and values of the “other” tribe, and more introspective about our own in-group prejudices. This won’t be easy. These evolutionary-based forces are strong. But we have a moral obligation to try.
Start by checking out our Ethics Defined video on In-group/Out-group bias.
Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).
David Berreby, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind (2005).
James Dungan, Adam Waytz & Liane Young, “Corruption in the Context of Moral Trade-offs,” in Thinking About Bribery: Neuroscience, Moral Cognition and the Psychology of Bribery 85 (Philip M. Nichols & Diana C. Robertson, eds., 2017).
Stephanie McCrummen et al., “God, Trump, and the Meaning of Morality,” Washington Post, July 22, 2018.
David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (2011).
Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Morality (2016).
Piercarlo Valdesolo & David DeSteno, “Moral Hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flexibilitiy of Virtue, 18 Psychological Science 689 (2007).