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How Evangelicals Can Continue to Support Donald Trump by Raymond Baird, Ph.D.

Raymond Baird, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology Emeritus and former Senior Associate Dean in the University of Texas,  San Antonio's College of Sciences.

Jerry Falwell Jr. is in the news again.  The son of the late evangelist Jerry Falwell, president of the Liberty University, and early endorser of Donald J. Trump (DJT) has found himself at odds with a group of students at the university his father founded.  The students released a statement which indicates that they cannot support a man of DJT’s character, saying that association with him would “cast a stain on the school’s reputation.”  The President dismissed the statement as “incoherent” and the students as “young and still learning.”

Many may find it interesting that DJT’s behavior and utterances seem not to have shaken Reverend Falwell’s faith as much as they have troubled the students.  Unaffected by the apparent inconsistency between Christian teachings and Trump-ian behavior, Reverend Falwell continues to express the view that DJT’s election to the presidency of the U.S. would be the best thing for the country.

Commentators, op-ed writers, and a fair number of ordinary citizens wonder how he can hold these un-reconcilable views.  It is easy to accuse the man of being a hypocrite, who is comfortable with the teachings of his faith, so long as the payoff is sufficient.  Many psychologists, however, would offer another explanation – that it derives from the effects of cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort one experiences when two incompatible ideas exist in the same mind at the same time.  Scientific research over decades has supported the conclusion that in situations of this sort, the mind requires that the conflict be resolved, pronto!  We cannot tolerate the mental distress of cognitive dissonance for a prolonged period.  When a person finds himself or herself on the horns of this sort of dilemma, scientists find that some really odd behavior is often the result, behavior that is apparently illogical.


Take the present instance, for example.  Rev. Falwell faces two facts:  First, “I gave my full-throated endorsement to DJT, publicly comparing him to Winston Churchill and, more pertinent still, proclaiming that DJT has lived his life “in the spirit of the life of Jesus’.”  Second, “DJT’s actions and words have been, over an extended period, inconsistent with several of my most deep-rooted Christian beliefs.”  One can imagine that this pair of ideas clash almost audibly in the mind of Rev. Falwell and that the cognitive dissonance generated thereby requires resolution.  But how is he to proceed? Scientists find that the typical resolution lies in the elimination of one of the two conflicting ideas.  He might try to deny the historical fact that he did actually endorse DJTs wholeheartedly.  If he were denying it (to himself) then the troublesome inconsistency would be eliminated and he would be allowed to focus on Trump’s contravention of his belief system and take the nominee to task for it.  The obvious problem is that his endorsement is indisputable; it is part of the public record; he cannot hit the Erase button and make it go away.  People are fairly creative sometimes and turn to a second way of resolving the conflict which is generating the annoying cognitive dissonance.  A second pair of related stratagems (often thought to be counter intuitive by non-scientists) is to do one or both of the following:  either to satisfy himself that DJT has not violated his Christian belief system in any significant way (e.g., “it was just locker room talk”) or to take the position that the Christian belief system requires that he suspend judgement about the rectitude of Trump’s actions because only God can know what was/is in another’s heart.  Unlike trying to deny the obvious which can easily be shown to be untrue, either or both of these latter courses of action depend for their success on the unseeable (in Reverend Falwell’s mind or in DJT’s) , and consequently cannot easily be disproven by reference to fact.  More importantly, since they cannot be disproven, they have a high likelihood of of successfully eliminating the mental conflict.  Hey, presto! The cognitive dissonance dissipates.  Reverent Falwell can stand forthrightly behind his endorsement without any sense that his integrity has been compromised by doing so. 


Is it a logical course of action?  One can convincingly argue that it is not.  But is it a psychologically valid course of action?  Over half a century of research says that it is.  

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