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Defender of the Faith
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Defender of the Faith

A Review of Dave Verhaagen’s How White Evangelicals Think: The Psychology of White Conservative Christians

A few weeks before Halloween 2022, it looked like the Red Wave was all but a given. The President was wildly unpopular, Ron DeSantis was ascendant, and Kari Lake drew the same sizable crowds Donald Trump did in 2020. Two years into what was supposed to be a return to sanity, even the most unhinged of prophecies about the rise of Dark Brandon were coming true. That’s the best explanation I’ve got for why The Tennessean chose to run a feature interview with Nashville psychologist David Verhaagen entitled, “Q&A: What helps drive Christian nationalism? Collective narcissism, author argues.” 

Verhaagen sat down with the paper’s religion reporter, Liam Adams, to promote his definitive-sounding book How White Evangelicals Think: The  Psychology of White Conservative Christians. This was, as the article insinuates, the first book by a psychologist diagnosing a voting bloc that has spoiled elections since the days of Reagan. But now, an expert had finally come to deliver his diagnosis, revealing that these biblical literalists have the same MMPI results as the rest of America. Verhaagen is an expert with a thriving clinical practice. He can interpret the data. Best of all, he lives right here in Nashville.

Only there are a few holes in this blue dot fairy tale. How White Evangelicals think is not an academic project governed by vigorous methodology. It’s an unwieldy summary of previous research and news articles with vague references to “studies” Verhaagen has done that he never fully explains. Though he does teach a class or two at Vanderbilt every semester, he is not a tenured professor.

Consequently, How White Evangelicals Think has not been through the rigors of peer review, though The Tennessean and the book’s marketing plan that tout Verhaagen’s credentials clearly insinuate that it is authoritative and fully vetted. Its publisher, Cascade Books, is much more famous for pulling its title Bad and Boujee: Toward A Trap Feminist Theology after outcries on social media that a white woman with a PhD in the subject matter was writing about the black experience than its back catalog of books that have irrevocably shaped the disciplines. 

As the Tennessean so succinctly put it, How White Evangelicals Think diagnoses evangelicals with collective narcissism, a condition that, according to Verhaagen, occurs when, “a group believes they are part of an extraordinary group disrespected by those outside the group.” Except that the book doesn’t do that at all. The evangelical church involves so many region-specific and multi-ethnic denominations that proving the validity of such a claim would require an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and anthropologists at universities throughout the world meticulously collecting reams of qualitative and quantitative data.

As a substitute, Verhaggen has relied on his credentials to armchair diagnose a movement to which he has tenuous ties. Throughout the text’s 309 pages, Verhaagen makes no mention of his methodology, results, or any real semblance of original psychological research. Nor does he include an immersive account of his time embedded within an evangelical community. He does, however, furnish a 13-page appendix entitled “Evidence of Structural Racism” that cherry picks a handful of studies and makes a shout out to NPR in its footnotes. It’s only rivaled by the section entitled, “What is QAnon?”

Instead of a nuanced and cogent account of academic findings, Verhaagen has structured the book as an introductory psychology text. After spending 60% of each chapter summarizing the professional term du jour (Alexithymia! Social Dominance Orientation! Teleological Thinking!), he then applies it whole-hog to the white evangelical community. Unfortunately, Verhaagen never really takes the time to define exactly who he is talking about. From the title on, the book uses “white evangelicals,” “conservative Christians,” “white Christians,” and “Christian nationalists” interchangeably. Such is a useful strategy that allows him to broaden the amount of sources he can cite and then bend them to fit his argument. Yet, it does nothing to provide any real insights into the subject at hand, a fatal flaw he best expresses early in the introduction: “Researchers don’t always agree on what an evangelical even is. Evangelicals themselves can’t even agree on what an evangelical is.” If only someone could write a book to figure that out.

Not content with merely using slippery terms to inflate his argument, Verhaagen routinely and willfully applies tangentially related sources to his subject and avoids those that refute his agenda. It’s odd that a cultural studies book accusing white evangelical Christians of suffering from collective narcissism completely elides engagement with Christoper Lasch’s 1979 classic The Culture of Narcissism. In this landmark of social science, Lasch situates narcissism as a natural outgrowth of secular consumerism and a “therapeutic” mindset that weakens personal responsibility and commitments to traditional concepts like family and religion–the backbones of evangelical beliefs. One could split hairs about the medical vs. cultural definitions of narcissism, but Verhaagen didn’t write a rigorous psychology case study. He penned a gussied up pop psychology book.

Given the political tenor of the book, Verhaagen’s choice to rely so heavily on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy advocate and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt seems questionable–especially given that Haidt’s public opposition to overly sensitive university policies and enabling of Gen Z’s cult of victimization contradicts most of Verhaagen’s claims. If indeed, white evangelical MAGA Christian nationalists who host QAnon book clubs can have their identities reduced to, in Verhaagen’s words, those that believe, “they are part of an extraordinary group disrespected by those outside the group,” then his argument applies equally to any interest group with strong politics from the trans activists who held Riley Gaines hostage during a campus appearance to high school administrators peddling CRT. At least that understanding of narcissism conforms to the type Haidt (and Lasch) make central to their work.

Likewise, the book has a tendency to conflate white evangelicals with voters who support MAGA policies. While Verhaagen is correct that white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, the former President built a coalition of disenchanted Americans with multiple group affiliations, including Catholics and those who believe in God but are not church goers. To reduce the widespread economic anxieties that led to Trump’s ascendancy to religious affiliation appears as little more than scapegoating. It may come as a surprise to Verhaagen that opposition to mask mandates and CRT curricula were less white evangelical lines in the sand than the catalyst for a “Coalition of the Sane” that propelled Glenn Youngkin to an unlikely but definitive victory in Virginia and has allowed the Republican party to make inroads with minority voters in numbers unthinkable before the Trump era. Even if Verhaagen can name drop the Dunning-Kruger effect with more authority than an MSNBC-addict uncle at family gatherings, it doesn’t make his argument any more sound. 

To his credit, Verhaagen offers a blistering evidence-based critique of abstinence-only sex education and gay conversion therapy, but to position either as a central tenet of white evangelical culture is quite absurd. The section contains no data about how the general demographic feels about these issues and how widespread they are in such communities. In the end, it's yet another example of Verhaagen not doing his homework as he writes for a collective of the like-minded.

At its core, How White Evangelicals Think is an exercise in false authority. Verhaagen identifies as a Christian, but he favors anecdotes about the Verhaagen family dogs over any serious discussion of his faith. He adopts the posture of a moderate, but his unmistakable contempt for anyone skeptical of COVID protocols and the very real problems with Implicit Bias Training show otherwise. He may run a stellar medical practice, but the fact that readers with above-average Google skills could likely uncover the identities of some of the patients he references in the text gives me pause. As the book draws to a close, readers still won’t know how white evangelical Christians think. But they will walk away knowing that a therapist of inscrutable Christian faith who claims to have all the answers doesn’t rise to the level of critical thinking of which he’s clearly capable.