Religious conservatives more scrupulous than religious liberals (no, that’s not a good thing)

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The differences between liberal and conservative extend well beyond the political realm to the religious realm. As seen in the political realm, one of the key differences between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives tends tend to be more restricting while liberals tend to be more permitting. This difference applies also to the sphere of religion: conservatives would not permit actions that liberals would. Focusing particularly on the issue of scrupulosity, psychologist Brett J. Deacon (University of Wyoming) and colleagues found that conservative clergy treat scrupulosity differently than liberal clergy.

In the field of psychology, “scrupulosity” is a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which itself is defined as “an anxiety disorder involving recurrent and anxiety-provoking intrusive thoughts, impulses, or images (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts performed to reduce obsessional distress.” When OCD centers on religious themes, such as sin, God’s punishment, blasphemy, or rituals, it becomes scrupulosity. A scrupulous person tends to judge behavior as immoral that even one’s own religious community would characterize as blameless. In other words, scrupulous people have a pathological uncertainty regarding whether the most trivial actions are sinful.

Further complicating the matter, some religious people adhere to moral thought-action fusion, which means that they believe that thoughts have the same moral weight as actions. From their perspective, God punishes those with evil thoughts as much as those who commit evil actions. When thought-action fusion combines with scrupulosity, a person now worries not only about trivial actions but also about mere thoughts that could possibly invoke God’s wrath.

Currently in the field of psychology, OCD is best treated by exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP forces the patient to face their fears or anxieties by repeatedly and for long periods of time exposing them to their anxieties. In the context of scrupulosity, ERP could stir controversy among conservative clergy because it would require frequent exposure to sinful thoughts and actions.

With scrupulosity and its cure in mind (which is ERP), the researchers formed several hypotheses, the most important of which are, first, that religious conservatives would have more moral thought-action fusion than liberals, and, second, that conservative clergy would be more likely than liberal clergy to recommend to parishioners with scrupulosity a cure inconsistent with ERP.

To test their hypotheses, the researchers had liberal and conservative Lutheran clergy fill out surveys. The researchers considered clergy from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod to be conservative, and clergy from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to be liberal. The survey the clergy completed consisted of four major parts. First, the Thought-Action Fusion Scale (TAFS) measures to what extent a person believes that thoughts are equivalent to actions. Second, the View of God Inventory (VGI) determines how one perceives God, that is, whether negatively (a harsh, punishing God) or positively (a merciful, forgiving God). Third, the researchers developed a scale they entitled the Micromanaging View of God Scale. As the name suggests, this scale determines to what extent a person believes that God is concerned with the minutiae of life. Fourth and finally, the clergy read a short story about a parishioner suffering from scrupulosity, and then they selected from one of 16 possible responses.

As expected, compared to liberal clergy, conservative clergy had significantly higher scores on the thoughts-action fusion scale (and the micromanaging view of God scale). Compared to liberal clergy, conservative clergy were less likely to refer a person suffering from scrupulosity to a secular mental health professional and were more likely to recommend that this person continue to pray for forgiveness. In short, the conservative clergy were much more likely to recommend treatments inconsistent with the ERP approach to scrupulosity.

It appears, then, that conservatives, or, more accurately, conservative Lutheran clergy, are unwilling to expose their parishioners to sinful thoughts and actions for the sake of addressing their parishioners’ scrupulosity. While understandable from a religious restrictive, at the same time scrupulosity is a serious disorder that should be treated scrupulously.

For more see “Lutheran clergy members’ responses to scrupulosity: The effects of moral thought –action fusion and liberal vs. conservative denomination in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.

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