Last weekend I was catching up on some reading that included a chapter by Jonathan Haidt and Sara Algoe titled "Moral Amplification and the Emotions That Attach Us to Saints and Demons," included in Jeff Greenberg, Sander L. Koole & Tom Pyszczynski (eds.), Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (Guilford Press, 2004), pp. 322-335. The authors define "moral amplification" as "the motivated separation and exaggeration of good and evil in the explanation of behavior." As they begin their discussion of the process they refer to "first-order effects" and "second-order effects" related to the process in the context of responses to the September 11 attacks. The first order effect was the drawing of a stark moral line between Americans as victims of terrorist attacks and the heroes who responded to it, in contrast with the evil and cowardly terrorists. The second-order effect was the demonizing of anyone who called this black and white moral structure into question, or who offered any kind of critique of it. I was especially struck by one section in Haidt and Algoe's discussion where they state,
"This second-order process -- punishing people who fail to vilify consensually shared demons, or who impugn the perfect motives of consensually shared saints -- is sometimes seen in other contexts in which groups come together to fight what they see as evil. Whether the villain is homosexuals or homophobes, African Americans or racists, once a group or movement is formed, any acknowledgement of virtue in the enemy is seen as a kind of treason."
I've experienced this myself. In years past I worked in the context of new religious movements or "cults" and came to be dissatisfied with the dominant apologetic approach used by evangelicals. After offering a cross-cultural missions approach, many of my fellow colleagues called my motivations and even my character into question. More recently, at times conservative evangelicals express concerns about my work in multifaith engagement and religious diplomacy. In both instances the process of moral amplification is active because of a failure to engage in actions that clearly signal a vilification of the "demons" opposed to the evangelical tribe, whether "cultists," Muslims, or whoever. After all, one doesn't seek fairness, respect, and a winsome exchange with false prophets and fascist and violent political systems masquerading as a religion.
This should serve as a reminder for those evangelicals working in multifaith engagement and peacemaking of the need for caution and political savvy. We need to walk a fine line and maintain balance so that we are understood as faithful evangelicals, even as we challenge perceptions and behaviors of evangelicals in prophetic fashion.