Reading Time: 8 minutes Just think: soon this sign might be a relic! (Tyler Merbler, CC.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

We’ve been talking about the various ways that Christianity has used coercion to convert and retain members through the centuries. Its legal clout has faded and its political power has waned, its credibility as a world faith is faltering more quickly than anybody could have guessed, its members leave by the thousands per day, and churches close by the hundreds per year. Its leaders and adherents alike know that clearly, something must be done! But when there is nothing in their toolbox but coercion, then that is the tool they shall use–even when coercion only hastens their end.

Last time we covered how Christians are clamping down on the adherents they already have, as well as how they are reaching for more legal power to enforce their demands with the brute force of law now that they don’t have the social power they once had. Today we’ll look at the growing popularity of a third method: virtue signaling, used to create a cultural environment that (hopefully) silences dissenters, reinforces group superiority, and makes criticism too scary to contemplate.

Just think: soon this sign might be a relic! (Tyler Merbler, CC.)
Just think: soon this sign might be a relic! (Tyler Merbler, CC.)

Virtue Signaling, Explained.

As the religion’s stranglehold on American culture wanes, Christians are getting more pushy about shoving their symbols, idols, and catchphrases at an increasingly-secular public. I don’t remember a single Christian group putting up a billboard about Creationism in the 1980s, but now they’re all over the place. Fundagelicals’ hatred of atheism also comes to the forefront in these billboard wars, you’ll notice, as does their attempt to tie Christianity to American nationalism (and non-belief to a suspicious lack of patriotism).

The outrage Christians evince when their religious statues are removed from (or denied access to) taxpayer-funded property is truly something to behold–such as on one Bullshit! episode, where a spluttering, infuriated Christian idolator guy screams nearly incoherently about how the removal of a Ten Commandments statue is obviously tantamount to taking away his Bible. The poor guy reminded me of a terrier, he was so completely riled up and yappy! You could feel that “Christian love” just emanating off him in waves! He sure isn’t the only Christian I’ve ever seen get that enraged over a legal smackdown, just the funniest. Christians regularly throw fits over not getting to flaunt their symbols and idols in public–and if they can get others to pay for their grandstanding, that’s even better. I’m sure his peers just loved his performance–and I’m sure they felt validated in their own outrage and peevishness over being denied their statue.

Meanwhile, how do you think non-Christians around this yappy guy must feel? Do you suppose they feel loved and cherished when they hear him screaming for religious privilege over them? Do you imagine that they feel safe in expressing opposing viewpoints around him? Now multiply him by a few thousand, and imagine how it feels to non-Christians whenever one of these groups of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ pushes for government endorsement of Christianity. Little wonder there is a real desperation to these attempts! They’re long past even being fazed by the scorn heaped upon them by derisive non-believers asking how many starving people they could have fed with those idiotic statues. Something much more important than disobeying their Savior’s direct commands and displaying their hypocrisy to the world is at stake, and that is their dominance.

All of that combativeness over public displays is new as well. I don’t ever remember hearing about Christians pushing themselves into other people’s spaces to the extent they do now before the last 5-10 years or so. Sure, there were “fly or fry” Christians who were pushy, nosy, and confrontational–my ex Biff was quite infamous locally for being that way–but he was quite a rarity. He had to make his T-shirts and pins from scratch himself because nobody sold any that were hardcore enough for him! Now Christian leaders likely wish they had a few thousand fanatics like him in their churches and the swag he wanted is in every bookstore in the country that caters to Christians. The religion’s leaders preach sermons, sell books, and incessantly lecture adherents to get them to feel obligated to engage non-believers more often–as if the only reason their religion is failing is because their members aren’t violating other people’s boundaries enough!

This increased emphasis on displays of faith and ostentatious grandstanding may well be a form of virtue signaling.

In brief, virtue signaling is a demonstration of group affiliation and standing, but one that is done for a purpose. It’s a bit like a humblebrag, but it’s meant to show that the person is in the bestest-ever group to get approval from the other group members, whereas a humblebrag is a falsely-modest display in pursuit of admiration from others. I’m far from the only person who sees virtue signaling in the engagement of the members of groups that are losing cultural dominance (and for that matter among the members of groups that are already fairly low in dominance–because currently-dominant group members don’t need to send signals like that).

As the religion continues to fall in key markers of dominance, virtue signaling will become more important as a coercive measure. It’s a way of keeping the group unified and feeling good about their position in society–and keeping their eyes on the prize they seek–but it also has a distinct effect on those outside the group who witness the behavior. So I suspect that Christians will only get more obnoxious with this signaling as pushback against their overreach increases.

Spiraling Into the Stratosphere.

The main things you want to notice, when you’re wondering if you’re seeing virtue signaling, are who the target audience iswhat the goal is for the communication, and what environment is created with the communication for those who disagree.

For instance, whenever Ross Douthat whines that nice white women aren’t taking one for Team Jesus and making enough nice white babies to save America from whatever he imagines is threatening it at that particular moment, he’s virtue signaling to his tribe. He isn’t really talking to the nice white women who aren’t having babies; I seriously doubt a single one will ever read his entreaties and go “OMG! I MUST BREED NOW!” and rush out to get married to the first eligible opposite-sex candidate and make nice white babies to save America for Team Jesus. No, he’s actually talking directly to his tribe, who will read his columns and then harrumph and nod to themselves grimly and cluck their tongues and purse their lips and agree that yes, yes, it’s all very, very awful that nice white women are so monumentally dumb and then wonder what laws they can pass to force women back into their god-given roles so it can be the Good Ole Days again. They will hail Ross Douthat as a man of rare discernment and wisdom for speaking this great truth. He’s reinforcing an opinion they already have, and the fact that an esteemed journalism site contains his blather will only increase the credibility of his writing with his audience. People who support women’s rights will, by contrast, come out of his columns feeling more embattled and alone.

I have no words at all.
I have no words at all.

As another example, Christians who wear clothes that imitate movie and business logos, like this T-shirt that uses the Star Wars font to push a Christian saying, are also virtue signaling. I’ve personally often heard Christians declare that it takes “courage” to wear stuff like this, but it would take far more courage in their communities to wear a shirt proclaiming atheism! In a shirt like the one pictured here, by contrast, they will get applause and smiles, welcomes and encouragement for being part of the correct tribe. Those who disagree will have a very different experience; they will be aware of this masturbatory, self-congratulatory behavior but almost helpless to push back against it or even to call attention to it.

This swag has existed for some years; back in 2005, The New York Times quoted a seller of Jesus-themed merchandise: “To a generation of young people eager to have something to belong to, wearing a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt, a skullcap or a cabala [sic] bracelet is a way of feeling both unique, a member of a specific culture or clan, and at the same time part of something much bigger.” In that article, the NYT cites evidence that these products were increasing in sales (a 40% increase over the previous year, according to another seller), linking that success with not only media sensation Left Behind, but also with the increasing amount of pushback that the religion’s adherents were facing at the time.

One of the very wackiest things I’ve ever seen, however, is that even while Christianity bleeds millions of members a year, sales at Christian bookstores continues to rise. Last year, Nielsen reported that such sales rose 10.5% over the previous year! Though findings can be conflicting, and some Christian chain stores are struggling here and there, the religious retail market has overall been quite strong.

And the much-criticized “War on Christmas” seems to be getting hotter and hotter with every passing year. Christians, particularly fundagelicals, are getting increasingly upset with most companies’ refusal to bow under by giving in to their demands for Christian symbols on their coffee cups or Christian-centric holiday salutations. They’ve been drawing a very clear distinction for a while between how they see Christmas and how they think others see the holiday, and very blatantly trying to grab for themselves the right to define the holiday however they see fit, thus denying (or at least trying to deny) the holiday and its myriad celebrations to anybody who doesn’t agree with their conclusions.

The fact that these disgruntled religious fanatics are calling shopping malls and coffee shops arenas of “war” no longer even raises eyebrows. But nobody outside their tribe sees it that way, and nobody who isn’t already on board with their culture war is going to give them what they want because what they’re demanding is not theirs to hold in the first place. So their grumbling and whining and bellowing and chest-thumping becomes a virtue signal: a way to show their affiliation with the “correct” side, a way to demonstrate group membership, a surefire method of gaining approval from fellow group members, and a way to build an environment that is very unfriendly to opposing points of view.

You might also notice, you fellow online cruisers of the information superhighway, that whenever someone writes an opinion piece that is very unfriendly to Christians’ culture wars, Christians will pile in to express their outrage over the piece. Movie reviews are one of my favorite places to see this virtue signaling. Commenters to these sites generally don’t talk much at all, unless a Christian movie is under discussion. At that point, Christians get very jumpy indeed. Do they think that the reviewer will see their comment and go “oh my gosh, I was totally wrong! I should remove this post or rewrite it to be friendlier to TRUE CHRISTIAN™ sensibilities!”? Because that’s not going to happen. Instead, I see their comments as an attempt to silence dissent, gain approval from fellow tribe members, and to create an environment that is unendurable for those who don’t share their opinions. It’s hard not to wonder if reviewers hesitate before posting negative opinions of the trash that passes for fundagelical movies these days, but unending and unquestioning loyalty to objectively-horrible films is by now part of fundagelicals’ criteria for judging just how TRUE a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is. And the Christians who give off these signals expect full and unconditional support from their fellow Christians.

People who are upset about being on the losing side of a culture war are the primary market for these sorts of signals, just as the purveyors of fake news know that they’ll get lots more clicks from that group than from people on the winning side. Bloomberg quotes one seller who says he tried to sell T-shirts supporting stricter gun laws, but those shirts just didn’t sell. Rather, it’s the gun nuts who believe the myth that Obama is coming for their guns who are the ones buying shirts supporting their cause. That’s why you don’t often see progressive Christian T-shirts–but it’s easy to find fundagelical-friendly ones on sale and being worn.

When someone who disagrees with Christians’ culture-war positions or who doesn’t approve of these displays is surrounded by a group of people who are all wearing this stuff, or talking as Christians’ audiences talk, or sharing media pushing these talking points, they often feel alienated and afraid to express dissent. The people around these true believers will self-censor themselves to avoid the wrath of the tribe–and they are quite right to fear that wrath. Very few people are totally unaware of just how vicious Christians can be when facing criticism or pushback. So posturing and aggression can work wonders to maintain group cohesion and a unified front, though both will happen at the cost of integrity and compassion.

This kind of posturing and aggression has always been the province of a dominant group that is losing power, but rarely do we see a group losing power as quickly and as definitively as Christians are. As the new year ushers in, be alert to these signals. They are a sign of waning power and influence, and an important one as well.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...