“The Psychopath Test” applied to evangelical Christianity

Kai Winn is an amazing villain
Kai Winn is an amazing villain

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating book

The Psychopath Test is worth the time to read. Jon Ronson, the author, took Hare’s standardised test (Hare, 1991) comprised of 20 questions, each scored from 0–2, and applied this test to a number of corporate CEO’s and other such leaders. The prevalence of psychopathy is around 1% in the general population (Coid, 2009), but since psychopaths tend to be very goal-driven and often very successful, they show up at even higher rates in the upper echelons of business or politics or other such endeavours.

The author’s idea was that a lot of the bad things that happen in the world are due to a lot of greedy, power-hungry, scary people, and these people suffer from psychopathy. And this becomes apparent when they end up in places like CEO’s offices at major financial institutions, bankrupt them, break the law and yet still demand large bonuses, for example.

This dovetails nicely with some of the things that I’ve recently read in a couple of other books. I just finished reading Harperland (a book about the rise and consolidation of power in Canada under the Harper regime) and The End of Wall Street (a book about the people and policies that brought about the 2008 financial crisis), and I’ll let you make your own guesses about who I suspect of psychopathy now.

Psychopathy and religion and Deep Space Nine

While reading through the book, one of my first reactions (after the obligatory, “I hope I’m not a psychopath!” response) to the descriptions of the psychopaths was that they reminded me of Kai Winn. My apologies for making an obscure Star Trek reference, but Kai Winn is one of the best recurring characters in Deep Space Nine. She’s a power-hungry hypocrite of a religious leader. What’s great about her, is that she’s not a typical villain—there are shades of grey in her character—she can charm and manipulate you at times into thinking she is not the bad guy. But in the end, she’s a pathological liar with a grandiose sense of self-worth, who has no ability to empathise with others or feel remorse or guilt. When she lashes out at her political enemies, it’s not out of the passion of emotion. It’s cold. Calculated. She’s just very good at mimicking certain behaviours to benefit her own self-interest.

Modern evangelicalism would make a great hiding place for a psychopath

I think that psychopaths like Kai Winn exist in real churches in real life. Evangelical Christianity would be a great place for a psychopath to “hide out,” especially at the top of a modern evangelical mega-church. Let me explain.

Item 1 on the psychopath checklist (PCL) is “glibness or superficial charm.” Psychopaths, when you meet them, are very like-able. They have an ability to ape the emotions of normal people, and they are often very successful at speaking publicly and in very endearing ways. They are good at telling jokes and influencing other people. The pulpit would be very attractive to certain psychopaths.

Item 2 on the PCL is “grandiose sense of self-worth.” What better place to have your ego stroked for your entire life than in a church where you can be taken seriously when you say things like, “God placed it on my heart to tell you …” or “God gave me a vision that …” Evangelicals eat that stuff up. Even if it’s ridiculous, if you say something like that at a prayer meeting or Bible study, you’ll never hear anyone say, “God didn’t tell you that. You made that up.” I guarantee it.

In this way, a psychopath could claim the authority of God Himself and it wouldn’t even seem strange to anyone else there. I know I have personally witnessed a great many people saying things like that (none of whom I would suspect to be psychopaths), but many examples of such behaviour I would have called manipulative (which turns out to be item 5 on the PCL). Even stranger claims—that God has given explicit instructions, foresight or the like—have been made by evangelical Christians in high positions of leadership, and sometimes more famously (e.g. Harold Camping) and sometimes less famously, these turn out to be lies. (Pathological lying is item 4 on the PCL.)

Item 13 is “lack of realistic long-term goals.” A psychopath who said that he wanted to “change the world for Christ,” or that he was “sent by God to call the nation back to Him” would not raise any eyebrows among evangelicals.

Item 6 is “lack of remorse or guilt,” item 7 is “shallow affect,” and item 16 is “failure to accept responsibility for own actions.” If you want a good excuse for not feeling remorse or guilt and for not taking responsibility, you can hardly do better than “Jesus died for my sins, so I shouldn’t feel guilty about them.” A spiritual leader who skips over his own personal failures without missing a beat could attribute it all to the grace of God, and this wouldn’t raise suspicion in the slightest.

Item 8 is “callous / lack of empathy.” You might not think this would go very well with Christianity, but modern evangelical Christianity can have a very pronounced mean streak. Just talk to one of today’s neo-Calvinists—a disciple of Piper’s or Driscoll’s—and I can guarantee you that they will all-too-gladly be able to explain why it is very good news that a literal physical hell of eternal conscious torment awaits those who do not accept Christ. Or think about the drive to “win” people through evangelism—it is highly praised among evangelical Christians. Imagine a psychopath who goes around telling complete strangers that they’re going to hell unless they say a prayer, and more-or-less treats them as objects to be collected and scared into submission, in a display of a complete lack of empathy. If the psychopath was able to do it with the requisite amount of charm and sophistication, this person would likely become a superstar in a local evangelical church in short order.

Item 9 is “parasitic lifestyle.” Among young evangelical males looking for a potential wife, one of the most often cited criteria is that the wife must have “a servant’s heart.” When you ask most evangelicals what they mean by that, they usually don’t have anything quite as misogynist as this initially sounds like it would mean. That said, if there was a psychopath hiding among evangelicals, he could honestly say, “I want a wife who has a servant’s heart,” and mean that he plans to take advantage of her for her entire life.

Item 11 is “promiscuous sexual behaviour”, item 17 is “many short-term marital relationships,” item 12 is “early behaviour problems,” item 18 is “juvenile delinquency,” and item 20 is “criminal versatility.” These four might seem difficult for a psychopath hiding among Christians to mask, but then there’s nothing an evangelical likes more than a shocking conversion story. Evangelicals teach their children from a young age to polish and prepare their “testimonials” (story of how one became a Christian), and visiting guest speakers at a church often begin their testimonials by waxing eloquent over the depths of their depravity before their conversion. What this means is that for an evangelical, a history of sin and evil can be spun into the mark of a great dispensation of the grace of God. A clever psychopath could very easily convert a fairly clear mark of their mental illness, “early behavioural problems,” into a compelling part of his conversion story.

All you have to do is find a person who has all the character traits I described above, and you’re already at a score of 28 out of 40 on the PCL. Generally speaking, 30 is the “cut-off” that’s generally used for research purposes to say that someone is likely to be a psychopath, although pretty much everyone agrees that psychopathy occurs along a spectrum, and every case is, of course unique. But it’s remarkable to think that a person could not only get away with having all these classic marks of psychopathy, but actually use them to his advantage and rise to considerable influence within a church because of them.

An exercise for the reader

  1. Choose a public figure. Here’s a few suggestions:
    • Steve Jobs
    • Mark Driscoll
    • Mitt Romney
  2. Look up Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (it’s on Wikipedia, I think)
  3. Using quotes from the figure you choose, make your best argument that the public figure in question is, in fact, a psychopath
  4. Post what you find in the comments, if you like!
  5. For bonus points: what are the dangers/downsides that might be associated with using a psychopathy checklist to decide who is a psychopath and who isn’t?

Weird thing about the copy of The Psychopath Test that I borrowed from the Bibliothèque Nationale

The ebook was formatted weirdly. I think that every single page in the book was an image—a picture of the published book, rather than a text file. I couldn’t increase the font size, and I couldn’t select text on the page, which would make sense if it was actually just a series of images of text. It was a little hard to read on the Kobo due to the tiny font, but zooming in on every page on my Kobo was a frustrating and terrible prospect, so I just sucked it up and read the tiny text on each page.

Just weird is all.

Works cited

  • Ronson, Jon (2011). The Psychopath Test. United Kingdom: Picador.
  • Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.
  • Coid, Jeremy et al (2009). Prevalence and correlates of psychopathic traits in the household population of Great Britain. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32:2, pp.. 65–73.