Hobby Lobby Holly & the Mystery of the Mirroring Selfies

gun-holly-700x884Holly Fisher, Twitter provocateur and wife of an army veteran, created a stir this weekend when she posted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and clutching an AR-15 in the other.

She had been attracting media attention all week, both positive and negative, for posing in front of a Hobby Lobby wearing a pro-life t-shirt and holding a Chik-Fil-A cup. The caption read, “ATTENTION LIBERALS: Do NOT look at this picture. Your head will most likely explode.”




Friends suggested that all the picture was missing was a Bible and a gun, so on the Fourth of July she provided that image.




Fisher defended the picture in an interview with Inquisitr.com: “I have always been extremely conservative and passionate about my views. The last few years of the growing hate and intolerance among the ‘tolerant’ left has made me want to stand up and speak out. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to show where I stand . . . I want younger Americans to know it’s okay to not follow the current liberal path.”

Unfortunately for Holly’s brave stand, pundits soon noticed that the picture bore a striking resemblance to this picture:




That’s Reem Riyashi, a Palestinian icon and mother of two who blew herself up at the age of 22 in 2004, and killed four Israelis, at a Gaza border crossing after faking a disability to bypass a security checkpoint. Even before her death Reem was famous for posing in pictures holding weapons, sometimes alone and sometimes with her three-year-old son.

Sometimes an entire line of argument can be summed up in a single photograph. For months I’ve been arguing that, psychologically, Christian extremists and Islamic fundamentalists *aren’t that different.* Whenever two groups hate each other, they tend to become like each other. Yet no matter how pointed the similarities became, a lot of people weren’t buying it. But now there’s Holly.          

Sociologist Bob Altemeyer spent decades studying the phenomenon known as “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). He wrote an entire book about it, which you can download for free on his website. Basically right-wing authoritarians (who constitute about 25 percent of the American population) are defined by three things:


(1)    Blind loyalty to established religious and political authorities


(2)    A willingness to act aggressively in order to defend those authorities


(3)    and a deep sense of conventionalism. They are the normal ones. Society is endangered by “weird” groups and minorities that threaten to disrupt the social order, and these unruly elements need to be put in their place, by force if necessary. They tend to agree with the statement that we need a charismatic leader to purge society of these unconventional elements.


You ever find yourself arguing with someone and realize that they’re not operating on the same logical plane as the rest of us? Do you sometimes wonder how some folks can claim to follow the teachings of the Bible better than others while ignoring much of what it says? You may be dealing with an authoritarian personality.

Authoritarians are highly dogmatic: they refuse to change their beliefs even when presented with overwhelming evidence that those beliefs are wrong. (They insisted that George W. Bush had never said we would “stay the course” in Iraq, though he had constantly said this). They are profoundly ethnocentric: they may demonize speakers of foreign languages for not using the English words for “God” and “Jesus.” They are selective in their reading of Scripture, frequently rationalizing ways to ignore the numerous passages about not insulting or attacking others. (In a study done at the University of Michigan, fundamentalist students rejecteda set of statements based on the Sermon on the Mount). They only care about facts to the extent that they support their already predetermined conclusions. Altemeyer found that if he said something was “the biggest problem our country faces!” they would always agree with him, no matter what he said the problem was.

Perhaps most importantly, authoritarians define themselves by who is and is not a loyal member of their team. Anyone perceived as being an outsider they view with suspicion and hostility. This may include the majority of their fellow Christians (who, in a neat evasion, are “not real Christians” for one reason or another). Yet if they perceive someone as being on their side, they will trust that person without question. This presents problems. “Authoritarian followers are highly suspicious of their many out-groups,” says Altemeyer; “but they are credulous to the point of self-delusion when it comes to their in-groups.”

So, although right-wing authoritarians can be found in all cultures, members of one tribe are not likely to trust the members of another tribe. Christian fundamentalists in America view Islamic fundamentalists in Palestine and Afghanistan with the same level of contempt that the Islamists feel towards them.

And they’re not likely ever to trust each other—even when they take identical selfies.

But as it happens, this idea that “Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are the same, lol” isn’t just a liberal fever dream. It’s borne out by the evidence.

As soon as Mikhail Gorbachev lifted the restraints on psychological research in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, a colleague of Altemeyer’s, Andre Kamenshikov, administrated a survey to students at Moscow State University. These students answered the RWA scale (a scale Altemeyer and his colleagues had developed to assess the level of authoritarianism in an individual) along with a series of questions about who was the “good guy” and who was the “bad guy” in the Cold War. Who started the arms race: the US or the USSR? Would the US launch a sneak attack on the Soviet Union if it knew it could get away with it? Would the Soviet Union do this to the US?

At the same time Kamenshikov was doing this study, Altemeyer asked the same questions in three different American universities.

What they found was that in both countries, the high RWAs believed their government’s version of the Cold War more than most other people in their country. The leaders of their nation were the good guys, and the leaders of the other nation were out to kill and destroy all that was good and holy. In other words, says Altemeyer, “the most cock-sure belligerents in the population on each side of the Cold War, the ones who hated and blamed each other the most, were in fact the same people, psychologically.”

He concludes: 

“If they had grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, they probably would have believed the leaders they presently despised, and despised the leaders they now trusted. They’d have been certain the side they presently thought was in the right was in the wrong, and instead embraced the beliefs they currently held in contempt.”

Soviets and Americans. Westboro and the Taliban. Holly and Reem.

Sometimes the only difference is where you grow up.


12 thoughts on “Hobby Lobby Holly & the Mystery of the Mirroring Selfies

  1. Islamic and (Western) Christian fundamentalists *aren’t* the same. Islamic fundamentalists largely come from communities and societies that have been genuinely, legitimately persecuted for decades. The Palestinians are hemmed into a pair of ghettos, deprived of many basic necessities (their hospitals have frequent shortages, thanks to the blockade), bombed, shot, and driven out of what little land they still have left by Israeli settlers. Since 2000, on average, one Palestinian child has died every three days due to Israeli actions (and that’s just counting the direct casualties of military action).

    The Christian fundamentalists you are describing live in the most powerful country in the world, and as a group they have quite a lot of influence over the government of that country. The closest most of them will have ever got to oppression is in their own behaviour towards their employees.

    I’m sure that there are RWAs amongst the ranks of Hamas (although, actually, I would expect there to be far more Left Wing Authoritarians, which is a category only briefly touched on in Altermayer’s book IIRC). But it’s stunningly naive to think that such psychological explanations are sufficient to explain peoples’ behaviour, without taking into account the environments that they live in.

  2. Hi there,

    Care to comment on the fact that only one of the women are posed in front of a national flag?

    The plain truth is that I know of no other country but America where Christians could still be considered Christians while posing in a picture like that. I am pretty certain that had I grown up in the States, I would not be a Christian now.

  3. wonderful post Boze. I like that you focused on this aspect bc there is so much in her photos that can be unpacked, it must have been interesting to decide on the researched proof of similar authoritarian minds. love the connections you made.

    there is so much here, so many heresies (nationalistic worship, glorifying violence etc) she is advocating in one simple photograph. And she’s displaying these spiritually dangerous things, things said to belong to the Anti-Christ, not Jesus and in doing it she is being praised as a hero, a martyr by some of our North American sisters and brothers in faith.

    • There was so much that could’ve been said about the photograph, especially the conflation of Christianity, the gun, and the American flag. Some are saying that the difference between Holly and Reema is that only Reema supported murder, but I’m not sure the distinction would make a difference to our brothers and sisters overseas who are being killed by drones in the name of the flag we fly.

      Recently I’ve been meditating on that passage in the book of Revelation where all the people of the world follow after the Beast, saying, “Who is like the Beast? Who is able to make war with him?” When we confuse the American Empire with the kingdom of God, we become those who follow the Beast.

  4. It seems fundametalism is higher than I ever remember it being in my lifetime (I’m 34.) I was in college when 9-11 happened…I think the rise hard-core funamentalists has a lot to do with the fact that people in their 20’s were too little to remember a pre- 9/11 America….and I find that really sad.

  5. Thanks for writing this. I normally find myself in a very supportive and open minded community, but I’m currently being confronted with a lot of what you’ve written about. Hearing you piece information together and consult other sources is refreshing!

  6. The idea that “Christian extremists and Islamic fundamentalists aren’t that different” — never thought of it that way, but that’s interesting. They both like guns and religion. They both like patriotism. If you sat them down to eat, they might even like each other. Just think, they could be friends down at the shooting range (and with those women, it’d be kinda cute).

    If only nationalism were just an aesthetic instead of… you know, something that actually kills people.

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